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Cabeza de Vaca
Caption Monument to Cabeza de Vaca in Houston, Texas.
Birth Name Alvar Nunez del rosario Montenegro
Birth Date ca. Template:Birth-date / 1490
Birth Place Jerez de la Frontera
Death Date ca. Template:Death-date / 1558


Death Place Spain
Cause of Death by natural causes
occupation Treasurer, Explorer, and Author of La Relación
File:Expedition Cabeza de Vaca Karte.png

Route of Narváez expedition (until November 1528), and a reconstruction of Cabeza de Vaca's later wanderings.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Jerez de la Frontera, ca. 1488/1490 – Valladolid, ca. 1557/1559) was a Spanish explorer of the New World, one of four survivors of the Narváez expedition. He is remembered as a proto-anthropologist for his detailed accounts of the many tribes of Native Americans, first published in 1542 as La Relación (The Report), and later known as Naufragios (Shipwrecks).

Early life and education[]

Cabeza was born around 1490 into an hidalgo family, and as such was a member of the Spanish nobility without economical resources. Cabeza de Vaca was son of Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita. In 16th-century documents, his name appeared as "Alvar nuñez cabeza 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 Martín 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 Relación, 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.)

Narváez Expedition and early Indian relations[]

In early 1527 Cabeza de Vaca departed from Spain as a part of a royal expedition intended to occupy the mainland of North America. As treasurer, he was one of the chief officers of the Narváez expedition.[1] Within several months of their landing near Tampa Bay, Florida on April 15, 1528, he and three other men were the only survivors of the expedition party of 600 men.[2]

As the navigators were unsure of their location, Cabeza de Vaca thought it prudent to keep the land and sea forces together. Narváez 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 native inhabitants through wilderness and swamp, the party reached Apalachee Bay with 242 men. They believed they were near other Spaniards in Mexico, but 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 stirrups, spurs, horseshoes and other metal items, and fashioned a bellows from deerhide to make a fire hot enough to forge tools and nails. They constructed five primitive boats to use in search of Mexico. Cabeza 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 a hurricane, some lost forever, including that of Narváez.

Two crafts of about 40 survivors, including Cabeza de Vaca, wrecked on or near Galveston Island. The explorers called it Malhado ("Misfortune"), or Island of Doom.[3] They made an attempt 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 a few years by various Native American tribes of the upper Gulf Coast. These included the Hans and the Capoques. Only four men, Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and an enslaved Moroccan Berber named Esteban (later called Estevanico), survived and escaped to reach Mexico 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. 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 of California 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.

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 comprehended his survival and journey in religious terms, in that he claimed to have been guided by God to learn to heal the sick. He 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 Culiacán, Cabeza de Vaca went on to Mexico City. From there he sailed back to Europe in 1537.

Numerous researchers have struggled to trace the exact route travelled by Cabeza de Vaca. 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. Historians realize that his account has numerous errors in chronology and geography, but many have tried to put together pieces of the puzzle to discern his paths.

Return to Spain[]

After his 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 lead

Return to America[]

In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed adelantado of the Río de la Plata in South America. His mission was to re-establish the settlement of Buenos Aires in present-day Argentina.

File:CPonte Placa Alvar.JPG

A plaque commemorating Cabeza de Vaca as the first European to see the Iguazu Falls.

En route, he disembarked from his fleet at Santa Catarina Island in modern Brazil. With an indigenous force, 250 musketeers and 26 horses, he followed native trails[4] 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. The honor probably belongs to his scouts.

Cabeza de Vaca had an unusually benevolent attitude for his time toward the American Indians. The elite settlers, known as encomenderos, generally did not share this attitude and simply wanted to use the natives for labor. His loss of the elite support, together with the failure of Buenos Aires as a settlement, prompted the former governor Domingo Martínez de Irala to arrest Cabeza de Vaca for poor administration in 1544 and return him to Spain for trial in 1545.

Although eventually exonerated, Cabeza 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). He died poor in Valladolid around the year 1558.

Native American nations noted 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 Culiacán, Mexico in 1536. Below is a list from his record. Shown with his are later known tribal names as understood by scholars in 1919.[5]

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[6]

Ancestors of Cabeza de Vaca[]




  • Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez: The Narrative of Cabeza De Vaca, Translation of La Relacion, 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 Relación, Cyclone Covey. Santa Fe, NM: University of New Mexico Press 1983. ISBN 082630656X
  • The Account: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relacíon. Translated by Martin Favata and Jose Fernández. Houston: Arte Público Press. February 1993 [1542]. ISBN 978-1558850606. 
  • 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).
  • Howard, David A. (1996). Conquistador in Chains: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 978-0817308285. 
  • Andrés Reséndez. A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, Basic Books, Perseus, 2007. ISBN 0-465-06840-5
  • Paul Schneider, 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


See also[]

  • Choctaw
  • Mississippian culture
  • Quivira and Cíbola


  1. Reséndez, Andrés (Fall 2008). "A Desperate Trek Across America". American Heritage (American Heritage Publishing) 58 (5). Retrieved 2010-07-26. 
  2. Template:Harvnb
  3. Donald E. Chipman: Malhado Island from the Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved 2008-08-07.
  4. p. 128, Caminhos da Conquista: Formação do Espaço Brasileiro, Vallandro Keating and Ricardo Maranhão, ed. Terceiro Nome, São Paulo, 2008
  5. "The First Europeans in Texas", Southwestern Historical Quarterly Vol 22 1919
  6. "In Search of Cabezo De Vaca's Route Across Texas" by Donald Chipman


External links[]

Preceded by
Domingo Martínez de Irala
Governor of New Andalusia
Succeeded by
Domingo Martínez de Irala