One of my great grandfathers was a conquistador?

Late one late evening a few days ago, I was noisily surfing on YouTube, and just after enjoying a really great version of “You’re Pushin’ Too Hard,” a video on the ancestry of my uncle Ted by Art Alonzo popped up. So I took a look.

Spanish-born Houston artist Pilar Cortella fashioned this bust Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca on display at Hermann Park, Houston, Texas.

I sat dumbstruck — learning conquistador Alvar Nunes Cabeza de Vaca is my great-grandfather 14 generations back. And there are other “conquerors” lurking in my family tree, too? Lord have mercy.

The next day I called Bill Nowlin, a historian friend who has written many books about my uncle, including one about my uncle being the first Hispanic player in the Hall of Fame. He checked it out and said it appeared Alonzo had done some pretty good ancestral research.

So, I had to find out about this Cabeza de Vaca dude.

An image of Cabeza de Vaca on a postage stamp.

According to Wikipedia, my great grandfather was one of only four survivors of the Narvaez expedition. Searching for gold and gems in 1528 in an expedition launched against his better judgment, they wound up fighting Native Americans in the jungles and swamps of Florida for months before their quest became desperate. Up against the sea, they slaughtered and ate their horses and made five small rafts in order to sail west along the shore to Mexico. Two-hundred forty-two souls set sail in September. When they reached the Mississippi River, the current forced them into the sea and the rafts were separated by a hurricane. Two of those rafts wrecked on Galveston Island with about 80 men. Only 15 survived the winter. They tried to repair their rafts, but they were lost in the waves.

Could things get worse for my great grandfather? Yep, they sure could. For two years, the survivors were enslaved by Native Americans, and my great grandfather was one of only four who escaped, including an African slave.

My great grandfather then embarked on what has been called, “the most remarkable [journey] in the record of American exploration.”

He spent the next eight years walking thorough the American Southwest — Texas, New Mexico and Arizona — and down the gulf coast of Mexico, traveling nearly 2,400 miles on foot. He became a trader and a faith healer who attracted many Indigenous followers whom he regarded as “the children of the sun” as his fame among the Indigenous people spread. He returned to Europe in 1537 where he wrote a book about his travels — “The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca,” It is considered the first European book devoted completely to North America. One scholar called it the “cornerstone of the history of the Spanish Southwest.” It’s still in print. I definitely need to make a trip to Margie’s.

In 1540, he returned the New World, and in 1542 became the Spanish governor of the Rio de la Plata colony in South America. He returned to Spain and died sometime after 1559.

Many of the Native people he encountered had vanished when the next wave of explorers arrived, possibly from the diseases carried by my great grandfather and his men.

It’s history far removed from me and my life in Susanville, but it seemed a curious story I could share with you all on this Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day.

Frankly, I don’t know what to think. I’m still processing.