Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (äl´vär nōō´nyāth käbā´thä dā vä´kä), c.1490–c.1557, Spanish explorer. Cabeza de Vaca [cow's head] was not actually a surname but a hereditary title in his mother's family; he is frequently called simply Álvar Núñez.

North American Adventures

Cabeza de Vaca came to the New World as treasurer in the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez that reached Florida (probably Tampa Bay) in 1528. When hardship and native hostility caused the end of the expedition, he was one of the survivors whose barges were shipwrecked on an island off the Texas coast, possibly Galveston or Mustang Island. Their story is one of the most remarkable in the annals of exploration.

After suffering considerably as slaves of the Native Americans inhabiting the island, Cabeza de Vaca and three other survivors escaped and started a long journey overland. His companions were Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico. They gained great repute among the Native Americans as healers since remarkable cures were attributed to their Christian prayers. Their route westward is as disputed as is the identity the island of the shipwreck, but after much wandering they did reach W Texas, then probably New Mexico and Arizona, and possibly (some argue) California before, turning south in 1536, they arrived in Culiacán in Mexico and told their story to Spaniards there.

They were almost certainly the first Europeans to see bison, and their stories about the Pueblo gave rise to the legend of the Seven Cities of Cibola, later magnified by Fray Marcos de Niza, and brought explorers in search of El Dorado. Cabeza de Vaca's own account, Los naufragios [the shipwrecked men] (1542), is the chief document of the startling adventures of his party. An English translation (1851) by Thomas Buckingham Smith is reprinted in I. R. Blacker and H. M. Rosen's The Golden Conquistadores (1960).

South American Career

After returning to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed governor of the Río de la Plata region and reached Asunción after an overland journey from the Brazilian coast in 1542. His South American career was sadly different from that in North America. He got into trouble with the popular Domingo Martínez de Irala, and after he returned from a journey up the Paraná River to Bolivia, he was arrested, accused of high-handed practices, imprisoned for two years, and sent back to Spain. There he was found guilty but was pardoned by the king. Cabeza de Vaca wrote his own account of the South American events in his Comentarios (1555).


See M. Bishop, The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca (1933); J. U. Terrell, Journey into Darkness (1962); H. Long, The Marvelous Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca (1973).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca: Selected full-text books and articles

The Account: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relación
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca; Martin A. Favata; José B. Fernández.
Arte Publico Press, 1993
Conquistador in Chains: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas
David A. Howard.
University of Alabama Press, 1997
The Road to Cibola
Carl Sauer.
University of California Press, 1932
Librarian’s tip: "Return of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and his Companions" begins on p. 14
Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500-1685
Robert S. Weddle.
Texas A & M University Press, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "Survival: Cabeza de Vaca, 1527-1536"
The Classic Southwest: Readings in Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and Ethnology
Basil C. Hedrick; J. Charles Kelley; Carroll L. Riley.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1973
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 15 "Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca: The First Overland Traveler of European Descent, and His Journey from Florida to the Pacific Coast, 1528-1536"
Into the Wilderness Dream: Exploration Narratives of the American West, 1500-1805
Donald A. Barclay; James H. Maguire; Peter Wild.
University of Utah Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "A Dream Revised: The New World Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca (1528)"
North American Exploration
John Logan Allen.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.1, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "The Incredible Journey of Cabeza de Vaca" begins on p. 257
Spanish Texas, 1519-1821
Donald E. Chipman.
University of Texas Press, 1992
Readings in Hispanic American History
N. Andrew N. Cleven.
Ginn, 1927
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 26 "Original Report of Alvar Nunez (Cabeza de Vaca)"
Truth & Fiction Chart a Miraculous Journey
Werner, Louis.
Americas (English Edition), Vol. 48, No. 4, July-August 1996
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