Cabeza de vaca

"Cabeza de Vaca" redirects here. For the 1991 film, see Cabeza de Vaca (film).

This name uses Spanish naming customs; the first or paternal family name is Núñez and the second or maternal family name is Cabeza de Vaca.
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
Monument to Cabeza de Vaca.
Born Birth name: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
ca. 1488 (1488) / 1490
Jerez de la Frontera
Died ca. 1557 (1558) / 1558
Seville, Spain
Cause of death by natural causes
Resting place Spain
Occupation Treasurer, Explorer, and Author of La Relación
Religion Catholic
Spouse(s) María Marmolejo
Children unknown
Parents Francisco de Vera (father), Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita (mother)
Relatives Pedro de Vera

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Jerez de la Frontera, c. 1488/1490 – Seville, c. 1557/1558) was a Spanish explorer of the New World, one of four survivors of the 1527 Narváez expedition. During eight years of traveling across the US Southwest, he became a slave, trader and shaman to various Native American tribes before reconnecting with Spanish colonial forces in Mexico in 1536. After returning to Spain in 1537, he wrote an account, first published in 1542 as La Relación ("The Relation", or in more modern terms "The Account"[1]), which in later editions was retitled Naufragios ("Shipwrecks"). Cabeza de Vaca has been considered notable as a proto-anthropologist for his detailed accounts of the many tribes of American Indians that he encountered.

In 1540 Cabeza de Vaca returned to the Western Hemisphere, appointed adelantado of the Río de la Plata in present-day Argentina, where he was supposed to re-establish the settlement of Buenos Aires. Unsuccessful, he also came into conflict with the dominant official in the region, Domingo Martínez de Irala, who had him arrested in 1544 for poor administration. Cabeza de Vaca was transported to Spain for trial in 1545. Although his sentence was eventually commuted, he never returned to the Americas. He died in poverty in Seville.

Early life and education

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1490 into a hidalgo family, the son of Núñez and Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita, in the town of Jerez de la frontera. Despite their status as minor nobility, the family had modest economic resources. In 16th-century documents, his name appeared as "Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca".[2]

Narváez Expedition and early Indian relations

In early 1527, Cabeza de Vaca departed Spain as member of a royal Spanish expedition to colonize the mainland of the Gulf coast of the land the Spanish called La Florida, present-day Florida. As treasurer, he was one of the chief officers on the Narváez expedition.[3] Within several months of their landing near present-day Tampa Bay, Florida on April 15, 1528, he and three other men alone survived the expedition party of 600 men.[4]

As the navigators were uncertain of their location when they landed, 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 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 1500 miles of coast lay between them. Although starving, wounded, sick, and lost in swampy terrain, the men devised a plan to escape by water.

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, the men followed the coast westward, until they reached the mouth of the Mississippi River. When the current swept them into the Gulf, the five rafts were separated by a hurricane, some lost forever, including that of Narváez.

Two craft with about 40 survivors, including Cabeza de Vaca, wrecked on or near Galveston Island (now part of Texas). The explorers called it Malhado ("Misfortune"), or the Island of Doom.[5] 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 a few years by various American Indian tribes of the upper Gulf Coast. These included the Hans and the Capoques, and tribes later called the Karankawa and Coahuiltecan. 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 through the then-uncolonized territories of Texas and the coast. He continued through 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 reached 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 his route. Aware that his account 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, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed adelantado of the Río de la Plata in present-day Argentina. His mission was to re-establish the settlement of Buenos Aires.

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[6] 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 is considered to have had an unusually benevolent attitude for his time toward the American Indians. The elite settlers in Argentina, known as encomenderos, generally did not share this attitude; they 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. The former explorer was returned 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 Martínez de Irala. The report was bound with his earlier La Relación and published under the title Comentarios (Commentary). He died poor in Seville around the year 1558.

