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|Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca|
Portrait of Cabeza de Vaca
|Born||Birth name: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
ca. 1488 / 1490/ 1492
Jerez de la Frontera
/ 1558/ 1559/ 1560|
|Cause of death||By natural causes|
|Occupation||Treasurer, explorer, author of La relación y comentarios, and ex-governor of Rio de Plata in Argentina|
|Parent(s)||Francisco de Vera (father), Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita (mother)|
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Jerez de la Frontera, c. 1488/1490/1492 - Seville, c. 1557/1558/1559/1560) was a Spanish explorer of the New World, and one of four survivors of the 1527 Narváez expedition. During eight years of traveling across the US Southwest, he became a trader and faith healer to various Native American tribes before reconnecting with Spanish civilization in Mexico in 1536. After returning to Spain in 1537, he wrote an account, first published in 1542 as La relación y comentarios ("The Account and Commentaries"), which in later editions was retitled Naufragios ("Shipwrecks"). Cabeza de Vaca is sometimes considered a proto-anthropologist for his detailed accounts of the many tribes of American Indians that he encountered.
In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed adelantado of what is now Argentine Republic, where he was governor and captain general of New Andalusia. He worked to build up the population of Buenos Aires, where settlement had declined due to the poor administration. Cabeza de Vaca was transported to Spain for trial in 1545. Although his sentence was eventually commuted, he never returned to the Americas. He died in Seville.
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1490 into a hidalgo family, the son of Francisco Núñez de Vera and Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita, in the town of Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz, Spain. Despite the family's status as minor nobility, they possessed modest economic resources. In 16th-century documents, his name appears as "Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca".
Álvar Núñez's maternal surname, Cabeza de Vaca (meaning "head of cow") was said to be associated with a maternal ancestor, Martin Alhaja. He had shown the Spanish king a secret mountain pass, marked by a cow's skull, enabling the king to win the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa against the Muslim Moors in 1212.
Some sources indicate that after his parents died when he was young, the boy Álvar was taken in by relatives (most likely his aunt and uncle or his paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vera). 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 (with distinction), 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.
In 1527, Pánfilo de Narváez was sent by Spain's King Charles V to explore the unknown territory which the Spanish called La Florida (present-day Florida in the United States). 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 (which was on the western border of Florida). 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 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 rumours 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 other would sail to Pánuco. Apalachen had no gold but had 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 swamp, 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 a 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 (now part of Texas). Out of the 80 or so survivors, only 15 lived past that winter. The explorers called the island Malhado ("Ill fate" in Spanish), 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.
As the number of survivors dwindled rapidly, they were enslaved for a few years by various American Indian tribes of the upper Gulf Coast. Because Cabeza de Vaca survived and prospered from time to time, some scholars argue that he was not enslaved but using 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 (later called Estevanico), 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 (like the Native Americans) 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.
In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed adelantado of the Río de la Plata in South America. The colony comprised parts of what is now Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Cabeza de Vaca was assigned to find a usable route from this colony to the colony in Peru, on the other side of the Andes Mountains on the Pacific Coast.
En route, 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 (a base that Irala set up) 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 had 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 for his time. The elite settlers in modern 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 (Commentary). He died poor in Seville around the year 1558.
La relación of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is the account of his experiences with the Narvaez expedition and after being wrecked on Galveston Island in November 1528. Cabeza de Vaca and his last three men struggled to survive. They wandered along the Texas coast as prisoners of the Han and Capoque American Indians for two years, while Cabeza de Vaca observed the people, picking up their ways of life and customs. They traveled through the American Southwest and ultimately reached Mexico City, nearly eight years after being wrecked on the island.
In 1537, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, where he wrote his narratives of the Narvaez expedition. These narratives were collected and published in 1542 in Spain. They are now known as The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is the "first European book devoted completely to North America." His detailed account describes the lives of numerous tribes of American Indians of the time. Cabeza de Vaca showed compassion and respect for native peoples, which, together with the great detail he recorded, distinguishes his narrative from others of the period.
Cabeza de Vaca reported on the customs and ways of American Indian life, aware of his status as an early European explorer. He spent eight years with various peoples, including the Capoque, Han, Avavare, and Arbadao. He describes details of the culture of the Malhado people, the Capoque, and Han American Indians, such as their treatment of offspring, their wedding rites, and their main sources of food. Cabeza de Vaca and his three fellow survivors at times served as slaves to the American Indians to survive. Through his observations, Cabeza de Vaca provides insights into 16th-century American Indian life near the present-day Mexico-Texas border.
