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Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

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This name uses Spanish naming customs: the first or paternal family name is Núñez and the second or maternal family name is Cabeza de Vaca.
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
Cabeza de Vaca Portrait.jpg
Portrait of Cabeza de Vaca
Born Birth name: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
ca. 1488 (1488) / 1490/ 1492
Jerez de la Frontera
Died ca. 1557 (1558) / 1558/ 1559/ 1560
Seville, Spain
Cause of death
by natural causes
Resting place
Spain
Occupation Treasurer, Explorer, and Author of La Relación", Governor of Rio de Plata
Religion Catholic
Spouse(s) María Marmolejo
Parent(s) Francisco de Vera (father), Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita (mother)
Relatives Pedro de Vera

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Jerez de la Frontera, c. 1488/1490/1492[1]Seville, c. 1557/1558/1559[1]/1560[2]) was a Spanish explorer of the New World, and one of four survivors of the 1527 Narváez expedition. During eight years of traveling across the US Southwest, he became a trader and faith healer to various Native American tribes before reconnecting with Spanish colonial forces in Mexico in 1536. After returning to Spain in 1537, he wrote an account, first published in 1542 as La Relación ("The Relation", or in more modern terms "The Account"[3]), which in later editions was retitled Naufragios ("Shipwrecks"). Cabeza de Vaca has been considered notable as a proto-anthropologist for his detailed accounts of the many tribes of American Indians that he encountered.

In 1540 Cabeza de Vaca was appointed adelantado of what is now Argentina, where he was governor and captain general of Río de la Plata.[4] He worked to build up the population of Buenos Aires, where settlement had declined due to the poor administration. Cabeza de Vaca was transported to Spain for trial in 1545. Although his sentence was eventually commuted, he never returned to the Americas. He died in Seville.

Early life and education[edit]

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1490 into a hidalgo family, the son of Francisco Núñez de Vera and Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita, in the town of Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz, Spain. Despite the family's status as minor nobility, they possessed modest economic resources. In 16th-century documents, his name appears as "Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca".[5]

Coat of Arms of Cabeza de Vaca from the Archivo de Indias, Sevilla, Spain. Reprinted in The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca by Morris Bishop. New York: The Century Co., 1933.

Álvar Núñez's maternal surname, Cabeza de Vaca (meaning “head of cow”) was said to be associated with a maternal ancestor, Martin Alhaja. He had shown the Spanish king a secret mountain pass, marked by a cow’s skull, enabling the king to win the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa against the Muslim Moors in 1212.[4]

Some sources indicate that after his parents died when he was young, the boy Álvar was taken in by relatives (most likely his aunt and uncle or his paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vara). Evidence suggests that he probably had a moderately comfortable early life. He was appointed chamberlain for the house of a noble family in his teen years (American Eras) then participated in the conquest of the Canary Islands where he was appointed a governor.[4] In 1511, he enlisted in the Spanish army, serving in Italy (with distinction), Spain and Navarre.[2] In 1527, Núñez joined the Florida expedition of conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez during which he served as treasurer and marshal.[2]

Narváez Expedition and early Indian relations[edit]

Route of Narváez expedition (until November 1528 at Galveston Island), and a historical reconstruction of Cabeza de Vaca's later wanderings.

In 1527, the explorer named Pánfilo de Narváez was sent by Spain’s King Charles I to explore the unknown territory which the Spanish called La Florida (present-day Florida in the United States).[6] Cabeza de Vaca was attached to this expedition as the expedition’s treasurer. Records indicate that he also had a military role as one of the chief officers on the Narváez expedition, noted as sheriff or marshal.[7] On June 17, 1527, the fleet of five ships set sail towards the province of Pánuco (which was on the western border of Florida). When they stopped in Hispaniola for supplies, Narváez lost approximately 150 of his men. They chose to stay on the island rather than continue with the expedition.[6]

The expedition continued to Cuba, where Cabeza de Vaca took two ships to recruit more men and buy supplies. Their fleet was battered by a hurricane, resulting in the destruction of both ships and loss of most of Cabeza de Vaca’s men. Narváez arrived days later to pick up the survivors.[6][8] By February 1528, the remaining ships and men resumed their expedition, reaching Florida in April. They anchored near what is now known as the Jungle Prada Site in St. Petersburg claiming this land as a possession of the Spanish empire.

