Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
Article abstract: Cabeza de Vaca’s capture by Native Americans in Texas gave him the chance to explore the region in detail and write an invaluable account of the people and topography of Texas and northern Mexico that stimulated further exploration.
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born at the end of the fifteenth century in a town near Cadiz. Sources differ about the exact year of his birth, with estimates ranging from 1490 to 1500. He was the oldest of the four children of Francisco de Vera and Teresa Cabeza de Vaca. The young man used his mother’s surname because of its honored association in Spain with the struggle against the Islamic Moors. At a battle in 1212, an ancestor used a cow’s head to designate an unmarked pass for Christian soldiers against the Moors. As a result of this action, which helped to win the victory, the ruler at the time gave the name “Cow’s Head” to the ancestors of Cabeza de Vaca’s mother.
Cabeza de Vaca’s parents died when he was young, and he lived with an aunt and uncle until he launched his career as a soldier. He began as a page while still in his teens and was involved in fighting in Italy. He received serious wounds at a battle near the Italian town of Ravenna in 1512. During the next fifteen years, Cabeza de Vaca fought in battles with the armies of the Spanish king against rebels and also in struggles with the French in Navarre.
In 1527, Cabeza de Vaca joined the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez that had been established to conquer Florida for Spain. The Spanish king, Charles I, designated Cabeza de Vaca as the treasurer and what was called the chief constable of the expedition. Five ships carrying six hundred people left for America in June, 1527. The expedition soon encountered obstacles. More than one hundred of its members elected to remain at Santo Domingo. A significant number then perished in a hurricane in Cuba. By the time Narvaez and his men had sailed from Cuba in April of 1528, there were only four hundred men left in his command. A few days later the expedition made landfall in Florida and claimed the territory for Spain.
Then the expedition began to fall apart. Narváez decided to explore the interior and left his ships and supplies. Eventually he and his men found themselves running low on food. Attacks from the natives put the Spaniards in even greater danger. Narváez had his men build some crude barges, and he decided to head for Mexico, which he believed was not far away. In fact, it was hundreds of miles distant.
The flotilla of five barges made good progress for a month and passed by the mouth of the Mississippi River. Then a violent storm scattered the vessels, two of which came to rest on an island near the Texas coast on November 6, 1538. Eighty men survived, including Cabeza de Vaca. However, they were alone in a wilderness at a great distance from any settlement of their European comrades.
Cabeza de Vaca’s primary concern now was his own survival and eventual journey to Mexico to rejoin his countrymen. He later recalled that “the cold was severe, and our bodies were so emaciated the bones might be counted with little difficulty, having become the perfect figures of death.” He had no way of knowing that it would be seven years before he found his way back to Mexico and his own civilization.
For four years until 1532, Cabeza de Vaca lived among the Indians of the Texas coast and ventured inland to trade goods with other tribes. He became a kind of medicine man to the Indians in the area. Since he had no real medical skill, all he could do was to pray over the sick and sometimes blow on their injuries. Cabeza de Vaca saw a great deal of the land because the Indians ranged widely to find the prickly pear fruits and pecan nuts that formed the major part of their diet.
Throughout this part of his adventure, Cabeza de Vaca thought constantly of escape, and he often considered his chances of making a break for freedom. Finally, he persuaded three other Spanish captives to go with him, though he would have made his expedition alone if necessary. By the autumn of 1534, he and his companions, Andrés Dorantes, a black slave named Estevanico (Esteván), and Alonso del Castillo Maldonaldo, fled southward in the direction of Mexico.
The exact route that they traversed has been the object of controversy. Because he was the first European to cross many Texas landmarks, Cabeza de Vaca has become a part of Texas nationalism or state identity. Modern efforts to trace Cabeza de...
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