Cabeza de Vaca is remembered for his epic journey across the Americas. He was a survivor of the failed Narvaez expedition and would journey across the North American continent for eight years.
Along the way, he would trade with the natives, learn their culture, and respect who they were.
He would pen books on his encounters with the natives that gave the perspective of who they were and how they conducted themselves. He would eventually return to Spain and would never return to the Americas.
He was unlike the other Spanish Conquistadors in that he did not conquer with the sword because he did not have one, but he survived through intuition and tolerance.
Cabeza de Vaca Facts: Early Years
Cabeza de Vaca's parents died when he was young, de Vaca was taken in by relatives, and evidence suggests that he probably had a moderately comfortable early life.
He was appointed chamberlain for the house of a noble family in his teen years, then participated in the conquest of the Canary Islands, where he was appointed a governor.
In 1511, he enlisted in the Spanish army, serving in Italy, Spain, and Navarre. He received several medals of honor and became more of a political figure in Spain.
In 1527, Núñez joined the Florida expedition of conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez, during which he served as treasurer and marshal.
Cabeza de Vaca Facts: Exploration and Disaster
In 1527, the explorer named Pánfilo de Narváez, was sent by Spain’s King Charles I to explore the unknown territory that the Spanish called La Florida.
Cabeza de Vaca was attached to this expedition as the expedition’s treasurer. Records indicate that he also had a military role as one of the chief officers on the Narváez expedition, noted as sheriff or marshal.
On June 17, 1527, the fleet of five ships set sail towards the province of Pánuco. When they stopped in Hispaniola for supplies, Narváez lost approximately 150 of his men, who chose to stay on the island rather than continue with the expedition.
The expedition continued to Cuba, where Cabeza de Vaca took two ships to recruit more men and buy supplies. Their fleet was battered by a hurricane, resulting in the destruction of both ships and the loss of most of Cabeza de Vaca’s men. Narváez arrived days later to pick up the survivors.
By February 1528, the remaining ships and men resumed their expedition, reaching Florida in April. They anchored near what is now known as the Jungle Prada Site in St. Petersburg, claiming this land as a possession of the Spanish empire.
After communicating with the Native Americans, the Spanish heard rumors that a city named Apalachen was full of food and gold. Against the advice of Cabeza de Vaca, Narváez decided to split up his men. Some 300 were to go on foot to Apalachen, and the others would sail to Pánuco.
Apalachen had no gold but only corn, but the explorers were told a village known as Aute, about 5 or 9 days away, was rich. They pushed on through the swamps, harassed by the Native Americans. A few Spanish men were killed, and more wounded.
When they arrived in Aute, they found that the inhabitants had burned down the village and left. But the fields had not been harvested, so at least the Spanish scavenged food there. After several months of fighting native inhabitants through wilderness and swamps, the party decided to abandon the interior and try to reach Pánuco.
Slaughtering and eating their remaining horses, they gathered the stirrups, spurs, horseshoes, and other metal items. They fashioned bellows from deer hide to make a fire hot enough to forge tools and nails. They used these in making five primitive boats to use to get to Mexico.
Cabeza de Vaca commanded one of these vessels, each of which held 50 men. Depleted of food and water, the men followed the coast westward. But when they reached the mouth of the Mississippi River, the powerful current swept them out into the Gulf, where the five rafts were separated by a hurricane. Some were lost forever, including that of Narváez.
Two crafts with about 40 survivors each, including Cabeza de Vaca, wrecked on or near Galveston Island. Out of the 80 or so survivors, only 15 lived past that winter.
The explorers called the island Malhado or the Island of Doom. 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.
Cabeza de Vaca Facts: Journey Through America
As the number of survivors dwindled rapidly, they were enslaved for a few years by various American Indian tribes on the upper Gulf Coast. Because Cabeza de Vaca survived and prospered from time to time, some scholars argue that he was not enslaved but used a figure of speech. He and other noblemen were accustomed to better living.
Their encounters with harsh conditions and weather and being required to work like native women must have seemed like slavery. The tribes to which Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved included the Hans and the Capoques, and tribes later called the Karankawa and Coahuiltecan.
After escaping, only four men, Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and an enslaved Moroccan Berber named Esteban, survived to reach Mexico City.
Traveling mostly with 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-colonized 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.
Throughout those years, Cabeza de Vaca and the other men adapted to the lives of the indigenous people they stayed with, whom he later described as Roots People, the Fish, and Blackberry People, or the Fig People, depending on their principal foods.
During his wanderings, passing from tribe to tribe, Cabeza de Vaca later reported that he developed sympathies for the indigenous peoples. He became a trader and a healer, which gave him some freedom to travel among the tribes.
As a healer, Cabeza de Vaca used blowing to heal but claimed that God and the Christian cross led to his success. His healing of the sick gained him a reputation as a faith healer.
His group attracted numerous native followers, who regarded them as "children of the sun," endowed with the power to heal and destroy. As Cabeza de Vaca grew healthier, he decided that he would make his way to Pánuco, supporting himself through trading.
He finally decided to try to reach the Spanish colony in Mexico. Many natives were said to accompany the explorers on their journey across what is now known as the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
After finally reaching the colonized lands of New Spain, where he first encountered fellow Spaniards near modern-day Culiacán, Cabeza de Vaca, and the three other men reached Mexico City. From there, he sailed back to Europe in 1537.
Numerous researchers have tried to trace his route across the Southwest. 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 recollection has numerous errors in chronology and geography, historians have worked to put together pieces of the puzzle to discern his paths.
Cabeza de Vaca Facts: Return to America
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 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.
In March 1542, Cabeza de Vaca met with Domingo Martínez de Irala and relieved him of his position as governor. The government of Asunción pledged loyalty to Cabeza de Vaca, and Irala was assigned to explore a possible route to Peru. Once Irala returned and reported, Cabeza de Vaca planned his own expedition.
He hoped to reach Los Reyes and push forward into the jungle in search of a route to the gold and silver mines of Peru. The expedition did not go well, and Cabeza de Vaca returned to Asunción.
During his absence, Irala stirred up resistance to Cabeza de Vaca’s rule and capitalized on political rivalries. Scholars widely agree that Cabeza de Vaca had an unusually sympathetic attitude towards the Native Americans of his time.
The elite settlers in Argentina, known as encomenderos, generally did not agree with his enlightened conduct toward the Natives; they wanted to use them for labor.
Because he lost elite support and Buenos Aires was failing as a settlement, not attracting enough residents, Martínez de Irala arrested Cabeza de Vaca in 1544 for poor administration. The former explorer was returned to Spain in 1545 for trial.
Although eventually exonerated, Cabeza de Vaca never returned to South America. He wrote an extensive report on the Río de la Plata colony in South America, strongly criticizing the conduct of Martínez de Irala.
The report was bound with his earlier La Relación and published under the title Comentarios. He died poor in Seville around the year 1558.
Cabeza de Vaca discovered many things during his travels and became a reference for future explorers. He never encountered any of the Aztecs that remained after Hernan Cortes conquered or the Incas that Francisco Pizarro had conquered in South America.