After communicating with the Native Americans, the Spanish heard rumours that a city named Apalachen was full of food and gold. Against the advice of Cabeza de Vaca, Narváez decided to split up his men. Some 300 were to go on foot to Apalachen and the other would sail to Pánuco.[6] Apalachen had no gold but only corn, but the explorers were told a village known as Aute, about 5 or 9 days away, was rich. They pushed on through the swamps, harassed by the Native Americans. A few Spanish men were killed and more wounded. When they arrived in Aute, they found that the inhabitants had burned down the village and left. But the fields had not been harvested, so at least the Spanish scavenged food there.[6]After several months of fighting native inhabitants through wilderness and swamp, the party decided to abandon the interior and try to reach Pánuco.

Slaughtering and eating their remaining horses, they gathered the stirrups, spurs, horseshoes and other metal items. They fashioned a bellows from deer hide to make a fire hot enough to forge tools and nails. They used these in making five primitive boats to use to get to Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca commanded one of these vessels, each of which held 50 men. Depleted of food and water, the men followed the coast westward. But when they reached the mouth of the Mississippi River, the powerful current swept them out into the Gulf, where the five rafts were separated by a hurricane. Some were lost forever, including that of Narváez.

Two crafts with about 40 survivors each, including Cabeza de Vaca, wrecked on or near Galveston Island (now part of Texas). Out of the 80 or so survivors, only 15 lived past that winter.[6] The explorers called the island Malhado (“Ill fate” in Spanish), or the Island of Doom.[9] They tried to repair the rafts, using what remained of their own clothes as oakum to plug holes, but they lost the rafts to a large wave.

As the number of survivors dwindled rapidly, they were enslaved for a few years by various American Indian tribes of the upper Gulf Coast. Because Cabeza de Vaca survived and prospered from time to time, some scholars argue that he was not enslaved but using a figure of speech. He and other noblemen were accustomed to better living. Their encounters with harsh conditions and weather, and being required to work like native women must have seemed like slavery.[10] The tribes to which Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved included the Hans and the Capoques, and tribes later called the Karankawa and Coahuiltecan. After escaping, only four men, Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and an enslaved Moroccan Berber named Esteban (later called Estevanico), survived to reach Mexico City.

Traveling mostly with this small group, Cabeza de Vaca explored what is now the U.S. state of Texas, as well as the northeastern Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila, and possibly smaller portions of New Mexico and Arizona. He traveled on foot through the then-colonized territories of Texas and the coast. He continued through Coahuila and Nueva Vizcaya; then down the Gulf of California coast to what is now Sinaloa, Mexico, over a period of roughly eight years. Throughout those years, Cabeza de Vaca and the other men adapted to the lives of the indigenous people they stayed with, whom he later described as Roots People, the Fish and Blackberry People, or the Fig People, depending on their principal foods.[10]

During his wanderings, passing from tribe to tribe, Cabeza de Vaca later reported that he developed sympathies for the indigenous peoples. He became a trader and a healer, which gave him some freedom to travel among the tribes.[11] As a healer, Cabeza de Vaca used blowing (like the Native Americans) to heal, but claimed that God and the Christian cross led to his success.[10] His healing of the sick gained him a reputation as a faith healer. His group attracted numerous native followers, who regarded them as "children of the sun", endowed with the power to heal and destroy. As Cabeza de Vaca grew healthier, he decided that he would make his way to Pánuco, supporting himself through trading.[10][6][8] He finally decided to try to reach the Spanish colony in Mexico. Many natives were said to accompany the explorers on their journey across what is now known as the American Southwest and northern Mexico.

After finally reaching the colonized lands of New Spain, where he first encountered fellow Spaniards near modern-day Culiacán, Cabeza de Vaca and the three other men reached Mexico City. From there he sailed back to Europe in 1537.

