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Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490 - 1559) was born in Spain. He was appointed as treasurer and first lieutenant of the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition.

The expedition landed near present-day Tampa Bay on April 15, 1528. Narvaez decided to take 300 men and 40 horses on his ship to investigate the land. He thought the Rio do las Pamas was about 30 to 45 miles wide, but it turned out to be closer to 1,500 miles. The group could not make it back to their ships, so they headed down to the Florida peninsula. Narvaez had lost many men due to injuries and he was down to fewer than 250 men.

The Spaniards wanted to leave Florida by sea. They built rafts and loaded about 50 men onto each one, and had to sail close to the shore so they would not sink.

They hit land on the Texas coast. Cabeza de Vaca’s raft landed in present day Follets Island. The men were dying due to sickness, and by the spring of 1529 there were only thirteen Spaniards and one African slave still alive. Cabeza de Vaca became sick too and the other men thought he was dead because they had not seen him in a long time. The men headed down toward Mexico without him.

Cabeza de Vaca recovered and stayed in Texas. He was the first European to become a Texas merchant. He would trade sharp shells for bison skins and red ochre (a type of soil). He treated the Indians well and helped them when they were sick. He received food as payment for his treatment.

In 1532, Cabeza de Vaca moved down the coast toward Mexico. When he and his companion got to Matagoara Bay, they met an Indian tribe that Cabeza de Vaca called the Quevenes, who threatened to kill them. The Quevenes told Cabeza de Vaca of three men like him across the bay. Cabeza de Vaca found it was the men who had left him in Texas four years earlier. These were the only known survivors of the original 300 men.

Cabeza de Vaca and Andres Dorantes served as slaves to the Mariames for 18 months. Cabeza de Vaca wrote down how to hunt and gather and published it. He is considered the first ethnologist, someone who studies other cultures. In 1534, the men finally had the opportunity to escape the enslavement. They went in different directions in the middle of the nights but they found each other again a few weeks later. They were accepted by the Avavares Indians near Corpus Christi Bay. They stayed there for about eight months and headed into Mexico. They continued their journey toward the Pacific Ocean until they saw evidence of other Spaniards. The other three men stopped their journey, but Cabeza de Vaca continued.

In the 1540s, he led 200 settlers on a 1,200 mile march from the coast of Brazil. He became a governor in present-day Paraguay. There he tried to help the Indians, but he was removed from office by the settlers who wanted to exploit the natives. Cabeza de Vaca was tried on 32 charges of misbehaviors, and was banished permanently from Spain and was sentenced to five years of service in the penal colony of Oran in North Africa.


Source: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
Copyright © Texas State Historical Association

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