Pánfilo de Narváez is probably best remembered as the leader of the disastrous expedition that landed in Florida in 1528 and left only four survivors, including Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Resources:
), to tell the epic tale some eight years later. But Narváez’s early career in the New World was far from unsuccessful. A native of the province of Castille, Narváez arrived in the Caribbean by 1500, and in 1509 he participated in the conquest of Jamaica under Juan de Esquivel. Shortly thereafter, Narváez played a pivotal role in the Spanish conquest of Cuba under Diego Velázquez de Cuellar. After the Velázquez expedition landed on the eastern coast of Cuba late in 1511, Narváez joined him and was appointed second in command. He was promptly dispatched into the interior in charge of more than a hundred soldiers. Over the course of the next two years, Narváez gained a reputation as a brutal conquistador. He presided over a massacre at the indigenous village of Caonao , which cleric Bartolomé de las Casas witnessed, and which later played a pivotal role in the origin of the “Black Legend.” (Resources:
A staunch ally of Diego Velázquez, Narváez was later appointed by the governor in 1520 to lead an expedition to Veracruz, Mexico in order to depose and arrest Hernán Cortés. (Cortés had betrayed Velázquez and personally assumed command of the expedition out of Cuba that reached central Mexico and conquered the Aztec capital and all its riches.) Narváez’s expedition was ultimately defeated by Cortés, and Narváez not only lost an eye but was imprisoned in Veracruz for several years. Upon his release Narváez returned to Spain and in 1526 obtained a royal contract to establish a new settlement along the northern Gulf coast.
Originally intending to settle at Río de las Palmas, just north of Cortés’ territory along the northern coast of modern Mexico, Narváez sailed from Spain in 1527 and wintered along the south coast of Cuba before setting sail in late February to resupply in Havana. Unexpectedly, a late winter storm drove the fleet north into the Gulf of Mexico, where they finally made landfall  on the west coast of Florida, just north of the entrance to Tampa Bay, in April of 1528. Failing to confirm the location of a large bay thought to be nearby, Narváez set out with his army on land, marking the first significant penetration of Spaniards into the interior of Florida. Pushing northward and westward across the Gulf coastal plain of Florida, the army eventually entered the province of Apalachee in the environs of present-day Tallahassee. By now completely separated from their ships, the members of the expedition finally made the decision to escape westward by sea.
Narváez moved his expedition south to the coast of Apalachee Bay, where five rudimentary barges were constructed over the course of a month and a half using available materials, including re-forged metal weapons for tools, clothing for sails, horse meat for food, horse hair for rigging, and horse hides for water bags. Setting sail on September 22, the expedition pushed west along the coast over the course of the next six and a half weeks, crossing the mouth of the Mississippi River before being scattered by a storm. The exact fate of Narváez and four of the five barges is unknown, but the vessel carrying the expedition’s treasurer Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was cast ashore on an island of the Texas coast, where his subsequent tale of survival has become an important part of the annals of American history.
Bartolomeo de Las Casas was a Spanish cleric who became an early defender of the Indians in the New World. He was one of the first to argue that the Indians were civilized and worthy of the same respect as other humans. This site features an excerpt from his History of the Indies, in which he describes the cruelty inflicted by the Spanish when they overran Cuba.