St. Petersburg, Florida — On Holy Thursday, April 14th, 1528, four carracks and a brigandine carrying Florida’s second Spanish governor, conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez, sighted the entrance to a shallow bay on Pinellas County’s gulf coast. With him were four-hundred men and forty-two horses, including Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, and a North African man they called Estebanico the Moor.
Many historians believe that this was Boca Ciega Bay, and at the head of the bay the Spaniards spied several Tocobaga Indian houses and dwellings. The Purser, Alonso Enriquez, set out from the ships to a small island from which he called to the Tocobaga, who came and by way of exchange gave him some fish and pieces of venison.
On the following day, Good Friday, Governor Narvaez disembarked with as many men as his small boats could hold, but when he arrived on the shore they found the Tocobaga houses empty and abandoned.
One of the houses was very large, probably capable of holding 300 people, others were smaller, and among them was found a little golden bell.
On the next day, Narvaez ordered all of the men to disembark, and the horses brought ashore. They raised the flag of Spain to claim the land and read proclamations aloud asserting their title over it. Catholic Mass was held, the first in Florida history (this was 37 years before the founding of St. Augustine).
On Easter Sunday, the Tocobaga of the village returned and spoke to them, but since Narvaez had no interpreter, he couldn’t understand them. They made numerous signs and gestures that seemed to indicate that they wanted the Spaniards to leave the land, but then they went away again without hostilities.
On Monday, the Governor decided to go inland and explore what was there. He took 40 men with him, and, walking until sunset, they arrived at a great bay that seemed to go far inland. This was probably Tampa Bay. They spent the night near the shore, and returned on the following day to where the ships and people were.
Narvaez ordered the brigandine to sail along the coast and look for the entrance to the large harbor, and, if unable to find it, to cross back to Havana and return with additional supplies.
After the brigantine departed, Narvaez went inland again with even more men. This time they followed the coast of Tampa Bay heading north. They captured four Tocobaga and showed them corn to see if they were familiar with it, and the captives took them to their village at the head of the large bay. This was most likely present-day Philippe Park in Safety Harbor.
There, the Spaniards found corn, but also many merchandise boxes from Spain, and each box contained the body of a dead man covered in painted deer skins. There were also pieces of linen and cloth, and feather headdresses like those seen in Mexico, and more samples of gold.
Through signs Narvaez asked the Tocobaga where they had gotten such things, and they indicated that very far from there was a province called Apalachee, in which there was much gold, and they gestured that Apalachee had a great amount of everything that the Spaniards valued.
Narvaez was then taken to another village about 30 miles from there, where there was a great quantity of corn that was ripe and ready to be picked. The explorers stayed there for two days before returning once more to where the people and the ships were on Boca Ciega Bay.
On the first day of May, Panfilo Narvaez took his officers aside and expressed his desire to go inland while the ships sailed the coast. This seemed to most of them to be a bad idea; that the ships shouldn’t be left until they were in a good and populated harbor, that they were uncertain of where they were, and that without an interpreter they would be unable to speak to the indigenous people.
Cabeza de Vaca added that since they were entering a land that had no description, they did not know what kind of place it was, or by what people it was inhabited, nor which part of it they were in. Plus, he argued, they did not have enough supplies to enter an unknown land, and that each man could receive no more rations than one pound of biscuits and one pound of bacon.
However, the Commissary, a delegate of the church, argued that they should not get back on the ships, that they had experienced so many hardships at sea since leaving Spain that they should trust in God’s protection on the land, and besides, if they continued following the coast it would be impossible not to come upon Panuco, a Spanish colony on the gulf coast of Mexico, which he felt was not very far away.
Panfilo de Narvaez’s will was set, he placed a sailor named Caravallo in charge of the ships, and, leaving one-hundred men with them, Narvaez prepared to venture into the unknown with 300 soldiers and 42 horses.
Eight years later, in 1536, four of those 300 men were found wandering in the desert near the Pacific coast of Mexico. The others were never seen again. The four survivors were Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andres Durantes, and Estevanico the Moor. Narvaez himself perished along the way with most of his men, but Cabeza de Vaca lived to return to Spain and write a chronicle of his journey across much of what is now the United States. Cabeza de Vaca’s account was published in 1542 and is a document of inestimable value for students of history, anthropologists, and the general reader. The Account is available for purchase in paperback form on the Jungle Prada Tour, an interpretive historical tour of the Tocobaga village site where Panfilo de Narvaez is thought to have first stepped foot on land on that April day nearly 500 years ago.
Today, you can see the best-preserved Tocobaga shell mound in Tampa Bay, as well as part of the ancient village plaza. We will discuss the rest of the story of the Narvaez expedition, and you can ask a historian questions about either the Tocobaga or the Spanish.