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Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Although he was never in what is now New Mexico, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and three companions of his had a momentous effect on the region's history. In February 1536 four survivors of the expedition to La Florida that had been led by Pánfilo de Narváez arrived in San Miguel de Culiacán, the northernmost Spanish settlement in the young province of Nueva Galicia, now the coastal states of western Mexico. The four, Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés de Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso Castillo Maldonado, and Dorantes's African slave Esteban, had survived shipwreck, years of captivity, and a trek on foot across what is now Texas and northern Mexico. They brought reports of large, sophisticated societies that were said to live in the interior of the continent, far north of where Spanish-led expeditions had then penetrated.

Cabeza de Vaca and his fellows said they had been told by Indians about towns of stone masonry buildings, where the citizens wore cotton clothing, grew plentiful corn, and refined metals such as copper. In the wake of the conquests of the Mexica (Aztec) and Inca empires, fifteen and four years earlier respectively, this news was electrifying. On the strength of the Cabeza de Vaca party's information, the viceroy of Nueva España, don Antonio de Mendoza, acting as a private citizen, spearheaded a drive first to learn more about and then to take control of those populous and affluent societies.

Mendoza's effort culminated in a major land and sea expedition, now called the Coronado expedition, that brought Old World natives for the first time into contact with the indigenous peoples of today's New Mexico, the rest of the American Southwest, and northwest Mexico. Although the sort of mercantile, commodity-producing societies Cabeza de Vaca's reports had seemed to imply were never found, those reports proved to be the trigger of a chain of events that eventually led to the establishment of a permanent Spanish presence in New Mexico.

Who, then, was this man Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and why was he not involved further in the trajectory of New Mexico history? He descended from the Vera and Cabeza de Vaca families that had figured prominently in the reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula from Islamic Moors, who held parts of it from the early A.D. 700s until 1492, and the conquest of the Canary Islands. Álvar Núñez himself was born about 1488 in Jerez de la Frontera in what is now the comunidad of Andalucía in southern Spain.

Beginning in his middle teens, Cabeza de Vaca served the dukes of Medina Sidonia for nearly 25 years as a steward and sometime man-at-arms. In February 1527 he was appointed royal treasurer of the expedition to La Florida then being organized in Spain, which was to be led by Pánfilo de Narváez. The office of tesorero, or treasurer, was one of four royal positions customarily assigned to expeditions and similar ventures and charged with safeguarding the king's financial interest. The remaining three offices were those of factor (tribute collector), contador (accountant), and veedor (inspector). As treasurer, Álvar Núñez was to receive an annual salary of 130,000 maravedís.

The expedition sailed from Spain in June 1527, but did not arrive on the American mainland until nearly a year later and with only two-thirds of the force it had departed with from Sanlúcar. From its initial landfall on the west coast of the Florida peninsula, the expedition slogged northward in search of Apalachee, which was understood to be a very large and affluent city. As with so many expeditions of the time, arrival of Narváez's force at that Indian settlement proved a great disappointment because there were no commodities considered valuable by European standards.

Expeditionaries fell ill in increasing numbers. A planned rendezvous with supply ships on the Florida coast failed to occur. The desperate men decided to build boats and sail for Nueva España, thought mistakenly to be within relatively easy reach. Five crude, horsehide craft were assembled and in September 1528 put to sea heading west. Coasting along the Gulf of Mexico shore, the five ungainly craft, one of which Cabeza de Vaca was captain, were battered by heavy weather, swept out of sight of land by the current of the Mississippi River, and ultimately wrecked on the Texas coast on today's Galveston Island. Most of the expeditionaries died at sea or soon after reaching shore.

Unexpectedly to the expeditionaries, local Indians, Cavoques and Han, took some of the survivors in and used them as labor. As a matter of course, expedition survivors were expected to participate in curing activities. Living conditions were atrocious by standards the Europeans were used to, and men continued to die in the harsh environment. After six years just four of the original 600 members of the Narváez expedition remained alive. They agreed to flee together from their native captors, putting that plan into effect in September 1534.

Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo, and Esteban sought refuge with a succession of native bands, doing menial tasks and trading small items of handicraft for food and other necessities. All the while they pursued each group's seasonal round. Frequently they performed healing acts, Cabeza de Vaca himself having greatest renown for the efficacy of his cures. Eventually the quartet became widely known and sought after as healers, which allowed them more freedom of movement.

In this way they passed from band to band across extreme southern Texas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Sonora. The northernmost point on their route was probably south of modern El Paso on the Rio Grande. It was probably while passing through today's Coahuila that Cabeza de Vaca and his companions were given copper bells, which they understood came from the north, from people who lived in large towns of stone buildings. They also saw bison products and received corn.

Early in 1536 they saw evidence of other Europeans and finally met a slaving party that escorted them to Culiacán. After a lengthy rest, they made their way to Mexico City, where they were received like celebrities. Their 2,800-mile trek was over. In Mexico City they drafted a brief report of their travels and consulted extensively with the viceroy about the peoples they had seen and heard about.

