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Nov. 6, 1528: First European reaches what is now Texas

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Cabeza de VacaCabeza de Vaca

Many early explorers had amazing journeys, but the years the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca spent wandering around what is now Texas and the American Southwest constitute one of the most epic.

After arriving in Florida with a group of 600 gold seekers, he survived a trek westward during which most of the men died from disease, starvation or battles with native tribes. Desperate to escape the perils on the mainland, the remaining explorers built small boats and rowed along the Gulf Coast. After more of the men were lost in a hurricane, Cabeza de Vaca’s boat landed on Galveston Island. He and his men were captured and enslaved by one tribe after another. By the time they escaped and fled to Spanish-controlled Mexico City in 1536 — eight years after they landed in Florida — only four of the men were left.

In the process, Cabeza de Vaca became the first European known to have explored parts of what is now Texas, partly during his enslavement and partly as a free man. He also acted as a sort of anthropologist, later describing the native people and their customs in a book about his misadventures, written upon his return to Spain. By the time he reached Mexico City, he had grown to respect the native people, some of whom had joined him on his travels.

His chronicle would become one of the few giving a first-hand account of those very early days of exploration. He would also be remembered as one of the few Spanish explorers sympathetic to native people he encountered.

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