The little-known story of the 16th-century Spanish explorer who wrote the first book about North America
Think of the “discovery” of the Americas and names such as Columbus, Cortez or Pizarro probably come to mind. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca—his surname literally means “cow’s head”—is not exactly a household name in American history. Yet, this 16th-century Spanish explorer has left a profound mark in the early history of European exploration of the new continent.
Born in Jerez de la Frontera, a city in the southern Spanish province of Andalusia, from a family of the Spanish nobility, Cabeza de Vaca owes his peculiar surname to a maternal ancestor who had helped win a battle against the Moors by marking a secret mountain passage with a cow’s skull. In 1527, after a stint as a soldier in Italy, he joined an expedition ordered by King Charles V of Spain to explore the territories beyond what was then called “La Florida”—literally the “land of flowers.”
The expedition was led by Panfilo de Narvaez, an adelantado (a title given to conquerors and explorers who represented the King abroad) who had previously led a mission to Mexico. Narvaez sailed from Spain with five ships and 600 men. Two ships were lost to a brutal storm off the coast of modern-day Trinidad and Tobago, while the surviving four ships managed to find shelter in Cuba. After a few months, Narvaez led the remaining four ships towards Florida but was confronted by an even harsher set of storms off Galveston Island, in modern-day Texas, that wiped out almost the entire fleet. The few men that survived the shipwreck were ordered by Narvaez to try to reach Florida on foot to look for gold, a strategy that bore little results apart from a near-starvation experience—the group allegedly survived by eating their own horses. Following this failed exploration, Narvaez and few other survivors crafted makeshift rafts out of logs and ventured back into the waves to try reach Mexico by boat. Cabeza de Vaca stayed behind. Together with three other expedition members, Andres Dorantes, Alonso Castillo, and a Moor named Estebanico, he started what would turn out to be an epic eight-year long exploration of the American Southwest.
The journey is carefully recounted in Cabeza de Vaca’s La Relacion, formally known as The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, which was published in Spain in 1542 and which, according to some commentators, can be considered as the first example of North American literature or as “the first European book to be devoted completely to North America.”
La Relacion provides an amateur ethnographic description of the many different Indian tribes that Cabeza de Vaca and his men met along their way from Texas to Mexico including areas of modern-day Louisiana, Mississippi and Arizona. These included the Karankawas, Atakapan, Jumano, Pimas, Caddoes, Avavares, and Mariames tribes.
Food was one of the aspect that fascinated the Spaniard, who noted that the Indians’ diet was mostly made up of corn, cactus fruit and the occasional “open hearts of deer”—coastal Indians would sometime eat oysters, too.
Healing, medicine and religious beliefs were also a source of interest for the writer-explorer. Probably somewhere around 1531, three years into his American journey, Cabeza de Vaca was asked by a native tribe in modern-day Texas to treat a man who had been injured by an arrow. After removing the blade from the man’s chest, the Spaniard performed some rudimentary sanitization to help heal the wound. The man recovered and Cabeza de Vaca suddenly earned a “shaman” reputation among locals. The four men leaned into this role and started to perform basic medical treatments which earned them the title of “the Children of the Sun.”
In addition to his shamanic role, the explorer became known for his work as an ambassador. Upon his visit, warring tribes would find common grounds and make peace. As he described in his own travelogue, Cabeza de Vaca saw this peace-making ability as God’s wish for his mission in America, something that would yield him yet another title – that of “Ambassador of Christ.”
It is during this time that the explorer started to reflect on the common humanity that ties together Europeans and natives, pagans and Christians. The more he learned to see the world from the perspective of “natives,” the more he could value the diversity of human experience as something to be cherished rather than annihilated through “civilization.” His attitude set him apart from other conquistadores who often displayed little to no interest in getting to know local people and notoriously performed aggressive acts of “conquest.”
By 1536, when the four survivors of the failed Florida mission eventually encountered fellow Spanish settlers near the base camp of San Miguel de Culican, in modern-day Mexico, following a zig-zag trip that took them along the Rio Grande, across the Sierra Madre and into the Sonora desert, they had assimilated so much into local culture that their fellow countrymen could hardly believe that “those four Indians” were actually Christians.
After hearing the story of their epic journey, the viceroy of Mexico made very generous offers to the four survivors. A large plot of land stretching over modern-day New Mexico was proposed to Cabeza de Vaca, along with a job offer to lead a new expedition heading north to look for gold. But the writer-explorer refused the offer and instead headed back to Europe to present his findings to the King.
His impressive discoveries did not fail to impress King Charles V of Spain; however, his request to be sent back to the Americas to further explore Florida was rejected. That position, the King explained, had already been assigned to Hernando de Soto, who would later become the first European to cross the Mississippi river.
But three years later, in 1540, the monarch eventually offers Cabeza de Vaca the title of Adelantado and a contract to become the governor of the Spanish colony of Rio de la Plata, which stretched from modern-day Peru to Straits of Magellan, encompassing part of present day Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
His South American travels do not fail to match the epic proportions of his North American adventure—he is the first European to ever set eye on the Iguazu falls and his descriptions of vampire bats in the rainforest of Paraguay partly explain why European literature started to feature vampires in the years that followed his mission.
But this time, his empathetic attitude towards natives caused him a lot of trouble. The former governor of Rio de La Plata, Domingo Martínez de Irala, viewed locals as a mere source of labor and was not impressed by the progressive stance of his successor. While Cabeza de Vaca was away on a mission to explore possible routes to Peru, Irala stirred up a resistance towards the new ruler among the colonial elite of Buenos Aires. In 1544 he accused Cabeza de Vaca of poor administration and the explorer was arrested and sent back to Spain for trial.
After a long and controversial proceeding, the author of La Relacion was eventually able to vindicate himself against charges of professional incompetence and was appointed as a judge at the Tribunal of Seville, a position he maintained until his death in 1556.
In his 1555 edition of La Relaciones, featuring his time in Rio de la Plata, Cabeza de Vaca further remarked the way he envisioned his travelogue: “not merely as a report of positions and distances, flora and fauna” the explorer wrote “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.”
And indeed it is partly thanks to his ethnographic accounts that historians were able to depict a slightly more objective picture of the native life in pre-colonial North-America, one which did not frame the “other” as a mere colonial subject. As architect and author Baker H. Morrow, an expert on Cabeza de Vaca, put it: “he was one of the greatest early memoirists, the father of North American literature and a great humanitarian (at least by 16th-century standards).”
Despite his important contribution to the history of the Southwest, not much is left to remember the legacy of the “great champion of the Indians” apart from a 1986 bronze sculpture built by Spanish artist Pilar Cortella de Rubin, which currently stands in Hermann Park, Houston, Texas.