The Spanish soldier and explorer Pánfilo de Narváez (1478?-1528) participated in the conquests of Jamaica and Cuba and led an ill-fated expedition to colonize Florida.
Pánfilo de Narváez was born in Valladolid. Seeking his fortune as a soldier, he migrated to the island of Hispaniola (modern Dominican Republic and Haiti). In 1509 he accompanied Juan de Esquirel in the conquest of Jamaica. Two years later, as a commander of 30 crossbowmen, he joined Diego de Velázquez in the conquest of Cuba.
The tall, red-bearded Narváez, with a resonant voice "as if it came from a cave," emerged from the conquest with a reputation of being "brave against Indians." But as a commander of expeditions, he was both blundering and unlucky. His misfortunes began when Governor Velázquez appointed him in 1520 to lead an expedition to Mexico, where he was to arrest Hernán Cortés and replace him as commander in the conquest of Mexico. Cortés outwitted Narváez, won over most of his men, and defeated the few who resisted. Narváez, who lost an eye during the skirmish, was imprisoned by Cortés for 2 years.
Narváez returned to Spain, where he secured a royal grant to conquer and settle Florida. When the company reached Hispaniola in 1527, nearly a fourth of the men deserted. With his reduced forces he landed in the vicinity of Tampa Bay on Good Friday in April 1528. The Indians told him of a land to the north, called Appalachen, which was teeming with gold.
Narváez's decision to separate his forces from the sustaining ships sealed the doom of the expedition. After a year of futile effort to make contact with the land forces, the ships sailed to Mexico. Meanwhile, the land forces, consisting of 300 men, struck out into the interior and northward until they reached Appalachen, near the present site of Tallahassee. "Golden" Appalachen turned out to be a town of clay huts, and Narváez decided to return to Cuba. Upon reaching the coast, they built their own vessels. Iron from their stirrups and crossbows was fashioned into nails; pitch pine was used for caulking; shirts became sails; and the frames of the boats were covered with horsehide.
On Sept. 22, 1528, the 240 survivors embarked in five overloaded and unseaworthy boats. As they passed the mouth of the Mississippi River, a storm and strong currents separated the boats. By November 6 only the boat commanded by Narváez remained afloat. While the boat was anchored along the Texas coast at night, a strong north wind swept Narváez and two others, who had remained aboard, out to sea. They were never heard from again.
Of the original company, only four survived. Led by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, they began their epic 8-year journey across the southwestern United States, southward into Mexico, reaching Mexico City in 1536.
Further Reading on Pánfilo de Narváez
The most detailed and reliable account of Narváez's career is in Woodbury Lowery, The Spanish Settlements within the Present Limits of the United States, 1513-1561 (1901). Other useful works which refer to his career are William H. Prescott's classic History of the Conquest of Mexico (1873; rev. ed. 1879); Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The True Story of the Conquest of New Spain (trans. 1916); Herbert E. Bolton, The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest (1921); and Cleve Hallenbeck, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: The Journey and Route of the First European to Cross the Continent of North America (1940).