Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Núñez (1492?-1559?)

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Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1492?-1559?)

Spanish journer in north america


Early Life. Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1492 in Andalusia, a region of Spain. His parents died while he was young, so he moved in with an aunt and uncle, and he probably had a fairly comfortable early life. During his teenage years he was appointed chamberlain for the house of a noble family, and he later served the household in a war in Italy where he fought with distinction. He returned to Spain in 1521 and enlisted as an officer in the crowns army.

Narváezs Expedition. What happened next in Cabeza de Vacas life is unclear, but in the summer of 1527 he embarked with six hundred other men Panfilo de Narváez had assembled to explore Florida. Because of a hurricane and logistical problems Narváez landed in present-day Tampa Bay with only half of his original force and a handful of supplies. When he asked his leading men what to do next, he received two responses. Cabeza de Vaca urged him to stay close to the coast and to his ship so that the party could return to Cuba in a moments notice. Others, however, appealed to the aspiring conquistador to march inland and to search for treasure. Emboldened by the last option, Narváez led most of his men into the interior while the others remained on the ship and were ordered to sail along the coast. The party soon met with some Indians whom they forced to locate a supply of corn for the hungry Spaniards. The amount of gold the explorers saw in the village surprised them, and the inhabitants informed them that in a nearby land called Apalachee they would find all the riches they could want. The local chief also hoped to use the Spaniards to attack the rival chiefdom, but something happened to change the Indians minds. One evening they ambushed a group of Spaniards, and the next morning the Indians abandoned their village. Forced to rely on captured guides, Narváez set out to find Apalachee, a place he hoped would rival the Aztecs in splendor and riches. When they reached the chiefdom they were immediately caught in an ambush. After the Spaniards beat the Apalachees back, they found forty houses and large quantities of corn but no gold. In the next town they were not as lucky because the Indians had burned everything to the ground. Disease, starvation, and ambushes had taken a toll on the party, and they returned to the coast to link up with the supply ship. For whatever reason, the ship was nowhere to be seen, so Narváez elected to build boats to carry the men to Mexico. Two months later the motley fleet set sail.

Sailing the Gulf. The crude ships drifted in the Gulf of Mexico for months. On one occasion Indians invited the men ashore for a feast, but while they slept an attack awakened them. After several attacks and counterattacks the Spaniards demanded the return of the men who had been captured. The Indians refused to return the captives, so the survivors headed back out to sea where a storm broke up the fleet. Some boats sank or crashed on the shore of East Texas, and the starving crews were either drowned, killed by Indians, or reduced to cannibalism before dying of exposure. Cabeza de Vacas weary crew washed up on a beach and surrendered to a large group of Coahuilticans armed with bows and arrows and bearing gifts of food. They are a very generous people, Cabeza de Vaca wrote, sharing whatever they own with others.

Slave and Healer. The Archaic hunting-and-gathering Coahuilticans enslaved Cabeza de Vaca and made him gather roots, work done customarily by the women. He resented his treatment and planned to run away to a neighboring tribe. Gradually he met with three other survivors of the expedition, all of whom lived as slaves in different bands. Their scattered situation as well as their lowly status made it hard to plan an escape, and on several occasions they were frustrated in their efforts. Finally they escaped to a nearby tribe that welcomed the four men as healers. Their reputation spread, and they made their way slowly to the South and to the West, staying with different tribes and working their miraculous cures.

Encounter with the Spanish. In late winter 1536 Cabeza de Vaca encountered four Spaniards mounted on horseback. They were stunned by the sight of the bedraggled wanderer, but they took him and the others to a small town, New Galicia. At the urging of the local military commander, Cabeza de Vaca called together the Indians with whom he had been living, not suspecting the commanders motives. After this, he wrote, we had many great altercations with the Christians, because they wanted to make slaves of the Indians we had brought. . . . An angry Cabeza de Vaca sent the Indians home, and he and his men were in turn sent under guard into Mexico. The stories they told amazed the imperial officials.