Numerous researchers have tried to trace his route across the Southwest. As he did not begin writing his chronicle until back in Spain, he had to rely on memory. Cabeza de Vaca was uncertain of his route. Aware that his account has numerous errors in chronology and geography, historians have worked to put together pieces of the puzzle to discern his paths.

Return to America[edit]

In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed adelantado of the Río de la Plata in South America. The colony comprised parts of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Cabeza de Vaca was assigned to find a usable route from this colony to the colony in Peru, on the other side of the Andes Mountains on the Pacific Coast.[6]

A plaque commemorating Cabeza de Vaca as the first European to see the Iguazu Falls.

En route, he disembarked from his fleet at Santa Catarina Island in modern Brazil. With an indigenous force, plus 250 musketeers and 26 horses, he followed native trails[12] discovered by Aleixo Garcia overland to the district's Spanish capital, Asunción, far inland on the great Paraguay River. Cabeza de Vaca is thought to have been the first European to see the Iguaçu Falls.

In March of 1542 Cabeza de Vaca met with Domingo Martínez de Irala and relieved him of his position as governor. The government of Asunción pledged loyalty to Cabeza de Vaca, and Irala was assigned to explore a possible route to Peru. Once Irala returned and reported, Cabeza de Vaca planned his own expedition. He hoped to reach Los Reyes (a base that Irala set up) and push forward into the jungle in search of a route to the gold and silver mines of Peru.[6] The expedition did not go well, and Cabeza de Vaca returned to Asunción.[6]

During his absence, Irala had stirred up resistance to Cabeza de Vaca’s rule and capitalized on political rivalries.[6] Scholars widely agree that Cabeza de Vaca had an unusually sympathetic attitude towards the Native Americans for his time.[10][6][8] The elite settlers in Argentina, known as encomenderos, generally did not agree with his enlightened conduct toward the Natives; they wanted to use them for labor. Because he lost elite support, and Buenos Aires was failing as a settlement, not attracting enough residents, Martínez de Irala arrested Cabeza de Vaca in 1544 for poor administration. The former explorer was returned to Spain in 1545 for trial.

Although eventually exonerated, Cabeza de Vaca never returned to South America. He wrote an extensive report on the Río de la Plata colony in South America, strongly criticizing the conduct of Martínez de Irala. The report was bound with his earlier La Relación and published under the title Comentarios (Commentary). He died poor in Seville around the year 1558.

La relación of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca[edit]

Title page from a 1555 edition of La relacion y comentarios del gouernador Aluar Nuñez Cabeca de Vaca

La relación of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is the account of his experiences with the Narvaez expedition and after being wrecked on Galveston Island in November of 1528. Cabeza de Vaca and his last three men struggled to survive.[13] They wandered along the Texas coast as prisoners of the Han and Capoque American Indians for two years, while Cabeza de Vaca observed the people, picking up their ways of life and customs.[14] They traveled through the American Southwest and ultimately reached Mexico City, nearly eight years after being wrecked on the island.

In 1537, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, where he wrote his narratives of the Narvaez expedition. These narratives were collected and published in 1542 in Spain. They are now known as The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is the “first European book devoted completely to North America.”[15] His detailed account describes the lives of numerous tribes of American Indians of the time. Cabeza de Vaca showed compassion and respect for native peoples, which, together with the great detail he recorded, distinguishes his narrative from others of the period.[15]

Role of observer[edit]

Cabeza de Vaca reported on the customs and ways of American Indian life, aware of his status as an early European explorer. He spent eight years with various peoples, including the Capoque, Han, Avavare, and Arbadao. He describes details of the culture of the Malhado people, the Capoque, and Han American Indians, such as their treatment of offspring, their wedding rites, and their main sources of food.[14] Cabeza de Vaca and his three fellow survivors at times served as slaves to the American Indians to survive.[13] Through his observations, Cabeza de Vaca provides insights into 16th-century American Indian life near the present-day Mexico-Texas border.

