A Land So Strange

The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca


By Andrés Reséndez

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From a Bancroft Prize-winning historian, the "gripping" tale of a shipwrecked Spaniard who walked across America in the sixteenth century (Financial Times)

In 1528, a mission set out from Spain to colonize Florida. But the expedition went horribly wrong: Delayed by a hurricane, knocked off course by a colossal error of navigation, and ultimately doomed by a disastrous decision to separate the men from their ships, the mission quickly became a desperate journey of survival. Of the four hundred men who had embarked on the voyage, only four survived-three Spaniards and an African slave. This tiny band endured a horrific march through Florida, a harrowing raft passage across the Louisiana coast, and years of enslavement in the American Southwest. They journeyed for almost ten years in search of the Pacific Ocean that would guide them home, and they were forever changed by their experience. The men lived with a variety of nomadic Indians and learned several indigenous languages. They saw lands, peoples, plants, and animals that no outsider had ever before seen. In this enthralling tale of four castaways wandering in an unknown land, Andrés Reséndez brings to life the vast, dynamic world of North America just a few years before European settlers would transform it forever.


To Andrés Reséndez Medina in memoriam

IN THE SPRING OF 1536, A POSSE OF EUROPEAN horsemen ventured north from Culiacán. Barely one generation after Columbus they were, quite literally, the advancing edge of Spain's empire in North America. They were still becoming familiar with this region, now part of northwestern Mexico. The riders could gaze at the lush slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental on the right. The Pacific Ocean with its loud crashing waves lay to the left. Straight ahead, a narrow coastal plain seemed to extend forever. On this strip of land, at once tropical and open, they could roam as far as they wished without ever expecting to find another white person—only Indian prey.
The horsemen were busy. Rounding up human beings was unpleasant but profitable. And they looked to an entire continent teeming with natives who could not move faster than their own legs would carry them. Even a small cavalry detachment could turn into an extremely efficient enslaving machine. And thus the posse burned villages and ran down men, women, and children.
One day, four of the slavers caught sight of thirteen Indians walking barefoot and clad in skins. In the distance the natives must have seemed ordinary to the horsemen except for one thing: rather than scurrying away, the Indians headed straight toward them. A sense of unease must have spread through the Christians. But they stayed put because the approaching Indians did not seem to harbor ill intentions.
At closer range the unexpected details began to emerge. One of the natives seemed very dark. In fact, he was black. Was he an Indian too, or an African emerging from the depths of North America? The horsemen's unease must have turned into shock when they realized that one of the others in the group was a white man. He had gone completely native. His hair hung down to his waist, and his beard reached to his chest. The man's skin was leathery and peeling.1
As the two parties approached, the slavers could hear that the haggard white man spoke perfect Spanish. They became dumbfounded. "They remained looking at me for a long time"—Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca would later recall—"so astonished that they neither talked to me nor managed to ask me anything."2
Cabeza de Vaca had to do the talking. He first asked to be taken to the slavers' captain. Next he wanted to know what the Christian date was and requested to have it officially recorded. The precise date has not reached us in spite of Cabeza de Vaca's insistence, but it must have been April 1536. After these formalities were out of the way, Cabeza de Vaca and his African companion—a resilient slave named Estebanico—began to tell their story of wandering adrift in a completely alien continent, a tale that had begun eight years earlier with a flawed leader in search of redemption.
FOR SHEER DRAMA and excitement, the journey of Cabeza de Vaca and his companions remains unrivaled, even by the adventurous standards of the Age of Exploration. Out of 300 men who set out to colonize Florida in 1528, only four survived: Cabeza de Vaca, two other Spaniards, and Estebanico. They became stranded. And to reenter European-controlled territory, they were forced into a harrowing passage on makeshift rafts across the Gulf of Mexico, years of captivity in what is now Texas, and a momentous walk across the continent all the way to the Pacific coast.
This small band of men thus became the first outsiders to behold what would become the American Southwest and northern Mexico, the first non-natives to describe this enormous land and its peoples. Conversely, innumerable natives living in the interior of the continent experienced the passage of the three Spaniards and the African as an extraordinary portent, a first brush with the world beyond America. The natives called the four travelers "the children of the sun" because they seemed to have come from such unimaginably remote lands.
It is tempting to narrate their journey as an extreme tale of survival: four naked men at the mercy of the natural elements, facing an extraordinary array of native societies. Comparisons to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness are difficult to avoid. It was certainly a hellish journey. But it was also much more. At its heart, it is the story of how a handful of survivalists, out of necessity, were able to bridge two worlds that had remained apart for 12,000 years or more. Deprived of firearms and armor, the castaways were forced to cope with North America on its own terms. They lived by their wits, mastering half a dozen native languages and making sense of social worlds that other Europeans could not even begin to fathom. Incredibly, they used their knowledge of native cultures to escape from enslavement and re-fashion themselves into medicine men. Eventually, their reputation as healers preceded them wherever they went, as they moved from one group to the next in their quest for deliverance.
