“The Sole Survivor- De Vaca,” The History of Our Country: From the Discovery of America to the Present Time,1900, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E178.E48.

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

1490 CE - 1556 CE


Primary Goal:
To find his way back to Mexico City, and later to find a route from the east coast of South America to Spain's colony in Peru.
His was the first expedition to cross the North American mainland, from the Gulf Coast of Florida down and across to Mexico.

Little is known of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's early life. He was born around the year 1490 in the Spanish province of Andalusia, in the town of Jerez de la Frontera. His father, Francisco de Vera, came from the distinguished de Vera family who had conquered the Canary Islands in the 15th century. For some personal reason, he took his mother's maiden name, Cabeza de Vaca, from which a long line of Spanish soldiers had descended. While Cabeza de Vaca was able to read and write, there is no indication that he obtained anything more than the most rudimentary education available in 16th century Spain.

As a young man, Cabeza de Vaca did not require much in the way of book learning. In 1512, he fought under King Ferdinand of Spain at the Battle of Ravenna in Italy and in the early 1520s fought in Spain under the Duke of Medina Sidonia. History loses track of Cabeza de Vaca's career until about 1527, when he is attached to a Spanish expedition being sent to the New World. Troubled explorer Pánfilo de Narváez, who had early conquered Cuba and famously feuded with Mexican conqueror Hernan Cortés, was being sent by Spain's King Charles I (also remembered by history as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) to explore the relatively unknown territory the Spanish were calling Florida. Despite a previous career as a soldier, Cabeza de Vaca is listed as the expedition's treasurer, in charge of overseeing expenses. Records also indicate that Cabeza de Vaca had another, slightly more military, role as the expedition's sheriff, in charge of maintaining order.

On June 17, 1527, the fleet of five ships set sail from the Spanish port of San Lúcar de Barrameda bound for the Mexican province of Pánuco, on the western border with what was known as Florida. Stopping at Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, the expedition picked up a herd of horses and all necessary supplies. Unfortunately for Narváez, some 150 members of his group elected to stay on Hispaniola and try their hand at something other than exploring Florida. The expedition pushed on to Cuba (now larger by one vessel; Narváez purchased another ship in Santo Domingo), where Cabeza de Vaca was dispatched with two ships to pick up more men and supplies. A hurricane destroyed the two ships and killed most of Cabeza de Vaca's men, but Narváez arrived a few days later and picked up the survivors.

After wintering at the Cuban port of Jagua, Narváez was ready to set sail again in February 1528. In April, the fleet anchored in modern-day Sarasota Bay, ready to explore Florida. Communicating with the local Native Americans, the Spanish heard rumors of a large city named Apalachen, which was full of food and gold. Being short on both food and gold, Narváez made a command decision to seek out Apalachen (supposedly near modern-day Tallahassee, Florida) on foot, while the other half of his expedition would sail on to Pánuco (which the Spanish mistakenly believed to be very close). Cabeza de Vaca balked at Narváez’s plan, but like a good soldier, he followed his orders.

Some 300 of the expedition’s 400 men followed Pánfilo de Narváez into the Florida swamps, despite Cabeza de Vaca’s reservations that the men would never see the ships again. For two months, the expedition moved slowly up the coast of Florida, finding little in the way of food or gold, and meeting only menacing Native Americans who harassed the Spanish at every opportunity. In mid-June, they finally made it to Apalachen, which they quickly conquered and occupied. The residents of Apalachen did provide Narváez’s men with much corn, but no gold. The Spaniards were told that Apalachen was not rich, but a town about ten days away named Aute certainly was.

Narváez insisted that the weary men push on to Aute, which historians believe was situated near the mouth of the Apalachicola River. The Native Americans ambushed them constantly on the march, killing a few Spanish soldiers and wounding many more, Cabeza de Vaca among them. The village of Aute was finally reached after five or nine days (the sources vary), where it was found that the inhabitants, knowing of the Spaniards’ arrival, burned the entire town to the ground. But as luck would have it, the unharvested fields had not been touched, and the Spaniards were at least able to eat well.

