In July of 1536, a group of Spanish businessmen were surprised to find themselves approached by four uncouth figures. The men had a scattering of rags and bits of animal skin, but were otherwise completely naked except for a covering of ground-in filth. Their skin showed the effects of long exposure to sun, the scars of injuries, and the attention of millions of insects. Their bearded faces were gaunt with hunger and exhaustion.
The initial wariness with which these men were greeted soon turned to open-mouthed amazement as they addressed the businessmen in good Spanish. The four were survivors of an expeditionary force that had originally numbered over six hundred men, a force long assumed lost. Over a space of seven years, these four had been part of pitched battles, withstood a siege, aided in a astounding escape from encircling forces, and watched hundreds of their countrymen fall to conflict, starvation and disease. Most of all they had walked thousands of miles across a strange land no European had seen before and which few others would ever see. They had seen wonders. They had seen North America.
The Spanish conquistadors of the 15th and 16th centuries are generally reduced in high school history books to a sentence or two listing out their primary accomplishment. Balboa drove his men across the boggy Isthmus of Panama, becoming the first Europeans to see the eastern shore of the Pacific. Pizarro and his small band of men destroyed an Incan army numbering in the tens of thousands and collected a golden ransom measured in tons. Cortés made a desperate retreat across the causeways of Tenochtitlan only to return, lay siege to the city, and destroy the heart of the Aztec Empire. De Soto, trekking across Florida, marching his armored men incredible distances across forests, mountains, and plains to reveal the heart of a continent that the Spanish had not even been sure was a continent. If we're lucky, these accounts are accompanied with an engraving or two – bearded men in iron chest plates whose long features and piercing eyes are topped with oddly peaked metal helmets. Men who clutch a blunderbuss in one hand, and a pike (likely bloody) in the other.
While one-line descriptions make fine multiple choice material for a seventh grade history quiz, they don't really tell us much about how, or why, these men went through hardships to tick off all those "first to" whatever boxes. The era of the conquistadors is often just a couple of paragraphs wedged between the Santa Maria and Plymouth Rock, and it's not until years after middle school that we get a glimpse of that other side of 16th century vacation activities in the New World.
They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance... They would make fine servants... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. (Christopher Columbus)
It's little wonder that for most people today, these men blur into a kind of lumpy amalgam: two parts self-righteous religious hypocrisy, three parts gunpowder, one part cold steel -- add slavery, theft, rape and destruction to taste and far beyond -- but when we skim past these stories, or look away from their cruelty, we stand the chance of missing something more important than who was the first European to dip their toe in a particular body of water. Sometimes we miss something quite odd.
The Narváez expedition is one of those extraordinary bits of history that rarely makes an appearance in standard texts. Maybe that's because it's difficult to boil down what was accomplished to a bullet point. Over a decade before de Soto launched his own expedition into North America, Carlos, King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, granted Pánfilo de Narváez a claim to Florida -- with Florida meaning more or less everything north of Mexico. It was a chance for Narváez to become one of the richest, most powerful men in the world. All he had to do was not screw up.
Narváez was already famous for his involvement in one of the strangest battles of the time; a fight between two European armies conducted in the middle of the Aztec Empire. The battle occurred due to a series of events, most of which came back to the undeniable fact that Hernándo Cortés was an untrustworthy, ruthless, massively ambitious, bastard who lied to both the Aztecs and the Spanish. Feeling that Cortés had gone completely off the rails, the governor nominally in charge of Cortés sent Narváez to stop the wayward conquistador at the very moment Hernándo was busy in the capital negotiating with the hapless Aztec leaders. Cortés left a large portion of his men behind, dashed off to face Narváez, and defeated him handily despite being outnumbered over two to one. Afterwards Cortés even talked many of Narváez' surviving soldiers to come over to his side (wound, meet salt). Then he went back to finding creative ways to torture and dismember his Aztec hosts. Cortés got Mexico, a title, and very, very rich. He also got to enjoy himself by hanging the governor who had send Narváez after him. Narváez got to return to Spain and sulk.
Understandably, Narváez held a bit of a grudge. Forming a company for the colonization of Florida and collecting the blessings of the king looked like a golden chance redeem himself and to match the success of Cortés.
Narváez' charter called for him to found a couple of towns (no less than one hundred people each), lay in a pair of forts, and settle down as potentate. Based on the rumors he'd heard about La Florida, he expected arable land, gold, and sizable heapings of glory. What he got was a series of errors that would have been comedic, if it wasn't for all the dying.
Storms held the fleet of ships out of port and denied them supplies. Ships sent off to find safe harbors disappeared. Arguments over the direction of travel ended up with the main body of the expedition starving while a supply ship wandered the Gulf looking for them. Painfully short on food after only a few days in their new home, Narváez turned to trade with the locals as their only chance to survive. The natives at the first fishing village they entered seemed friendly enough, but disappeared after the initial meeting, taking their food with them. The next village might have made more time for the visitors, but the people there were already deeply engaged in dying when the expedition arrived (using handy Spanish shipping crates for coffins). Within weeks, Narváez force was starving, confused, short on options, and coming apart.
