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Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
Cabeza de Vaca1.jpg
Bust of Cabeza de Vaca
Birth name: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

c. 1488/ 1490/ 1492
Died c. 1557/ 1558/ 1559/ 1560
Seville, Spain
Resting place Spain
Occupation Treasurer, explorer, author of La relación y comentarios, and ex-governor of Río de Plata in Argentina
Spouse(s) María Marmolejo
Parent(s) Francisco de Vera (father), Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita (mother)

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490 – 1557) was an early Spanish explorer of the New World. His name is spelled as Aluar Nuñez Cabeça de Vaca in 16th Century documents.

Cabeza de Vaca means "head of the cow". This surname was granted to his family in the 13th century, when his ancestor aided a Christian army attacking Moors by pointing out a secret pass through the mountains 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.

Early life and family

Coat of Arms of Cabeza de Vaca
Coat of Arms of Cabeza de Vaca from the Archivo de Indias, Sevilla, Spain. Reprinted in The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca by Morris Bishop. New York: The Century Co., 1933.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1490 in the Andalusian town of Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz. His father, Francisco de Vera was an hidalgo, a rank of minor Spanish nobility. His mother was Teresa Cabeza de Vaca, also from an hidalgo family. He was named after his mother's great-grandfather, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, but the real influence in his life was his paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vera.

Pedro de Vera was described by contemporaries as an expert in fighting battles on land and sea. He led raids against the Moors in North Africa and in 1483 completed the conquest of Grand Canaria, one of the major islands of the Canaries. He was appointed military governor of the island and used his position to capture Canary natives (Guanches) and sell them as slaves in Spain. When natives on the neighboring island of Gomera revolted, he brutally put down the rebellion, killing males over the age of fifteen and selling the women and children into slavery. He was heavily fined for his actions and recalled to Castile in 1490. Cabeza de Vaca would have heard of these exploits growing up; many years later he named a province in South America, Vera, in honor of his grandfather.

Cabeza de Vaca's father and grandfather died around 1506 and his mother died in 1509, leaving behind a modest estate for her seven children. His younger siblings went to live with their aunt but Álvar had already entered the service of Juan Alfonso Pérez de Guzmán, 3rd Duke of Medina Sidonia in 1503. The house of Medina Sidonia was one of the most powerful in Andalusia and was a dominant force in Seville, the commercial center of Spain's growing overseas empire. Cabeza de Vaca served as a page and then chamberlain for the duke. In 1511 he traveled to Italy to fight against the French in the Italian Wars. In February 1512 he took part in the Battle of Ravenna where the Spanish were badly defeated and Cabeza de Vaca was wounded. He later served as the royal standard-bearer in Gaeta, near Naples.

In 1513 he returned to Spain, still in the service of Medina Sidonia. At some point he married María Marmolejo, member of a prominent converso family in Seville. When the Revolt of the Comuneros broke out in 1520 against the new Spanish king, Charles V, Cabeza de Vaca fought alongside the duke on behalf of the crown. When the comuneros tried unsuccessfully to seize control in Seville in September, the duke put him in charge of defending one of the city gates; in December he fought to liberate the city of Tordesillas; and on 23 April 1521 he participated in the defeat of the comuneros at the battle of Villalar. Later in 1521 when the French king, Francis I, invaded Navarre, Cabeza de Vaca fought against them in the battle of Puente de la Reina.

Narváez expedition

In 1527, Cabeza de Vaca appeared at the royal court in Valladolid and received an appointment as royal treasurer for an expedition to be led by conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez to explore and conquer La Florida, a portion of North America roughly comprising today's southeastern United States. The reasons for his selection are not known but his history of loyal military service to the crown was certainly a critical qualification. He also had a relative, Luis Cabeza de Vaca, serving on the all-important Council of the Indies.

Their fleet of five vessels set sail from Spain on 17 June 1527, carrying 600 soldiers and colonists, including a few married women and African slaves.

When they stopped in Hispaniola for supplies, Narváez lost more than 140 of his men, who chose to stay behind rather than continue with the expedition. They spent forty-five days on the island re-provisioning the fleet, and bought a sixth ship. They were especially anxious to acquire horses, but there was a shortage of them in Hispaniola, so the expedition continued to Cuba, where they hoped to recruit more men and buy horses. Narváez anchored at Santiago de Cuba and ordered Cabeza de Vaca to take two ships and proceed further up the coast to pick up additional provisions at Trinidad. In October, while Cabeza de Vaca was ashore negotiating for supplies, a hurricane hit the coast, resulting in the destruction of both ships and the loss of sixty men and twenty horses. Narváez arrived in early November to pick up the survivors. Fearful of encountering another storm, Narváez decided to overwinter in Cuba. The four remaining ships anchored in the Bay of Jagua under the command of Cabeza de Vaca.

While Cabeza de Vaca watched over the ships and crew, Narváez remained on shore to find replacements for the lost ships and hire more men. In February 1528, he returned to the Bay of Jagua with one additional ship and another one waiting for them in Havana. They resumed their expedition to La Florida with the intention of first stopping in Havana to pick up the final ship and more supplies. Before reaching Havana however, they were hit by another storm and blown off course into the Gulf of Mexico. Short of supplies and fresh water, they decided to push on toward Florida rather than try to get back to Cuba. In April they sighted land, anchored and went ashore. Although the location of their landing has been much debated, more recent opinion leans toward the vicinity of Tampa Bay.