With near constant attacks by the Native Americans beginning to take their toll on the men’s safety and sanity, it was decided to abandon Aute and try to reach Pánuco. The swamps and lakes in the area around Aute made an overland journey nearly impossible, so Narváez commanded the men to begin building barges from the local trees. The Spanish had little in the way of wood working tools, and only a single trained carpenter among them. But by late September, five roughly 30-foot barges had been constructed. Cabeza de Vaca rightly questioned how seaworthy the vessels were, but he followed Narváez’s orders and took command of barge number five, with some 50 other men.

For close to two months, the Spanish sailed along the Gulf Coast of North America, stopping at river inlets and Native American villages in an attempt to find food and fresh water. Relations with the natives soured at every encounter and a handful of Narváez’s men were lost in skirmishes. Somewhere near the mouth of the Mississippi River, which the Spanish chose not to explore because of the strong current, the barges became scattered. In their last exchange of words, Cabeza de Vaca called from his barge to Narváez, asking for orders. Narváez replied that he had no orders to give; it was every man for himself.

Cabeza de Vaca’s barge drifted for several days, tossed by heavy seas and whipped by cold rain. On November 6, 1528, his barge wrecked on a sandy island off modern-day Texas, which historians believe was Galveston Island. The men happily built a fire to keep warm, and eventually established relatively good relations with the island’s native inhabitants. A few days later, the crew of a second barge was discovered on the island. Cabeza de Vaca happily greeted his comrades Alonso de Castillo and Andres Dorantes, who had commanded the barge. Four of the healthiest Spaniards, led by a man named Fernández, were chosen to attempt a journey overland to Pánuco, which the Spanish still doggedly assumed was not too far off.

The weather turned cold, and both the Spaniards and Native Americans began to get sick and die. The already weakened Spanish succumbed in greater numbers; out of some 80 or so who landed on Galveston, only 15 survived the winter. Cabeza de Vaca gave the island the name Malhado (“ill fate” in Spanish) to commemorate the Spaniards’ suffering. In the spring of 1529, the Spanish decided to leave Malhado, in hopes of finally reaching Pánuco; Cabeza de Vaca was left behind with the Native Americans because he was considered too ill to travel.

As he got better, the local natives started to regard Cabeza de Vaca as something of a magical figure; they began to see him as a powerful medicine man. While he denied that he had any magic powers to cure the sick, Cabeza de Vaca noted that those ailing natives he treated did end up getting better. Finally feeling well enough to attempt a voyage to Pánuco, Cabeza de Vaca bid farewell to his Native American hosts and crossed the bay to the mainland. There, he supported himself through trading; products gathered along the seashore (mostly shells, by Cabeza de Vaca's account) could be sold inland for furs and hides. The relatively free life of a trader appears to have suited Cabeza de Vaca, as he traveled around modern-day Texas, dealing with different native tribes and gaining their respect; he was still considered a powerful medicine man, despite his protests that he had no such powers.

In 1533, Cabeza de Vaca was surprised to encounter three old friends. Alonso de Castillo, Andres Dorantes and Dorantes' North African slave Estevanico, had all left Cabeza de Vaca to recover on Malhado Island several years earlier, only to fall into the hands of unfriendly natives. Dorantes informed Cabeza de Vaca of what had happened to his comrades (killed off through starvation or by Native Americans) and even what had befallen the four-man rescue party headed by Fernández (also killed off by Native Americans) sent to find help at Pánuco. Cabeza de Vaca immediately began plotting to help his countrymen escape from captivity, for the Native Americans were keeping them as virtual slaves. It was agreed that they would put their escape plan into motion the following summer, when all local native groups gathered near the site of modern-day San Antonio to gather the fruit of local cacti.

In September 1534, the four Spaniards (although Estevanico was a North African and a Muslim, he appears to have been accepted as an equal by his mates) escaped and eventually settled for the winter with a native group they called the Avavares. The Avavares were quite taken with their new guests, and Cabeza de Vaca and Castillo especially were regarded as powerful healers and medicine men. The expedition stayed there for some eight months, all the while being forced to play doctor to sick Native Americans who journeyed many miles to see the powerful foreigners. Cabeza de Vaca seems to have grown weary in his role as healer, but kept up the act to preserve good relations with his hosts.

