Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca
Cabeza de Vaca was born in Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain, sometime around the end of the fifteenth century. His father was Francisco de Vera, the son of Pedro de Vera, the Spanish conqueror of the Canaries. His mother was Teresa Cabeza de Vaca, a native of Jerez, and a descendant of Martin Alhaja. Alhaja was the shepherd who assisted Christian forces during the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 A.D. This was one of the key battles in the "Christian Reconquest of Spain." Alhaja's contribution was to indicate a path around a pass guarded by a strong Moorish force. He marked the path with the head of a cow (cabeza de vaca). Following the Christian victory, Alhaja was ennobled and took the title of Cabeza de Vaca. Several of his descendants went on to high positions in Spain including Don Pero Fernandez Cabeza de Vaca who was elected grand master of the prestigious Knights of St. James in 1383.
Little is known of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's early life, but in manhood he was clearly a person of substance with a rich family heritage. In 1527, he was appointed treasurer in the expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez. Narvaez had been appointed Governor of Florida and instructed to conquer and govern the peninsula. The Narvaez expedition landed near present day Tampa Bay and proceeded north and then west to the vicinity of today's Tallahassee in search of advanced civilizations and precious metals. No gold or silver was found and the Native American inhabitants proved to be very hostile and very effective in the defense of their lands. Following a number of difficult encounters with the natives, Narvaez built a number of small ships out of animal hides and sailed east along the gulf coast toward Mexico. Storms wrecked the boats near Galveston and many of the party were drowned. Those that survived the disaster at sea went ashore at Mahaldo (Galveston) Island, Texas, and were captured and enslaved by the native inhabitants.
Cabeza de Vaca was among four men who managed to survive the shipwreck and captivity. The other three were Andres Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and Estevanico. Dorantes and Maldonado were Spanish and Estevanico was an Arab Moor from Azamor on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. After escaping from their native captors, these four survivors walked across western Texas and northern Mexico to eventually be reunited with fellow Spaniards in Culiacan eight years after landing in Florida with Narvaez. After resting briefly in Culiacan as the guests of Alcalde Melchior Diaz, they went on to Compostela where they were guests of Governor Nuno de Guzman before proceeding on to Mexico City where they reported to Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. in each place they recounted their adventures and told their hosts about what they had seen and heard during their travels. Their reports seemed to tie in with existing rumors of seven cities of gold and stimulated interest in mounting an expedition of discovery into the region.
Viceroy Mendoza requested that Cabeza de Vaca return to the area north of occupied New Spain at the head of an expedition, but he declined and in 1537 returned to Spain where he requested a royal commission as Governor of Florida in place of Narvaez. That position had already been given to Hernando de Soto so, instead, the king ordered him to Paraguay as Governor and Captain General. Cabeza de Vaca reached Paraguay in 1541 and quickly ran into trouble with his subordinates. In 1543 they revolted and he was seized and sent back to Spain as a prisoner. He remained in custody for eight years but following that period appears to have lived to an advanced age in Sevilla with honor and some wealth. Cabeza de Vaca wrote a book about his journey that Fanny Bandelier translated and many other authors have drawn upon. It was written in 1555, many years after the event, and contains a long string of fascinating and difficult to believe adventures. One thing that it makes clear, however, is that Cabeza de Vaca and his colleagues did not personally see any precious metal nor any advanced civilizations. It indicates that they did hear vague rumors of both. (Note: The publication of Cabeza de Vaca's book in 1555 was well after the Coronado expedition and quite possibly was part of an effort to clear the author's name of any allegation that he had falsely reported hard evidence of gold.)