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Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Jerez de la Frontera, ca. 1490/1507 – Sevillamarker, ca. 1557/1559) was a Spanishmarker explorer of the New World, one of four survivors of the Narváez expedition. He is remembered as a proto-anthropological author for his accounts of Native Americans, first published in 1542 as La Relacion (The Report), and later known as Naufragios (Shipwrecks).

Early life and education

Cabeza de Vaca was son of Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita. In 16th century documents, his name appeared as "Alvar nuñez cabeça de vaca". Cabeza de Vaca means "head of cow". This surname was granted to his mother's family in the 13th century, when his ancestor Martin Alhaja aided a Christian army attacking Moors by leaving a cow's head to point out a secret mountain pass for their use. In the prologue to La Relacion, his account of his shipwreck and travels in North America, Cabeza de Vaca 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.

Narváez Expedition and early Indian relations

Cabeza de Vaca was treasurer, and thus one of the chief officers, of the Narváez expedition. He and three other men were the only survivors of the party of 300 colonists who landed near Tampa Bay, Floridamarker on April 15, 1528.

As the navigators were unsure of their location, de Vaca thought it prudent to keep the land and sea forces together. Narvaez and the other officers, excited by rumors of gold, overruled him and started off on a march through Florida, promptly getting even further lost. After several months of fighting the native inhabitants through wilderness and swamp, they reached Apalachee Bay with 242 men, believing themselves near other Spaniards in Mexico — although there were in fact 1500 miles of coast between them. The men were starving, wounded, sick, and lost in swampy terrain, but came up with a plan for escape.

Slaughtering and eating their horses, they melted down their stirrups, spurs, horseshoes and other metal parts, fashioned a bellows from deerhide to forge tools and nails, and constructed five primitive boats they would take in search of Mexico. de Vaca commanded one of these vessels, each of which had room for only 50 men. Depleted of food and water, they followed the coast westward, until they reached the mouth of the Mississippi River. The current swept them into the Gulf and the five rafts were separated by hurricane, some lost forever, including that of Narvaez.

Two crafts of about 40 survivors, including de Vaca, wrecked on or near Galveston Islandmarker. The explorers called it Malhado, or Island of Doom.. They made an attempt at repairing the rafts, where they used what remained of their own clothes as oakum, but they lost the rafts to a large wave. As the number of survivors dwindled rapidly, they were enslaved for a few years by various Native American tribes of the upper Gulf Coast. These included the Hans and the Capoques. Only the final four men, Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo, and an enslaved Moroccan Berber named Esteban (later called Estevanico), survived and escaped to reach Mexico Citymarker.Traveling mostly in this small group, Cabeza de Vaca explored what is now the U.S. state of Texasmarker, as well as the northeastern Mexican states of Tamaulipasmarker, Nuevo Leónmarker and Coahuilamarker, and possibly smaller portions of New Mexicomarker and Arizonamarker. He traveled on foot along the then-Spanish territories of Texas and Nuevo Santander coast. He continued through the New Kingdom of León, Coahuila and Nueva Vizcaya; then down the Gulf Coast to what is now Sinaloamarker, Mexico, over a period of roughly eight years. He lived in conditions of abject poverty and, occasionally, in slavery. He was naked the whole time, ever since having sacrificed his clothes for the making of the watercrafts.

During his wanderings, passing from tribe to tribe, Cabeza de Vaca developed sympathies for the indigenous population. He became a trader, which allowed him freedom to travel among the tribes. Cabeza de Vaca came to see his survival and journey in religious terms, in that he claimed to have been guided by God to learn to heal the sick, and to have gained such notoriety as a faith 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. Many natives accompanied the men across what is now the American Southwest and Northern Mexico.

After finally reaching the colonized lands of New Spain where he encountered fellow Spaniards near modern-day Culiacánmarker, Cabeza de Vaca went on to Mexico Citymarker. From there he sailed back to Europe in 1537.

Numerous researchers have struggled to trace the exact route travelled by Cabeza de Vaca. Given the doubtful reputation of the chronological and geographical information presented by Cabeza de Vaca, it is difficult to discern his exact course. As he did not begin writing his chronicle until back in Spain, he had to rely on memory. Cabeza de Vaca was uncertain of the route he traversed.

Return to Spain

Cabeza de Vaca wrote about his experiences in a report for king Carlos Ⅰ of Spain. It was published in 1542, under the title La Relación (The Report). Later called Naufragios (Shipwrecks), it is considered a classic of colonial literature. Cabeza de Vaca wanted to return to Florida and succeed Pánfilo de Narváez as governor, but king Charles had already appointed Hernando De Soto to lead the next expedition. Cabeza de Vaca declined to travel with the expedition as second in command.