Viceroy Mendoza suggested that Cabeza de Vaca and Dorantes lead an expedition of reconnaissance back into the north from which they had just come, in order to find the cities and towns they had heard about. In the end, both men turned down Mendoza's proposition. After one false start in October 1536, Álvar Núñez embarked for Spain in August 1537. His mission was to seek preferment by the king, in which he was formally supported by the viceroy, who wrote Carlos I as much. Cabeza de Vaca sought the governorship of La Florida, the position Narváez had held until his death. Thus, the now celebrated wanderer did desire to return to the scene of his harrowing experience among the Indians. But he preferred to return with more exalted status than he could have enjoyed under Mendoza's plan.

Cabeza de Vaca found, however, that the governorship he coveted had already been bestowed on another famous conquistador, Hernando de Soto, who had recently returned to Spain after playing a key role in the conquest of the Inca Atahualpa's empire in Peru. In an attempt to smooth ruffled feathers and gain a valuable associate, Soto offered a position in his imminent expedition to Álvar Núñez. Just as he had rejected Mendoza's plan, Cabeza de Vaca now turned down Soto's offer. He did, though, provide information to Soto about cotton-clothed people with turquoise and metals, who lived in permanent stone buildings in the interior of the continent. That information helped fuel the excitement of Soto and his followers, although he didn't satisfy even his own relatives as to whether there were precious metals in La Florida.

Not deflected from his pursuit of high position, Cabeza de Vaca pressed his petition for preferment on the king. Carlos I asked Álvar Núñez to lead an expedition to the St. Lawrence River in what is now Canada, in order to forestall French attempts to occupy and control it. That project held no appeal for Cabeza de Vaca, so he respectfully declined. Finally, in 1540, came an offer more to his liking. The king and his counselors suggested to Cabeza de Vaca that he take up the governorship of the province of Río de la Plata in what is today Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, a position left vacant in 1537 by the death of Pedro de Mendoza, a relative of the viceroy of Nueva España.

The royal appointment was complicated, though, by the fact that a successor to the governorship of Río de la Plata had been designated by Mendoza before his death. That man was Juan de Ayolas. By the time Cabeza de Vaca reached South America, Ayolas had been killed by Indians and a subordinate of his, Domingo Martínez de Irala, was in charge at Asunción, the capital of the province of Río de la Plata. For more than a year after Cabeza de Vaca's arrival at Asunción in 1542 he was occupied with establishing a government and attempting to assure peaceful relations with the neighboring indigenous groups.

Throughout his tenure in Río de la Plata Cabeza de Vaca became well-known and sometimes disliked by his fellow colonists for his partiality toward Indians of the province, requiring that they be paid for goods and services and that they not be molested or abused. It seems likely that this attitude toward native people developed during Álvar Núñez's travel across the North American continent in the 1530s.

Late in 1543 Cabeza de Vaca undertook a major expedition up the Río Paraguay from Asunción. The attempt ended in disaster. Impenetrable forest and a shortage of supplies, aggravated by animosity from many of the expeditionaries, doomed the enterprise. Indians along the way were aggrieved by the seizure of food by the expedition. The natives attacked the expeditionaries and the outpost of Puerto de los Reyes. Cabeza de Vaca and many others fell ill. He and his advisors reluctantly agreed to attack neighboring Indians and take slaves. After three months leaders of the expedition, including the royal officials, demanded that it be abandoned. Álvar Núñez consented, but required that numerous female Indian slaves be left behind, which angered many expeditionaries.

Two weeks after the aborted expedition returned to Asunción, Cabeza de Vaca, desperately ill, was forcibly overthrown with Martínez de Irala in the lead. The mutineers drew up formal charges against Cabeza de Vaca and dispatched them back to Spain. With lengthy documents of accusation and defense, the deposed governor was put aboard a ship in chains, headed to Spain in March 1545.

Prosecution of Cabeza de Vaca got underway the same year. Without awaiting its outcome, though, Carlos I appointed a new governor of Río de la Plata, Juan de Sanabria, a cousin of Hernán Cortés. The legal case dragged on until, in March 1551, the Consejo de Indias reached a decision, finding Cabeza de Vaca culpable and formally stripping him of the governorship and his other titles and salaries. Although his sentence was substantially reduced in 1552, the former governor was still appealing that decision three years later. Álvar Núñez died, probably in his native Jerez de la Frontera, about 1559.

Sources Used:

Adorno, Rolena and Patrick Charles Pautz. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, His Account, His Life, and the Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez. 3 vols. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Chipman, Donald E. “In Search of Cabeza de Vaca’s Route across Texas: An Historiographical Survey,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 91(2) (October 1987):127-48.

Howard, David A. Conquistador in Chains: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Krieger, Alex D. We Came Naked and Barefoot: The Journey of Cabeza de Vaca across North America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.