Cabeza de Vaca Probably Did Not Land On Galveston Island

When the Panfilo de Narváez expedition devolved into desperation in modern-day Florida, the conquistadors decided to build five make-shift rafts in an attempt to make their way to a possible source of salvation—Pánuco. They believed Pánuco to only be a week or so away. In actuality, Pánuco was over a thousand miles distant.

In 1528, the Narváez expedition launched their rag-tag fleet of rafts on the Bay of Horses, so named because every third day while constructing their boats, the Spaniards slaughtered a horse for food. All five rafts began to drift west, and all ultimately crash landed on the coast of Texas. Exactly where on the Texas coast has been a point of contention for the past hundred years. This week Taylor Ferguson and I took pictures of where I believe Cabeza de Vaca’s raft landed: not on Galveston Island as many think, but instead on Follets Island to the south.


If you grew up in Texas, you probably know about the epic eight-year, 2000+ mile journey of Cabeza de Vaca, the Royal Treasurer of the Narváez expedition. In this journey, Cabeza de Vaca and three other survivors walked from Galveston Bay to Culiacán—a city situated 40 miles from the Pacific. The importance of this trek is multifold: it was the first recorded European landing in Texas, it was the first contact with the People who inhabited the land (and possibly their first contact with Europeans), and the subsequent narrative Cabeza de Vaca published is an incredible source of ethnography and adventure.

Today the island where Cabeza de Vaca landed is commonly thought to be Galveston Island. The Royal Treasurer named the island he landed on “Ilse de Malhado” (Island of Bad Fate or Island of Misfortune). Yet, for those of us who grew up in or around Galveston, having our island be the beginning of Cabeza de Vaca’s overland trek is a source of pride.

Two undergraduates of the University of Texas, Brownie Ponton and Bates McFarland, are the first to have labeled Galveston Island as Cabeza de Vaca’s crash landing site. Their three major pieces of evidence are listed below:

  1. The environment described by Cabeza de Vaca (chaparral, sand dunes, prickly pear) and his sighting of buffalo narrows down the landing site to the coast of Texas.
  2. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, when beginning their route south, passed four rivers that flowed directly into the Gulf of Mexico. The only area that fit this description on the coast of Texas is south of Galveston where four waterways: Oyster Creek, the Brazos, the San Bernard, and Caney Creek (depicted on the map below) flow directly into the Gulf of Mexico instead of a bay.
  3. Cabeza de Vaca provides a measurement for the bay after these four rivers. He writes that the bay is a league-wide (3.5miles). East Matagorda Bay, which is the closest bay after Caney Creek, is a league-wide (3.55miles).
Bethel Coopwood (1827-1907)

Putting this together, Galveston Island seemed a good fit for Cabeza de Vaca’s landing site and for the next 119 years this notion prevailed–despite the many challenges. Bethel Coopwood a year later in 1899 attempted to draw attention to the size discrepancy of Galveston and Cabeza de Vaca’s Malhado by writing, “Galveston Island is twice as long as Mal-hado is described to be.” Davenport & Wells in 1918 brought up the fact that, “[Galveston] is doubly too wide; three times too long; too far from the first of the four rivers; there are no woods opposite it on the mainland; and it has no island ‘backward’ from it.”

The reason why Galveston held strong as the location of Cabeza de Vaca’s crash landing site regardless of the objections is due, in large regard, to a single historian: Cleve Hallenbeck. In 1940, Cleve Hallenbeck published his version Cabeza de Vaca’s overland route to Culicán. In it, Hallenbeck reasserted Galveston as Cabeza de Vaca’s Malhado. When Hallenbeck’s book gained popularity, so did this “fact.” Donald Chipman, in his historiographical survey of Cabeza de Vaca’s routes, summarizes Hallenbeck’s work:

“His trans-Texas route was based on astonishing conjecture – suppositions that no one else had dared to make. In the introduction, for example, he speculated that the four “could have” erected piles of stone marking their path, making it possible to trace the route after four centuries; inscriptions “could have” been carved on soft sandstone and limestone cliffs in West Texas; a walking staff “arbitrarily scaled into uniform graduations, easily could have been prepared,” in order to determine latitude by the length of the shadow cast at noon; and animals skins, “one to the man, would have permitted them” to map their route across the North American continent. Never mind that skins were so lacking that Cabeza de Vaca at times described his wretched condition with such words as “I wended my way naked as the day I was born.”

Today Galveston is still popularly cited as being Cabeza de Vaca’s Malhado. This is more than naught incorrect. The more likely location is a peninsula directly below Galveston, that of Follets Island.

