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Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos. Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887-1889 and 1999. warns that these 19th Century biographies contain errors and bias. We rely on volunteers to edit the historic biographies on a continual basis. If you would like to edit this biography please submit a rewritten biography in text form . If acceptable, the new biography will be published above the 19th Century Appleton's Cyclopedia Biography citing the volunteer editor

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CABEZA DE 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 in Sinaloa.


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 Florida.


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 © 2001 VirtualologyTM


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