The castaways' insight into native North America is especially poignant at a time when Europeans debated whether the natives of America were fully human and crown officials reexamined Spain's conquests. In just five decades since Columbus, Iberians had rushed headlong into the New World. Men and women of enterprise and ambition had explored and ultimately devastated the islands of the Caribbean. More recently, Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro had subdued millions of Indians in Mexico and Peru. These conquests constituted fantastic feats of daring. But they had been achieved at a great human cost, prompting a determined group of friars and crown officials to launch a reformist movement to change Spain's methods of conquest and convince colonizers of the essential humanity of Indians. The ensuing debate resonated throughout the empire. If it turned out that Indians did not possess human souls, then ruthless conquistadors would be permitted to enslave them by the millions. But if, however, these natives were endowed with God's spirit, then they would have to be painstakingly Christianized and their rights respected.3
Against this backdrop, the journey of the four castaways constitutes a rare turning point in the history of North America, every bit as momentous and full of possibilities as the landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims or the arrival of Cortés on the shores of Mexico. The experience of Cabeza de Vaca and his companions afforded Spain an opportunity to consider a different kind of colonialism. These four pioneers had revealed the existence of many native cultures north of Mexico and the availability of precious metals, buffalo, and other resources. But instead of advocating a conquest in the traditional mold, Cabeza de Vaca and the others proposed a grand alliance with the native inhabitants. Over the course of their long odyssey, they had come to recognize the natives of North America as fellow human beings. Their life-changing experience had persuaded them that a humane colonization of North America was possible—a far cry from the views held by most of their contemporaries in the Old World. Their journey thus amounts to a fork in the path of exploration and conquest, a road that, if taken, could have transformed the brutal process by which Europeans overtook the land and riches of America.
THERE WAS A time when the adventures of these four resilient travelers were well known in America and Europe. Two extraordinary texts made the castaways' story available to anyone interested. One was the testimony provided by the three surviving Spaniards upon their return. This document is often referred to as the Joint Report. Although the original testimony was lost at some point, a near-complete transcription has survived until today, thanks to the assiduous work of fellow explorer and chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478-1557), who included it as part of his massive Historia general y natural de las Indias, islas y tierra firme del mar océano.4
The second source is a first-person Narrative written by Cabeza de Vaca and first published in 1542, six years after he completed his journey. Cabeza de Vaca's humble and self-reflective account circulated widely in the Spanish empire and even beyond it. Contemporary explorers pored over the Narrative, looking for even the most casual mention of metals or simply to learn about the terrain and human landscape of the interior of North America. More pious readers drew transcendent lessons from this text, recasting the four survivors as Christ-like figures; a seventeenth-century friar, for instance, matter-of-factly stated that Cabeza de Vaca and his companions "performed prodigies and miracles among innumerable barbarous nations" and "healed the Indians by making the sign of the cross over them." In either case, colonial Spaniards were well aware of this tale.5
More recently, however, the odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca and the others has fallen into relative oblivion. In the United States, the Florida expedition has received surprisingly scant public attention, even though historians and archaeologists have passionately sparred over the survivors' probable route across the continent for well over a century. These scholars have felt sufficiently motivated to venture into rugged lands and onto forgotten trails. A courageous writer even tried to "fix" Cabeza de Vaca's latitude by sleeping naked outdoors until he could not bear it any longer! Clearly, the Florida expedition has stirred powerful emotions among some enthusiasts and specialists. But beyond this circle, its impact has been modest.6
The survivors' saga is somewhat better known in Mexico. In the early 1990s an entire generation of moviegoers went to see a film bearing the slightly disorienting title of Cabeza de Vaca, or "Cow's Head." The film is mesmerizing as much for the plot (the world of conquistadors turned upside down) as for the surreal atmosphere (complete mutual incomprehension in the midst of a magical world). Although the film takes considerable liberties with the facts, it played a crucial role in bringing the story to a wide audience. Nevertheless, Mexico's narrative of conquest is still dominated by the towering figure of Cortés and the downfall of the Aztec empire; the Florida expedition remains something of a minor curiosity or a diversion.
Modern boundaries have further obscured the significance of this venture. Cabeza de Vaca, Estebanico, and the others walked across the continent long before the border between Mexico and the United States came into being. But now the route of their journey is bisected by this national boundary, relegating their story to the fringes of both countries—neither a wholly American story nor a Mexican one.
Finally, the story of this extraordinary expedition has become less well known to us simply because the passage of time has rendered Joint Report and Cabeza de Vaca's Narrative increasingly difficult to read. Many passages within both texts are downright perplexing to modern readers. Since they were written for sixteenth-century Spaniards, they offer little by way of context. They tell us nothing about how the expedition was conceived, why the leaders became involved in this venture, and what exactly they intended to do upon reaching Florida. Context is even more sorely needed once the expedition lands on the continent and begins interacting with Native Americans.
