Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

(c. 1490-1557)

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca If ever there was a conquistador who deserves to be known as a survivor, it is Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. Born in the region of Spain near Portugal, de Vaca was named treasurer of a 600-man expedition which sailed from Cuba to explore Florida in 1528.

The Spaniards landed near Tampa Bay in April, 1528 and, lured by the Indians’ tales of riches, made their way north to the country of the Apalachee Indians. Under constant attack, the Spaniards made their way down to the Gulf of Mexico near modern-day Apalachicola, Florida. Here they built five barges, and in September, the 242 survivors including de Vaca—set sail.

As the expedition traveled along the north coast of the gulf, one of the barges became separated. The other four barges sailed on until they were struck by a hurricane off the northeastern coast of Texas. Eighty survivors made their way ashore to what became Galveston, Texas. De Vaca—half drowned and naked—found himself on a small island just south, where he was soon joined by two other Spaniards and a slave, whose barge had also capsized.

Cahoques Indians immediately imprisoned the men, and for the next eight years de Vaca and the others remained among various Indian tribes. Cabeza de Vaca was given many tasks to perform for the Indians. He served as a medicine man, although his medical “treatment” consisted mainly of blessing, breathing on, and praying for the sick. He was also forced to perform menial jobs, such as bringing water and wood, dragging canoes, and helping set up houses when the Indians moved to a new place.

In 1532, de Vaca and the three other captives were taken off the island and moved about 100 miles down the coast to the Matagorda Peninsula. They were then turned over as slaves to a tribal chief. The four men remained there until 1534 when they were finally able to escape into the Texas wilderness

Making their way across hundreds of miles of what would become Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, they began an incredible 1 7- month journey. With no supplies, they went barefoot and virtually naked much of the way.

In February 1 536, they made their way down into northern Mexico where they came across a small company of Spanish soldiers. After recovering their strength, they went on to Mexico City, arriving that June. They were received with both astonishment and admiration, and tales of their adventures soon spread.

De Vaca returned to Spain in 1537 where he wrote an account of his experiences. The book, published in 1542, proved to the Spanish that there existed a land mass north of New Spain (Mexico) much greater than they had believed.