The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his experiences on what is now known as Galveston Island, Texas. In November of 1528, Cabeza de Vaca and his depleted crew of three men were shipwrecked on the island and subsequently struggled to survive.[7] They wandered along the Texas coast as prisoners of the Han and Capoque American Indians for two years, while Cabeza de Vaca observed the people, picking up their ways of life and customs.[8]

In 1537, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain and wrote his narratives of the expedition. These narratives were collected and published in 1542 in Spain. They are now known as “The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca”. The narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is the “first European book devoted completely to North America.”[9] His account is a detailed look into the lives of American Indians of the time. Cabeza de Vaca showed compassion and respect for native peoples, which, together with the great detail he recorded, distinguishes his narrative from others.[9]

Role of observer

In the narrative, Cabeza de Vaca reported on the customs and ways of American Indian life. Aware of his status as an early European explorer, Cabeza de Vaca closely observed the native people and noted their culture. He spent eight years with various groups, including the Capoque, Han, Avavares, and Arbadaos. 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.[8] Cabeza de Vaca and his three fellow survivors at times served as slaves to the American Indians to keep alive.[7] Through his observations, Cabeza de Vaca served as a guide to early American Indian life near the present-day Mexico-Texas border.

Personal report

Cabeza de Vaca wrote this narrative to Charles V to “transmit what I saw and heard in the nine years I wandered lost and miserable over many remote lands”.[8] He wanted to convey “not merely a report of positions and distances, flora and fauna, but of the customs of the numerous indigenous people I talked with and dwelt among, as well as any other matters I could hear of or observe”.[8] He was careful about being factual, in the manner of his position as an accountant. “The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca” is the only account of many details concerning the indigenous people whom he encountered.[8] His account has been validated by later reports of others, as well as by the oral traditions of descendants of some of the tribes.

American Indian nations noted by name

Cabeza De Vaca identified the following peoples by name in his La Relacion (1542). Shown with the names he used are identifications with later known tribal groups from the region, suggested by scholars in 1919.[10]

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[11]

Film adaptation

  • The film Cabeza de Vaca (1991), a Mexican production, was directed by Nicolás Echevarría and starred Juan Diego. Based on Naufragios, the film was entered into the 41st Berlin International Film Festival.[12] A DVD version was released in 2012.

Ancestors of Cabeza de Vaca



  • Adorno, Rolena and Pautz, Patrick Charles. Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca : His Account, His Life and the Expedition of Panfilo De Narvaez, 3 volumes, in English; University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, London (1999); hardcover; ISBN 978-0803214637
  • 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 0-8032-6416-X (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 0-8263-0656-X
  • Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, Translation of La Relacion, translated by David Frye, edited by Ilan Stavans. Norton Critical Edition, 2013. ISBN 978-0393918151
  • 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).
  • Reséndez, Andrés. A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, Basic Books, Perseus, 2007. ISBN 0-465-06840-5
  • Schneider, Paul. Brutal Journey, Cabeza de Vaca and the Epic First Crossing of North America, New York: Henry Holt, 2007. ISBN 0-8050-8320-0
  • Udall, Stewart L. Majestic Journey: Coronado's Inland Empire, Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995. ISBN 0-89013-285-2
  • Wild, Peter (1991). Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University "Western Writers Series" (#101), 1991. 51 pp. ISBN 978-0884301004 OCLC 24515951 and 656314379 (print and on-line)


  • Adorno, Rolena and Pautz, Patrick Charles; Alvaro Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: sus logros, su vida y la expedición de Pánfilo de Narváez, 3 volumes, in Spanish; University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, London (September 15, 1999); hardcover; 1317 pages; ISBN 978-0803214545


  • Giovan Battista Ramusio: Delle navigationi et viaggi Terzo volume , pp. 310–330 – "Relatione che fece Alvaro Nunez detto Capo di vacca" – Venetia, 1565 (1606 edition)

See also

New Spain portal



  • 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica

External links

La Relación online
  • The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca (1542), Translated by Fanny Bandelier (1905). (html version)
  • The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca (1542), Translated by Fanny Bandelier (1905). (pdf version).
  • Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America (English translation from 1961)
  • , hosted by the Portal to Texas History
  • Naufragios de Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca at Project Gutenberg (in Spanish)
  • by Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. En español (pdf)
  • Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca at American Journeys
  • Cabeza de Vaca's Florida History
  • "The Journey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca", American Journeys, Wisconsin History.
  • The Portal to Texas History
  • Portal to Texas History.
  • Artículo de Santiago Juan-Navarro publicado en Letras 18-19 (1999): 201-224. (in spanish)
  • PBS, website includes map of proposed southern route through Texas and northern Mexico.
  • "Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca", The West, documentary by Ken Burns for PBS (Episode 1)
  • IMDB
Preceded by
Domingo Martínez de Irala
Governor of New Andalusia
Succeeded by
Domingo Martínez de Irala

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.