Understanding the Joint Report and the Narrative is also complicated by the fact that both are very public and official documents. In casting their narratives, Cabeza de Vaca and the other survivors engaged in self-conscious scripting. They wrote their reports in part to establish their virtues and merits and thereby curry royal favor. They thus avoided controversial subjects. For instance, neither source contains a single word about intimate relations between the castaways and native women, even though other evidence suggests that it occurred. Similarly, to avoid problems with the Inquisition, Cabeza de Vaca studiously refrains from using the word "miracle" to describe his incredible healings.7
And yet despite the fact that both documents were shaped, in part, by the agendas of their authors, they remain extraordinary historical sources. Both are remarkably detailed and complement each other well, except in some minor but significant points. But to fully understand them, one must also resort to scraps of information buried in many other sources and avail oneself of recent findings on the archaeology, climate, geography, botany, and population history of North America. The most daunting aspect of writing this book has been the quest to locate all sorts of elusive information to help me explain the curious behavior of sixteenth-century Spaniards and their often perplexing interactions with very different native groups. In spite of my best efforts, I am far from having succeeded in every case. I can only say that I have gained an enormous appreciation for the craft of the storyteller.8
CABEZA DE VACA and his companions were the first outsiders to have lived in the immense territories north of Mexico. Their accounts give us the rarest of glimpses into precontact North America. These pioneers were able to see the continent before any other outsiders, prior to European contact.
But the lands visited by Cabeza de Vaca and the others were by no means static or prelapsarian; North America was changing profoundly and irreversibly even during the half a century since Columbus. The population of the Americas was already declining with startling speed due to epidemic diseases introduced by Europeans. In the course of the sixteenth century, many indigenous groups disappeared from the face of the earth. Even those who survived had to change beyond recognition or merge with larger groups in order to endure.9
What the castaways saw and recorded constitutes our very first and frequently our only window into a continent before and during this great devastation. They depicted a world that was alive. Wherever the survivors went they found Native Americans, all vigorously exploiting the environment by setting fires to hunt deer or replacing large tracts of North American Eden with plots of corn. These groups moved about in deliberate circuits to take advantage of different edible sources, possessed intricate trading networks, and waged war on one another with the same cunning and vindictiveness of their European counterparts. Tantalizingly, the castaways also reported dramatic instances of population decline. America was changing before their very eyes.
By the time English, French, and Spanish colonists penned their impressions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the indigenous populations had been greatly diminished, and the flora and fauna had reclaimed the abandoned lands. It is no wonder that such writers were prone to conjuring images of a wild, virgin North America only sparsely populated by bands of Indians who were themselves primeval and incapable of conquering nature. This perception has endured to the present time in what one scholar has aptly called "the pristine myth" of America. In this sense, the castaways offer a much-needed corrective to a seductive but ultimately distorted image.10
And beyond these insights into pre-Columbian North America, the story of the castaways constitutes an extraordinary instance of first contacts between peoples whose ancestors had remained apart for at least 12,000 years. When these two peoples finally came face to face with one another, they did it from the perspective of vastly different cultures, lifestyles, technologies, and expectations. Yet, no matter how outwardly different they appeared from each other, they were still ordinary humans trying to come to terms with one another as best as they could.
Too often, the human dimension of these encounters is lost in the crucible of grand imperial narratives. The script is predictable: gold-crazed conquistadors confront either savages or unsuspecting exemplars of paradise on earth. The outcome of such encounters is never in doubt. The odyssey of the Florida survivors reminds us that first contacts were in fact far more interesting. Not all voyages of exploration were equal, just as not all Native Americans were the same. Early encounters were intensely personal affairs guided by the personalities of those involved and resources available to them. The Florida expedition makes this point powerfully. Here are conquerors who were themselves conquered and Indians who became masters and benefactors, all the while acting in deeply human ways.
At its most elemental, the castaways' tale constitutes in microcosm the much broader story of how Europeans, Africans, and natives set out to bridge the enormous cultural distances separating them. It is, in essence, the story of America. The journey of Cabeza de Vaca, Estebanico, and the others was thus spiritual as much as physical. Their life depended on their ability to understand the basic humanity of their indigenous masters and hosts. Time and again, as the survivors came within sight of a new native group, they had to find a middle ground. They were European and African by birth but were becoming American by experience. So profound was the survivors' spiritual journey that fellow conquistadors could scarcely recognize them on the radiant spring day when they finally reemerged from the depths of the continent.11

