Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez (ca. 1490–ca. 1559)

By: Donald E. Chipman

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: July 28, 2017

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, an early explorer and first historian of Texas, was born in Jerez de la Frontera, an Andalusian province in the south of Spain near Cádiz. The precise year of Cabeza de Vaca’s birth cannot be determined, but it was within the “birth window” of 1487–92. The origin of his surname (“Cow’s Head” in Spanish) is not known, but it assuredly did not come from an alleged ancestor named Martín de Alhaja and his heroics at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in central Spain in 1212. That story, repeated by the author of this entry in The New Handbook of Texas (1996) and many others, is unquestionably apocryphal.

Orphaned before his teenage years, Cabeza de Vaca joined the Spanish army as an adult and fought with distinction at the battle of Ravenna in Italy in 1512. His military service to the Spanish crown then and later during a brief civil war in Spain (May 1520–April 1521) won him appointment as treasurer and first lieutenant in the 1527–28 expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez.

Narváez, a minor participant in the Conquest of Mexico, departed Spain in June 1527 with five ships. He bore a contract from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain) that permitted him to settle and colonize the region between Florida and the Río de las Palmas, the present-day Río Soto la Marina, located immediately north of Tampico, Mexico. The expedition wintered in Cuba and landed on the Florida coast near Tampa Bay on April 15, 1528.

On the Florida coast, Narváez unwisely decided to land 300 men and about forty horses from his support vessels in order to reconnoiter lands to the north. Due to a gross misunderstanding of Gulf Coast geography, Narváez believed the Río de las Palmas to be only thirty to forty-five miles distant, when the actual distance via the coast was approximately 1,500 miles. Permanently separated from his ships and short of food, the land contingent trekked and fought its way to the Florida peninsula near the mouth of the Wakulla River over the course of four months. By then, Narváez’s command had suffered casualties and numbered just fewer than 250 men.

The Spaniards, handicapped by having just one carpenter in their midst, decided to build crude rafts and leave Florida by sea. They rigged bellows from deerskin and hollow sections of wood, melted stirrups and bridle bits, cast molten metal into crude saws and axes, fell and trimmed trees, and used their shirts and trousers for sails. For food, they killed a horse every third day. Each raft, when loaded with just fewer than fifty men and their meager possessions, rose only six inches above Gulf waters. It was therefore necessary to sail the craft as close to shore as possible. Their goal was to reach the nearest known settlement of their countrymen—Santiesteban del Puerto (near present-day Tampico) at the mouth of the Río Pánuco.

They began their journey on September 22, 1528, and all went reasonably well for the first month, but their luck ran out shortly after passing the mouth of the Río del Espíritu Santo, now the Mississippi River. Buffeted by strong north winds, men on the five platforms battled waves for two weeks, during which time none of the five rafts were in view of each other. All of the craft eventually made landfall along the Texas coast from near Galveston Island to Matagorda Peninsula. The raft captained by Cabeza de Vaca came ashore on present-day Follets Island, as did another, leaving about ninety Spaniards and at least one African slave on soil of the future Lone Star State.

Decimated by sickness on this landfall island, which Cabeza de Vaca named la Isla de Malhado (the Isle of Misfortune), by spring 1529 only thirteen Spaniards and an African slave remained alive, as well as Cabeza de Vaca who had ventured to the mainland where he, too, became seriously ill during the winter. Believing Cabeza de Vaca dead, because he had been absent for so long, twelve of the fourteen survivors on Malhado headed down the coast toward Mexico when the weather warmed. The two Spaniards who remained on Malhado had refused to join the larger group, because they did not know how to swim and greatly feared crossing inlets and the mouths of streams. Of the dozen who left, nine would die from mishaps or Indian attacks. The three remaining alive were Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and his slave, the African Estevanico. All survived by becoming slaves of Coahuiltecan Indians—the Mariames and Yguaces.