The four finally left the Avavares in spring of 1535, heading vaguely west. Their intent was to reach the Spanish colony in Mexico, having finally shaken the idea that Pánuco was anywhere near them. While journeying through modern-day New Mexico and Arizona, it was Cabeza de Vaca's leadership skills and fortitude that kept the group going. As their reputations grew, a band of Native American admirers began following Cabeza de Vaca and demanding more and more of his supposed healing skills. Each village they visited hosted a large feast for the Spanish travelers, and Cabeza de Vaca's detailed accounts of how the Native Americans lived and worked offer historians a unique glimpse at these cultures.

Cabeza de Vaca described natives who lived in walled cities and adobe pueblos, mountains made of iron (most likely hills of malpais, black volcanic rock that dots the Southwest) and a flourishing trade in copper and silver (most likely silvery flakes of mica). As they continued their travels towards the Southern Sea, as the Spaniards then called the Pacific Ocean, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions began to identify with the Native Americans in a way that most Europeans would or could not. This became most noticeable when, in May of 1536, Cabeza de Vaca's group and their native followers (who had taken to calling the Spaniards "Children of the Sun") finally encountered other Spaniards. The meeting took place somewhere near the modern-day Mexican city of Culiacán, in the western part of Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca, in his account written later, refers to his countrymen as "them" and to his Native American comrades as "us."

The Spaniards Cabeza de Vaca and Estevanico (Dorantes and Castillo were resting in a nearby village) met were led by Diego de Alcaraz, who was in the region capturing Native Americans to sell as slaves. This immediately aroused the anger of Cabeza de Vaca, who did not want to see a single member of his native entourage enslaved. Alcaraz agreed not to enslave any of the local natives who had treated Cabeza de Vaca so well (he later broke this promise; his commander, Governor Nuño de Guzmán of New Galicia was heavily involved in the native slave trade), and sent word to the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City that Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was alive and well.

When Cabeza de Vaca arrived in the capital city, he was treated as a celebrity. Back among Spaniards, he found it difficult to return to a European way of life; he found clothing too confining and uncomfortable to wear for long. Bare chests and no pants might have been fine for the Native Americans, but the viceroy and Spanish officials in Mexico City insisted that Cabeza de Vaca wear a fine suit of clothes. He also discovered that he could not fall asleep in a European-style bed; the Spanish were shocked that he preferred sleeping on the bare floor. It was finally decided that the men should write down their experiences, which Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo and Dorantes did in late 1536; the document’s publication caused a sensation.

In 1537, Cabeza de Vaca set sail for Spain. Castillo settled in Mexico and married, and while Dorantes intended to travel back to Europe with Cabeza de Vaca, he eventually changed his mind and stayed in the Mexican town of Vera Cruz. Estevanico, who Dorantes appears to have either sold or given to Viceroy Mendoza, eventually returned to modern-day New Mexico with an expedition led by New World.">Franciscan monk Marcos de Niza, where he was killed in a scuffle with Native Americans.

Back in Spain, Cabeza de Vaca lobbied for the position of governor of Florida. King Charles chose Hernando de Soto instead, although de Soto offered Cabeza de Vaca a place in his expedition. This offer was turned down (some say his experiences with Narváez soured him on expeditions led by anyone other than himself), and in 1540, Cabeza de Vaca succeeded in becoming a colonial governor when he was appointed adelantado (a Spanish title for colonial governor) of Río de la Plata, in South America.

The colony, which comprised parts of modern-day Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, were important to the Spanish, who hoped to find a usable route (either by land or river) to their profitable colony in Peru. Cabeza de Vaca's predecessor, Domingo Martinez de Irala, was popular with the local Spanish population and had moved the seat of government from the mouth of the Río de la Plata (Spanish for "river of silver") inland to the town of Asunción. Landing above the mouth of the river in March 1541, on the ship Capitana, Cabeza de Vaca and his men were well received by the residents of the small Spanish colony, who feared they had been abandoned by the mother country. Learning that Irala was up the river in Asunción, Cabeza de Vaca set out overland through the jungles to relieve him of command.

The two met in March 1542, and the government of Asunción pledged their loyalty to the new governor. Cabeza de Vaca and Irala got along well enough, and Irala was ordered to explore a possible route to Peru. Setting out in October, Irala sailed three brigantines up the navigable Paraguay River, deep into the uncharted jungle. He set up a base, which he named Puerto de los Reyes (Spanish for "Port of Kings") because he landed on January 6, 1543, which was celebrated by the Spanish as the Feast of the Three Kings. Irala attempted to go further into the interior, but did not make much progress due to the thickness of the jungle growth. He returned to Asunción in February to report what he had seen to Cabeza de Vaca.

