Brutal Journey Cabeza de Vaca and the Epic First Crossing of North America

Paul Schneider

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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One part Lewis and Clark, one part Heart of Darkness, Brutal Journey tells the story of an army of would-be conquerors who came to the New World on the heels of Cortés. Bound for glory, they landed in Florida in 1528. But only four of the four hundred would survive: eight years and a 5,000-mile journey later, three Spaniards and a black Moroccan wandered out of the wilderness to the north of the Rio Grande and into Cortés's gold-drenched Mexico.

The survivors brought nothing back other than their story, but what a tale it was. They had become killers and cannibals, torturers and torture victims, slavers and enslaved. They became faith healers, arms dealers, canoe thieves, spider eaters, and finally, when there were only the four of them left in the high Texas desert, they became itinerate messiahs. They became, in other words, whatever it took to stay alive long enough to reach Mexico, the only place where they were certain they would find an outpost of the Spanish empire.

The journey of the Narváez expedition is one of the greatest survival epics in the history of American exploration. By combining the accounts of the explorers with the most recent findings of archaeologists and academic historians, Brutal Journey offers an authentic narrative to replace a legend of North American exploration.


Praise for Brutal Journey

"Brutal Journey is first-rate. Weaving anthropology, archeology, climatology, geography, and a half-dozen other disciplines into a riveting tale of courage, cruelty, and ultimately survival, Schneider does for Cabeza de Vaca and his comrades what the late Stephen Ambrose did (with Undaunted Courage) for Lewis and Clark."—H. W. Brands, The Boston Globe

"The journals of Lewis and Clark are famed for their account of what was not just the unknown but the barely believable. And yet they weren't the first whites to cross the continent. A small band of Europeans had traversed it on foot and in a handful of jerry-built small boats almost 275 years before Lewis and Clark. Their route was far to the south, and only four of the 400 who started were to walk out alive. One of them, Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, provided history with a dramatic chronicle of the ordeal. The story of that expedition, a would-be mission of conquest run to ground, 'is surprisingly unfamiliar to most North Americans,' asserts Paul Schneider in the introduction of his engaging Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America. That may be so in a popular sense, but scholars have debated aspects of the journey for generations, studying its ethnographic implications, its probable route and other questions, and in that sense the basics are known and have been the subject of other books. Schneider is to be commended, however, for wrapping significant context around the bare bones of the historical record, for he rightly calls the travails described by Cabeza de Vaca 'one of the greatest survival epics of all time.' Brutal Journey extends out from what is a stark account of some 80 pages in Cabeza de Vaca's original by drawing on the opinions of scholars, filling in cultural details, pointing out debate that has occurred where questions arise from primary texts, quoting extensively from reports of Hernando De Soto's expedition about a dozen years later for comparison (similar terrain, encounters with the same native tribes, better recorded) and, frankly, inserting educated guesses by Schneider where he finds no certainty but hazards an assertion anyway (watch for qualifiers such as 'most likely' and 'probably')."—Art Winslow, Chicago Tribune

"When Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca staggered home to Spain in 1537 after a spectacularly failed expedition to the New World, he brought his king not the customary gifts of gold or new territory, but simply a story. 'This alone,' he explained, 'is what a man who came away naked could carry out with him.' Cabeza de Vaca's classic memoir has since become a treasure in its own right. One of two known firsthand narratives of this early expedition to Florida, it is illuminating and riveting. However, like any survivor's account, it does not, and cannot, tell the whole story. In his fascinating new book Brutal Journey, Paul Schneider fills in the missing pieces, bringing to life a nearly 500-year-old tale of disaster, misery and the wages of greed and arrogance . . . Schneider, the author of The Adirondacks: A History of America's First Wilderness and The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket, deftly describes the striking reversal of roles between the native North Americans and their would-be enslavers. Having come to the New World believing that they were not only conquerors but also saviors—bringing civilization and Christianity to the savages—the Spaniards soon found themselves objects of the Indians' pity and disgust. Sick, naked and starving, they moved one tribe to tears. And when they resorted to cannibalism, they were nearly massacred for the abomination . . . In addition to Cabeza de Vaca's memoir and a version of an official report written by the expedition's survivors, Schneider uses accounts of other Spanish expeditions to North America, modern-day archaeological evidence and his own travels in the region to broaden and richen the narrative . . . Schneider's thorough research and vivid writing create a fast-paced, moving story, one that is difficult to believe and impossible to forget."—Candice Millard, The New York Times