Meanwhile, Cabeza de Vaca recovered from a near-fatal illness while on the mainland. He then became the first European of record to become a Texas merchant. He carried sea shells, some sharp enough to cut open mesquite beans, and what he called “beads of sea” (probably pearls) into the interior reaches of Texas. He traded these wares for bison skins and red ochre, much prized by coastal natives for their body decorations. Don Álvar plied this trade for just fewer than four years. He returned to Malhado each winter when he chose not to travel in that season, because he refused to abandon the two Spaniards who remained there.

During his life as a merchant, Cabeza de Vaca received food in exchange for his treatment of sick and injured Indians. His ministrations, at the insistence of the Indians, involved blowing his breath on afflicted parts of bodies and laying on of his hands. He also added a Catholic touch by reciting prayers and crossing himself, during which he beseeched God to heal the infirm. He reported that in almost every instance those receiving his “treatments” felt better. When he refused to doctor an Indian, because he thought his ministrations were quackery, the Indians took away his food until he did their bidding.

By 1532, one of the Spaniards on Malhado had died. Cabeza de Vaca finally convinced his lone countryman, Lope de Oviedo, to accompany him down the coast toward Mexico by promising to take the man on his back when they had to cross inlets or streams. Their journey went well until the two men confronted Matagorda Bay. There they encountered an Indian tribe, which Cabeza de Vaca called the Quevenes, who threatened to kill them by placing arrows over their hearts. This was too much for the faint-hearted Oviedo, who turned back in the company of some Indian women and disappeared from history.

At that very time, the Quevenes told Cabeza de Vaca astonishing news. Across the wide expanse of the bay there were “three Christians like him,” and the Indians gave him their names. They were Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and the his slave Estevanico. For uncertain reasons, the Quevenes agreed to transport Cabeza de Vaca across the large expanse of water. Once on shore, he then continued on and arrived at the mouth of a stream he called the “River of Nuts,” now the Guadalupe. Shortly thereafter, to the amazement of the three enslaved men who thought Cabeza de Vaca dead for four years, the men were reunited. Henceforth, they are known in history as the “Four Ragged Castaways.” Only then did Cabeza de Vaca learn the fate of other members of the Narváez Expedition. All were dead—some had drowned, others died of exposure and starvation, while still others had been killed by shoreline Indians “for their own pleasure.” Of the original 300 who landed on the Florida coast, only these four would reach lands occupied by Spaniards, and they represented a less than 1.5 percent rate of survival.

After enduring eighteen months of enslavement by the Mariames, where he shared servitude with Andrés Dorantes, Cabeza de Vaca would later set down remarkable descriptions of these hunting and gathering natives in the first book published about things “Texas.” His reportage on the Coahuiltecans is so remarkable that he is regarded as Texas’s first ethnologist, and he has earned praise from two of Texas’s “giants” in anthropology—Thomas N. Campbell and W. W. Newcomb.

Throughout their enslavement by Coahuiltecans, the Castaways never wavered from their determination to escape and continue toward Mexico and the safety of their countrymen. That opportunity did not present itself until late summer 1534. In early September, the four men stole away separately in the night and fled south toward the Río Grande. Against all odds, they found each other by mid-month. It was their good luck to be accepted by friendly Avavares Indians who ranged southwest of Corpus Christi Bay. They remained with these natives for eight months before leaving them in late spring 1535 and crossing the Río Grande into Mexico near the present-day International Falcon Reservoir.

Advised of the hostility of shoreline Indians, which hardly seemed necessary given the Castaways’ experiences, the four men altered their course from down the inner coast toward Santiesteban del Puerto by turning west toward the Pacific Ocean. They crossed northern Mexico en route to La Junta de los Ríos, the junction of the Río Conchos with the Río Grande at present-day Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Chihuahua. Their journey was safe for the Castaways and uneventful save for a remarkable surgery performed by Cabeza de Vaca. He removed an arrowhead that had struck an Indian in the chest and lodged above his heart. In medical terminology, the procedure is a sagittectomy, and it earned Cabeza de Vaca lasting fame as the “Patron Saint” of the Texas Surgical Society. This remarkable excision is the subject of a brief article appearing in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

After resting for a time among Indians who lived in fixed houses at La Junta, the Castaways crossed the Río Grande and ascended the Texas side of the river for seventeen days. Perhaps some seventy-five miles downstream from modern-day El Paso, Texas, they re-crossed the Great River and left Texas soil for the last time.

