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VACA, Alvar Nuñez (kah-bay'-thah-de-vah'-ka), Spanish explorer,
born in Extremadura, Spain, in 1507; died in 1559 (according to some
authorities, born 1490 and died 1564). He belonged to a noble Andalusian family
living in Xeres, and went to the Indies as alguacil major and treasurer of the
expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez that left Spain, 29 June, 1527.
He landed with Narvaez on the coast of Florida, probably at
Appalachee bay, and accompanied him in his painful march westward, and in the
voyage along the coast in boats constructed by the men with tools forged from
their stirrups and spurs. The swift current of the Mississippi dispersed the
frail craft. Of the 300 persons that landed on the Florida coast, Cabeza de Vaca,
with two white companions named Castillo and Dorantes and Stephen, a Negro
slave, alone returned to civilization. They were cast ashore at some point west
of Matagorda bay.
Many of the Spaniards that had escaped death from shipwreck
fell victims to the cruelty of the Indians or to disease. After six years of
captivity in a tribe called by him the Mariames, Cabeza met on the shore of
Texas the three other survivors of the expedition, who, like him, had been held
in slavery by roving tribes.
He had acquired a prestige among the Indians by learning
the healing art, as practiced by them, and becoming a medicine-man. He also
followed the trade of a peddler, and traveled as far inland as the Red river,
south of Shreveport, exchanging shells and beads for skins, flint, red-earth,
and other products of the north, but always returned to the coast in hope of
meeting some of his lost companions. When the four came together at last, they
took the earliest opportunity to escape.
They made their way to a tribe called the Avavares, among
whom they passed eight months, and then to the Arbadaos, whose seat was near the
Rio Grande. They shaped their course westward in hope of falling in with some
Spanish expedition on the Rio Panuco or the Pacific coast. Cabeza de Vaca taught
the others to treat diseases, and thus they were able to travel as successful
medicine-men from tribe to tribe. Besides using curative herbs, empirical
methods of surgery, and the signs and incantations of Indian sorcerers, they
called in the aid of the cross and of Catholic prayers. They attributed the
cures that they accomplished to the miraculous interposition of Providence.
They followed a large river, probably the Rio Grande,
passed through tribes of bison-hunters, without entering the bison-range
themselves, and traversed high mountains, where people lived in houses of sods
and clay, and were in possession of turquoises and cotton cloth obtained from
the people farther north, and finally fell in with some Spanish explorers on the
River Petatlan, and on 12 May, 1536, reached the town of San Miguel de Caliacan
Their course was formerly supposed to have been through New
Mexico, from Cabeza's mention of bison-hunters and people that mined the
turquoise; but, since he spoke of these tribes as living in the north, and gives
no account of the Staked Plain, others have traced the route through southern
Texas and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora.
The account that they gave of nations dwelling in permanent
houses impelled Coronado, the governor of New Galicia, to undertake the
exploration of the northern countries, and to send on a preliminary journey of
discovery Fray Marcos, of Nizza, who, with the Negro Stephen for his guide,
entered the kingdom of Cibola, the country of the civilized Pueblo Indians.
A joint report of the misfortunes of the Narvaez
expedition, and of the wanderings of the four survivors, was made by Cabeza de
Vaca, Castillo, and Dorantes, to the royal audiencia of Santo Domingo, given in
Oviedo's " Historia general y natural de Indies."
Cabeza de Vaca at Zamora published a narrative of his
adventures in 1542. The mysterious secrecy that Cabeza at first observed, in
regard to the nations he visited, excited the adventurous spirit of De Soto and
his companions, who, in 1538, left Spain to explore and take possession of
Cabeza de Vaca's relation of the adventures of the Narvaez
expedition was reprinted at Valladolid in 1555, and under the usually cited
title of "Naufragios de Alvar Nuñiez de Vaca," in Barcia's collection of
narratives printed in 1749. An Italian translation was included in Ramusio's
collection (1556), and an English version in Purchas's " Pilgrims." A
French rendering was published by Terneaux-Compans. A literal English
translation was made by Buckingham Smith and privately printed at Washington in
1857, and published, in a revised form, in a limited edition in 1871.
After his return to Spain, in 1537, Cabeza de Vaca was
appointed administrator of La Plata. He sailed for that colony, was shipwrecked,
landed on the coast of Paraguay, and was the first explorer of that country. He
passed through the country of the Guaranis, whom he made his friends, and who
assisted him to descend the River Plata. On 15 March, 1542, he established his
headquarters at Asunción.
The next year an insurrection broke out in consequence of a
fire, his subordinates charging him with undue lenience toward the Indian
incendiaries. He arrested the leaders in the mutiny, and sent them as prisoners
to Spain. He reduced to subjection the Payagoaes, who murdered Ayolas and eighty
of his followers, explored the Iguaçu river, and subjugated the tribes on its
banks; but was beaten by the Socorinis and Agates, who killed sixty-three of his
men. On the accusation of Domingo de IrMa, his lieutenant, he was arrested in
1544, taken to Spain, and condemned by the council of the Indies to banishment
to Africa. Eight years later he was pardoned and recalled by the king, who
assigned him an annual pension, and made him judge of the Supreme Court of
Seville, where he resided until his death.
Edited Appletons Encyclopedia by John Looby, Copyright ©