Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
ca. 1490–ca. 1559
Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca first set foot on land that would become Texas in 1528, when his crude raft ran aground near Galveston Island. The raft held survivors of an ill-fated Spanish expedition to settle Florida.
Cabeza de Vaca then embarked upon what one scholar described as “the most remarkable [journey] in the record of American exploration.”
He lived for several years among Texas Indians, learning the tribes’ languages and customs. In time, he reunited with three other survivors of the original expedition. The travelers gained a reputation as healers, and their fame spread as they slowly made their way toward Mexico.
Cabeza de Vaca and his companions eventually arrived in Mexico City in 1536. They had traveled nearly 2400 miles over eight years in Texas and the Mexican borderlands.
In 1542, he published an account of his adventures, the Relación, the first literary work with Texas as its subject. This remarkable book about the region’s people, landscape, flora, and fauna is now considered a “cornerstone of the history of the Spanish Southwest.”
This account tells how four men of the 600-member Narváez expedition to Florida—Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, two other Spaniards, and an African slave, Esteban—survived a seven-year trek on foot from Florida through Texas to Mexico City. The four survivors arrived in Mexico in 1536, having survived hardships, privation, Indian attacks, and even enslavement.
Cabeza de Vaca later served as a colonial official in South America, where he argued that Spanish colonists should deal fairly with native populations. Sadly, he was arrested for his unpopular views and returned to Spain, where he lived modestly for the rest of his days.
For More about Cabeza de Vaca
There are a number of historical markers commemorating Cabeza de Vaca in Texas, but one of the most prominent is the statue of the explorer in Houston’s Hermann Park. Spanish-born Houston artist Pilar Cortella fashioned the bust, which the city acquired in 1986.
Aside from such statues and memorials, of course, there is the greatest monument to Cabeza de Vaca’s adventures, the Relación published in 1542 and expanded in 1555. The Wittliff Collections at the Alkek Library of Texas State University-San Marcos own a rare copy of the 1555 edition. The book is in some ways the centerpiece of the Wittliff’s rich archival collections of Southwestern authors, photographers, musicians, and filmmakers. While the Relación is not always on view, exhibits, readings, and other public events continually celebrate the Southwestern literary world that arose in its wake.
Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. The South American Expeditions, 1540–1545. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.
Chipman, Donald E. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: The Great Pedestrian of North and South America. Denton: Texas State Historical Association, 2012.
Chipman, Donald E. and Harriet Denise Joseph. Spanish Texas, 1519–1821. 2d ed. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2010.
Jenkins, John H. Basic Texas Books: An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Works for a Research Library. Austin: Jenkins Publishing Company, 1983.
Reséndez, Andrés. A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca. New York: Basic Books, 2007.
Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (ca. 1490–ca. 1557). Relación y comentarios del Governador Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Account and commentaries of Govenor Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca). [Valladolid: Francisco Fernández de Cordova, 1555]. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (107.01.01).