When they finally staggered into a well-made town with dozens of houses and hundreds of inhabitants, they thought they had found the capital of the local tribe and decided it might be a good idea to attack, capture the town, and do to the locals what Cortés had done further south. As it turned out, the town was actually a backwater village of the extensive Apalachee nation, and capturing the place neither impressed nor cowed the Apalachee rulers. Within days, hundreds of warriors were harrying Narváez, using a combination of direct attacks and guerilla tactics to inflict sizable losses on the Spanish. During these assaults the Indians lost only a handful of men – a reversal of the lopsided results inflicted on native cultures by Pizzaro and Cortés. Unable to hold onto the town they had taken, the harried Spanish retreated inland, where they found themselves mired in swamps and more confusion. Now they had no food, no idea where to go, and no ships on which to escape. The Apalachee helped them along by keeping up a rain of arrows as the armored Spanish aimlessly waded waist deep in muck.
Reaching the water near Apalachee Bay, the remainder of the force found themselves under nearly constant attack and with no way of sending for relief. At that point, Narváez' expedition came up with a plan so desperate it beggars belief. They would eat their warhorses for food, then weave the horsehair and hide into ropes. At the same time, they would use trees and stones to create a makeshift forge and literally melt down their weapons and armor to create saws, hammers, and other tools. Then, using the ropes and implements they'd made, the Spanish would harvest local trees and turn them into boats they needed to escape. Amazingly, even though the Indians were still taking out men at a fairly steady clip, this worked well enough that a month later Narváez' force had constructed five small boats and launched out into the Gulf.
Of the six hundred who arrived in Florida, 242 survived long enough to set sail. As you might expect from the way this story has gone so far, they sailed directly into a hurricane. Three of the boats (including the one holding Narváez) were lost along the way. When the remaining boats – lacking pretty much everything that would have been helpful on a sea voyage, including food and water – crashed into the barrier islands near Galveston, Texas, there were eighty people still alive. The survivors became entangled with local tribes (who, having never met them before, were less inclined to kill them on sight) and settled into a life of hard work as they were traded like mascots around different villages and groups, all the time suffering disease and hunger. The combination of poor food, hard conditions, and disease was as hard on the survivors as the Apalachee had been. A rough census a couple of years later showed only fourteen members of the expedition still alive. Not long after that, it was four.
Finally, not quite understanding where they were but understanding well enough that seventy-six of their number were already dead along that coast, these last survivors decided they had to go inland to find a Spanish outpost. However, they were not completely clear on where they were relative to the Mexican outposts, so they walked west. Then west some more. And then west. Eventually, unbelievably, they walked right across Texas and northern Mexico (and quite possibly portions of New Mexico and Arizona) before hitting the Pacific Ocean and taking a turn to the south.
Along the way they saw a vast panoply of nations. Some had structures similar to that seen among the Aztec and Maya in Mexico and in the other empires of Central and South America – large capital cities complete with rulers, priests, and temple complexes connected by roads to smaller towns and villages. Others appear to be individual communities of farmers, fishermen, craftsmen and traders. Some seemed closer to the cultures we would now associate with Amazonian tribes. But they were not Aztecs or Amazonians, they were unique. Few were seen or described thoroughly enough to make sense of the details we get in accounts of the survivors (the written accounts are heavily fixated on the type and amount of food available, which was understandably more important to the starving men than any details about the natives' beliefs or social structure). They certainly encountered peoples who would never again be met by any European explorer. Their biggest conclusion about the people was that they were both poor and plagued by disease, because disease and death was what they saw everywhere they went. Ironically, the wandering Spaniards acquired a reputation as faith healers, and were followed along the way by a retinue of natives displaced from their failing settlements.
It was once thought that, pre-invasion, the Americas had a population of less than ten million – like taking half the population of New York City and spreading it over an area of 15 million square miles. At nearly a thousand acres per person, that's a pair of pretty lonely continents. The image we get is of a few wandering bands, hunting buffalo over vast ranges. For settlers from the time of the Pilgrims on, the understanding was that they were moving into a place that was just shy of empty, with the few inhabitants making light use of a land that was to all intents a primordial wilderness. It's now known that the population previous to 1492 was certainly at least five times greater, was probably at least ten times greater, and may well have been higher still. The Aztec Empire alone held around 15 million people at the time of first contact, and that may not have been its peak population. Everywhere across the Americas there were villages, towns, cities, nations. It wasn't a land of scattered tribes. It was a land of waring empires, extensive trade, and delicate diplomacy.
