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  • How Historical Myths Are Born . . . . . . And Why They Seldom Die*
  • Donald E. Chipman (bio) and Robert S. Weddle (bio)

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A depiction of La Salle's Texas settlement from Carlos Castañeda's Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (volume 1) bearing the misnomer "Fort Saint Louis."

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When Christopher Columbus made his first landfall on the fringe of North America, he believed he had reached the East Indies. He therefore called the strange people he met "Indians," a name that came to be applied to all American indigenes. In similar manner, inappropriate names—or names misapplied—have risen all across the Americas. When one of these historical errors arises, it takes on a life of its own, though not without a healthy boost from us historians. Historians, of course, come in all stripes, and so do the myths they espouse. Sometimes the most egregious of them may result from the purest intentions. But there is no denying that others are born of impure motives, of which the most prevalent perhaps is chauvinism—bending history out of shape by falsely linking some major historic episode to one's native province. Mostly, however, such miscues arise from the urgency to provide answers—an explanation, a name, or an opinion—before the facts at hand justify it.

For example, consider the various identities posited for the river shown on the famous "Pineda" map sketch (ca.1519) as El Río del Espíritu Santo. Was it the Mississippi as it has been long thought to be, or some other stream, perhaps as far east as Florida or as far west as Texas? Still [End Page 227] others have thought it to be Galveston Bay, or Mobile Bay, or perhaps Sabine Pass.1

A popular pastime for historians, amateur and professional alike, seems to be tracing the route of historical expeditions, two of which are among the essays appearing herein: those of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and Luis Moscoso Alvarado. If all attempts to follow these two explorers were laid out on a single Texas map, it would appear that they traversed half of the state's 254 counties.

Yet none of us historians can be held completely blameless, because no one can read all the material available on any given topic. Accordingly, none of us is immune from what seems at the time like a profound declaration, only to be blindsided by someone who has found that one missing piece we overlooked. Furthermore, "new" material becomes available all the time. And just when we think we might have it all, here comes a new article or book with a raft of new data; so it behooves everyone who asserts anything with supreme confidence to develop a taste for crow.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in Texas

There is a mistaken and somewhat persistent belief that the Spanish explorer, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, after landing on or near Galveston Island in early November 1528, traveled a trans-Texas route in reaching the environs of present-day El Paso. Advocates of this route interpretation maintain that Cabeza de Vaca and three companions, together known to history as the Four Ragged Castaways, did not enter the interior of Mexico at any time prior to their crossing the Río Grande in spring 1535.2

First impressions in the United States of Cabeza de Vaca's journey came from Buckingham Smith (1851 and 1873), Hubert H. Bancroft (1884), and Adolph Bandelier (1890)—all based on their reading of Cabeza de Vaca's published Relación (Account) of his experiences in North America. None suggested a coastal route interpretation or a crossing of the lower Río Grande.3 [End Page 228]

Then, beginning in January 1898 and concluding in January 1919, five route interpretations for Cabeza de Vaca in Texas were published in the Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association. (The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association has been known as the Southwestern Historical Quarterly since 1912.) Three of the five articles lent support to a trans-Texas pathway for the Castaways. In all, the articles totaled an impressive 319 pages...


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