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Malhado Island

Donald E. Chipman General Entry

Isla de Malhado ("Isle of Misfortune") was the name applied by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca to an island off the Texas coast where and he and approximately eighty Spaniards and an African were shipwrecked in November 1528. The location of this landform has often been the subject of heated debate since the 1920s. For example, plaintiffs in Civil Action No. G-78-188 (1990), heard by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Galveston Division, contended that "Malhado is Galveston Island." The court found those arguments unconvincing, as do many historians. There are compelling arguments that the initial landfall was slightly to the west of Galveston Island, and that Cabeza de Vaca's Malhado was a combination of San Luis Island and Oyster Bay peninsula in the Brazosport area. This revisionist conjecture was first advanced in 1918 by Harbert Davenport and Joseph X. Wells. Central to the Davenport and Wells thesis is their contention that silting from the discharge of rivers and the impact of hurricanes turned what had been an elongated island in Cabeza de Vaca's time into a peninsula. Furthermore, the dimensions of Malhado, given by Cabeza de Vaca as about one-half league by five leagues (1.3 by 13 miles), are too small for Galveston Island but approximate those of San Luis Island. Spaniards, as modern-day measurements have confirmed, have been amazingly accurate in estimating their travel in leagues. If San Luis Island is accepted as Malhado, then the distances between it and four successive waterways (Oyster Creek, the Brazos River, the San Bernardo River, and Caney Creek), which were crossed by Cabeza de Vaca's men as he made his way down the coast, are consistent with his account and topography. The large island described by Cabeza de Vaca as lying behind Malhado (toward Florida) logically becomes Galveston Island. No one can determine with absolute certainty any portion of Cabeza de Vaca's journey across Texas and large portions of Mexico during the years 1528 to 1536. With his own Relación and a Joint Report written by Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and Alonso Castillo Maldonado as the sole eyewitness accounts of that odyssey, route interpreters must rely on logic, distances traveled, gross landscape features as described in the narratives, flora, fauna, and ethnographic evidence. These considerations suggest that Isla de Malhado was San Luis Island rather than Galveston Island.

Donald E. Chipman, "In Search of Cabeza de Vaca's Route Across Texas: An Historiographical Survey," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 91 (October 1987). Lewis E. Daniell, Personnel of the Texas State Government, with Sketches of Representative Men of Texas (Austin: City Printing, 1887; 3d ed., San Antonio: Maverick, 1892). Robert S. Weddle, Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500–1685 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985).

Time Periods:

  • Spanish Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Donald E. Chipman, “Malhado Island,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed April 12, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 28, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: