Image of Alvar Cabeza de Vaca


Lifetime: 1488 - 1557 Passed: ≈ 467 years ago


Explorer, Author



Alvar Cabeza de Vaca

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was a Spanish explorer of the New World, and one of four survivors of the 1527 Narváez expedition. During eight years of traveling across what is now the US Southwest, he became a trader and faith healer to various Native American tribes before reconnecting with Spanish civilization in Mexico in 1536. After returning to Spain in 1537, he wrote an account, first published in 1542 as La relación y comentarios ("The Account and Commentaries"), which in later editions was retitled Naufragios y comentarios ("Shipwrecks and Commentaries"). Cabeza de Vaca is sometimes considered a proto-anthropologist for his detailed accounts of the many tribes of Native Americans that he encountered.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1490 in the Castilian town of Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz. His father, Francisco de Vera was an hidalgo, a rank of minor Spanish nobility. His mother was Teresa Cabeza de Vaca, also from an hidalgo family. He was named after his mother's great-grandfather, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, but the real influence in his life was his paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vera.

Pedro de Vera was described by contemporaries as an expert in fighting battles on land and sea. He led raids against the Moors in North Africa and in 1483 completed the conquest of Grand Canaria, one of the major islands of the Canaries. He was appointed military governor of the island and used his position to capture Canary natives (Guanches) and sell them as slaves in Spain. When natives on the neighboring island of Gomera revolted, he brutally put down the rebellion, killing males over the age of fifteen and selling the women and children into slavery. He was heavily fined for his actions and recalled to Castile in 1490. Cabeza de Vaca would have heard of these exploits growing up; many years later he named a province in South America, Vera, in honor of his grandfather.

Cabeza de Vaca wrote this narrative to Charles V to “transmit what I saw and heard in the nine years I wandered lost and miserable over many remote lands”. He wanted to convey “not merely a report of positions and distances, flora and fauna, but of the customs of the numerous indigenous people I talked with and dwelt among, as well as any other matters I could hear of or observe”. He took care to present facts, as a full account of what he observed. The Relation is the only account of many details concerning the indigenous people whom he encountered. The accuracy of his account has been validated by later reports of others, as well as by the oral traditions of descendants of some of the tribes.

Books by Alvar Cabeza de Vaca

The Journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca  Cover image

The Journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

History Memoir Travel
Travelling Loyalty Reputation Liberty Geography Memory Survival

Cabeza de Vaca, along with three other survivors, two Spaniards and a North African (Estévanico, a black slave) endured incredible hardships. Cabeza da Vaca was, himself, at first enslaved by the Indians, forced to dig roots with his bare hands for f...