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“Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and the Narváez Expedition”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (c.1490-c.1557) was born into a noble family near Seville, Spain. The name Cabeza de Vaca (Cow's Head) came from an ancestor who played a role in a victorious battle of Spain against the Moors in 1212. The ancestor was a sheepherder who placed a cow's skull at a strategic pass in the mountains to alert Spanish troops. The Spanish crown rewarded the sheepherder by giving him the noble title of Cabeza de Vaca.

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca trained for a career in the military and sailed for North America under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez in 1527. He was the royal treasurer and one of the chief officers for the expedition of some 600 explorers. The story of his adventures and misadventures in North America is unlike any other.

After crossing the Atlantic, the Spanish fleet was destroyed by a hurricane off the coast of Cuba. Narváez secured a new ship and sailed for Florida, landing near what is now Tampa Bay. He claimed this land for the Spanish crown and then split his expedition into two forces: one to explore by land and one by sea. Cabeza de Vaca saw this division as a formula for disaster and argued against it, but Narváez would not listen. So the treasurer joined Narváez’s land forces, to save his personal honor. The land and sea forces would never meet up again.

Lost and starving, the land party took refuge with the Apalachee Indians of northern Florida. But conflicts arose and the Indians chased them away. The starving Spaniards huddled in a coastal swamp and were forced to eat their horses. In 1528, they managed to build some primitive rafts and set sail, hoping to get back to Cuba. But another hurricane struck the expedition, now dwindled to about eighty survivors. Narváez and the men on his raft struck out to sea and were never seen again.

Cabeza de Vaca and his men struggled to stay alive on the Gulf Coast near present-day Galveston in East Texas. Indian groups variously befriended, fed, killed, and enslaved the Conquistadors. By learning to trade things between the Gulf Coast tribes, Cabeza de Vaca gained some freedom of movement. After several years, he met up with the only other survivors of the Narváez land expedition. These men were Alonso del Castillo Maldonando, Andrés Dorantes de Carranca, and Estevan, an African slave.

In 1528, the four escaped from the Indian tribes that had enslaved them. They resolved to walk west and south until they reached the Spanish Empire’s outpost in Mexico. Naked and constantly hungry, they survived in part because Indian tribes along the way believed that the strangers had the power to heal. After their long ordeal, Cabeza de Vaca wrote a report to the king described healing miracles that he and his companions performed on groups of Indians during their westward journey of six years.

No one knows the exact route that Cabeza de Vaca and his fellows traveled, but we do know they crossed present-day Texas. Some scholars think they also traveled through parts of southern New Mexico and Arizona before they encountered Spaniards near Culiacán, Mexico in July, 1536. Hundreds of Indians accompanied Cabeza de Vaca’s party. The Indians were dependent on the Spaniards for food that the tribes gave to the Spaniards in exchange for cures they performed.. When he realized that the Spaniards they had encountered were on a slave-taking expedition. Cabeza de Vaca attempted to protect the Indians from the slavers.

Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain in 1537 to publish his account of the Narváez expedition and the four survivors’ trek across the North America. In 1542, the report was published under the title, La Relación.

In 1540, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was appointed governor of a region in present-day Paraguay and Argentina. He was accused of corruption, returned to Spain in chains, convicted and finally pardoned. Cabeza de Vaca became a judge in Seville, a position he maintained until his death in 1556 or 1557.