Explorer Panfilo de Narvaez Found Disaster in Florida

The search for riches ended with just four survivors

Panfilo de Narvaez and Crew Waiting
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Panfilo de Narvaez (1470-1528) was born to an upper-class family in Vallenda, Spain. Although he was older than most Spaniards who sought their fortunes in the New World, he nevertheless was extremely active in the early conquest period. He was an important figure in the conquests of Jamaica and Cuba in the years between 1509 and 1512. He acquired a reputation for ruthlessness; Bartolome de Las Casas, who was a chaplain on the Cuba campaign, recounted horrible tales of massacres and chiefs being burned alive.

In Pursuit of Cortes

In 1518, the governor of Cuba, Diego Velazquez, had sent the young conquistador Hernan Cortes off to Mexico to begin the conquest of the mainland. Velazquez soon regretted his actions, however, and decided to place someone else in charge. He sent Narvaez, with a large force of more than 1,000 Spanish soldiers, to Mexico to take command of the expedition and send Cortes back to Cuba. Cortes, who was in the process of defeating the Aztec Empire, had to leave the recently subdued capital of Tenochtitlan to return to the coast to fight Narvaez.

The Battle of Cempoala

On May 28, 1520, the forces of the two conquistadores clashed at Cempoala, near present-day Veracruz, and Cortes won. Many of Narvaez’s soldiers deserted before and after the battle, joining Cortes. Narvaez himself was jailed in the port of Veracruz for the next two years, while Cortes retained control of the expedition and the vast wealth that came with it.

A New Expedition

Narvaez returned to Spain after being released. Convinced that there were more wealthy empires like the Aztecs to the north, he mounted an expedition that was doomed to become one of the most monumental failures in history. Narvaez got permission from King Charles V of Spain to mount an expedition into Florida. He set sail in April of 1527 with five ships and about 600 Spanish soldiers and adventurers. Word of the riches earned by Cortes and his men made finding volunteers easy. In April 1528, the expedition landed in Florida, near present-day Tampa Bay. By then, many of the soldiers had deserted, and only about 300 men remained.

Narvaez in Florida

Narvaez and his men clumsily made their way inland, attacking every tribe they met. The expedition had brought insufficient supplies and survived by pillaging meager Native American storehouses, which caused violent retaliation. The conditions and lack of food caused many in the company to become ill, and within a few weeks, a third of the members of the expedition were severely incapacitated. The going was tough because Florida was then full of rivers, swamps, and forests. The Spanish were killed and picked off by irate natives, and Narvaez made a series of tactical blunders, including frequently dividing his forces and never seeking allies.

The Mission Fails

The men were dying, picked off individually and in small groups by native attacks. Supplies had run out, and the expedition had alienated every native tribe it had encountered. With no hope to establish any sort of settlement and with no help coming, Narvaez decided to abort the mission and return to Cuba. He had lost touch with his ships and ordered the construction of four large rafts.

The Death of Panfilo de Narvaez

It is not known for certain where and when Narvaez died. The last man to see Narvaez alive and tell of it was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a junior officer of the expedition. He recounted that in their final conversation, he asked Narvaez for help -- the men on Narvaez's raft were better fed and stronger than those with Cabeza de Vaca. Narvaez refused, basically saying “every man for himself,” according to Cabeza de Vaca. The rafts were wrecked in a storm and only 80 men survived the sinking of the rafts; Narvaez was not among them.

The Aftermath of the Narvaez Expedition

The first major incursion into present-day Florida was a complete fiasco. Of the 300 men who landed with Narvaez, only four ultimately survived. Among them was Cabeza de Vaca, the junior officer who had asked for help but received none. After his raft sunk, Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved by a local tribe for several years somewhere along the Gulf Coast. He managed to escape and meet up with three other survivors, and together the four of them returned overland to Mexico, arriving some eight years after the expedition landed in Florida.

The animosity caused by the Narvaez expedition was such that it took the Spanish years to establish a settlement in Florida. Narvaez has gone down in history as one of the most ruthless yet incompetent conquistadors of the colonial era.

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Minster, Christopher. "Explorer Panfilo de Narvaez Found Disaster in Florida." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/biography-of-panfilo-de-narvaez-2136335. Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). Explorer Panfilo de Narvaez Found Disaster in Florida. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-panfilo-de-narvaez-2136335 Minster, Christopher. "Explorer Panfilo de Narvaez Found Disaster in Florida." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-panfilo-de-narvaez-2136335 (accessed June 9, 2023).