One of Cabeza de Vaca's greatest achievements of his journey, was that he played an important role as an ambassador to bring peace throughout the land. As the party of travellers passed from one tribe to the next, warring tribes would immediately make peace and become friendly, so that the natives could receive the party and give them gifts. Cabeza notes in his personal account of his journey that in this way; "We left the whole country in peace." Cabeza saw these events as part of his mission and purpose in America, acknowledging in his account that he believed that: "God was guiding us to where we could serve Him.".
Cabeza's greatest challenge as an ambassador came when he attempted to bring peace between the conquering Spanish army and the natives. As Cabeza approached Spanish settlement, he and his companions were very grieved to see the destruction of the native villages and enslavement of the natives. The fertile land lay uncultivated and the natives were nearly starving, hiding in the forest, for fear of the Spanish army.
Cabeza then encountered Diego de Alcaraz, commander of a slavery expedition of about 20 horsemen and attempted to negotiate peace between them and the natives. However, as soon as they departed, Diego went back on his word and plundered Cabeza's entourage of natives that he had sent back home. Not long after this, Cabeza encountered the chief Alcalde (Spanish captain of the province) named Melchor Diaz. Melchor Diaz ordered Cabeza to bring the natives back from the forests so that they would re-cultivate the land. Cabeza and Melchor invited the natives to convert to Christianity and the natives did so willingly. Cabeza instructed them to build a large wooden cross in each village, which would cause members of the Spanish army to pass through the village and not attack it. Soon afterward the Diego de Alcaraz expedition returned and explained to Melchor that they were shocked at how, on their return journey, not only did they find the land repopulated, but the natives coming to greet them with crosses in hand and also gave them provisions. Melchor then ordered Diego that no harm be done to them.
Cabeza de Vaca wrote this narrative to Charles V to "transmit what I saw and heard in the nine years I wandered lost and miserable over many remote lands". He wanted to convey "not merely a report of positions and distances, flora and fauna, but of the customs of the numerous indigenous people I talked with and dwelt among, as well as any other matters I could hear of or observe". He took care to present facts, as a full account of what he observed. The Relation is the only account of many details concerning the indigenous people whom he encountered. The accuracy of his account has been validated by later reports of others, as well as by the oral traditions of descendants of some of the tribes.
Cabeza's account also served as a petition to the King of Spain to both establish a permanent Christian mission and eventually establish the native tribes as a nation under the governance of Spain. In his reflection Cabeza writes to the king of Spain:
May God in His infinite mercy grant that in the days of Your Majesty and under your power and sway, these people become willingly and sincerely subjects of the true Lord Who created and redeemed them. We believe they will be, and that Your Majesty is destined to bring it about, as it will not be at all difficult.
Cabeza De Vaca identified the following peoples by name in his La Relacion (1542). The following list shows his names, together with what scholars suggested in 1919 were the likely tribes identified by names used in the 20th century. By that time, tribal identification was also related to more linguistic data.
Possible Karankawan groups:
Related to Karankawa:
Possible Tonkawan groups:
Possible Coahuiltecan or desert groups:
In 1555, after a four-year position as Adelantado in Rio de la Plata, Cabeza de Vaca wrote from memory a chronicle of the Narvaez expedition in South America. It is believed that his secretary at the time, Pero Hernández, transcribed Cabeza de Vaca's account in what is known as Comentarios. The publication of Comentarios was appended to La relación as a joint publication in Valladolid, Spain entitled: Naufragios. At that time, explorers often published their reports of travels in foreign lands.
In 1906, Naufragios was published in a new edition in Madrid, Spain. The introduction says the intent of this edition was to publicize Cabeza de Vaca's observations and experiences to strengthen authentic representations. This has been described as having the objective of portraying Cabeza de Vaca as less aggressive , while trying to authenticate his role as a sympathetic observer of the natives.
Herrera (2011) classifies Cabeza de Vaca's La Relacion as the first major contribution to Chicano literature. Scholars have identified five major periods of Chicano literature: Spanish Mexican, Mexican American, Annexation, Chicano Renaissance, and Modern. Cabeza de Vaca is classified as part of the Spanish Mexican period; he recounted eight years of travel and survival in the area of Chicano culture: present-day Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. His account is the first known written description of the American Southwest.
Laila Lalami's novel, The Moor's Account (2014), is a fictional memoir of Estevanico, the Moroccan slave who survived the journey and accompanied Cabeza de Vaca through the Southwest. He is considered to be the first black explorer of North America. Lalami claims that the chronicle gives him one sentence: "The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor." However, there are several others referenced to him in the account.
His story is noted in the first episode of Ken Burns' The West, a PBS documentary which first aired in 1996.