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 on Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

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).