When we say that Cortés conquered the Aztecs, that's not really true. What he conquered was the shadow of the Aztecs, a nation already decimated several times over by disease and wracked by the conflict that ensued. The Inca that Pizzaro met were the actually the remnants of an empire that had already descended into a bloody and exhausting civil war after disease took out not only sizable parts of the population but also much of the ruling family. It was not so much conquest as grave robbing.
Still, we know something about the Inca and the Aztec because the Spanish arrived while their crumbling empires were staggering along in their death throws. About most of the Americas, north and south, we know next to nothing. We have only the accounts of Narváez survivors, the de Soto descriptions from a decade later, artifacts and traditions passed on to living descendants.
However, even the earliest accounts don't give us an image of these cultures as they existed before Columbus. The reason for this is contained within that moment when the four survivors staggered up to the Spanish businessmen. Of the four men, one was a slave. The businessmen themselves were slavers. The reason the villagers back in Florida were already dying (and had Spanish crates to use as coffins) was because this first official expedition to the mainland was far from the first encounter. Slavers had been there for years. In fact, slavers had been plying the waters up the chain of the Bahamas since 1494 – less than two years after Columbus stepped onto San Salvador and declared of the people who were providing food and drink to his crew, "They would make fine servants". Long before the wretched Narváez expedition left Spain, slavers had been in Florida, raiding villages and spreading disease. The first European to see mainland North America didn't come to explore, to search for gold, or even to conquer. He came with chains.
If our perceptions about early European activities in the Americas are often wrong, our view of pre-invasion Native America is just as shaky. The Indian cultures we both attack and romanticize are for the most part very poor representations of actual societies that existed in North America previous to the 16th century. In a very real sense, it can be said that we never defeated the majority of nations that existed in the Americas – because we never met them. They died or fell into ruin before we got the chance to destroy them up close and in person. We're forced to scry for meaning among their burials and artifacts, and we often miss the evidence that's bigger than all the rest.
The idea that we have of Native Americans existing only in small bands and scattered villages is a distorted, wholly skewed image. The idea that we understand Native American traditions and beliefs is just as skewed. We understand the traditions of the survivors as they were shaped in the aftermath of disaster. The Native Americas we know were as diverse the Cherokee and the Lakota, the Hopi and the Chumash, but this is only a sliver of the diversity that once existed. In the Middle East, cultures as different as the Philistines, Hebrews, and Egyptians were neighbors. The Americas were almost certainly far more varied.
With the population densities that existed previous to the 16th century, it's clear that many Native Americans not only lived in large communities, they conducted extensive trade, had stratified and complex societies with specialized craftsmen and officials, and conducted sophisticated forms of agriculture and ranching. The results of that last activity lingered on the land centuries after the practitioners were gone. Huge monospecific herds of buffalo weren't something the Indians discovered, they were something native societies had cultivated and tended. This included not only management of the animals themselves, but keeping the land they roamed open and suited to pasture in areas that were far beyond the limits of grassland as defined by soil and rainfall. The open woodlands that spread east of the Mississippi didn't grow by accident, they were carefully culled and cleared to provide space for grazing and agriculture. Along the banks of rivers, some of the ancient temple sites, like those at Cahokia near St. Louis, are still visible because of the large earthen mounds, but it's not just the mounds that are artificial. Much of the flat grounds of the "river bottom" are no more natural than the mound. Natural rills have been filled and ridges cut to provide ground suited to irrigation and raising the food for the 10,000 priests, rulers, and court officials who lived at the site.
In the Appalachians, some mountains are still topped with grassy "balds" free of large trees. These features were more widespread a few decades ago (and much more common two centuries ago) but over time the balds have gradually been overgrown and many crests that once offered a fine view are now topped by unbroken forest. For many years scientists thought the balds were natural features, created by some fluke of climate or perhaps by fires triggered when lightning struck the mountain summits. But as the balds have shrunk in and disappeared, it's become clear that they were both built or maintained by men. They were cleared by men, though for what purpose we can't be sure.
Pre-invasion America was neither an untended wilderness nor the Garden of Eden, it was a working farm.
In Europe, both Justinian's plague and the Black Death took between a third and a half of the population. In each case, it took centuries for the population to return to pre-plague levels and the loss of population trigger major changes in society. In America, the population loss may have been as great as 90%. From that information alone, you can assume that it would take much longer for the continents to rebuild the population levels previously seen and there's no doubt that the shape of the societies on the other side of this bottleneck would have been vastly different than those going in.
The effects of the population loss might have pushed the New World into it's own Dark Age, or it might have stimulated a second Renaissance. We'll never know. The destruction of the varied civilization in the Americas was not caused by disease alone. Slavers, conquerors, and settlers followed on the heels of smallpox and measles. Libraries were burned, temples smashed, languages and traditions rooted out like weeds. The work that was started from the (mostly) unintentional spread of germs was followed up with malice aforethought.
Natural disasters – whether they are earthquakes, storms or plagues – can go a long way into weakening a society. But if you really want to do in human civilization, it's best to call in the experts – humans.