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Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

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).

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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