Return to Spain. Cabeza de Vaca rested in Mexico for several months before returning to Spain in 1537. Upon his arrival he began composing and editing his memoirs. Based on his experience King Charles V put him in charge of an expedition to explore the Rio de la Plata in South America. His tenure as governor of the region reflected the lessons he had learned from his travels, for he immediately sought to end the settlers abuse of the Indians. Such measures, however, were unpopular, and the colonists revolted in 1544 and put Cabeza de Vaca on a ship back to Spain, where he faced several lawsuits and the open hostility of the royal government. In 1551 the Crown forbade him to return to the New World, and he died a broken and vilified man sometime around 1559. His memoirs, however, are one of the most important documents in early American history, for Cabeza de Vaca recorded what life was like in a region that would not be colonized for another three centuries.


Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Castaways: The Narrative of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, edited by Enrique Pupo-Walker, translated by Frances M. López-Morillas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993);

David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

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Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (ca. 1490-ca. 1557) was a Spanish explorer. Marooned on the Texas coast, he wandered for 8 years in a land no European had ever seen. His account is the earliest description of the American Southwest.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born into a distinguished family in Jerez de la Frontera. His strange name, literally "head of a cow," was won by a maternal ancestor, Martin Alhaja, who showed King Sancho of Navarre a pass marked with a cow's skull. Use of this pass enabled Sancho to win the famous battle of Las Navas de Tolosa against the Moors in 1212.

Raised by his paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vera, one of the conquerors and governor of the Canary Islands, Cabeza de Vaca joined the Spanish army in 1511 and served in Italy, Spain, and Navarre. In 1527 he joined the Florida expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez as treasurer and chief constable. When the party landed in Florida in April 1528, Narváez unwisely split his land from his sea forces and led an expedition inland. Upon their return to the coast in August, they discovered the ships had left for Cuba. Desperately short of supplies and harassed by hostile Amerinds, the Spaniards built small boats and set sail along the Gulf coast, hoping to reach Mexico.

The voyage was a nightmare. There was little food or water, and the small flotilla was beset by storms. In November 1528, the tiny fleet was wrecked on Galveston Island. Many of the men were lost at sea, and most of the others died during the winter from cold and exposure. Captured and enslaved by the Karankawa tribe, Cabeza de Vaca managed to survive. In 1534, along with Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and the Moor Estevánico, he escaped and headed for Mexico. For 2 years the Spaniards lived by their wits, trading with wandering tribes and gaining a reputation as healers and medicine men. Their exact route is unknown, but modern scholars believe they wandered along the Texas coast to the Río Grande and turned first north and then west across present-day Texas and northern Mexico. Finally, in March 1536 the group encountered a small party of Spaniards near Culiacán in western Mexico.

After reporting to Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza in Mexico City, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, where he sought a new post. In 1540 he became governor and captain general of Río de la Plata (Paraguay). During his 4 years in South America he made a 1,000-mile march into the interior, opening previously unexplored territory. Denounced by his subordinates, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain in 1544 as a prisoner, but later most of the charges against him were rescinded. He spent his remaining years writing and publishing the story of his remarkable exploits in the New World, Los naufragios (The Shipwrecked).

Further Reading

There are several translations of Cabeza de Vaca's Texas adventures, of which the best are Fanny Bandelier, The Journey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1905; repr. 1964), and "The Narrative of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca" in Frederick W. Hodge, ed., Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States (1907). An excellent biography is Morris Bishop, The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca (1933). See also Cleve Hallenbeck, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1940), and John Upton Terrell, Journey into Darkness (1964). □

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

views updated May 21 2018

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

c. 1490-c. 1560

Spanish explorer in the region of what is now Texas, whose claims regarding legendary cities of gold influenced later exploration efforts by Hernando de Soto (c. 1500-1542) and Francisco de Coronado (c. 1510-1554). In 1528 Núñez landed near the site of modern-day Galveston, and spent eight years wandering among Native American tribes, during which time most of his men died. When found by fellow Spaniards in northern Mexico in 1536, he was full of wild tales concerning the Seven Cities of Cibola, about which he had heard but which he did not claim to have visited. Later, as governor of Rio de la Plata in South America (1541-1545), he created a route from Santos, Brazil, to Asunción, Paraguay. He recorded his North American journeys in Naufragios (1542), and his South American ones in La Relación y Comentarios (1555).

Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez

views updated May 14 2018

Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez (1490–1557) Spanish explorer. In 1528, he was shipwrecked off the Texas coast. He and three fellow survivors became the first Europeans to explore the American Southwest, eventually settling in Mexico (1536). His Comentarios (1555) recount hardships endured in South America, where he served as governor (1542–45) of the province of Río de la Plata.

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