García de Escalante Alvarado was born in 1516 in Laredo, on the Bay of Biscay, to the licentiate Escalante (Christian name unknown) and Doña Beatriz Osorio. His father served twenty years in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain). Escalante Alvarado commanded a maritime expedition to salvage three treasure-laden Spanish cargo ships that wrecked on the Texas coast in 1554. He, like Luis de Moscoso Alvarado, was a nephew of the renowned Pedro de Alvarado of the Mexican Conquest.
In 1538 Escalante sailed for the Spanish Indies to serve under Pedro de Alvarado, first in Guatemala, then in Nueva Galicia, where he put down the native uprising in which Alvarado was killed in 1541. In 1542 he embarked as a captain and royal factor in the voyage of Ruy López de Villalobos, nephew of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, to the Philippines and Moluccas. He wrote an account of that venture, which cost López his life. Only 144 of the 400 participants returned to Spain, almost seven years later, by way of India and Portugal.
Escalante returned to New Spain in the company of Viceroy Luis de Velasco in 1550. In 1552 he was serving as alcalde mayor of Vera Cruz (still at its second site, fifteen miles up the coast from present Veracruz). He wrote directly to the crown to urge that Viceroy Velasco be ordered to pursue the possibility of navigation to the Spice Islands and China, but not for another seven years was a new voyage undertaken. He saw to construction of port facilities on the mainland adjacent to the island fortress of San Juan de Ulúa while submitting for royal approval a comprehensive port-development plan. When a hurricane devastated San Juan de Ulúa and Vera Cruz on September 2, 1552, he urged removal of Vera Cruz to higher ground.
When word reached Vera Cruz early in June 1554 of the wreck of three ships on the Texas coast, Escalante was chosen to organize a salvage fleet of six vessels. The fleet operated in conjunction with Ángel de Villafañe, who led a land march along the coast in search of survivors. Villafañe reached the wreck site on Padre Island first and began the salvage operations, which lasted until September 12. Escalante, who reached the site on Mary Magdalene's day, gave the Padre Island shore a name that appeared on various European maps for years to come: Médanos de Madalena-"Magdalene's Dunes." He kept a written account of the salvage operation, which contains a wealth of information.
Despite his part in the López de Villalobos voyage and the largely successful salvage effort, Escalante failed in his bid for a compensatory royal grant. Nothing more is heard of him after his account of the Padre Island treasure. See also PADRE ISLAND SPANISH SHIPWRECKS OF 1554.