Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
(Jerez de la Frontera, ca.
1490/1507 – Sevilla, ca.
1557/1559) was a Spanish explorer of
the New World, one of four survivors of
He is remembered as a proto-anthropological
author for his accounts of
first published in 1542 as La Relacion
(The Report), and
later known as Naufragios
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
Narváez Expedition and early Indian relations
Cabeza de Vaca was treasurer, and thus one of the chief officers,
of the Narváez expedition
three other men were the only survivors of the party of 300
colonists who landed near Tampa Bay, Florida 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
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.
of about 40 survivors, including de Vaca, wrecked on or near
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
final four men, Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes,
Castillo, and an enslaved Moroccan Berber named Esteban (later called Estevanico), survived and escaped to reach
City.Traveling mostly in this small group, Cabeza
de Vaca explored what is now the U.S.
state of Texas, as well as
the northeastern Mexican states
of Tamaulipas, Nuevo
León and Coahuila, and
possibly smaller portions of New Mexico and Arizona.
traveled on foot along the then-Spanish territories of Texas and
coast. He continued through
the New Kingdom of León,
Coahuila and Nueva Vizcaya; then down
the Gulf Coast to what is now Sinaloa, 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.
finally reaching the colonized lands of New
Spain where he encountered fellow Spaniards near modern-day
Culiacán, Cabeza de Vaca went on to Mexico City.
From there he sailed back to Europe
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
Return to Spain
Cabeza de Vaca wrote about his experiences in a report for king
Carlos Ⅰ of Spain
was published in 1542, under the title La Relación
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
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
mission was to re-establish the settlement of Buenos Aires.
he disembarked from his fleet at Santa Catarina Island in modern Brazil.
indigenous force, 250 musketeers and 26 horses, he followed native
trails discovered by Aleixo Garcia]
overland to the district's Spanish capital, Asunción, far inland on the great Paraguai River. Cabeza de Vaca is
thought to have been the first European to see the Iguaçu
Falls, considered by many to be the most spectacular in
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 Spain for trial in
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
and published under the title
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:
- Capoques - Cocos
- Deaguanes - Cujanes
- Quevenes - Copanes
- Guaycones - Guapites
- Camones - Karankaguases ?
Related to Karankawa:
- Charruco - Bidai-Orcoquiza
- Han - Bidai-Orcoquiza
- Mendica - Tamiques
- Mariames - Jaranames
- Iguaces - Anaquas
- The "Fig People"
- Comos - Comecrudo
- 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.
- 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. [www.edhasa.es]. (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
- 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
- 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.
- p. 128, Caminhos da Conquista: Formação do Espaço Brasileiro,
Vallandro Keating and Ricardo Maranhão, ed. Terceiro Nome, São
- "The First Europeans in Texas", Southwestern Historical
Quarterly Vol 22 1919
- "In Search of Cabezo De Vaca's Route Across Texas"
by Donald Chipman
- PBS documentary The Conquistadors PBS,
website includes map of proposed southern route through Texas and
- "Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca", The
- Details of Cabeza de Vaca's Trail through today's United
States, Florida History
- The journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and
his companions from Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536,
hosted by the Portal to Texas History
- "The Journey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca",
American Journeys, Wisconsin History.
- Cabeza de Vaca Primary Source Adventure, lesson
plan hosted by The Portal to Texas History
- Cabeza de Vaca ; La Salle. published
to Texas History.
- Cabeza de Vaca's Florida History
- Free on line, full text of Naufragios by
Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. En español (pdf)
- Cabeza de
- (in Spanish)
- link to movie based on his book on IMDB