Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: The 'Great Pedestrian' of North and South America

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: The 'Great Pedestrian' of North and South America

by Donald Chipman

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 Cabeza de Vaca’s mode of transportation, afoot on portions of two continents in the early decades of the sixteenth century, fits one dictionary definition of the word “pedestrian.” By no means, however, should the ancillary meanings of “commonplace” or “prosaic” be applied to the man, or his remarkable adventures

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 Cabeza de Vaca’s mode of transportation, afoot on portions of two continents in the early decades of the sixteenth century, fits one dictionary definition of the word “pedestrian.” By no means, however, should the ancillary meanings of “commonplace” or “prosaic” be applied to the man, or his remarkable adventures. Between 1528 and 1536, he trekked an estimated 2,480 to 2,640 miles of North American terrain from the Texas coast near Galveston Island to San Miguel de Culiacán near the Pacific Coast of Mexico. He then traveled under better circumstances, although still on foot, to Mexico City.

 About a year later, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain. In 1540, the king granted Cabeza de Vaca civil and military authority in modern-day Paraguay. After arriving on the coast of Brazil in 1541, he was unable to find transportation by ship to the seat of his governorship. He then led a group of more 250 settlers through 1,200 miles of unchartered back country, during which he lost only two men.

Cabeza de Vaca’s travels are amazing in themselves, but during them he transformed from a proud Spanish don to lay advocate of Indian rights on both American continents. That journey is as remarkable as his travels. It was this “great awakening”  that landed him in more trouble with Spaniards than Indians. Settlers at Asunción rebelled against the reformist governor, incarcerated him, tried to poison his food on two occasions, and finally sent him to Spain in irons. There he was tried and convicted on trumped-up charges of carrying out policies that were the exact opposite of what he had promoted—the humane protection of Indians.

This book examines the two great “journeys” of Cabeza de Vaca—his extraordinary adventures on two continents and his remarkable growth as a humanitarian.

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Product Details

Texas State Historical Assn Press
Publication date:
Fred Rider Cotten Popular History Series, #21
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.30(d)

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Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

The Great Pedestrian of North and South America

By Donald E. Chipman

Texas State Historical Association

Copyright © 2012 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87611-298-4


BY HIS NAME ALONE, Cabeza de Vaca (Cow's Head) stirs interest among readers of all ages. The oft-repeated explanation of his surname's origin, dating from the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 during the Spanish Reconquest (c. 720–1492), started with accounts of a mythical ancestor of Cabeza de Vaca, a shepherd named Martín de Alhaja, who supposedly marked a pass in the Sierra Morena of central Spain with a cow's skull that allowed Christian forces to flank and defeat a Muslim army. Without question, the story is apocryphal.

In 1999 the University of Nebraska Press published three massive volumes, each more than four hundred pages in length, on Cabeza de Vaca. The authors, Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz, refute the legend of Martín de Alhaja's heroics in a most convincing manner by tracing the ancestry of Cabeza de Vaca through sixteen generations. In doing so, they arrive at the year 1200, twelve years prior to the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. In that year, the first on record to bear the name Cabeza de Vaca was Inés Pérez Cabeza de Vaca, the wife of Rodrigo Rodríguez Girón and Cabeza de Vaca's grandmother many times removed. Unfortunately, Adorno and Pautz have no explanation for the surname's origin but do note that the common Spanish family name of Baca is the equivalent of Vaca.

Cabeza de Vaca's birth year cannot be determined from extant sources. This, however, is far from unusual. Spaniards testifying as witnesses in literally thousands of lawsuits spawned by some of the most litigious people ever to draw a breath were invariably asked to state their name and age as part of the swearing-in process. With rare exceptions, witnesses when addressing their age would say, for example: treinta y cinco años, poco más o menos (thirty-five years, a little more or less).

