Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

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

The expedition landed near present-day Tampa Bay on April 15, 1528. Narvaez took 300 men and 40 horses from his ships to investigate the land. He thought the Rio do las Pamas was about 30 to 45 miles wide, but it turned out to be 1,500 miles. The group could not make it back to their ships, so they headed down to the Florida peninsula. Narvaez lost 50 men due to injuries.

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. One raft was commanded by Cabeza de Vaca.

They hit land on the Texas coast. Many more men died from illnesses, and by the spring of 1529 there were only thirteen Spaniards and one African slave still alive. Cabeza de Vaca fell ill. The other men thought he was dead because they did not see him for a long time, so they headed toward Mexico without him.

Cabeza de Vaca recovered and stayed in Texas. He was the first European to become a Texas merchant. He traded 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 service.

In 1532, Cabeza de Vaca and his companion moved down the coast toward Mexico. They met an Indian tribe called the Quevenes, who threatened to kill them. The Quevenes spoke 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 Narvaez expedition.

Cabeza de Vaca and Andres Dorantes were slaves to the Mariames for 18 months. Cabeza de Vaca published details of how to hunt and gather, earning him the title of the first Texas ethnologist (someone who studies other cultures). In 1534, the men escaped the enslavement. They were accepted by the Avavares Indians near Corpus Christi Bay, where they stayed for eight months before heading 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 eventually became a governor in present-day Paraguay where 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 misbehavior. He was banished permanently from Spai, and sentenced to five years in a penal colony in North Africa.

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

Back to top