As you turn onto Lamar Street from the Intracoastal Waterway bridge, you encounter the familiar Quintana sign with its blue ocean wave crest. In smaller letters below the city name is the inscription, "Founded in 1532." With a little research, you could also identify the explorer who might have landed on the nearby shores just four years earlier, in 1528: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. However, as interesting as this man's journey through the future Texas territory was, there are several facts that do not point to his intersection with Quintana.
Cabeza de Vaca was only in his mid thirties when he accompanied the Spanish expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez to conquer the Florida Peninsula. The elements, though, would eventually do most of the conquering. Ships and men were lost to mutiny and a hurricane during their first stops in Hispaniola and Cuba. The remaining men finally landed on the west coast of Florida on April 7, 1528, near present-day Tampa. After six months of wandering, fighting hostile Indians, malaria and dysentery, they decided to follow stories of gold supposedly located near the ill-defined Spanish settlement of Pánuco.
The explorers built five crude rafts fashioned from deer hide and cane pipe and set to sea on what they hoped would be a short voyage. Unfortunately, their grasp of geography was no better than their assumptions about gold treasures. Pánuco, now Tampico, Mexico, was 1500 miles away. Nearly two month later, on November 6, 1528, Cabeza de Vaca's barge and one other landed somewhere on the Texas coast. This made them the first European explorers to set foot in Texas.
Cabeza de Vaca left the coast after having befriended a local tribe of Karankawa Indians who had come to view these strange white men as medicine men, and Cabeza de Vaca as the shaman—a lucky misunderstanding as Karankawas had the reputation of being cannibals. The Spaniards’ renewed journey to Pánuco continued for three more years, down the Texas coast, through the Big Bend, the Sierra Madres and ending at the Spanish settlement of Culiacán in early 1836.
This amazing journey was recorded by Cabeza de Vaca in his book titled La Relación, a copy of which is housed in the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. In this leather-bound tome are further clues that Quintana was not this explorer's landing point. He recounts that upon being washed ashore he dispatched his hardiest man, Lope de Oviedo, to climb a tree and survey their surroundings. He returned with the observation that they had landed on an island. However, Quintana only became a man-made island in the early 1930s after the U.S. Corps of Engineers redirected the Brazos River and relocated its mouth, and the Intracoastal Waterway was completed. Most historians now feel Cabeza’s more likely landing site was either Galveston Island or an island off Matagorda Bay. As for explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, this sandy place, wherever on the Texas coast it is, became in his book the "Isla de Mal Hado," the Isle of Misfortune.