the lost explorers to defensive rearguard actions against the relentless, encircling attacks that threatened to annihilate them. Without tools or skills, those not delirious with malaria spent six weeks forging spurs, stirrups, armor and crossbows into tools and fittings and lashed together five sailing vessels. Already down to fewer than 250 men, they launched and made a monumental miscalculation to sail west. Crazed with thirst as they drifted for weeks, they wrecked near Galveston, Texas, as the winter of 1528 began. Their numbers dwindled rapidly. Some survived by eating their former brothers-in-arms, appalling the natives who enslaved and tormented them, often killing on a whim. By springtime, only 15 men were left alive. Held captive for six years, Cabeza de Vaca’s group escaped by running to the west.
Because of their unusual appearance and behaviors, as they traveled to new villages, they were perceived to have special powers and were asked to be medicine men. To their own amazement, they were increasingly successful as healers. Cabeza de Vaca attributed their cures to be the direct work of God. Their reputation became so phenomenal that at times hundreds of devoted Indians followed in their dusty wake across the deserts and through mountains of the Southwest. Neighboring tribes saw these strange, silent men as deities, ceased fighting each other, and called these miracle workers “Children of the Sky.” Cabeza de Vaca’s odyssey ended when his entourage encountered slave-gathering Spanish horsemen near the Pacific coast. His Christ-like healings and increasing compassion for the natives lead him to try to bring Christianity to the natives and protect them from being put into shackles.
During their odyssey, the survivors of this doomed expedition encountered exotic Native American tribes—now all but gone—crossed wildernesses, swamps and deserts; and suffered disease, starvation and extreme exposures. Cabeza de Vaca made his place in history as the first European to cross North America, nearly 275 years before Lewis and Clark crossed the continent, but little is known about the months he spent perceived as a deity by the Native Americans of whom he was a champion.
Setting: American Southwest, 1536
Messengers ran ahead to tell of their coming. Thousands of Indians throughout the region rushed to be in the presence of the four men, some bowing as if before gods, others reaching out to touch them, hoping their rumored healing abilities would cure them. Still others knelt in the blazing sun presenting their offerings of pelts, arrows, and ceremonial gourds, shaking in fear of the powers the strangers could command in an instant.
Wearing only loincloths, leader Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions— Alonzo, Andres, and Andres’ black slave, Esteban—waded through the throng as mothers brought their babies to be blessed and the blind, the lame, the elderly, and the wounded came to be cured. Each went away saying they had improved.
How had these incredible reversals happened? And how did an expedition of 300 soldiers, slaves and pages that began eight years earlier near Tampa, Florida be reduced to these four men who emerged on the west coast of Mexico?
When they arrived, the soldiers were armed with superior metal “skins” and helmets, crossbows, and iron quills and pikes. Their muskets spewed fire and sounds like thunder. Far away from any laws, the Spaniards intended to rule the territory of La Florida and exploit its rich and mysterious lands. Unyielding natives, caught in nets, were thrown to ferocious dogs with studded collars.
They were led by the cruel and merciless one-eyed Governor Narvaez. His lust for gold, blind ambition, and foolish decisions led to disaster and the loss of hundreds of lives.
Cabeza de Vaca, a distinguished veteran of historic European battles had joined as second-in-command of the expedition that had sailed from Spain in 1527 to strike it rich in the New World. Almost immediately after landing, the two men would be in conflict as Narvaez abandoned his plan to establish trading outposts and began a futile search for rumored gold. It would lead them hundreds of miles through swamps and difficult terrain.
Food shortages and the powerful archery, tactical supremacy, and tenacity of the Calusa, Timucuan and Apalachee Indians, reduced
© 2017 Gordon Hesse
The genesis of Children of the Sky
In the late 1980s I discovered the account of the 16th century explorer known today simply as Cabeza de Vaca. I was so taken with the story of the first European to cross the North American continent that I envisioned a movie. I spent nearly two decades researching his era, a time of extensive Spanish exploration. The result is Children of the Sky, an historical dramatization of historical events based on more than 145 sources. Written first as a screenplay, I decided to turn it into a narrative with photo and graphic illustrations to give a sense of the era and the remarkable intersection of different cultures.
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