There, they constructed five small boats and set sail for Mexico, hugging the Florida coastline only to be separated by the Mississippi River's currents and the Gulf's stormy weather. Cabeza de Vaca never saw any of the men on the other four boats again. He managed to get his own boat to what is now Galveston, Texas, which his men christened The Isle of Misfortune. Over the following eight years, a dwidling number of survivors would wander from Native American tribe to Native American tribe throughout the American Southwest, possibly as far as what became New Mexico and Arizona.
Four of the original 600 men survived.
Upon his return to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca published an account of his journey which featured some of the first descriptions of Native American tribal life Europeans had ever read. It was a sensation.
But it's not a pretty picture.
For example, for a time, Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved by a tribe that promoted its own security by killing all female children born into the tribe. They argued that girls would grow up to marry men from other tribes and bare them sons who would become their father's enemies. Since they had no daughters, this tribe purchased or seized women from other tribes as a means of getting wives who could bare them sons of their own.
The little research I've done beyond reading this book suggests that an account like this one is probably true. Cabeza de Vaca began his journey just seven years after the Aztec capitol of Tenochitlan fell to Cortez. The Aztecs required enourmous numbers of captives for sacrifice producing a large network of organized raiding parties and slave markets reaching as far north as the Mississsippi River.
In another example, Cabeza de Vaca spent several years serving as a trader between two tribes who feared eachother so much that neither would ever travel into the other's territory. Cabeza de Vaca, however, as an outsider, could move freely between them both. Situations like these and many of the others described by Cabeza de Vaca are possible the result of Aztec influence.
While other tribes treat Cabeza de Vaca fairly well, enough to make him an early advocate for tribal rights, there are no Noble Savages in The Shipwrecked Men. However, it should be pointed out that the violence Cabeza de Vaca describes in his encounters with Native America tribes is not much different from what was going on in Europe at the time. It should also be pointed out that Cabeza de Vaca did not begin writing this account until after he had returned to Europe. He is writing based solely on memory, often memory many years old. If you're a scholar of this subject, I love to hear how reliable you find Cabeza de Vaca to be.
But in the end, while The Shipwrecked Men is difficult reading at times, it is also a fascinating account of the early exploration of North America, one that is well worth reading today.