Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez

(redirected from Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca)
Also found in: Dictionary.

Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez

Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez (älˈvär no͞oˈnyāth käbāˈthä dā väˈkä), c.1490–c.1557, Spanish explorer. Cabeza de Vaca [cow's head] was not actually a surname but a hereditary title in his mother's family; he is frequently called simply Álvar Núñez.

North American Adventures

Cabeza de Vaca came to the New World as treasurer in the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez that reached Florida (probably Tampa Bay) in 1528. When hardship and native hostility caused the end of the expedition, he was one of the survivors whose barges were shipwrecked on an island off the Texas coast, possibly Galveston or Mustang Island. Their story is one of the most remarkable in the annals of exploration.

After suffering considerably as slaves of the Native Americans inhabiting the island, Cabeza de Vaca and three other survivors escaped and started a long journey overland. His companions were Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico. They gained great repute among the Native Americans as healers since remarkable cures were attributed to their Christian prayers. Their route westward is as disputed as is the identity the island of the shipwreck, but after much wandering they did reach W Texas, then probably New Mexico and Arizona, and possibly (some argue) California before, turning south in 1536, they arrived in Culiacán in Mexico and told their story to Spaniards there.

They were almost certainly the first Europeans to see bison, and their stories about the Pueblo gave rise to the legend of the Seven Cities of Cibola, later magnified by Fray Marcos de Niza, and brought explorers in search of El Dorado. Cabeza de Vaca's own account, Los naufragios [the shipwrecked men] (1542), is the chief document of the startling adventures of his party. An English translation (1851) by Thomas Buckingham Smith is reprinted in I. R. Blacker and H. M. Rosen's The Golden Conquistadores (1960).

South American Career

After returning to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed governor of the Río de la Plata region and reached Asunción after an overland journey from the Brazilian coast in 1542. His South American career was sadly different from that in North America. He got into trouble with the popular Domingo Martínez de Irala, and after he returned from a journey up the Paraná River to Bolivia, he was arrested, accused of high-handed practices, imprisoned for two years, and sent back to Spain. There he was found guilty but was pardoned by the king. Cabeza de Vaca wrote his own account of the South American events in his Comentarios (1555).


See M. Bishop, The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca (1933); J. U. Terrell, Journey into Darkness (1962); H. Long, The Marvelous Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca (1973).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez


Born in 1490; died in 1564 (according to some sources, 1507-59). Spanish conquistador.

In 1528, Cabeza de Vaca sailed from western Florida to Texas on one of the ships of P. Narvâez’ military expedition. He was shipwrecked off the coast of Texas. From 1529 to 1536, in wandering from one Indian tribe to another, he was the first to cross the Great Plains and the Rio Grande basin, finally reaching Mexico. In 1541-42, after being appointed governor of the province of Rio de la Plata, he landed on the coast of Brazil at 27°S lat. and crossed the southern part of the Brazilian plateau. He discovered the Iguaçu River, a left tributary of the Parana, and traveled to its mouth. From there he marched west to the Paraguay River, sailing as far as 18°S lat. in search of silver. In 1544, Cabeza de Vaca was arrrested by a rival and deported to Spain in 1545. He described his travels in Tales of Failures (1555).


Magidovich, I. P. Istoriia otkrytiia i issledovaniia Severnoi Ameriki. Moscow, 1962.
Magidovich, I. P. Istoriia otkrytiia i issledovaniia Tsentraiinoi i IuzhnoiAmeriki. Moscow, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.