Cabeza de Vaca: The Nomadic Conquistador

Cabeza de Vaca explored the America’s in the sixteenth century, was the first European to do so in North America. After eight years living among native Indians in North America, he was enslaved, worked as a trader, a healer and became considered a spiritual leader by thousands of natives.

His writings on the native Americans come from a total leap over into their way of life, their many languages and customs and a complete separation from Christian civilisation. He was perhaps one of the greatest explorers that the world never thought to remember.

“We ever held it certain that going towards the sunset we would find what we desired”
– Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America

1280px-Expedition_Cabeza_de_Vaca_KarteRoute taken by Cabeza de Vaca – 1527-1536.


Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born in Spain to a family of minor nobility. Despite their unsubstantial social status the family commanded modest economic assets and sources indicate that even after the death of his parents, Cabeza de Vaca lived a comfortable life with relatives. His grandfather, Pedro de Vera had led the conquest of the Canary Islands

Following this, Cabeza de Vaca enlisted in the Spanish army and served with distinction in Italy, Spain and Navarre before joining the 1527 expedition to Florida as the expedition’s treasurer and a ranking officer – tasked with collecting King Charles I expected plunder in the New World on behalf of the Spanish Crown.

After landing in the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Rep; Haiti) the expedition lost a substantial amount of its men to desertion, and after setting out from Cuba to pick up more men, Cabeza de Vaca’s fleet was battered by a hurricane causing the death of most of his men.

In vain the expedition – commanded by Panfilo de Narvaez – set sail for Florida, and upon landing in modern day Tampa Bay, Florida, laid claim to more than 1000 miles of unexplored land for the Spanish Empire.

The Panfilo de Narvaez Expedition

Upon landing in Florida the 400 strong expedition was repeatedly ambushed by native forces, disease and swamp, Narvaez split the expedition in half after hearing rumours of a city made of gold. He sent 100 men north in a fleet, they were never seen again, his men fell one by one, and the rumoured city of treasure was nothing but a town of corn.

Cabeza de Vaca set sail with his men hoping to sail through the Gulf of Mexico to a Spanish settlement – the voyage was marked with storms, capsizings and drownings before being washed ashore by a freak on Galveston Island (see map).

The handful of survivors – Cabeza de Vaca included, were so lifeless when they were discovered washed up on the beach at Galveston Island that their natives captors took pity on them, feeding and sheltering them. However, news reached the Hans and Capoques of another group of Spaniards further inland who, in the eyes of starvation, had resorted to eating each other. This, coupled with natives dying from disease upon the arrival of the Spanish did not fare well for de Vaca and the rest of the expeditions survivors – some were killed, the rest were enslaved.


Artists representation of the survivors at Galveston.

Escape From Galveston Island

Whilst imprisoned by the Huns and Capoques, de Vaca was sent to the mainland to help pick the berry harvest – it was here that he met two other Spanish captives and as the natives observed them speaking in their mother tongue they wondered if the Spaniards possessed some kind of spiritual powers. The three Spaniards were taken into a medicine tent and instructed, not without protest, to heal those inside. They used traditional native techniques that they had observed the shaman perform whilst in captivity and prayed for good measure. To their surprise all those inside claimed that they were fully healed, and de Vaca and his companions were revered by the natives who gave them extra food and other tokens even when there was not enough to go around. This treatment was however, short lived. Shortly after the marvel in the healing tent de Vaca himself fell near fatally ill – his reputation as a healer was tarnished and he spent the next year being tormented cruelly by the natives. Approaching Spring in 1530, Cabeza de Vaca made his escape.

Of the 400 men sent on the Florida expedition, no more than ten remained alive – scattered throughout various tribes, toiling in slavery.

The Journey Begins

Upon escaping Galveston Island, Cabeza de Vaca began wandering between villages and managed to set himself up as a roving trader, naked and barefoot, traveling hundreds of miles to and fro.The trade lanes between villages were largely in disuse at this point due to heavy fighting between various tribes and de Vaca’s distinct appearance meant that he could neutrally move between caravans even with this conflict at play.

The occupation suited me; I could travel where I wished, was not obliged to work, and was not a slave. Wherever I went the Indians treated me honorably and gave me food because they liked my commodities. They were glad to see me when I came and delighted to be brought what they wanted. I became well known; those who did not know me personally knew me by reputation and sought my acquaintance.

De Vaca leaned to speak six native languages in these two years. He became accustomed to harsh conditions and a nomadic lifestyle and often stayed in Indian villages and camps, sharing their food and learning their customs. During this time it is likely that de Vaca became the first white man to lay eyes on the Buffalo roaming the Great Plains – he described them as cattle and complemented the native’s use of their hides.

By 1532 de Vaca had somewhat settled into this nomadic lifestyle when he met a group of Quevene Indians who informed him that they had met others of ‘his kind’ (the remaining expedition survivors) living in slavery on the Texas coast. Cabeza de Vaca made his way there to aid them escape, however, he was captured by the Yguaces and once again, forced to live as a slave.

Even in bondage de Vaca showed an unusual level of admiration for his captors. He frequently writes of their generosity, skills in battle and highly developed senses and whilst maintaining a constant sense of cultural superiority, de Vaca – a sixteenth century noble gentlemen and conquistador – maintained that the natives were brothers of equal standing in the eyes of God and should be won over with kindness. The Catholic Church was at the time debating whether the natives possessed souls.

