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).
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).
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.
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).