Cabeza de Vaca

Cabeza de Vaca

[kah-ve-thah the vah-kah, -ve-sah]
Vaca, Cabeza de: see Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez.
Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez, c.1490-c.1557, Spanish explorer. Cabeza de Vaca [cow's head] was not actually a surname but a hereditary title in his mother's family; he is frequently called simply Álvar Núñez.

North American Adventures

Cabeza de Vaca came to the New World as treasurer in the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez that reached Florida (probably Tampa Bay) in 1528. When hardship and native hostility caused the end of the expedition, he was one of the survivors whose barges were shipwrecked on an island off the Texas coast, possibly Galveston or Mustang Island. Their story is one of the most remarkable in the annals of exploration.

After suffering considerably as slaves of the Native Americans inhabiting the island, Cabeza de Vaca and three other survivors escaped and started a long journey overland. His companions were Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico. They gained great repute among the Native Americans as healers since remarkable cures were attributed to their Christian prayers. Their route westward is as disputed as is the identity the island of the shipwreck, but after much wandering they did reach W Texas, then probably New Mexico and Arizona, and possibly (some argue) California before, turning south in 1536, they arrived in Culiacán in Mexico and told their story to Spaniards there.

They were almost certainly the first Europeans to see bison, and their stories about the Pueblo gave rise to the legend of the Seven Cities of Cibola, later magnified by Fray Marcos de Niza, and brought explorers in search of El Dorado. Cabeza de Vaca's own account, Los naufragios [the shipwrecked men] (1542), is the chief document of the startling adventures of his party. An English translation (1851) by Thomas Buckingham Smith is reprinted in I. R. Blacker and H. M. Rosen's The Golden Conquistadores (1960).

South American Career

After returning to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed governor of the Río de la Plata region and reached Asunción after an overland journey from the Brazilian coast in 1542. His South American career was sadly different from that in North America. He got into trouble with the popular Domingo Martínez de Irala, and after he returned from a journey up the Paraná River to Bolivia, he was arrested, accused of high-handed practices, imprisoned for two years, and sent back to Spain. There he was found guilty but was pardoned by the king. Cabeza de Vaca wrote his own account of the South American events in his Comentarios (1555).


See M. Bishop, The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca (1933); J. U. Terrell, Journey into Darkness (1962); H. Long, The Marvelous Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca (1973).

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).


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

See also



External links


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