Adorno and Pautz could only arrive at a "birth window" for Cabeza de Vaca, the years 1487–1492. His place of birth can be identified as Jerez de la Frontera in the south of Spain, a region renowned for itsamber-colored wine known as sherry—the name being a corruption of Jerez. Thanks to Adorno and Pautz, the parentage of Cabeza de Vaca can, of course, be likewise ascertained with certainty through fifteen generations prior to his, but concern here is limited to his paternal grandfather, parents, and maternal ancestors.

Pedro de Vera, Cabeza de Vaca's paternal grandfather, was a man of notable accomplishments. A contemporary Castilian writer described him as "a nobleman, expert in battles on land and on the sea." And, indeed, his signal services for the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, were as conqueror and military governor of the island of Gran Canaria in the 1480s, followed by his role as purveyor and supplier of goods for the Spanish army in the war of Granada, which concluded the nearly eight-hundred-year Reconquest on January 2, 1492. Despite his loyal service to the Catholic Monarchs, Pedro de Vera was not remunerated and died poor, leaving no estate to his heirs.

Cabeza de Vaca's father, Francisco de Vera, had a far less illustrious career than don Pedro. He saw military action in the war of Granada and served as councilman of the city of Jerez de la Frontera from roughly 1482 to 1503. He was deceased by 1506 and interred in the monastery of Santo Domingo in Jerez de la Frontera, a family burial site obtained by Pedro de Vera.

Doña Teresa Cabeza de Vaca, don Álvar's mother, was the daughter of Pedro Fernández Cabeza de Vaca and his second wife, Catalina de Zurita y Figueroa. It was doña Teresa's surname, Cabeza de Vaca, that was proudly adopted by her son, Álvar, rather than that of Vera from his father. Adopting a maternal surname was far from unique, as those familiar with Hispanic family name preferences can attest. In fact, even name variations among full bloodline siblings could vary greatly in these early times. For example, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, a Spanish official and important contemporary of Cabeza de Vaca, had a brother named Gómez Suárez de Figueroa. Without research of Guzmán family history, identifying the close relationship of these two men with such variant names would be difficult.

In 1509 Cabeza de Vaca's mother followed her husband in death, leaving Álvar and his two younger brothers homeless. Pedro de Vera, a distant relative, was then named trustee and guardian of the children of Francisco de Vera and Teresa Cabeza de Vaca. But at this time, young Álvar had already entered ducal service around 1503 as a page in the house of the Dukes of Medina Sidonia in Andalusia.

Given the military prowess of Cabeza de Vaca's paternal grandfather in Gran Canaria and the War of Granada, as well as his father's service in the latter campaign, it is not surprising that young Álvar would be attracted to the profession of arms. In 1511 he left ducal service for roughly two years while serving in the Spanish army. He saw active duty in Italy and fought at the battle of Ravenna in 1512. His vivid recollections of the violence and continuous warfare of late-Renaissance Italy left a lasting impression on him. Much later, while living among Indians in Texas, he would liken some of them in cunningness and viciousness to the Italians.

After returning to ducal service in 1513, a position he held until 1527, Cabeza de Vaca married María Marmolejo around 1520. The couple would remain married, even during the long years of separation from the late 1520s to the mid-1530s when don Álvar was presumed dead in the wilds of European-unexplored North America. If Cabeza de Vaca can be viewed as having survived odysseys in the New World as a sort of "Spanish Odysseus," then María Marmolejo, although she did not have to wait twenty years for his return, surely qualifies as a "Spanish Penelope."

As it turned out, it was Cabeza de Vaca's marriage that largely influenced his return to combat in 1520, with important implications for him well beyond that year. His wife was a converso, meaning a member of a Jewish family who converted to Christianity after the enforced royal edicts of 1492. These draconian laws issued on March 30 compelled all Jews in Spain to either convert to Christianity or leave the country after four months. The powerful Dukes of Medina Sidonia had an admirable record of protecting conversos in Andalusia from persecution as apostate Christians. But a civil war in Spain, known as the Revolt of the Comuneros (May 1520–April 1521), broke out around the time of don Álvar and doña María's nuptials. Should the rebel Comuneros prevail over forces loyal to young Charles I, who had ascended the Spanish throne in 1516, it threatened the safety of doña María and other conversos in Andalusia.