The Prize That Was Snatched Away
THE STORY OF CABEZA DE VACA AND HIS COMPANIONS has its origins in the Caribbean archipelago, that immense arch of green gems set against a turquoise sea that was Spain's first foothold in America. There, at the edge of an unexplored continent, two partners dreamed of ruling a vast and wealthy colony on the mainland. They nearly succeeded. But a heartless betrayal caused their venture to unravel in the end. The Florida expedition was a direct consequence of this failure. It was a second and even more desperate bid for a continental possession and a last-ditch effort to remake a life.
The older and more influential of the two partners was Diego Velázquez, a widower beloved for his banter and constant talk of pleasure and mischief. During his long career as a colonist in the Caribbean, he had witnessed a good deal of human misery. But he also liked to laugh and often found himself surrounded by eager listeners. He had taken his chances by accompanying Columbus on his second voyage in 1493 and by staying on a God-forsaken island that turned out to contain the largest gold deposits anywhere on those islands. Velázquez was also resourceful at waging war and getting the vanquished natives to work in his mines. In a little more than a decade, he emerged as the richest resident of Española, the island shared today by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.1
Diego Velázquez, the jokester and plump master of Cuba who was first-in-lineto conquer Mexico.
Yet, more than his gold, Velázquez's network of allies and acquaintances constituted his greatest asset. From Española a wave of conquests radiated in all directions, so Velázquez summoned his influence within the imperial bureaucracy and relied upon his contacts at the Spanish court to secure colonization rights. His playful demeanor belied great ambition. By 1511 he had obtained the crown's authorization to occupy Cuba, the largest island of the archipelago and potentially even richer than Española.
The conquest of Cuba would require much help, so Velázquez sought out the kind of men who could make this undertaking a reality. Most crucially, he struck up a partnership with a fierce-looking adventurer named Pánfilo de Narváez. The two men got along well from the start. They hailed from nearby towns in Spain's central plateau and complemented each other admirably. Velázquez may have been well connected, but he was getting old, and his expanding waistline was already the butt of jokes. Narváez, by contrast, was still in his thirties and looked every bit the part of the Spanish conquistador: tall and muscular, with light hair turning to red, a ruddy beard, and a deep, booming voice, "as if it came from a vault."2
The genial administrator and the intrepid adventurer imposed their will on Cuba rapidly, leaving no doubt that their alliance worked well. Velázquez wrote letters to the King and prudently surveyed the southern coast with a fleet of canoes. Meanwhile, Narváez cut an east-west swath right through the middle of Cuba at the head of 100 Europeans and perhaps 1,000 Indian porters. In just four years, this band of outsiders crushed all native resistance, turning a lush island into a sordid outfitting station and a brave new colonial experiment.3
Buoyed by their success, the two partners felt sufficiently confident to set their sights even higher. For a time the possibilities seemed unlimited.
USING CUBA AS a base, Velázquez ventured farther west. Early in 1517 he dispatched an expedition that drifted onto the Yucatán Peninsula, probably blown off course and not intending to go so far. What the Christian sailors saw there astonished them: large temples made of stone and mortar, Indian nobles adorned with extravagant headdresses, exquisitely designed ornaments of gold and silver. They had come in contact with the Maya. They also brought back to Cuba two natives from Yucatán; "Old Melchor" and "Little Julián," who were able to elaborate on first impressions.4
Velázquez, ordinarily a man of steely patience, seems to have been overcome with excitement. He hastily cobbled together a second expedition, which departed in January 1518 under the command of Velázquez's nephew, Juan de Grijalva. The spring and summer months of 1518 seemed interminable for Velázquez as he waited for word from his relative. At last, in the fall, this second exploratory party returned to Cuba carrying precious objects obtained by barter with the Indians of Yucatán. In their possession was gold valued at between 16,000 and 20,000 pesos, considerably more than what the Spaniards had been able to extract from Cuba in an entire year. The stuff that made dreams of El Dorado seem all too real.
