Cabeza de Vaca

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca


Depicted Nude and crawling on the beach on the west panel is Cabaza De Vaca.

Cabeza got his name from the accomplishments of his Ancestor in Spain 1212,  a modest Spanish shepherd named Martin Alhaja, who aided the Castilian King Alfonso VIII during the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 A.D. Alhaja, who knew the area, placed a cow skull on the road that led to the battlefield. The Spanish Christian King surprised the Moorish army and defeated them in this Major turning point of the Reconquista.


Christian accounts of the battle claim miraculous intercession and that the slaughter among the Moors was horrific.

The Reconquista was the 770 year Struggle for Christians to regain control in Spain following the Muslim Moors’ conquest of the region in 711.Starting in 722 when Christian military force in Iberia scored the first major victory said to have been by Divine intervention at the Battle of Covadonga. Ending in 1482 when the Castilians launched the Granada War which ended all Muslim authority in Spain in 1492, completing the Reconquista.

After The king rewarded Alhaja, being made a noble. The decedents of Alhaja served as builders, civil servants and explorers. One of those decedents born around 1490 was Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (or just Cabeza de Vaca to most people) who joined the Spanish army during his teens.Núñez’s paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vera, led the conquest of Grand Canary Island in the fifteenth century.

The journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca remains one of the most amazing feats of exploration in the Americas.

Cabeza de Vaca was born into the Spanish nobility in 1490. Little of his early life is known, except that he made his career in the military. In early 1527 he left Spain as a part of a royal expedition intended to occupy the mainland of North America.

After their fleet was battered by a hurricane off the shore of Cuba, the expedition secured a new boat and departed for Florida. They landed in March 1528 near what is now Tampa Bay, which the expedition leader, Pánfilo de Narváez, claimed as the lawful possession of the Spanish empire.

Despite this confident declaration, the expedition was on the verge of disaster. Narváez’s decision to split his land and sea forces proved a grievous error, as the ships were never able to rendezvous with the land expedition. The party soon overstayed its welcome with the Apalachee Indians of northern Florida by taking their leader hostage. Expelled and pursued by the Indians, suffering from numerous diseases, the surviving members of the expedition were reduced to huddling in a coastal swamp and living off the flesh of their horses. In late 1528, they built several crude rafts from trees and horse hides and set sail, hoping to return to Cuba.

“Cabeza de Vaca performing the first recorded surgical operation on the North American Continent–1535” by Tom Lea, Jr. It is believed that this event took place near Pecos, Texas.

Storms, thirst and starvation had reduced the expedition to about eighty survivors when a hurricane dumped Cabeza de Vaca and his companions on the Gulf Coast near what is now Galveston, Texas. They were initially welcomed, but, as Cabeza de Vaca was to remember, “half the natives died from a disease of the bowels and blamed us.” For the next four years he and a steadily dwindling number of his comrades lived in the complex native world of what is now East Texas, a world in which Cabeza transformed himself from a conquistador into a trader and healer.




Three Possible Routes

By 1532, only three other members of the original expedition were still alive — Alonso del Castillo Maldonando, Andrés Dorantes de Carranca, and Estevan, an African slave. Together with Cabeza de Vaca, they now headed west and south in hopes of reaching the Spanish Empire’s outpost in Mexico, becoming the first men of the Old World to enter the American West. Their precise route is not clear, but they apparently traveled across present-day Texas, perhaps into New Mexico and Arizona and through Mexico’s northern provinces. In July 1536, near Culiacán in present-day Sinaloa, they finally encountered a group of fellow Spaniards who were on a slave-taking expedition. As Cabeza de Vaca remembered, his countrymen were “dumbfounded at the sight of me, strangely dressed and in company with Indians. They just stood staring for a long time.”

Appalled by the Spanish treatment of Indians, in 1537 Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain to publish an account of his experiences and to urge a more generous policy upon the crown. He served as a Mexican territorial governor, but was soon accused of corruption, perhaps for his enlightened conduct toward Indians. He returned to Spain and was convicted; a 1552 pardon allowed him to become a judge in Seville, Spain, a position which he occupied until his death in 1556 or 1557.


Cabeza de Vaca — 3 Comments

  1. Alvar Nunez has always been one of my favourite heroes of the American continent’s history and I am very happy to know that other people such as you honour him with your murals and your writings.Well done!!! Would love to visit you one day.
    Years ago whilst living in the UK wrote a film script about Cabeza’s north American journey, unfortunately at the time getting money for such a story was not of great interest in Europe. Have not given up ( as He never did)
    Al the best
    Carlos Pasini Hansen

    • Somehow missed your comment from several mos ago. I’ve long been fascinated by the toughness,and resourceful nature of this man . The sights he must have seen! Thankfully he wrote some of them down. Colorado is a special place ,if your in the area someday your welcome to stop by

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