Return to America

In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed adelantado (governor) of the Río de la Plata. His mission was to re-establish the settlement of Buenos Airesmarker.
En route, he disembarked from his fleet at Santa Catarina Islandmarker in modern Brazilmarker. With an indigenous force, 250 musketeers and 26 horses, he followed native trails discovered by Aleixo Garcia] overland to the district's Spanish capital, Asunciónmarker, far inland on the great Paraguai River. Cabeza de Vaca is thought to have been the first European to see the Iguaçu Fallsmarker, considered by many to be the most spectacular in the world. The honor probably belongs to his scouts.

The second founding of Buenos Aires was also unsuccessful. By February 1543, the settlement was abandoned.

Cabeza de Vaca had an unusually sensitive and benevolent attitude toward the American Indians, which led to resentment among the privileged settlers known as encomenderos. This attitude, together with the failure of Buenos Aires, prompted the former governor Domingo Martínez de Irala to arrest him for maladministration in 1544 and return him to Spainmarker for trial in 1545.

Although eventually exonerated, de Vaca never returned to the colony. He wrote an extensive report on South America, which was highly critical of de Irala. The report was bound with his earlier La Relación and published under the title Comentarios (Commentary).

Tribes mentioned by name in the Relacion

Cabeza De Vaca recorded numerous native tribes with whom he interacted during his journey from Galveston Island, Texas in 1528, to Culiacan, Mexico in 1536. Below is a list; together with later known tribal names as proposed in 1919, they include:

Possible Karankawan groups:

  • Capoques - Cocos
  • Deaguanes - Cujanes
  • Quevenes - Copanes
  • Guaycones - Guapites
  • Camones - Karankaguases ?

Related to Karankawa:

  • Charruco - Bidai-Orcoquiza
  • Han - Bidai-Orcoquiza

Possible Tonkawan groups:

  • Mendica - Tamiques
  • Mariames - Jaranames
  • Iguaces - Anaquas

Possible Coahuiltecan or Desert groups:

  • Quitoles
  • The "Fig People"
  • Acubadaos
  • Avavares
  • Anegados
  • Cutalchuches
  • Maliacones
  • Susolas
  • Comos - Comecrudo
  • Cuayos
  • Arbadaos
  • Atayos
  • Cuchendados




  • Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez: The Narrative of Cabeza De Vaca, Translation of La Relacion by Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2003. ISBN 080326416X (One of many editions)
  • Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez: Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, Translation of La Relacion by Cyclone Covey. Santa Fe, NM: University of New Mexico Press 1983. ISBN 082630656X
  • 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).
  • Andrés Reséndez. A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, Basic Books, Perseus, 2007. ISBN 0-465-06840-5
  • Schneider, Paul:Brutal Journey, Cabeza de Vaca and the Epic First Crossing of North America, New York: Henry Holt, 2007. ISBN 0805083200
  • Udall, Stewart L.: Majestic Journey: Coronado's Inland Empire, Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995. ISBN 0890132852


  • Caba, Rubén y Gómez-Lucena, Eloísa. La odisea de Cabeza de Vaca. Barcelona y Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2008. []. (Ensayo histórico que precisa el texto de Naufragios y fija el itinerario desde Tampa (Florida) hasta Culiacán, cerca de la costa mexicana del Pacífico. Itinerario que los autores recorrieron en el verano de 2004). ISBN 978-84-350-3986-4.
  • Caba, Rubén y Gómez-Lucena, Eloísa. Cabeza de Vaca. El Ulises del Nuevo Mundo. Barcelona: Revista de Historia "Clío", nº 84, octubre, 2008, pp. 72-79. ISSN 1579-3532.
  • Maura, Juan Francisco. Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: el gran burlador de América, Parnaseo/Lemir. Valencia: Universidad de Valencia, 2008.
  • Maura, Juan Francisco. Carta de Luis Ramírez a su padre desde el Brasil (1528), Introducción, edición, transcripción y notas, Juan Francisco Maura. Lemir (Departamento de Filología Hispánica de la Universidad de Valencia), 2007.

See also


  1. p. 128, Caminhos da Conquista: Formação do Espaço Brasileiro, Vallandro Keating and Ricardo Maranhão, ed. Terceiro Nome, São Paulo, 2008
  2. "The First Europeans in Texas", Southwestern Historical Quarterly Vol 22 1919
  3. "In Search of Cabezo De Vaca's Route Across Texas" by Donald Chipman


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