But Diego Velázquez was now in a bind. Although faced with a colossal opportunity, he had exhausted his financial resources by launching two expeditions in two consecutive years. He could not wait too long to launch yet another expedition, for rumors of the wealth of Yucatán were already reaching the ears of potential competitors. The plump master of Cuba desperately needed to find a partner, someone who would captain a third fleet to claim these new lands for the greater glory of Spain, and for his own.
There is little doubt that Velázquez's first choice would have been Pánfilo de Narváez, his old partner and trusted right-hand man. But, alas, Narváez was in Spain at the time, serving as a representative of the island of Cuba at court. Within Cuba itself there were very few settlers wealthy enough for a venture of this magnitude. So in spite of some misgivings, Velázquez decided to send Hernán Cortés.5
Cortés was one of the original conquerors of Cuba. He was vivacious, likable, and literate; he could even pepper his speech with Latin. Velázquez promptly recognized these qualities and made Cortés his personal secretary in 1512 or 1513. For several months Cortés acted as Velázquez's confidant and most trusted representative in matters that required diplomacy and tact.6
But the two men had a falling out. It appears that Cortés began to chafe under Velázquez's command. In 1514 Cortés, ever the man of action, tried to make his way back to Española bearing a load of letters that detailed Velázquez's abuses for members of the audiencia of Santo Domingo (a high court with jurisdiction over Cuba). As fate would have it, Cortés was seized before leaving Cuba. At first Velázquez wanted to have his secretary hanged, but, with the passing of time, and after many residents interceded on Cortés's behalf, his rage subsided. Eventually Velázquez relented and turned Cortés loose but refused to restore him as secretary.
For Cortés it was a defining moment. From then on he did his utmost to regain Velázquez's trust, "behaving so humbly and seeking to please even the lowliest of Velázquez's servants." In this, he had some success. Cortés asked Velázquez to be a god-father witness in his wedding. The two men became compadres. When Cortés learned of Velázquez's proposal to jointly explore Yucatán, it must have seemed to him like the culmination of a long and arduous process of social rehabilitation.7
At the threshold of a new phase in his life, Cortés seized his destiny like a possessed man. He talked to friends and neighbors; bought a carvel and a brigantine; and used his formidable powers of persuasion to procure wine, oil, beans, and chickpeas on credit. But as the months of preparation wore on, Velázquez began to worry over Cortés's independence of character. At the eleventh hour he attempted to relieve his old secretary of command. By then, however, Cortés was too deeply involved to be stopped. In the early hours of November 18, 1518, he gathered his ships, crews, and soldiers and left Cuba in haste. When Velázquez was notified that Cortés had taken to sea, he hurried to the shore at daybreak. With Velázquez beckoning to him, Cortés got on a small boat and rowed within earshot. Velázquez reportedly shouted to him: "Why, compadre, are you going so? Is this a good way to say farewell to me?" Cortés could barely respond.8
It was not an auspicious beginning to the expedition. Velázquez, the great leader of Cuba, the astute administrator who still claimed powerful backers at all levels of the imperial bureaucracy, would seek his revenge. He would eventually launch a fourth armada, larger and better supplied than the previous three, to extend his authority over the mainland and bring back the outlaw Cortés—in chains, if necessary. This time he would entrust the task to his old partner, Pánfilo de Narváez.
BY THE TIME Cortés took to the sea, leaving Velázquez shouting from the shore, Narváez had been absent from Cuba for three years. He had spent this time in Spain following the court. It should have been a pleasurable tour of duty, a welcome respite from the rustic New World. Instead it turned into a hellish experience.
Narváez had traveled to Spain to act as Diego Velázquez's representative at court and secure some privileges for his fellow European settlers in Cuba. Narváez had plans for himself as well. Being already at court, and at great expense, he intended to get the King's permission to lead an expedition, either to present-day Colombia or to Central America.