Cabeza de Vaca then planned his own expedition to find a route to the gold and silver mines of Spanish-occupied Peru. Leaving a trusted lieutenant, Juan de Salazar de Espinoza in charge, Cabeza de Vaca set out from Asunción with 20 vessels (generically dubbed "brigantines" by the available sources) and 120 native canoes. Going with him, both on board the ships and overland along the river, were some 400 Spaniards and 800 natives from a friendly local tribe called the Guaraní. Cabeza de Vaca hoped to reach Los Reyes (as Irala's port was called) and then push further west into the jungle.

The journey was not easy. He and his expedition followed the Paraguay River, and along the way made peace with several bands of hostile natives. All pledged their loyalty to King Charles of Spain, and Cabeza de Vaca was sure to mention that any past offenses against the Spanish were forgiven; the local Payaguás tribe had killed every member of an earlier expedition led by the unlucky Juan de Ayolas. Once in Los Reyes, Cabeza de Vaca encountered and cataloged the odd animal life that teemed in the jungle: particularly disturbing were the small vampire bats that a shocked Cabeza de Vaca found in his bed one night. He awoke to find himself covered in his own blood, and a vampire bat happily lapping it all up.

The expedition did not get too far beyond Los Reyes. Having to constantly cut down thick jungle growth quickly tired the Spaniards, and as provisions grew short, so did tempers. Cabeza de Vaca began to think that perhaps he had brought too many companions; a smaller expedition might have made faster progress. He and his men were nearly all sick with various jungle fevers when they returned to Los Reyes, and the constant swarm of mosquitoes in the city did not improve anyone's mood. Withdrawing even further downriver to Asunción, the beleaguered Spaniards had to contend with daily attacks on their ships by the hostile Guaxarapos tribe, which inhabited the region between Los Reyes and their capitol. They finally arrived in Asunción on April 8, 1544.

Cabeza de Vaca's troubles did not end in Asunción. During his absence, rival political forces, led by former governor Domingo Martinez de Irala, had stirred up resistance to Cabeza de Vaca's rule. For reasons not clearly identified by historians, Cabeza de Vaca was placed under arrest for a list of crimes, most implying that he was a bullying tyrant. The record tends to indicate otherwise, as Cabeza de Vaca had worked hard to make the colony thrive, and had done much to maintain peace with the local Native Americans. Some historians have theorized that this was probably the main reason for his arrest and removal; his benevolent attitude towards Native Americans, no doubt influenced by all the time he'd spent among natives in Mexico, was unpopular with the more militant attitude of Irala and his followers who saw the local native population as violent savages.

But Irala had miscalculated the governor's popularity within the colony. He and his conspirators scrapped their original plan to execute Cabeza de Vaca, and instead sent him to Spain to answer for his supposed crimes. He remained in Spain for five or six years before finally being brought before the Council of the Indies, the governing body the Spanish Crown had established to oversee the running of the American colonies, in 1551. Cabeza de Vaca was found guilty of usurping power and of total mismanagement of the Río de la Plata colony and was sentenced to banishment in Africa. King Charles, who still had a liking for Cabeza de Vaca, intervened on his behalf and reversed the decision, and even awarded the former governor a pension for the rest of his life.

No one is entirely certain what finally became of Cabeza de Vaca. He fades from the historical record after his 1551 trial, leading most to assume that he retired from active service to the Spanish Crown. After a career filled with adventure, misfortune and more than one brush with death, Cabeza de Vaca certainly had earned a quiet retirement. Even the exact year of his death is merely a guess; it is estimated he died in Spain sometime around 1556.

Cabeza de Vaca, while a celebrity after his successful return to Mexico City in 1536, was forgotten by later generations. His fortitude, leadership abilities and ability to live peaceably with Native Americans did help preserve the fledgling Río de la Plata colony, while his trek across the North American continent proved to the Spaniards that the land north of Mexico was not a trackless wasteland, but a genuinely useful piece of property. His journey also helped the Spanish understand the scope of the continent and while no one knows Cabeza de Vaca's exact route, his knowledge helped the Spanish authorities redraw the map of the American Southwest.