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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 related meanings of “commonplace” or “prosaic” be applied to the man or his remarkable adventures. Between 1528 and 1536, he trekked across 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, where he arrived in late July 1536. About a year later, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, where he sought appointment as governor of lands he had explored, only to learn that the position he thought rightfully to be his had been awarded to Hernando de Soto. As a consolation prize, the king in 1540 granted Cabeza de Vaca civil and military authority over a region centered in modern-day Asunción, Paraguay, but in total extending from the Río de la Plata estuary on the north to Tierra del Fuego on the south. Its western limits were the Andes Mountains and the jurisdiction of Chile.

After a dangerous Atlantic crossing, Cabeza de Vaca landed near the Brazilian coast on Santa Catalina Island in March 1541 at the onset of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. in the following October when the spring season had begun, Cabeza de Vaca led some 250 soldiers and colonists, including a few married women and two friars, on an overland journey of four and a half months’ duration that covered approximately 1,200 miles from the coast of Brazil to the Spanish outpost at Asunción. Although the expedition contained twenty-six horses, Cabeza de Vaca chose to impress his command by taking off his shoes and walking barefoot every step of the way! He was the first European to see and describe Iguazú Falls, by volume the largest cataracts in the world. By some accounts, his expedition suffered no loss of lives. Others state that one man . . .

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