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September 2015 - Hispanic Heritage Month: Cabeza de Vaca
by Dylan Self, Military Student Advisor at University of the Rockies

There are people we remember for the roles they played in shaping history, and there are people who are largely forgotten despite the important role they played. Alvar Nenuz Cabeza de Vaca belongs in the latter group. I first became aware of his role in opening up the American west through the documentary series, "The West," by Ken Burns (The People, 1996). During its opening sequences, the narrator observed how what is now commonly called the American west was called the east by Chinese explorers, the south by Russian explorers, and the north by Spanish explorers when they began to arrive in the late 15th and 16th centuries. The first Spanish explorer whose trek was explained was Cabeza de Vaca's.

Cabeza de Vaca was born in Spain into a moderately well to do family in 1490 (Cabeza de Vaca & Favata, 1993). He was the grandson of Pedro de Vera Mendoza, who became famous as the conqueror of the Canary Islands, so there were certainly some connections available to Cabeza de Vaca that his contemporaries lacked (Ibid). By the time he had reached the age of 46, Cabeza de Vaca had successfully led the first Spanish exploration across the southern portion of what is now the American south – traveling from the Sabine River on the eastern border of Texas across the Rio Grande and ending at the Gulf of California from 1528 to 1536 (Cabeza de Vaca & Favata, 1993).

(The Journey…, 1905).

After accomplishing his first mission in the northern section of the Spanish empire, Cabeza de Vaca was granted an excellent honor and given an even more difficult task. King Charles V of Spain named Cabeza de Vaca to be the Governor and Captain General of the Rio de la Plata territory, which extended from the mountains of Peru all the way to the southernmost tip of South American at the Strait of Magellan (Cabeza de Vaca & Favata, 1993). Once he had sailed from Spain to the eastern coast of South America, the next leg of his journey was to consist of the one-year trip from Brazil around the Strait of Magellan and up to Asuncion in what is now Paraguay. Not wanting to take that long to arrive, Cabeza de Vaca used the talents he demonstrated in crossing North America and put them to use again – leading 250 men on a march of more than 1000 miles across the Amazon to his destination (Ibid). Cabeza de Vaca arrived in four months with a remarkably complete company of men with him and minimal casualties.

As the Governor of Rio de la Plata, Cabeza de Vaca showed himself to be a remarkably progressive leader, to his own detriment. He maintained law and order within the territory, kept the clergy under control, and more colonists continued to come to the colony. In addition to his mindful handling of security and the economy, he also instructed priests to take natives under their care and had mistreated natives put into worthier hands – both very rare signs of compassion from an imperial administrator in that time (Ibid). It was only after a failed expedition that Cabeza de Vaca’s power was taken away from him.

At one point, Cabeza de Vaca dispatched an expedition up the Paraguay River in search of the legendary El Dorado, the "City of Gold." When the mission failed and many were injured, one of its members instigated a revolt against Cabeza de Vaca by both colonists and soldiers, resulting in his arrest and subsequent summons back to Spain. Once he had arrived, he was summarily banished to Algeria. If not for a last-minute appeal before the Council of the Indies, he would have been sent to one of the Spanish islands in the Mediterranean (Ibid). Instead, his banishment was rescinded and it only remained in effect for the region of Rio de la Plata. It is not known exactly when Cabeza de Vaca passed away, but his body was buried in the city of Seville in Spain.

Alvar Nenuz Cabeza de Vaca is not a name commonly referenced in the annals of great explorers, but he is a man who explored the lands of the American south and the Amazon with the deftness of Lewis and Clark, well before many other Europeans had done so. He found ways to get across vast distances filled with native peoples, and yet we do not read reports of him ever mistreating or abusing them as we do many other explores and conquistadores. It is a shame he is not well known because his travels span the breadth of the largest linguistically and culturally united region of the world, from Texas to Argentina, from New Orleans to the South Pacific. But maybe that will all change as we celebrate our heritage more every year.


Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar, Fernandez, Jose, & Favata, Martin. (1993). The Account. Houston: Arte Publico Press.

The Journey of Alvar Nenuz Babeza de Vaca and His Companions from Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536. (1905). A.S. Barnes & Company.

The People. (September 15th, 1996). Retrieved from

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