  • "Once you start this book, it's nearly impossible to put it down." —Carolyn See, Washington Post Book World
  • “I’m loving this book.”—Joe Rogan
  • "Reséndez's story is so riveting you'll wonder why so many history books ignore it."—Entertainment Weekly
  • "The story of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and of his accidental journey across the American continent, is one of the most remarkable feats of endurance ever recorded.... Reséndez tells this gripping story with zeal.... It is impossible not to be swept along by his enthusiasm." —Financial Times
  • "[Reséndez's] indefatigable scholarship, knowledge of the context, and craftsmanlike storytelling provide a model account: concise, solid, moving." —Times Literary Supplement
  • "The accidental journey of Cabeza de Vaca and his companions across North America is one of the epics of the Age of Exploration. Andrés Reséndez recounts the story in broad context and riveting detail, capturing the lofty, base, cunning, fatuous, cowardly, and heroic actions and motives of an improbable cast of astonishing characters." —H.W. Brands, author of Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution
  • "Reséndez's brisk historical narrative cries out for novelisation." —Times (U.K.)
  • "Reséndez ... shows how Cortez, de Soto and other would-be conquistadors schemed for their kingdoms in the New World like investors jockeying for IPOs." —Wall Street Journal
  • "An extraordinary adventure story (which) offers a very different sort of paradigm for Europe's encounter with the Americas." —The Scotsman
  • "Andrés Reséndez's new interpretation of this uncanny ordeal of human survival comprehensively reveals the adventure in almost seamless, highly readable prose. He provides a clear background of the politics of the Spanish Conquest, then spins a yarn of unimaginable hardship and a testament to endurance that elicits head-shaking disbelief on almost every page. Amazingly, all of it is true ... Mr. Reséndez's new telling of this astounding tale entertains and captivates from the first page." —Dallas Morning News
  • "[Reséndez's] voice is original, his writing lucid and gripping." —Miami Herald
  • "[I]t is Reséndez's clever rewriting of his ordeal—as a survivor's tale—that is most memorable."—Texas Monthly
  • "Reséndez creates a gripping narrative of one of the most amazing survival stories of all time." —Library Journal (starred review)
  • "[Reséndez] misses nothing in telling this riveting quest for gold and glory: prickly pears, pecan nuts, and other plants new to Europeans; migrant tribes in the daily search for food; massacres and treks of naked men across hundreds of miles; and the jealousies and cabals among men like rich fat Diego Velazquez of Cuba; the fierce adventurer and expedition commander Panfilo de Narvaez (who died at sea on a makeshift raft after his coastal 'invasion' of Florida killed virtually all of his men); the rapacious Hernan Cortes who decimated the Aztecs; and various greedy bishops and friars ... This is must and wonderful reading for anyone interested in our mutual histories at a time when Europeans came upon a new world and found themselves irrevocably transformed." —Providence Journal
  • "Reséndez is a marvelous storyteller who makes you feel like you are there—even if you're really just lying on the couch." —American Way Magazine
  • "One of [the survivors], Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the royal treasurer for the trip, wrote a narrative of his adventures, published in 1542. He survived along with two other Spaniards and an African slave. The three Spaniards also issued what became known as the Joint Report. The story that Reséndez (a history professor at the University of California at Davis) tells is woven largely from these two famous accounts, although he interprets them with fresh eyes. He also brings a breadth of knowledge to his story, stopping often for welcome excursions into such subjects as the weather patterns of the period or how one navigates (or in Miruelo's case, fails to navigate) by dead reckoning. The generous elaborations in his endnotes almost form a second narrative." —American Scholar
  • "Reséndez's graceful tale of four men who came to accept a new land on its own terms is itself a marvel to behold." —Houston Chronicle
  • "Reséndez proves a patient storyteller, employing effective prose hand in hand with the tools of a scholar, including many maps, excellent footnotes and a terrific Further Reading section. The experiences of one of the first outsiders to see the American Southwest still prove fresh and pertinent." —Kirkus
  • "A riveting account of the epic journey ... Told from an intriguing and original perspective, Reséndez's narrative is a marvelous addition to the corpus of survival and adventure literature." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "Andrés Reséndez has written a definitive account of the remarkable overland journey of Cabeza de Vaca across 16th-century America. This important book brings a seminal yet neglected historical figure into a broad perspective. Displaying impressive skills as one of a new generation of narrative historians, Reséndez tells a compelling story about a little-known chapter in American history. A Land So Strange is destined to become the standard work on the extraordinary journey of this courageous explorer." —Brian Fagan, author of The Little Ice Age

On Sale
Jan 6, 2009
Page Count
336 pages
Basic Books

Andrés Reséndez

About the Author

Andrés Reséndez is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. His book The Other Slavery won the Bancroft Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award. He is most recently the author of Conquering the Pacific: An Unknown Mariner and the Final Great Voyage of the Age of Discovery. He lives in Davis, California, with his family.

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