Why Follets Island is as Likely Candidate as Galveston for Cabeza de Vaca’s Malhado

  1. The measurement of Malhado Cabeza de Vaca’s describes is too small to fit Galveston. Many historians—as far back as Bethel Coopwood (1899)—have stated such. Seeing that Cabeza de Vaca was at least somewhat accurate in most of his estimations and that he spent six years near or on the coast, it seems unlikely that he recorded an island to be half its true size. Follets Island to the south seems to fit the provided proportions far better than Galveston.

Measurements: “ The Island is half a league wide (1.75 miles) and five leagues long (17.5 miles). [The Island] was nearly two leagues (7 miles) away where the channel was broadest.” – Cabeza de Vaca


Galveston Island: Overall Difference = 13.25



Broadest Channel Point

3 miles wide (1.25mi difference) 29 miles long (11.5mi difference) 6.5 miles wide (.5 mi difference)


Follets Island (San Luis Island): Overall Difference = 8.15



Broadest Channel Point

1.5 miles wide (.15mi difference) 12 miles long (5.5mi difference) 4.5 miles wide (2.5mi difference)


  1. Follets Island like Galveston fits all the criteria laid out by Miss Brownie Ponton and Bates McFarland. It is situated above the four waterways that run directly into the ocean and it contains an environment with chaparral, sand dunes, prickly pear.
  2. Although Follets Island is technically a misnomer seeing as it is now a peninsula (Velasco Peninsula), at multiple points in the past it was not. Historian Alex Krieger points out, “the fact that it is now joined to the mainland does not mean that it was so in 1528, for every authority on Texas coast geology knows what changes have been wrought by tides, currents, hurricanes, and shifts in river channels, even within recent years.”
  3. Follets Island and the marshland across from it fits the type of resource-rich environment the Gulf Coast Indian tribes would be attracted to–oysters, fish, and easy access by dugout.
  4. It seems odd to me that Cabeza de Vaca, during the six years he lived in the Galveston Bay area or when he journeyed south with Lope de Oviedo, did not make mention of another island, pass, or bay below his Malhado, which would be the case if he landed on Galveston. However, this speculation should not be looked at as evidence. Cabeza de Vaca wrote his Account many years after he made his famous trek, and provided his memory wasn’t all that hazy, the only information we get about his whereabouts in this transition further down the coast comes in the form of a quick comment of his traveling companion not being able to swim across rivers: “In the end I got him [Lope de Ovideo] to come, took him away, and carried him across the inlets and the four rivers on the coast, since he could not swim.

Despite the evidence presented above, it cannot be absolutely certain which island Cabeza de Vaca landed on. History is a guessing game, and historians are betting men. After examining all the documents available, it seems that our best bet is Follets Island.

When drawing the map up for this post, my friend and I laughed that there has been so much talk and controversy over shifting Cabeza de Vaca’s landing site 25 miles south. Still, when looking deeper this minor shift has major implications in the study of the Karankawas. The Royal Treasurer is one of the most significant first-hand accounts of the Karankawas, having the exact location of where he encountered them tells us a lot about their range. If Cabeza de Vaca truly did land on Follets Island, it means that Galveston Island was touched more by the Han (the Akokisa) in the early 16th century than the Karankawa. Which is further proof that these “Karankawa” burial sites that have been dug up on Galveston, are likely not Karankawan at all. To add to that, some of the indigenous groups that select historians have attributed to being Karankawa, such as Francois Simars de Bellisle’s captors, likely were not.  And finally, this information provides historians with even more evidence that a European presence, disease, and other Native American group pressures heavily influenced territorial boundaries in Texas seeing that the Karankawas are temporarily recorded to have been on Galveston by the late 18th century.

Before finishing this post, I ended up coming across another very similar to my own by David Carson: Identifying the Isla de Malhado. I highly recommend you check it out as it provides additional detail and analysis on this topic.



Photography – Taylor Ferguson

Map Creation – Noah Cain

Alex Krieger, We Came Barefoot and Naked: The Journey of Cabeza de Vaca across North America

Andres Resendez, A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca

Donald E. Chipman, In Search of Cabeza de Vaca’s Route across Texas: An Historiographical Survey, Southwestern Quarterly Volume 22 (1918), pg 127-148.

I relied heavily on Chipman’s article. It is, in fact, the thing that gave me the idea for this blog post. The article is a fun read if you want to learn more about the battle historians have waged over the correct route Cabeza de Vaca took across North America.

Brownie Ponton and Bates McFarland, Avar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Southwestern Quarterly Volume 1 No. 1 (1897), pg 166-187.

Bethel Coopwood, Route of Cabeza de Vaca Part 1, Southwestern Quarterly Volume 3 (1899)-1900, pg 108-140.

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, The Account of Disasters, (free version –

Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdez, The Joint Report

4 thoughts on “Cabeza de Vaca Probably Did Not Land On Galveston Island

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s