Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was the first European to see and travel through the U.S. Southwest and author of one of the most remarkable tales in the history of exploration.

He and several companions survived a shipwreck off the Texas coast in 1528, were enslaved by Indians, escaped, and spent the next eight years wandering westward through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and possibly California before turning south into Mexico and reuniting with their countrymen. His official report of this remarkable odyssey of some 6,200 miles, submitted to the king under the title La Relación (The Account), was published in 1542.

His report stirred the Spanish imagination with its speculations about the fabled “Seven Cities of Cibola,” which he claimed lay just to the north of the lands through which he had journeyed, while also providing modern-day scholars with an unprecedented glimpse into Native American society and culture before the Spanish invasion and conquest of portions of the U.S. Southwest after 1550.

Born in Jérez, Andalusia, Spain about 1490, Álvar Núñez was the grandson of Pedro de Vera, renowned for his ruthless conquest of the Canary Islands in the early and mid-1400s. (Cabeza de vaca, or “cow’s head,” was an honorific title bestowed on his mother’s side of the family from an incident in the reconquest of Iberia dating to the year 1212; this explorer is often referred to simply as Álvar Núñez.)

Cabeza de Vaca statue in Texas
After a distinguished military career in Spain from 1511 to the 1520s, in 1527 he was appointed second in command of an expedition of conquest in Florida led by Pánfilo de Narváez. It was Narváez’s bungling leadership, along with bad luck and bad weather, that eventually led to the shipwreck off the coast of Texas, whence the Cabeza de Vaca’s overland odyssey commenced.

Certain features of Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación have received particular attention. One concerns the customs and lifestyles of the indigenous peoples whose paths he and his companions crossed. Descriptions of their foods, material cultures, gender relations, marriage rites, celebrations, religious beliefs and practices, languages, methods of warfare, and relations with other groups captivated European readers.

Cabeza de Vaca’s personal transformation is another element of the book that readers find striking. Stripped of the accoutrements of European civilization, Cabeza de Vaca grows humbler, more spiritual, and more appreciative and sympathetic with his native hosts.

His journey has thus been interpreted as both a literal journey across unknown lands, and an inner spiritual journey in which he comes to acknowledge the humanity of the Indians. This is reflected, some maintain, in the reputation he and his companions earned as healers.

Cabeza de Vaca Monument
Time and again they reportedly cured the ailments of those soliciting their assistance, an aspect of his Relación that has aroused considerable attention. In the 1930s, the scholars Carl Sauer and Cleve Hallenbeck attempted to retrace Cabeza de Vaca’s overland journey. Hallenbeck’s account is still considered the definitive study on the topic.

After reuniting with his countrymen and returning to Spain in 1537, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed governor of the Río de la Plata region. Undertaking further remarkable overland odysseys in South America, he ran afoul of the authorities, was imprisoned for two years, and was sent back to Spain, where he was found guilty but pardoned by the king.

His odyssey inspired an award-winning film (Cabeza de Vaca, 1991), further testimony to the enduring interest inspired by his extraordinary odyssey as described in his Relación.