The Revolt of the Comuneros is far too complex to analyze in depth in a brief treatment of Cabeza de Vaca. It is important to note that it sprang from the immense unpopularity of the foreign-born, non-Spanish-speaking king Charles I, the son of Juana la Loca and her feckless and unfaithful Hapsburg husband, Philip the Handsome. Young Charles grew up in Flanders, spoke Flemish, and had never set foot in Spain until he succeeded his grandfather, the Catholic Monarch Ferdinand, as a teenage king. Accompanying the new monarch to Spain were rapacious Burgundian and Flemish advisers who looted Spanish coffers, pushed aside old-family nobles at court, and treated all Spaniards with contempt. Hatreds that simmered for more than three years erupted into civil war when Charles left the country in May 1520, en route to his crowning as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The Revolt of the Comuneros ended after slightly less than a year of fighting that resulted in total victory for royalist forces that rallied on behalf of the absent king. A cursory analysis of a few prominent families who fought in support of King Charles suggests that this revolt and its suppression served as an important litmus test of loyalty for men soon chosen for service across thousands of miles of ocean in the Americas. Among staunch adherents of the king were the family Mendoza, whose members would serve as viceroys of New Spain (Colonial Mexico) and Peru and first governor of La Plata; the family Velasco, both father and son, who would head the Viceroyalty of New Spain on three occasions; the family Guzmán, from whom came a man who controlled the government in Mexico City in the late 1520s and received appointment as governor of two provinces; and, finally, the family Cabeza de Vaca, represented by don Álvar, who in 1527 would be appointed royal treasurer and second in command of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition.

The Narváez expedition was charged with exploring and settling what was then known as "Florida"—at that time regarded as an immense expanse of land extending along the Gulf Coast from the Florida peninsula to the Río de las Palmas, today the Río Soto la Marina in the present state of Tamaulipas in northeast Mexico. This expedition merits detailed attention, for reasons that are central to the story of Cabeza de Vaca's first assignment and adventure in the Americas. And it cannot be understood without the context of Hernando Cortés's conquest of Mexico from Spanish island possessions in the Caribbean.

The island known to Spaniards as Española (the Dominican Republic and Haiti of today) was permanently settled by Christopher Columbus in 1493. By 1508 Puerto Rico and Jamaica had fallen under the control of Juan Ponce de León and Juan de Esquivel, respectively. Then in 1511, Diego de Velázquez initiated the conquest of Cuba, the largest island in the Antillean chain. From Puerto Rico, León first landed in Florida in 1513, formally opening the history of Spain on the North American continent. From Cuba, Velázquez later sponsored the sea expeditions of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (1517) and Juan de Grijalva (1518), which made landfall on the Yucatán peninsula, where they acquired some wealth but clashed with Maya Indians.

Governor Velázquez's choice as commander of a third expedition fell to Hernando Cortés, who had served him as secretary in the conquest of Cuba. As preparations neared completion, Cortés began to display an alarming independence—in part, because it was don Hernando's nature to be a leader, and because Cortés himself was a minority investor in the enterprise. But as the final hours of preparations neared, Velázquez became convinced that he could not count on the loyalty of such a headstrong captain, and he attempted to remove Cortés from command. The governor's decision, however, came too late. Cortés rallied his men and left Cuba before Velázquez could replace him with a more compliant captain. Significantly, when Cortés left Cuba in 1519 he was viewed as a renegade conquistador by his enraged former sponsor. It also meant that Velázquez would spare no effort or expense in his attempts to remove Cortés from command—all vitally important to the life and fortunes of Cabeza de Vaca, whose American exploits were nonetheless still some eight years in the future.

The conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortés is too well known to recount here beyond details important to this book. From the coast of Mexico, Cortés marched inland and gained allies along the way among Indian groups, especially the Tlaxcalans, who had suffered from wars fought with the powerful Aztecs. The Spanish captain occupied the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519 without firing a shot and later took hostage Moctezuma II.

