Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, ca. 1490/1507 – Sevilla, ca. 1557/1559) was an early Spanish explorer of the New World and is remembered as a protoanthropological author.
Cabeza de Vaca was son of Pedro Nuñez de Vera y de Hinojosa (a distant relative of Francisco Pizarro
), of Jerez de la Frontera
, and wife Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita. His name is spelled as Aluar nuñez cabeça de vaca
in 16th century documents. Cabeza de Vaca
means "cow's head". This surname
was granted to his mother's family in the 13th century, when his ancestor aided a Christian army attacking Moors
by pointing out a secret mountain pass
by leaving a cow's head there. In the prologue to his great story relating his shipwreck and wanderings in North America, he refers to his forefather's service to the King, and regrets that his own deeds could not be as great, due to forces beyond his control.
Narvaez Expedition and Early Indian Relations
As treasurer, and hence one of the chief officers, of the Narváez expedition
, Cabeza de Vaca and three others were the only survivors of the party of 300 men who landed near Tampa Bay, Florida on April 15
of 1528. Over the course of eight years, various members of the expedition succumbed to disease, starvation, exposure, and the attacks of various Native American groups as they slowly made their way west, toward Mexico, where they knew there were other Spaniards. Others among them simply gave up the effort and "went native." For a few years, the survivors were enslaved by various Native American
tribes of the upper Gulf coast (including the Hans and the Capoques of Galveston Island
, which the explorers termed Malhado
, or Island of Doom). Only the final four--Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo, and a Moroccan Berber
named Esteban (who was later called Estevanico
)--ultimately escaped and eventually reached Mexico City
Traveling mostly in this small group, Cabeza de Vaca explored what is now the U.S. state of Texas, and possibly smaller portions of New Mexico and Arizona. He traveled on foot along the Texas coast and up the Rio Grande and then down the Gulf Coast to Sinaloa, Mexico, over a period of roughly eight years, during which time he lived in conditions of abject poverty and, occasionally, in slavery. During his wanderings, passing from tribe to tribe, he developed sympathies for the indigenous population. He eventually became a trader, which allowed him freedom to travel among the tribes. Cabeza de Vaca claims to have learned to heal the sick, and to have gained such notoriety as a healer that he and his companions gathered a large following of natives who regarded them as "children of the sun" endowed with the power to both heal and destroy, and who accompanied them in their journey across what is now the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. Eventually, after returning to the colonized reaches of New Spain and encountering a group of fellow Spaniards in the vicinity of modern-day Culiacán, he went on to Mexico City and returned to Europe in 1537. Cabeza de Vaca wrote about his experiences in a report for Charles V. It was later published in 1542, under the title La Relación (The Report), and is considered a classic of colonial literature. Cabeza de Vaca desired to succeed Pánfilo de Narváez (whose supposed ineptitude is commonly credited with causing the deaths of most of the party) as governor of Florida and return there, but Charles V had already appointed Hernando De Soto to lead the next expedition. Cabeza de Vaca declined to travel with the expedition as second in command. His apparent reluctance to provide his countrymen with sufficient information about the uncharted territory may have been due to his jealousy over De Soto's appointment.
Return to Spain
Instead, in 1540, he was appointed adelantado
governor of the Río de la Plata
, for the purpose of reëstablishing the settlement of Buenos Aires
En route, he disembarked from his fleet at Santa Catarina Island and followed Alejo Garcia's route overland to the district's capital at Asunción. On this course, he is thought to have been the first European to behold the Iguazu Falls, among the most spectacular in the world.
The second foundation of Buenos Aires was also unsuccessful and had to be abandoned by February 1543.
His unusually sensitive and benevolent attitude towards the Indians led to resentment among the encomenderos, and this, along with the misfortune of Buenos Aires, allowed the former governor Domingo Martínez de Irala to arrest him for maladministration in 1544 and return him to Spain for trial in 1545.
He was eventually exonerated, but never returned to the colony. He wrote an extensive report on South America, highly unfavorable to de Irala, which bound with his earlier La Relación and published under the title Comentarios (Commentary).
Ancestors of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
Bibliography, in English
- Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez: The Narrative of Cabeza De Vaca. Translation of La Relacion by Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz. University of Nebraska Press 2003. ISBN 080326416X (Many other editions)
- Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez: Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America. Translation of La Relacion by Cyclone Covey. University of New Mexio Press 1983. ISBN 082630656X
- (1993). The Account: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relacíon. Houston: Arte Público Press.
- Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez: The Commentaries of Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca. The Conquest of the River Plate, part II. London: Hakluyt, 1891. (First English edition).
- Reséndez, Andrés. "A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca." Basic Books, Perseus, United States of America, 2007. ISBN 0-465-06840-5
- Schneider, Paul:Brutal Journey, Cabeza de Vaca and the Epic First Crossing of North America. Henry Holt, 2007. ISBN 0805083200
- Udall, Stewart L.: Majestic Journey: Coronado's Inland Empire. Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995. ISBN 0890132852