Legends Series: Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

The haughty Spanish explorer had a spiritual awakening during his years of captivity and hardship in the New World.

The survival of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca is nothing short of a miracle. This Spaniard, who explored the American Southwest, survived thanks to good luck and possibly divine intervention. He was one of four who withstood the deadly failures of the 1527 Narvaez Expedition, a voyage that killed hundreds.

Survivors of the Narvaez shipwreck. Painting: Jose Cisneros


Cabeza de Vaca was born in 1490 into a hidalgo family, a low rank of Spanish nobility. His grandfather was the renowned Pedro de Vera, conqueror of the Canary Islands. In his youth, he served the Duke of Medina Sidonia as a page boy before fighting in the Italian Wars in the early 1500s.

Afterward, he continued to build up his military experience in the Revolt of the Comuneros and the French invasion of Navarre in 1521. His dedication to the Spanish crown and experience in warfare eventually paid off. He became treasurer of the 1527 Narvaez Expedition, led by conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez. 

This expedition’s goal was to explore and colonize the land from Mexico to Florida. Narvaez set out with 600 slaves, soldiers, sailors, wives, and children in June 1527. Their problems began after arriving in Hispaniola in August, when over 140 soldiers deserted the expedition.

All hell broke loose

They continued on to Cuba when all hell broke loose. Vicious hurricanes sank their ships, drowning around 60 men and several horses. Cabeza de Vaca managed to acquire new ships and recruits in Cuba, but the recruits soon attempted to leave.

The Narvaez Expedition lands in Tampa Bay. Photo: Tampa Bay Times


It seemed that nature too conspired against them. Their ships ran aground on sandbanks on the southern coast of Cuba, forcing them to remain there for almost a month. Eventually, a storm allowed them to break free from the shoals holding their vessels hostage.

After enduring more storms, strong currents, and brutal winds for several weeks, they managed to sail into what is now Tampa Bay. During this temporary respite, they met natives who gave them food in exchange for trinkets. But the amicable dealings were short-lived. Attempts at forced conversions to Christianity soured relations. 

Splitting the expedition

Narvaez split the expedition into separate sea and land components, a suicidal notion that Cabeza de Vaca strongly opposed. Nevertheless, the stubborn Narvaez took 300 men on land while 100 men and several women sailed north in search of a natural harbor.

Cabeza de Vaca joined Narvaez on land. Rations quickly ran out. Starvation ensued. They wandered for a couple of weeks before stumbling on villages, including some which were not so welcoming. 

Survivors of Narvaez’s expedition struggle up the Mississippi. Painting: Alberto Salinas


Natives attacked the hapless expedition. Those who survived were on the brink of mutiny before Cabeza de Vaca convinced them to stick to the cause. They took time to hide from the natives and rebuild their boats.

Narvaez had taken ill, making Cabeza de Vaca the de facto leader of the remaining 242 men. In September 1528, they started sailing but yet another storm blew Cabeza de Vaca and his party of 80 to Galveston, Texas. Meanwhile, Narvaez and his crew sailed into the unknown and were never seen again.

Escape from captivity

For the next four years, Cabeza de Vaca and the other survivors were enslaved by the Karankawa and Coahuiltecan tribes. Cabeza de Vaca, a Moorish slave named Estevanico, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado were the only ones who managed escape their captors in 1532.

Cabeza and the others explored Texas and Mexico, integrating themselves with natives who took them in. During this time, some natives came to believe that the Spaniards possessed healing abilities. The men somehow convinced the natives of their power of “curing” ills by simply making the Sign of the Cross and saying prayers. Cabeza de Vaca also performed the New World’s first surgery. He even supposedly brought a man back from the dead.

News of their miracles spread to other tribes and the afflicted came in droves to these mystic foreigners, paying them in prickly pears and other foods. They even offered themselves as slaves. 

Map of the expedition. Photo: Springfield Museums


Children of the sun

Their reputation as “children of the sun” was not just a thriving business that helped them gain the respect of the local people. It became personal for Cabeza de Vaca. In his account of the failed expedition and their trials in the New World, his worldview changed from its superior, cold outlook on natives to that of fascination and sympathy toward them. His writings reflected a new understanding of their cultural practices. He even learned their languages.

The natives trusted him so much that he convinced them to convert to Christianity to protect themselves from evil. He became a very different person, more caring and open-minded, from the one who left Spain back in 1527. 

Cabeza de Vaca had transitioned from trader to healer and had a big following of natives with him at all times. He and his men traveled to San Miguel in 1536. They sailed back to Spain the following year. In 1542, he published his account of his tribulations and explorations, called La Relación. It recounted his discovery of the American Southwest and its plants and wildlife, including buffalo and the Mississippi River.

His account, the first written record of the Southwest, has polarized historians. Many believe his experiences are exaggerated and inaccurate. However, his role in exploring the Southwest paved the way for others to follow.

He returned to the Americas in 1540 and was appointed governor of what is now Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. However, he was arrested for his sympathies toward the native people and sent back to Spain for trial in 1545. Luckily, he was acquitted. 

About 50 years ago, an obscure little book called Interlinear to Cabeza de Vaca gave a fictional account of the explorer’s spiritual awakening. It is a minor classic, worth tracking down.