Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: American Trailblazer by Robin Varnum, University of Oklahoma Press, 368 pages

The first lines of a book are usually a clue as to how good the rest of the book will be. Robin Varnum starts out her preface to the biography of the Spanish explorer with a bang: “I cannot claim that recorded U.S. history begins with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, but it very nearly does.” The book continues on from there in a scholarly yet readable way. The story is exciting — it cannot help but be, as few lived a more interesting life than Cabeza de Vaca.

The dates of his birth and death aren’t clear, but he was probably born in the small Andalusian town of Jerez de la Frontera, shortly before Columbus encountered America. His family were hidalgos, members of the lower nobility. As a young man he fought in Italy for King Ferdinand the Catholic and Pope Julius II. In 1526 Cabeza de Vaca received a royal appointment as treasurer of an expedition to La Florida in the Americas. Headed by Pánfilo de Narváez, the expedition set out the following year with five ships and 600 men. They hoped to explore and conquer the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, south of what is now Texas, but their geography was muddled, to say the least.

From the beginning, things did not go well. Some 140 men deserted on Hispaniola. Two ships — under Cabeza de Vaca’s care — were lost in a hurricane off the coast of Cuba; 60 men and 20 horses drowned. The expedition left Cuba for the mainland without enough food and short on basic equipment such as carpenters’ tools. Narváez’s navigator, Miruelo, soon became lost. Instead of sailing to the western side of the Gulf of Mexico, the ships ended up far north and east, possibly at Tampa Bay. Narváez had started from Cuba with 80 horses. Only 42 survived the voyage. Stores were running low, and there was little food to be found on land. He sent his navigator back to Cuba to get one more ship.

Narváez then made a fatal mistake. He divided his party, taking the horses and 300 men into the unexplored wilderness of the Florida peninsula. The ships, with 100 men and 10 women aboard, were to sail along the coast, in the same direction as the overland party. The two groups never saw each other again, although the ships searched for Narváez and his men for a year.

The land party found some villages where the natives were growing corn, but it never found the rich lode of gold that had lured Narváez deeper and deeper into the wilderness. Swift rivers, lagoons, and virgin forests proved almost impassable to the Europeans and their horses. Through hunger, sickness, drowning, exposure, and skirmishes with Indians, all but four men died. That was after they ate their horses and sometimes even the corpses of their comrades. Cabeza de Vaca survived because tribes of traveling hunter-gatherers took him in. He was harshly treated — like a slave, he said. Yet his hosts suffered equally from bad weather and lack of food.

In spite of his hardships, the Spaniard was observant. He noted how his masters adorned themselves, made shelter, hunted and foraged, and treated their women (badly). He was also resourceful. He learned several Native languages. For a time he became a traveling merchant, taking advantage of his status as an outsider, a person who took no sides in intertribal conflict. After four years, Cabeza de Vaca joined up with three other survivors of Núñez’s expeditionary force: Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Dorantes’ African slave Estevanico. By that time, 1533, they were in what is now Texas.

The next year, when the different tribes they were serving came together for the prickly-pear harvest, the Christians escaped and headed south, toward where they hoped Spanish settlements lay. As he was the oldest and the highest-ranking officer, Cabeza de Vaca was the band’s leader. The men became faith healers — Cabeza de Vaca was apparently the most skilled — and were reverently passed from one tribe to the other across what is now northern Mexico. The men lived as their hosts did, eating deer, bison, spiders, grubs, wild greens, piñon, cactus, mesquite beans, and cultivated maize. As their fame as healers spread, they were more and more respected. Some groups that hosted them were hunters; others were mainly gatherers. At the northernmost part of their route, they came upon people who grew maize and lived in multistory apartment houses.

In 1536 the four men reached the Pacific coast and ran into Spanish slave hunters. Cabeza de Vaca was horrified at the brutality of his fellow Christians but enlisted their help to return to Spanish territory. In Mexico City, Cabeza de Vaca reported to Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, explorer Hernán Cortés, and Archbishop Juan de Zumárraga about his nine-year journey. He pleaded for the Spaniards not to enslave Indians. His two Spanish companions from Núñez’s expedition settled in Mexico. Estevanico went north once again, with Fray Marcos de Niza, to look for gold in the Seven Cities of Cíbola and was apparently killed near Zuni Pueblo. Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, where in 1542 he published a book about the journey, La Relación. It was a text combining geography, anthropology, and adventure. Even before the book was published, he left Spain for South America, where he was to govern the province of Río de la Plata, today Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina.

Still a defender of the Indians and an opponent of enslaving them, he ran afoul of the province’s entrenched Spanish powerbrokers. In 1545 he was shipped off to Spain in chains, the victim of one of Latin America’s early coups. Cabeza de Vaca died about 1560, after spending most of the rest of his life trying to regain his reputation and recover the funds he had spent on his Río de la Plata expedition. He was a defender of America’s Native peoples, an explorer, an early geographer, and an anthropologist — but above all a survivor.

Varnum’s book does not sensationalize his life. Instead it adds layers of information that are useful in understanding the times in which Cabeza de Vaca lived. Varnum’s detours from the explorer’s story are illuminating, and they cover matters from European politics to Spanish social customs to American geography. The author includes the results of recent archaeological studies made along his route, something missing from earlier books on Cabeza de Vaca. She compares his experiences to those of other Spanish conquistadors such as Hernando De Soto, Francisco Coronado, and Cortés — more fortunate than De Soto, less cruel toward Native Americans than Coronado and Cortés.

The book is scholarly, well-written, and thorough. Yet at the end, every reader should step back from the details and realize what a miraculous journey Cabeza de Vaca had.