This is not to say that everything de Vaca observes in his accounts was light hearted and peaceful – whilst commenting on the gentle nature of some tribes he also noted that the Yguaces and Mariames killed most of their children at birth, they kept some of the sons but systematically killed every daughter; when in need of a wife, the Mariames and Yguaces simply purchased one from a neighbouring tribe for the cost of one bow and two arrows. The justification for this killing ritual was as follows:

All the nations of the region are their enemies… if they were to marry off their daughters, their daughters would multiply their enemies until the latter overran and enslave the Mariames, who thus preferred to annihilate all daughters than risk their reproduction of a single enemy.

Ultimately, Cabeza de Vaca’s exploits were unusually tolerant and open-minded considering the context of the time period and his social standing – this is not to mention the amount of time that he spent as a slave in various tribes.


The Children of the Sun

The year 1534 – the September prickly pear harvest approaches, the Mariame and Yguace villages are preparing to head inland to gather the fruits. Cabeza de Vaca and the remaining few survivors of the Narvaez expedition arrange to meet in a particular cactus field, under the full moon, and make a run for it back to civilization.

With the hostile coastal tribes to the south, Florida to the east and presumably China and India to the North, they settled on the West – placing their faith into the great unknown.

Cabeza de Vaca, the leader of the group, was joined by Andres Dorantes and Alonso del Castillo – the two men with whom he was considered a miracle healer by the natives five years previously. The fourth was an Arab from Morocco – Estevan. Their journey west was the first of its kind in America by non-natives, and was an impossible feat. It would surely have ended in death or slavery were it not for something the group had not expected – the news of their miracle healing five years previously had traveled ahead of them around the great plains and they were widely received as holy men by the natives.

As they journeyed westwards they were joined by hundreds of natives, then thousands, running ahead to villages to tell them that the Children of the Sun were coming from the House of Dawn, to perform miracles and healing. The thousands of men journeyed westwards across present day Texas and into the Sierra Madre, Mexico – Cabeza de Vaca upheld that without exception, every patient considered themselves to be completely healed after the group had passed by.

The region was still talking about the bearded miracle workers who traveled through 50 years before.

Eventually Cabeza de Vaca gave up his pursuits in healing, considering himself unworthy of such a gift. Estevan the Moroccan also gave little emphasis on the healing process, and was more concerned with playing with the Indian children, talking about the geography of the land with the men (he spoke nine languages by the end of the journey) and sleeping with the Indian women – as was a common courtesy to guests passing through a village.

Though the Children of the Sun and their some four thousand strong band of followers still continued on their journey to the sunset.


Sierra Madre Occidental Mountain Range – Mexico

From Dusk To Darkness and the End of the Procession

Along the great migration westwards, Cabeza de Vaca noted a development in the journeys followers – the thousands of Indians had begun ransacking approaching villages, burning some and looting everything that the villages owned as a ‘tribute to the Children of the Sun’. The villagers, now destitute, would join the band where they would make up their losses by looting the next village down the line. Cabeza de Vaca tried to extend his authority over the group and put a stop to the ransacking, he soon however realised that his authority did not extend that far.

The group traveled through the Rio Grande mountain range, where Cabeza de Vaca healed a patient using surgery for the first time; and then began the long journey south – where they began to encounter more permanent villages with agricultural lifestyles. They praised Cabeza de Vaca for his endurance – he walked miles every day, rarely ate and stayed up most nights performing blessings and preaching about the cross.

In early 1536, after eight years since the expedition landed in Florida, the group finally began to find signs of Christian civilization. They found fertile lands with Indian villages burned to the ground and survivors, starving and weak with nothing to offer told of how the Spaniards had ransacked their villages, carrying off the women, children and able men. Cabeza de Vaca describes how the survivors seemed as though they would ‘willingly die than repeat the horror they had recently experienced”.

Only a few days later Cabeza de Vaca found a group of Spanish slavers – the first men from the Old World he had seen in eight years (save for the expedition survivors) – they were bemused at his appearance, naked and bearded with a following of natives. He explained who he was – the King’s treasurer on the Narvaez expedition and demanded that he see their captain. Upon meeting the group’s captain it became clear that he intended to enslave Cabeza de Vaca’s followers – to which de Vaca was disgusted and refused.

Cabeza de Vaca spent the next weeks struggling with colonial bureaucracy to put an end to the slaving and killing of Indians – his proposals were accepted and enforced – for a brief while before the much more horrific wars that would ensue.

Cabeza de Vaca writes of his return to civilization – the bright light that he had been walking towards for eight years, years of being a slave, a trader, healer, and a spiritual beacon for the natives. He writes of how he could not stand the feel of clothes on his skin, or of shoes on his feet. He writes of how he could not sleep in a bed, but rather how he would sleep on the floor wrapped in a buffalo hide and ultimately, he writes of the brutality of his countrymen.


Cabeza de Vaca was undoubtedly changed by living among the Indians. He returned to Spain in 1537 and writes more of how the walled cities confine him, and trivial gossip left him feeling cold and uneasy. He left Spain again in 1540 after managing to gain command of an expedition to Paraguay – at the time a Spanish outpost.

He was greeted in Brazil with a fleet that was to take him and his men to Paraguay; instead, Cabeza de Vaca took his men on a thousand mile hike through the jungle barefoot, killing no Indian and losing not one of his men in the process. The next year he made another thousand mile hike with his men, they threatened to mutiny and the hike came to an end.

The elite in Brazil could not understand his benevolent attitude towards the natives – whom they wanted to use for cheap labour. In 1543 Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain in chains for preventing the exploitation of Paraguayan Indians.


Cabeza de Vaca


Key source for this work:
Grant, Richard. 2003. Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads. UK: Little, Brown


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