CABEZA DE VACA, ÁLVAR NÚÑEZ (ca. 1490-ca. 1556)

Álvar NÚÑez Cabeza de Vaca, an early Spanish explorer, was born about 1490 in Jerez de la Frontera, an Andalucian town near CÁdiz, to Francisco de Vera and Teresa Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza de Vaca was his preferred surname. It descended from an ancestor who had helped secure victory for Christian forces at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) by marking an unguarded pass in the Sierra Moreno with the skull of a cow. In gratitude, King Sancho of Navarra bestowed the surname "Cow's Head" on Cabeza de Vaca's matrilineal progenitors. The Álvar NÚÑez portion of Cabeza de Vaca's name also came from a prominent ancestor of his mother, who was an accomplished naval officer.

As a young man Cabeza de Vaca gained military experience in Italy, where he campaigned with the Spanish army of Charles V. His service to the crown probably earned him the position of treasurer in the 1527-28 expedition of PÁnfilo de NarvÁez.qv NarvÁez, a minor participant in the conquest of Mexico, had lost an eye and command of his army to HernÁn Cortés in 1520. Later, his importunities at the Spanish court resulted in a royal patent to found a colony in Florida, a name applied to the Gulf Coast between the province of PÁnuco in Mexico and the Florida peninsula.

NarvÁez departed from Spain in June 1527, wintered in Cuba, and landed on the west coast of Florida in April 1528. Despite protests from Cabeza de Vaca, NarvÁez decided to separate 300 men from his support vessels and reconnoiter the land. He was soon permanently separated from his ships and stranded on the Florida coast, which he believed to be only a few leagues from the PÁnuco River.

NarvÁez's expedition then began a march up the interior coast to northwestern Florida, where it remained for approximately three months. Faced with hostile natives and food shortages, NarvÁez elected to build improvised barges and to leave Florida by sea. His command, which had dwindled to fewer than 250 men, crowded into five craft and set out for PÁnuco. The first month at sea went well. Hugging the coast, the small flotilla approached the mouth of the Mississippi River. But on the thirty-first day a storm caught the barges and eventually drove them apart. Several days after passing the mouth of the Great River, two of the battered craft were beached on an island (probably San Luis, now known as Follets Islandqv) off the Texas coast, in November 1528. Among some eighty survivors were Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, his African-born slave Estevanico, and Alonso Castillo Maldonado.qqv These men, known as the "four ragged castaways," were among the first non-Indians to set foot on Texas soil, and they were the only survivors of the NarvÁez expedition. Most of the others succumbed to disease, injuries, drowning, or violence at the hands of hostile coastal tribes.

Shortly after landing on the Texas coast, Cabeza de Vaca became separated from the other survivors. Believing he had died on the mainland, all but two of them proceeded down the coast. Cabeza de Vaca recovered from a near fatal illness and later became the first European merchant in Texas. He ranged inland as well as along the coast, carrying sea shells and mesquite beans to the interior and returning with skins and red ochre. He also enjoyed success as a medicine man; his treatment consisted of blessing the afflicted, breathing on injuries, and praying.

Cabeza de Vaca's reluctance to leave the Galveston area was influenced by a single surviving countryman, Lope de Oviedo, who refused to leave the initial landfall island. In 1532 Cabeza de Vaca convinced the reluctant Spaniard to accompany him along the coast toward PÁnuco, as the other survivors had done in the spring of 1529. En route Lope de Oviedo turned back and disappeared from history. Cabeza de Vaca eventually rendezvoused with three astonished colleagues at what they called the "river of nuts," probably the Guadalupe. There the four castaways, who were made slaves of the Mariame Indians, plotted their escape to Mexico. Not until 1534, however, did they start for PÁnuco.

Cabeza de Vaca and the other castaways traveled from the environs of Galveston Island to CuliacÁn, an outpost near the Pacific Coast of Mexico, where they arrived in early 1536. Their path has been the subject of historical controversy for more than a century. Differences over route interpretations continue, for no one can prove with absolute certainty the precise course followed on any part of the journey. It is the Texas portion of the odyssey, however, that has received the most attention.

The Relación of Cabeza de Vaca reported the experience, and the joint report, a cooperative account, was written by the three surviving Spaniards. Both accounts were composed shortly after the trek ended in 1536. Biotic, enthnographic, and physiographic information contained in these narratives provides clues as to where the four men spent nearly seven years in Texas and what they saw. Their reports of their experiences provide valuable data on Texas Indians, landforms, flora, and fauna.

The crucial pieces of evidence in the narratives are the dimensions of the island where the initial landing occurred, the distance between and the crossing of four successive streams on the mainland, the description of a series of inlets along the coast toward PÁnuco, the mention of a "river of nuts" and extensive stands of prickly pear cactus, the crossing of a large river comparable in width to the Guadalquivir River in Spain, the subsequent appearance of mountains near the coast that ran from the direction of the "North Sea," and the recorded names of Indian tribes. The data, when correlated with the established goal of reaching PÁnuco, strongly suggest a southern route along the inner Texas coast and a crossing of the lower Río Grande into Mexico near the site of International Falcon Reservoir.qv Ultimately, the castaways' successful flight on foot brought them back to Texas at the junction of the Rio Grande and the Río Conchos near the site of present Presidio, Texas. On that portion of the trek, Cabeza de Vaca removed an arrow from the chest of an Indian. The operation has earned him remembrance as the "patron saint" of the Texas Surgical Society. Cabeza de Vaca also deserves recognition as the first geographer, historian, and ethnologist in Texas. He was the only Spaniard to live among the coastal Indians of Texas and survive to write about them. As a result he, along with Dorantes de Carranza and Castillo Maldonado, may be remembered for producing the first Texas literature.

In the early 1540s Cabeza de Vaca again served the Spanish crown as a governor in what is now Paraguay. He was, however, charged with misrule there, recalled to Spain, tried, and temporarily banished to North Africa. Later he was cleared of charges and permitted to return to Spain, where he died in the mid-1550s.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Thomas N. Campbell and T. J. Campbell, Historic Indian Groups of the Choke Canyon Reservoir and Surrounding Area, Southern Texas (San Antonio: Center for Archaeological Research, University of Texas at San Antonio, 1981). Donald E. Chipman, "In Search of Cabeza de Vaca's Route Across Texas: An Historiographical Survey," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 91 (October 1987). Harbert Davenport and Joseph K. Wells, "The First Europeans in Texas, 1528-1536," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 22 (October 1918). Martin A. Favata and José B. FernÁndez, The Account: NÚÑez Cabeza de Vaca's Relación (Houston: Arte PÚblico Press, 1993). Jesse E. Thompson, "Sagittectomy-First Recorded Surgical Procedure in the American Southwest," New England Journal of Medicine 289 (December 27, 1973).

Donald E. Chipman

Recommended citation:

"CABEZA DE VACA, ALVAR NUNEZ." The Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/CC/fca6.html [Accessed Mon Sep 24 13:45:42 US/Central 2001 ].

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