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Document Number: AJ-070
Author: Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar, 16th cent.
Title: The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
Source: Bandalier, Adolph Francis (editor). The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions from Florida to the Pacific 1528-1536. Translated from His Own Narrative by Fanny Bandelier. (New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1905). Pages i-xxvi, 1-194.
Pages/Illustrations: 221 / 4
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-070/

Author Note

Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (c.1490-c.1560) was born in Jeréz de la Frontera, Spain, to a noble family; his early career was in the military. In 1527, he was appointed second in command of an expedition headed up by Panfilo de Narváez, who wanted to claim the territory from Florida to Mexico for Spain.

Narváez Expedition, 1528

Cabeza de Vaca left Spain for the Americas in June 1527. In April 1528, Narváez landed near present-day Tampa Bay, Florida with his large army of soldiers and settlers. Plagued by shortages of food, the Spanish force made its way first north and then west along the southern coast of Florida to the Gulf of Mexico in Florida’s panhandle. There, Narváez’s decimated army built boats, and sailed haltingly along the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Three boats were lost, and many of the Spanish explorers also, including the expedition leader, Narváez. Others of the explorers landed, only to die of starvation or Indian attack. Cabeza de Vaca, however, and a few companions survived. They landed finally at a place they named the Island of Misfortune, perhaps Galveston Island, Texas. From 1529 to 1534, Cabeza de Vaca and these others lived a meagre life with the Karankawa Indians, in a state of semi-slavery and often separated from each other. During this time Cabeza de Vaca took advantage of his slight medical skills and remade himself as healer. He explored this small section of the East Texas coast in hopes of finding a way to Mexico and the Spanish colonies there. In 1534, he and the other Spanish survivors, Alfonso de Castillo, Andres Dorantes, and Esteván or Estebanico, started west across Texas and Mexico. With the help of many native Americans along the way, they crossed the Pecos and Colorado rivers and made their way towards Spanish outposts by 1536. Despite the arduous trip, Cabeza de Vaca continued to note the wonders of the American west and the inhabitants’ impressive survival skills. Finally they turned south, moving inland. In April 1536, a Spanish slaving party found the four Spaniards. Soon after Cabeza de Vaca was in Mexico City.

Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain in 1537 and expressed outrage at the Spanish treatment of Indians. He led an expedition in 1541 and 1542 from Santos, Brazil to Asuncion, Paraguay. There, he was appointed governor of Rio de la Plata, but a rebellion of his men overthrew him, and in 1545 he was forced back to Spain, where he was convicted of malfeasance in office-perhaps for advocating kinder treatment of Indians-and sent to Africa. Pardoned in 1552, he became a judge in Seville, Spain, until his death around 1557.

Document Note

The narrative of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is the first European book devoted completely to North America. Though his descriptions were modest, his account fed rumors of a vastly wealthy civilization north of Mexico, inspiring a number of later explorers seeking riches. Cabeza de Vaca’s account is distinguished from later accounts by a greater level of detail about, and a greater respect for, the native inhabitants. Unlike the authors of later accounts, who sought conquest and wealth, Cabeza de Vaca spent years simply trying to survive, and as a result learned much about how the region’s inhabitants themselves lived. His account also includes references to the devastating diseases Europeans would bring to the Americas; he reported that in 1528, when the Spanish landed in Texas, “half the natives died from a disease of the bowels and blamed us.” Like Las Casas (see AJ-66), Cabeza de Vaca urged the Spanish to exhibit greater humanity towards the Indians. His account of these adventures was first published in Spain in 1542. The narrative prompted expeditions soon thereafter by Hernando de Soto and Francisco Vasquez Coronado. The earliest English translation appeared in Samuel Purchas’ volumes in 1625 and 1626. The translation shown here is taken from Bandalier, Adolph Francis (editor). The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions from Florida to the Pacific 1528-1536. Translated from His Own Narrative by Fanny Bandelier. (New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1905).

Other Internet and Reference Sources

A useful timeline of the years 1527-1547 that shows the relationships between the travels of Narváez, Cabeza da Vaca, DeSoto, Ulloa, and Coronado is available from the University of Arizona at http://southwest.library.arizona.edu/jour/front.1_div.4.html.

The PBS website on the American West at http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/index_cont.htm contains biographies, maps, timelines, and lesson plans on the exploration of the west and includes several helpful entries on Cabeza de Vaca.

More information on the Spanish explorers of Florida can be found at http://www.vaca.com/cabeza.html.

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