By 1520 Cortés was in control of much of Mexico from the Veracruz settlement to the Aztec capital, and he had founded the town of Segura de la Frontera on the road from Tlaxcala to Veracruz. But in April a sizable Velázquez-sponsored expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez landed on the coast of Mexico with orders from the governor of Cuba to arrest Cortés and remove him from command. Approximately one thousand foot soldiers and eighty horses made up the army led by Narváez, which outnumbered Cortés's forces by a margin of roughly four to one.

When news reached Cortés of the Velázquez-Narváez challenge to his command, he responded in a manner consistent with his bent for leadership. He first tried a negotiated settlement with Narváez, which came to naught because of don Pánfilo's conviction that he held the whip hand due to superior numbers. Cortés then divided his small army that occupied the Aztec capital, leaving about eighty men there, while he force-marched a larger contingent of troops numbering around 270 to the coast. En route he received small reinforcements from his adherents at Segura de la Frontera. Under cover of darkness, Cortes's much smaller but more experienced army quickly routed Narváez's forces. In fighting on the steps of a pyramid in the Indian town of Cempoala, Narváez wielded a great two-handed sword, but in the darkness he did little damage with it. One of Cortés's soldiers managed to thrust a pike inside the deadly arc of the broadsword. It struck Narváez in the face and plucked out his right eye. This took the fight out of don Pánfilo, and the rest of his army quickly surrendered. The outcome, however, underscores an important interpretive point—the sharp contrast between the red-bearded Narváez's ineptness and the excellent leadership of Cortés.

Cortés placed Narváez in chains and incarcerated him in humid and mosquito-infested Veracruz where he remained until 1522, at which time or perhaps a bit later he left New Spain for Cuba. But the one-eyed casualty of Cempoala did not return to Spain until 1525, still chafing over his treatment by Cortés and seeking vindication before Charles V and his court. In the meantime, he had had to stomach news of Cortés's having received an array of titles in October 1522, including the right to expel from New Spain persons whose presence he deemed prejudicial to the best interests of the king. That Velázquez's investments in the conquest of Mexico had gone unrecognized and unrewarded by the Spanish crown sent a clear message that it valued success above all other considerations. For Narváez, there was no consolation from the crown until December 1526 when he received approval for the governorship of Florida and the Río de las Palmas.

For approximately two years, Narváez had followed the court of Charles V as it moved about Spain, during which time his entreaties for an appointment in the New World shrewdly played on the young king's conscience. Surely, Narváez argued, delays in granting him a license to carry out an expedition in the New World would prey on Charles's mind "if it hindered the conversion of the Indians to our holy Catholic faith and postponed the benefits of your royal patrimony."

Cabeza de Vaca's appointment as royal treasurer and second in command in the Narváez expedition came in mid-February 1527. It would seem that his service in the Spanish army and especially his support of Charles I in the Revolt of the Comuneros helped secure these honors for him. His annual salary of 130,000 maravedís, the smallest coin and unit of Spanish currency, was roughly half that accorded don Pánfilo. However, whereas Narváez received a guaranteed annual income of 250,000 maravedís for the rest of his life, Cabeza de Vaca's stipend was payable only for the duration of his appointment.

With his royal charter in hand, Pánfilo de Narváez traveled to Seville, where he plunged into the details of organizing his expedition over the course of some six months. He needed recruits, supplies, and ships, and above all a pilot knowledgeable of coastal Florida. Such pilots, licensed by the Spanish House of Trade, were always in great demand for expeditions headed to the Indies, as Spain named its American empire. By late spring 1527, Narváez had purchased five ships and signed on approximately six hundred passengers. Among those adventurers were four men whom fate would bond in a distant land that was Texas. Their names were Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, a Moroccan-born slave known only by the name of Estevanico, and, of course, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.


Excerpted from Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca by Donald E. Chipman. Copyright © 2012 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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