Personal report[edit]

Cabeza de Vaca wrote this narrative to Charles V to “transmit what I saw and heard in the nine years I wandered lost and miserable over many remote lands”.[14] He wanted to convey “not merely a report of positions and distances, flora and fauna, but of the customs of the numerous indigenous people I talked with and dwelt among, as well as any other matters I could hear of or observe”.[14] He took care to present facts, as a full account of what he observed. The Relation is the only account of many details concerning the indigenous people whom he encountered.[14] The accuracy of his account has been validated by later reports of others, as well as by the oral traditions of descendants of some of the tribes.

Many scholars question if his personal motives may have biased his account. For instance, he hoped the account would add to his prestige in Spain. Due to this, some scholars argue that in order to improve his own standing, he did not report the human rights violations committed by Narvaez against the native peoples before his death. Some academics are puzzled as to why he failed to do so, suggesting that there are some mysteries remaining in regards to his motives for writing The Relation the way that he did.[16]

American Indian nations noted by name[edit]

Cabeza De Vaca identified the following peoples by name in his La Relacion (1542). The following list shows his names, together with what scholars suggested in 1919 were the likely tribes identified by names used in the 20th century. By that time, tribal identification was also related to more linguistic data.[17]

Possible Karankawan groups:

  • Capoques – Cocos
  • Deaguanes – Cujanes
  • Quevenes – Copanes
  • Guaycones – Guapites
  • Camones – Karankaguases ?

Related to Karankawa:

  • Charruco – Bidai-Orcoquiza
  • Han – Bidai-Orcoquiza

Possible Tonkawan groups:

  • Mendica – Tamiques
  • Mariames – Jaranames
  • Iguaces – Anaquas

Possible Coahuiltecan or desert groups:

  • Quitoles
  • The "Fig People"
  • Acubadaos
  • Avavares
  • Anegados
  • Cutalchuches
  • Maliacones
  • Susolas
  • Comos – Comecrudo
  • Cuayos
  • Arbadaos
  • Atayos
  • Cuchendados[18]

Comentarios[edit]

In 1555, after a four-year position as Adelantado in Rio de la Plata, Cabeza de Vaca wrote from memory a chronicle of the Narvaez expedition in South America.[19] It is believed that his secretary at the time, Pero Hernández, transcribed Cabeza de Vaca's account in what is known as Comentarios. The publication of Comentarios was appended to La relación as a joint publication in Valladolid, Spain entitled: Naufragios. At that time, explorers often published their reports of travels in foreign lands.

Later Editions[edit]

In 1906, Naufragios was published in a new edition in Madrid, Spain.[20] The introduction says the intent of this edition was to publicize Cabeza de Vaca's observations and experiences to strengthen authentic representations. This has been described as having the objective of portraying Cabeza de Vaca asless aggressive , while trying to authenticate his role as a sympathetic observer of the natives.[citation needed]

Place in Chicano literature[edit]

Herrera (2011) classifies Cabeza de Vaca’s La Relacion as the first major contribution to Chicano literature. Scholars have identified five major periods of Chicano literature: Spanish Mexican, Mexican American, Annexation, Chicano Renaissance, and Modern. Cabeza de Vaca is classified as part of the Spanish Mexican period; he recounted eight years of travel and survival in the area of Chicano culture: present-day Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico.[21] His account is the first known written description of the American Southwest.[4]

Film adaptation[edit]

Representation in other media[edit]

Laila Lalami's novel, The Moor's Account (2014), is a fictional memoir of Estevanico, the Moroccan slave who survived the journey and accompanied Cabeza de Vaca through the Southwest. He is considered to be the first black explorer of North America. Lalami notes that the chronicle gives him one sentence: "The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor."[23]

Ancestors of Cabeza de Vaca[edit]

[citation needed]

Bibliography[edit]

English editions[edit]

  • Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. The Narrative of Cabeza De Vaca, Translation of La Relacion, ed. Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2003. ISBN 0-8032-6416-X (One of many editions)
  • Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, Translation of La Relación, Cyclone Covey. Santa Fe, NM: University of New Mexico Press 1983. ISBN 0-8263-0656-X
  • The Account: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relacíon. Translated by Martin Favata and Jose Fernández. Houston: Arte Público Press. February 1993 [1542]. ISBN 978-1558850606. 
  • Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, Translation of La Relacion, translated by David Frye, edited by Ilan Stavans. Norton Critical Edition, 2013. ISBN 978-0393918151
  • Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. The Commentaries of Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca., The Conquest of the River Plate, part II. London: Hakluyt, 1891. (First English edition).