During a quick reconnaissance of the area, they came upon a few small villages of Indians belonging to the Safety Harbor culture. Communicating with them through sign language, the Spanish were informed that a community or region called Apalachee lay to the north and was rich with food and gold. Cabeza de Vaca later noted that whenever Narváez expressed interest in something, the Indians assured him it could be found in great quantities at Apalachee. As a result, Narváez was determined to lead a force north into the interior to find this rich country.

Despite strong objections from Cabeza de Vaca, Narváez decided to split his expedition. He would lead some 300 men and 42 horses overland to Apalachee while the remaining crew, including the women, would sail ahead to find a suitable harbor and wait their return. Cabeza de Vaca protested that dividing their forces would put both groups in danger without any certainty that they would be able to find each other again. He advised that everyone remain with the ships until a suitable harbor could be found to serve as their base camp. Narváez ignored his advice and suggested that if Cabeza de Vaca was afraid, he should stay with the ships. Cabeza de Vaca rejected the suggestion of cowardice and participated in the overland march. He later wrote, "I preferred risking my life to placing my honor in jeopardy."

Narváez and his men set off overland in early May, 1528. They marched north for 15 days without seeing any Indians or native settlements. Then, as they were attempting to cross a swift-flowing river (probably the Withlacoochee), they were confronted by a group of 200 Indians. The encounter quickly turned into a fight and the Indians were driven off. Nearby, the Spaniards found a village where they stayed for several days and helped themselves to the stored maize. Cabeza de Vaca pleaded with Narváez to send a scouting expedition downriver in hopes of finding a bay where their ships might be waiting. Narváez relented and ordered Cabeza de Vaca to lead a reconnaissance. After two attempts to find their way through the swamps and heavy forest, their search yielded no ships or suitable harbor.

Narváez still hoped to find riches at Apalachee, so the expedition pressed forward using captive Indians as guides. Seven weeks after leaving their ships, they came upon the largest village they had found so far, a collection of forty houses. Their guides assured them this was a major Apalachee settlement, so Narváez ordered Cabeza de Vaca to lead about fifty soldiers to seize the village. There was no resistance to their attack and Cabeza de Vaca found only women and children whom he rounded up to serve as hostages. A thorough search of the houses found plenty of food but none of the hoped for gold and gems.

Apalachee had no gold but had only corn, but the explorers were told a village known as Aute, about 5 or 9 days away, was rich. They pushed on through the swamps, harassed by the Native Americans. A few Spanish men were killed and more wounded. When they arrived in Aute, they found that the inhabitants had burned down the village and left. But the fields had not been harvested, so at least the Spanish scavenged food there. After several months of fighting native inhabitants through wilderness and swamp, the party decided to abandon the interior and try to reach Pánuco.

They made five primitive boats in hopes of reaching Mexico. The small flotilla launched on 22 September 1528, carrying the 242 survivors. Cabeza de Vaca commanded one of the vessels, each of which held approximately 50 men. Depleted of food and water, they followed the coast westward. But when they reached the mouth of the Mississippi River, the powerful current swept them out into the Gulf, where the five rafts were separated by a hurricane. Some lives were lost forever, including that of Narváez.

In November 1528, two crafts with about 40 survivors each, including Cabeza de Vaca, wrecked on or near Galveston Island (now part of Texas). Of the 80 or so survivors, only 15 lived past that winter. The explorers called the island Malhado (“Ill fate” in Spanish), or the Island of Doom. They tried to repair the rafts, using what remained of their own clothes as oakum to plug holes, but they lost the rafts to a large wave.

As the number of survivors dwindled rapidly, they were enslaved for four years by various American Indian nomadic tribes of the upper Gulf Coast. The tribes to which Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved included the Hans and the Capoques, and tribes later called the Karankawa and Coahuiltecan. Only four men managed to escape: Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and an African slave of Dorantes, Estevanico.

CPonte Placa Alvar
A plaque commemorating Cabeza de Vaca's discovery of Iguazu Falls

Traveling mostly with this small group, Cabeza de Vaca walked generally west through 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. He traveled on foot through the then-colonized territories of Texas and the Gulf Coast, but encountered no other Europeans. He continued through Coahuila and Nueva Vizcaya (present-day states of Chihuahua and Durango); then down the Gulf of California coast to what is now Sinaloa, Mexico, over a period of roughly eight years. Throughout those years, Cabeza de Vaca and the other men adapted to the lives of the indigenous people they stayed with, whom he later described as Roots People, the Fish and Blackberry People, or the Fig People, depending on their principal foods.

During his wanderings, passing from tribe to tribe, Cabeza de Vaca later reported that he developed sympathies for the indigenous peoples. He became a trader and a healer, which gave him some freedom to travel among the tribes. His group attracted numerous native followers, who regarded them as "children of the sun", endowed with the power to heal and destroy. As Cabeza de Vaca grew healthier, he decided that he would make his way to Pánuco, supporting himself through trading. He finally decided to try to reach the Spanish colony in Mexico. Many natives were said to accompany the explorers on their journey across what is now known as the American Southwest and northern Mexico.