The men continued toward the Pacific Ocean, known to them as the South Sea, and at around Christmas 1535 saw evidence of their countrymen in a horseshoe nail and small belt buckle worn as an amulet on a string around the neck of an Indian. They hastened their pace and saw additional evidence of Spaniards in the tracks of horses and their abandoned campsites. At last they arrived safely at San Miguel de Culiacán near the ocean, and from there they arrived in Mexico City in late July 1536. In all they had walked on bare feet an estimated 2,400 miles from where they had fled the Mariames and Yguaces in Texas.

In Mexico City trekking ended for Castillo and Dorantes. They married wealthy widows of conquistadors and lived out their lives in Mexico. Estevanico, however, would soon be reminded of the harsh reality of slavery. He was either lent or sold to the Spanish viceroy by his master, Dorantes. In 1539 Estevanico served as a scout or advance agent of an expedition that served as forerunner of the Coronado entrada. For uncertain reasons, he was killed by Zuni Indians in present-day western New Mexico.

Trekking, however, was far from over for Cabeza de Vaca. In the early 1540s, he again served the Spanish crown as governor in present-day Paraguay. To reach his seat of government at Asunción, he led some 200 settlers on a 1,200 mile march from the coast of Brazil. To inspire his followers, he took off his shoes and walked every step of the way, even though horses were available as mounts. During his experiences in Texas, he had become a lay champion of Indian rights, despite years spent as a slave when he was often badly treated and hungry. In Paraguay, he attempted to implement policies to the benefit of the Guaraní Indians and was removed from office by disgruntled settlers bent on exploiting the natives, sent to Spain in chains, and convicted there on trumped-up charges of mistreating Indians.

Found guilty in Spain on thirty-two specific charges of transgressions at Asunción, Cabeza de Vaca was banished in perpetuity from Spanish possessions in the Americas and sentenced to five years’ service at the penal colony of Oran in North Africa. After a series of appeals, his harsh sentence was commuted in August 1552. Cabeza remained in Spain until his death about 1559. His burial site is unknown but may been in the family vault at the Real Convento de Santo Domingo in Jerez de la Frontier.

The path for Cabeza de Vaca in becoming a defender of Indians is almost as remarkable as his adventures in Texas. He detailed the latter in his Relación (Account), first published in Spain in 1542 and reprinted in an expanded edition in 1555. Cabeza de Vaca’s unparalleled adventures in Texas, during which he was a merchant, doctor, ethnologist, historian, and observer of plants and animals, have made many Texans indebted to him for the first written descriptions of their land and its people.

Rolena Adorno and Patrick C. Pautz, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: His Account, His Life, and the Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez (3 vols.; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999). Donald E. Chipman, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: The Great Pedestrian of North and South America (Denton: Texas State Historical Association, 2012). Donald E. Chipman, “In Search of Cabeza de Vaca’s Route Across Texas: An Historiographical Survey,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 91 (October 1987). David A. Howard, Conquistador in Chains: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997). Alex D. Krieger, We Came Naked and Barefoot: The Journey of Cabez de Vaca across North America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002). Andrés Reséndez, A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca (New York: Perseus Books Group, 2007). Jesse E. Thompson, “Sagittectomy—First Recorded Surgical Procedure in the American Southwest, 1535: The Journey and Ministrations of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca,” New England Journal of Medicine 289 (December 27, 1973).

  • Exploration
  • Explorers (Spanish)
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Time Periods:
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Donald E. Chipman, “Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022,

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July 28, 2017

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