In 1490, Alvar Núñez was born in the southern town of Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. When he came of age, Núñez joined the Spanish Army and quickly added the name "Cabeza de Vaca," the title won by his mother's ancestor, Martin Alhaja, hundreds of years before.
Núñez Cabeza de Vaca would become a famous explorer of the New World and the first to step foot in what is now Texas. He would endure great punishments from both nature and man, but his experiences and writings ultimately would inspire other explorers.
Image caption: Mural entitled "The Operation" showing Cabeza de Vaca performing surgery on a native encountered in his travels. Photo courtesy of Tom Lea and Evan Haywood Antone
In 1511, at the age of twenty-one, Cabeza de Vaca joined the Spanish Army and was sent by King Ferdinand to Italy to aid Pope Julius II in keeping the French forces from attacking the Vatican. For 16 years, Cabeza de Vaca fought for his king and church. At 37, he was appointed treasurer of the Narváez Expedition to the New World.
The Narváez Expedition cast off from Spain in June 1527, and reached Santo Domingo almost two months later. A hurricane killed 60 men and 20 horses, and Narváez waited several months before sailing to Florida in late February 1528. Three days after sighting Florida, Narváez came ashore (somewhere near present-day Sarasota) and conducted a formal ceremony claiming Florida for the King of Spain on Good Friday, April 15, 1528.
Indians told Narváez about gold in a northern village called Apalachee, and he split the expedition apart, with Cabeza de Vaca, Narváez, and 300 men marching inland, while the other half followed along the Gulf coastline. The parties never saw each other again.
When the Spaniards did reach Apalachee on June 24, they were disappointed to only find a few huts, some corn, hostile natives and no gold. In a desperate attempt to fight hunger, disease, and Apalachee warriors, the Narváez expedition reached the coast, only to discover the other half of the expedition was not waiting for them.
The soldiers built their own flatboats using metal and other materials from their belongings. Six weeks after arriving on the beach, 242 men piled onto the five flatboats they had made and said good-bye to Vaya de Cavallos (Bay of Horses), which the expedition named shortly before leaving on September 22, 1528.
The entire expedition decided that if they were to survive, they would have to reach Panuco, Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca was in charge of one of the flatboats with 49 men. At first, the men would scour the coast, looking for food, but after a month of traveling by sea, their supplies started running low. It was at this point that the expedition came upon the mouth of a broad river - the Mississippi - which provided the men with fresh water. However, here the boats became separated, and floated out into the Gulf of Mexico.
On the morning of November 6, 1528, Cabeza de Vaca woke up to the sound of breakers crashing on the beach. The men had arrived on Mustang Island off the coast of what we now call Texas.
Of the 242 men that started on the second leg of the expedition, only 80 men lived through the harrowing voyage. Now the voyage's leader, Cabeza de Vaca wrote in his journal, "Those of us who had survived…had lost everything we had." The men named the island Malhado (Isle of Misfortune), because of all the bad things that had happened to them. Malhado, as it turns out, was occupied by the Karankawa Indians, who, upon looking at the miserable shape the expedition was in, took the men to their village nearby.
The Karankawas welcomed their guests openly at first, but within a short time they either drove the soldiers out to their village, or enslaved those who stayed behind, including Cabeza de Vaca. He would later write in his journal entitled "Relación," or "The Account," about the first winter in Texas. In one hut, five Spaniards were turned into cannibals, he writes, "until only one remained … there was no one there to eat him." In February 1529, Cabeza de Vaca became seriously ill, and when he recovered, he noted only 15 soldiers of the 80 remained.
Allowed to travel the following spring, Cabeza de Vaca roamed throughout east and central Texas, trading conch shells for food to eat. He carried beans various tribes used in ceremonies, collected buffalo hides and made arrows.
Then in late 1532, Cabeza de Vaca was reunited with the last remaining members of the Narváez Expedition: Captain Alonso Castillo Maldonado, Andreas Dorantes de Carranza, and Dorantes' African Muslim slave, Estebán. Cabeza de Vaca wrote, "We thanked God very much for being together," and the reunion was a day they would never forget.
The four men would eventually become enslaved by other Indian tribes. Cabeza de Vaca and Dorantes became slaves of the Mariames, central plain Indians. Castillo and Estebán were claimed by the Yguazes. In his writing, Cabeza de Vaca described the Mariames as a small tribe, who hunted the bison, or buffalo, which they ate, using the hides for shoes and clothing.
The Spaniard noted that in times of famine, the Yguazes would eat anything. Some starving members of the tribe ate spiders, worms, and poisonous snakes. Their daily intake also included dirt, wood, and even deer dung. Cabeza de Vaca did credit the Yguazes for their strength and endurance. They could "run from morning to night without resting or becoming tired," he wrote.
On September 22, 1534, after some minor difficulties, Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo, and Estebán escaped from their masters and began their trek towards Panuco.
On the night the four men escaped, they were accepted by the tribe known as the Avares.
Cabeza de Vaca described the Avares warriors with admiration in his journal: "They take strength in the fear of their adversaries. They see and hear better and have keener senses than any other men I know of in the world. They are great in withstanding hunger and thirst and cold, as though they were accustomed to these…more that other men."
The castaways stayed with the Avares for at least eight months, and it was with the Avares that all four men practiced healing. Their methods involved genuflecting and making the sign of the cross over the patient. In the summer of 1535, the castaways left the Avares tribe and unknowingly crossed into Mexico.
It was there that Cabeza de Vaca performed the first surgery by a European in North America. Cabeza de Vaca writes, "An Indian had been wounded for some time before by an arrow that entered the right side of his back. The arrowhead had lodged over the heart, causing great pain and suffering." With a knife, Cabeza de Vaca opened the chest of the native, extracted the projectile, and closed the incision with two stitches.
The following day the stitches were removed and the Indian was healed. For this remarkable piece of surgery, Cabeza de Vaca has been recognized by the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Tom Lea's rendition of this operation hangs in the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
Some historians believe that from northern Mexico, the four men made their way towards the north and west, traveling near present -day San Elizario, twenty miles downstream from El Paso. Cabeza de Vaca commented on the beauty of the Spanish Southwest: "It is no doubt, the best land in all these Indians. Indeed, the land needs no circumstances to make it blessed."
As the castaways made their way west towards the Pacific coast, Indians told them of a tribe to the north who lived in luxurious houses on top of mountaintops. Five green precious arrowheads this tribe used for ceremonies somehow were gained by Cabeza de Vaca, but he lost the arrowheads before he reached the Spanish Army. As a result, his story of this tribe later would spark an interest throughout Spain and Mexico to seek out the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, land of gold and incredible treasures. The Moor, Estebán, would later lead an expedition to find these golden cities.
The Castaways descended upon Rio Yaqui, near the Gulf of California sometime before Christmas 1535 and headed south. Seven months later, they were joyfully received in Mexico City by Viceroy Mendoza and the conquistador Hernán Cortés on July 24, 1536.
Once Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, it took some time before he fully adjusted to the lifestyle he had left over eight years earlier. He could not stand wearing clothes and would sleep only on the floor. But then he decided to write about his experiences in "Relación," his own narrative of the ill-fated Narváez Expedition.
"Relacion" introduced themes that touched the human soul such as slavery, discrimination and the beauty of a land never seen by Europeans before. His account helped encourage other explorers to go to the New World and to search for the riches about which he had only heard.