The story of Pánfilo de Narváez (1478-1528), the Spanish conquistador who landed in Tampa Bay nearly 400 years ago this April, has made headlines before. And some of them read like a sixteenth century Florida Man: “Great One-Eyed Explorer Makes Unsuccessful Conquest of Mexico and Meets Tragic End When Crude Boat is Driven Ashore by Storm.”
The part about the eye is true – Narváez lost an eye trying to overthrow another conquistador, Hernán Cortés, in Mexico in 1520 – and so is the tragic ending. In 1528, Narváez, with 300 men and 42 horses, trudged up the Nature Coast, searching for rich kingdoms to pillage and found nothing but swamp and native peoples who didn’t want them there. Somewhere near the St. Marks River, they gave up the march. They ate their horses, fashioned simple rafts, and tried to float their way to Mexico, which was much farther away than they thought. Only four of them, not including Narváez, would survive.
But history isn’t always about the facts. Despite this evident failure, Tampanians celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Narváez mission in 1928 as, to quote Mayor Donald McKay, “an event of tremendous importance in the advance of civilization.” City boosters staged a week-long “Pageant of Progress” on the manicured riverbank of the old Tampa Bay Hotel, where Narváez may or may not have actually landed, giving him pride of place next to the fabled De Soto Oak – an ancient giant under which De Soto may or may not have “parlayed with the Indians” in 1539. There were dedications, débutantes in costumes, a speech from the Spanish consul, and an extravagant 800-player reenactment of the reputed landing (and pretty much all American history after that point).
Failure or not, Narváez was put forward as “the city’s oldest historical character” in a way that both reinforced the city’s important Hispanic heritage and solidified an even earlier place in American history than St. Augustine’s famous founding in 1565.
Across the bay, St. Petersburg real estate developer Walter P. Fuller made ingenious use of the Narváez story to transform “the Jungle” – wilderness acreage his family owned along what is now Park Street – into a Spanish-themed vacationland for St. Pete’s early tourists.
Archaeological studies in the 1910s revealed an extensive Tocobaga settlement and some Spanish artifacts, including a sword which was supposedly hung from a tree (for “safekeeping”) and promptly stolen (that probably was the work of Florida Man). This led to the prevailing theory that Park Street was the site of the Narváez landing.
In 1925, Fuller capitalized on this evidence, building two gorgeous Mediterranean Revival buildings: the Jungle Country Club Hotel (now Admiral Farragut Academy) and the Jungle Prada complex. To remove any doubt, he planted a large marker on the site, honoring “the first exploration by white man of North America.”
Sometimes history sells (ahem, St. Augustine).
And sometimes, history is written not by the victors, but by the survivors. Much of what we know about the Narváez expedition comes from a 1555 account written by his crew mate, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who, as one reader put it, “has rather stolen the spotlight” from his captain. And how could he not? His story picks up where Narváez disappears, telling how the two remaining rafts shipwrecked, how the survivors were imprisoned by local tribes, and how he escaped to wander the deserts of Texas and Mexico for more than seven years in search of a Spanish settlement.
It is a wild tale full of soul-searching and reinvention, as Cabeza de Vaca (yes, that does mean “cow head”) transforms from a wretched castaway into a kind of traveling faith healer who survives not by brutalizing, but by adapting to the native cultures he finds.
Now, on the 400th anniversary of the landing, Cabeza de Vaca’s story seems to better capture the spirit of the 21st century, and maybe of Florida itself: cross-cultural, politically canny, and adaptive in the face of catastrophe.
Florida Man at his best.