"[Schneider has] a vigorous, clear style, and his use of contextualizing sources—archaeology, ethnology, histories of other explorations of the period—is judicious and economical."—Brian Hall, The Washington Post

"Schneider's polished narrative draws on both [chronicles of the Narvaez debate], and he tries to square them with archaeological reports, dissertations and academic debates . . . [He] captures the terrible urgency of their situation with a smooth, professorial voice that mingles color with reserve."—Peter Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle

"The voids and vagaries in certain parts of Cabeza de Vaca's account are cleverly and judiciously filled by information from later expeditions to the same places by other Spanish conquistadors."—Norman N. Brown, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Illinois)

"Brutal Journey is a wonderfully rich account of an incredible cross-country journey of survival. Paul Schneider's beautifully crafted book takes us to another time in another world, a place of Native American shamans, Spanish conquistadors, and unbelievable determination. Best of all, it really happened."—Jerald T. Milanich, Ph.D., archaeologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History and author of Florida Indians from Ancient Times to the Present

"Talk about a bad trip: Four would-be conquerors wander across some of North America's most difficult country for eight years, and they don't even find gold to make up for their troubles. The story of Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca's unwanted expedition into the interior is well-known to students of Spanish colonial history and has a huge scholarly literature surrounding it, but there are few popular works devoted to it as compared to, say, the easier journey of Lewis and Clark. Schneider's well-told tale begins with avarice and jealousy, as the conquistador Panfilo de Narváez, having rebelled against the better-connected Hernan Cortés and been imprisoned for his troubles, nonetheless manages to convince the Spanish crown to let him take charge of conquering 'the entire Gulf Coast of what would one day become the United States.' His fleet—not well-outfitted, for Narvaez was broke—made the area of Tampa Bay in 1528, and his contingent of Caribs, Africans and Spanish soldiers marched off into the unknown for food and riches. Second-in-command by virtue of being King Charles V's 'eyes and ears on the ground during the expedition'—for, naturally, the king wanted his cut—Cabeza de Vaca found himself contesting Narváez's increasingly impetuous decisions at every turn. Disappointed and embattled, the company reached what is now Galveston Bay before being shipwrecked; Narváez died, and the remaining force lost man after man until just three were left besides Cabeza de Vaca. This multicultural crew, one of whom, Schneider guesses, was a converted Jew, the other an African slave, then wandered for thousands of miles until eventually finding a Spanish settlement in western Mexico. Through all of this, Schneider does a solid job of enhancing an intrinsically interesting story without getting in the way. A you-are-there enterprise in the Steven Ambrose vein, full of surprising turns and not a few ironies."—Kirkus Reviews

"Equally able in his dramatizations of the privations and brutalities suffusing this extraordinary tale, Schneider scores big with fans of historical (mis)adventure."—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"Schneider does an excellent job weaving together the two surviving firsthand accounts—one by surviving explorer Cabeza de Vaca and the other by all four survivors—with archaeological, anthropological, and historical research into pre-Colonial indigenous populations and the Spanish expeditions of that era to produce a fine book. Recommended."—Library Journal

"[Schneider] ably combines the raw narrative with a wealth of secondary research to create a vivid tale filled with gripping scenes, as when natives lead the starving Spanish forces into a swamp ambush. Though primarily concerned with the Spaniards' experiences, Schneider also provides well-rounded portrayals of the indigenous cultures they came in contact with—among them tribes that came to regard the handful of survivors as magical healers who could raise the dead. The ethnographic balance takes a thrilling adventure and turns it into an engrossing case study of early European colonialism gone epically wrong."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt


On Good Friday of 1528 an army of four hundred Spaniards, Africans, and Caribbean natives landed in the vicinity of Tampa Bay, Florida, under the command of a middle-aged conquistador with a last-chance license to conquer...

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  • Paul Schneider

  • Paul Schneider is the author of the highly praised and successful The Adirondacks and The Enduring Shore—both published by Henry Holt. He lives with his wife and son in Martha's Vineyard and Bradenton, Florida.

  • Paul Schneider