Books about Cabeza de Vaca[edit]

Spanish[edit]

Italian[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Núñez (1492?-1559?)." American Eras. Vol. 1: Early American Civilizations and Exploration to 1600. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 50-51. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.
  2. ^ a b c "Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.
  3. ^ The Account: Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's Relacion, title of 1993 English translation by Martin Favata and Jose Fernandez.
  4. ^ a b c d "Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca," Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 197. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.
  5. ^ Cabeza de Vaca, Prologue, La Relacion (1542). Note: The surname Cabeza de Vaca (meaning "cow head") was granted to his mother's family in the 13th century, when his ancestor Martín Alhaja aided a Christian army attacking Moors by leaving a cow's head and a pile of rocks to point out a small secret mountain pass for their use.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca." The Mariners' Museum | EXPLORATION through the AGES. Web. 5 Dec. 2014. <http://ageofex.marinersmuseum.org/index.php?type=explorer&id=67>
  7. ^ Reséndez, Andrés (Fall 2008). "A Desperate Trek Across America". American Heritage (American Heritage Publishing) 58 (5). Retrieved 2010-07-26. 
  8. ^ a b c "Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca." PBS. PBS. Web. 5 Dec. 2014. http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/a_c/cabezadevaca.htm
  9. ^ Donald E. Chipman. Handbook of Texas: Malhado Island. 
  10. ^ a b c d e "Learning From Cabeza De Vaca." Texas Beyond History. Web. 6 Dec. 2014. http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/cabeza-cooking/encounters.html
  11. ^ Carlos Jauregui's "Cabeza de Vaca, Mala Cosa y las vicisitudes de la extrañeza"
  12. ^ p. 128, Caminhos da Conquista: Formação do Espaço Brasileiro, Vallandro Keating and Ricardo Maranhão, ed. Terceiro Nome, São Paulo, 2008
  13. ^ a b Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition
  14. ^ a b c d e Baym, Nina. "Álvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca," in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 7th ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007, pp. 40–48
  15. ^ a b "Background on The Journey of Alvar Nuסez Cabeza de Vaca", American Journeys]
  16. ^ Reséndez, AndrésReséndez, André. "Cabeza de Vaca and the Problem of First Encounters," Historically Speaking, (10:1), 2009, 36-38. 2009.
  17. ^ "The First Europeans in Texas", Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol 22, 1919
  18. ^ Donald Chipman, "In Search of Cabeza De Vaca's Route Across Texas", Texas State University Library
  19. ^ Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, Translation of 'La Relacion', translated by David Frye, edited by Ilan Stavans. Norton Critical Edition, 2013
  20. ^ Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar. Relación de Los Naufragios Y Comentarios de Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Madrid: V. Suárez, 1906. Print. Colección de Libros Y Documentos Referentes Á La Historia de América t. v-vi.
  21. ^ Herrera, Spencer R. "Chicano Writers," in World Literature in Spanish: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Maureen Ihrie and Salvador A. Oropesa. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011. pp.183-184, Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 5 Dec. 2014
  22. ^ "Berlinale: 1991 Programme". berlinale.de. Retrieved 2011-03-21. 
  23. ^ Laila Lalami, The Moor's Account. New York: Pantheon Books, 2014. ISBN 978-0307911667.

External links[edit]

La Relación online
Resources
Articles
Audio-visual
Preceded by
Domingo Martínez de Irala
Governor of New Andalusia
1540-1544
Succeeded by
Domingo Martínez de Irala