After finally reaching the colonized lands of New Spain, where he first encountered fellow Spaniards near modern-day Culiacán, Cabeza de Vaca and the three other men reached Mexico City. From there he sailed back to Europe in 1537.

Cabeza de Vaca wrote about his experiences in a report for Emperor Charles V. It was later published in 1542, under the title La Relación (The Report).

Numerous researchers have tried to trace his route across the Southwest. As he did not begin writing his chronicle until he was back in Spain, he had to rely on memory. He did not have instruments to determine his location; he had to rely on dead reckoning, and was uncertain of his route. Aware that his recollection has numerous errors in chronology and geography, historians have worked to put together pieces of the puzzle to discern his paths.

Return to America

In 1540 he was appointed governor of Río de la Plata, in what is now Paraguay, Argentina and surroundings. Cabeza de Vaca was assigned to find a usable route from this colony to the colony in Peru, on the other side of the Andes Mountains on the Pacific Coast.

En route, he disembarked from his fleet at Santa Catarina Island in modern Brazil. With an indigenous force, plus 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 Paraguay River. Cabeza de Vaca is thought to have been the first European to see the Iguaçu Falls.

In March 1542, Cabeza de Vaca met with Domingo Martínez de Irala and relieved him of his position as governor. The government of Asunción pledged loyalty to Cabeza de Vaca, and Irala was assigned to explore a possible route to Peru. Once Irala returned and reported, Cabeza de Vaca planned his own expedition. He hoped to reach Los Reyes (a base that Irala set up) and push forward into the jungle in search of a route to the gold and silver mines of Peru. The expedition did not go well, and Cabeza de Vaca returned to Asunción.

During Cabeza de Vaca's absence, Irala had stirred up resistance to his rule and capitalized on political rivalries. Scholars widely agree that Cabeza de Vaca had an unusually sympathetic attitude towards the Native Americans for his time. The elite settlers in modern Argentina, known as encomenderos, generally did not agree with his enlightened conduct toward the Natives; they wanted to use them for labor. Because he lost elite support, and Buenos Aires was failing as a settlement, not attracting enough residents, Martínez de Irala arrested Cabeza de Vaca in 1544 for poor administration. The former explorer was returned to Spain in 1545 for trial.

Although he was eventually exonerated, Cabeza de Vaca never returned to South America and died in Seville in 1557.

Role of observer

Cabeza de Vaca reported on the customs and ways of American Indian life, aware of his status as an early European explorer. He spent eight years with various peoples, including the Capoque, Han, Avavare, and Arbadao. He describes details of the culture of the Malhado people, the Capoque, and Han American Indians, such as their treatment of offspring, their wedding rites, and their main sources of food. Cabeza de Vaca and his three fellow survivors at times served as slaves to the American Indians to survive. Through his observations, Cabeza de Vaca provides insights into 16th-century American Indian life near the present-day Mexico-Texas border.

For many peoples the accounts of Cabeza de Vaca and Hernando de Soto are the only written records of their existence. By the time of the next European contact, many had vanished, possibly from diseases carried by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions.

Ambassador for Christ

One of Cabeza de Vaca's greatest accomplishments in his journey was bringing peace throughout the land. As the travellers passed from one tribe to the next, warring tribes would immediately make peace and become friendly, so that the natives could receive the party and give them gifts. Cabeza noted in his personal account of the journey that, in this way, "We left the whole country in peace." Cabeza de Vaca saw these events as part of his purpose in America, writing that he believed that "God was guiding us to where we could serve Him."

Cabeza de Vaca's greatest challenge as an ambassador came when he attempted to bring peace between the conquering Spanish army and the natives. As Cabeza approached the area of Spanish settlement, he and his companions grieved to see the destruction of the native villages and enslavement of the native peoples. The fertile land lay uncultivated and the natives were nearly starving, hiding in the forest, for fear of the Spanish army.

Cabeza de Vaca then encountered Diego de Alcaraz, commander of a slaving expedition of about 20 horsemen, and attempted to negotiate peace between them and the natives. However, as soon as they departed, Alcaraz went back on his word and plundered Cabeza de Vaca's entourage of natives that he had sent back home. Not long afterward, Cabeza de Vaca encountered the chief alcalde (Spanish captain of the province), Melchor Díaz. Díaz ordered Cabeza de Vaca to bring the natives back from the forests so that they would resume cultivating the land. Cabeza de Vaca and Díaz invited the natives to convert to Christianity, and the natives did so willingly. Cabeza de Vaca then instructed them to build a large wooden cross in each village, so that Spanish soldiers would pass through the village and not attack it. Soon afterward, Alcaraz's expedition returned and explained to Díaz that they were amazed to find, on their return journey, that not only was the land repopulated, but the natives coming to greet them with crosses in hand and also gave them provisions. Díaz then ordered Alcaraz to do no harm to these natives.

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