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Definition: Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez from Philip's Encyclopedia

Spanish explorer. In 1528, he was shipwrecked off the Texas coast. He and three fellow survivors became the first Europeans to explore the American Southwest, eventually settling in Mexico in 1536. His Comentarios (1555) recount hardships endured in South America, where he served as governor (1542-45) of the province of Río de la Plata.


Summary Article: Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(äl'vär nō'nyāth käbā'thä dā vä'kä), c.1490–c.1557, Spanish explorer. Cabeza de Vaca [cow's head] was not actually a surname but a hereditary title in his mother's family; he is frequently called simply Álvar Núñez.

North American Adventures

Cabeza de Vaca came to the New World as treasurer in the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez that reached Florida (probably Tampa Bay) in 1528. When hardship and native hostility caused the end of the expedition, he was one of the survivors whose barges were shipwrecked on an island off the Texas coast, possibly Galveston or Mustang Island. Their story is one of the most remarkable in the annals of exploration.

After suffering considerably as slaves of the Native Americans inhabiting the island, Cabeza de Vaca and three other survivors escaped and started a long journey overland. His companions were Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico. They gained great repute among the Native Americans as healers since remarkable cures were attributed to their Christian prayers. Their route westward is as disputed as is the identity the island of the shipwreck, but after much wandering they did reach W Texas, then probably New Mexico and Arizona, and possibly (some argue) California before, turning south in 1536, they arrived in Culiacán in Mexico and told their story to Spaniards there.

They were almost certainly the first Europeans to see bison, and their stories about the Pueblo gave rise to the legend of the Seven Cities of Cibola, later magnified by Fray Marcos de Niza, and brought explorers in search of El Dorado. Cabeza de Vaca's own account, Los naufragios [the shipwrecked men] (1542), is the chief document of the startling adventures of his party. An English translation (1851) by Thomas Buckingham Smith is reprinted in I. R. Blacker and H. M. Rosen's The Golden Conquistadores (1960).

South American Career

After returning to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed governor of the Río de la Plata region and reached Asunción after an overland journey from the Brazilian coast in 1542. His South American career was sadly different from that in North America. He got into trouble with the popular Domingo Martínez de Irala, and after he returned from a journey up the Paraná River to Bolivia, he was arrested, accused of high-handed practices, imprisoned for two years, and sent back to Spain. There he was found guilty but was pardoned by the king. Cabeza de Vaca wrote his own account of the South American events in his Comentarios (1555).

Bibliography
  • See Bishop, M., The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca (1933).
  • Terrell, J. U., Journey into Darkness (1962).
  • Long, H., The Marvelous Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca (1973).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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