Alvar N. C. de Vaca Biography

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a sixteenth century Spanish explorer, embarked on a remarkable journey that took him from the Italian War to the New World. Surviving the ill-fated Narváez Expedition, he wandered for years before returning to Spain and chronicling his experiences. Despite facing challenges as the governor of the Río de la Plata in Argentina, he continued to advocate for the fair treatment of natives. Although he faced conviction and arrest, he ultimately received a pardon from the king and went on to serve as a judge in Seville until his death.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca
  • Died At Age: 69
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: María Marmolejo
    • Father: Francisco de Vera
    • Mother: Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita
  • Born Country: Spain
  • Died on: May 27, 1559
  • Place of Death: Seville, Spain

Childhood & Early Life

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1490 in Jerez de la Frontera, a small Andalusian town in Spain. His father, Francisco Núñez de Vera, was a hidalgo while his mother Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita was the scion of the noted Cabeza de Vaca clan. It is possible that Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was his parents’ only son. From his mother’s first marriage, he had two half-brothers, Juan de Vera and Pedro de Vera e Hinojosa, as well as two half-sisters. Since his parents died when he was still very young, he was raised either by his paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vera Mendoza, one of Canary Island conquerors, or by his uncle and aunt. However, by all accounts, he had a comfortable life.

Early Career

While still in his teens, Cabeza de Vaca began his career as a chamberlain for a noble family. In 1511, he was enlisted in the Spanish Army and took part in the Italian War, fighting in it with distinction, eventually being promoted to the post of lieutenant. In 1512, he supported King Charles I of Spain during the Revolt of the Comuneros, which not only earned him several medals and awards, but also the attention of the king. By the middle of the 1520s, he had won the confidence of the king and become an important figure.

Narvaez Expedition

In 1527, King Charles I sent an expedition to the New World to claim the area around modern day Florida with Pánfilo de Narváez as its leader and Cabeza de Vaca as the second-in-command, treasure and sheriff. He was also to ensure that the Spanish crown received one-fifth of the acquired wealth. The expedition, which departed from Spain on June 17, 1527, had six hundred men on board of an unspecified number of ships. Sometime in August, they stopped at Hispaniola, where 150 of his men decided to quit. In September 1527, they reached Santiago de Cuba, from where Cabeza de Vaca was sent with two ships to Trinidad to recruit more men and acquire horses. There, they were hit by a hurricane, which destroyed the ships, forcing them to wait till Narváez came to pick them up. They resumed the expedition in February 1528 and reached the Tampa Bay on April 12, 1528, eventually landing at what is now known as the Jungle Prada Site in present-day St. Petersburg with 300 men. Immediately, they claimed the land for the Spanish crown. On reaching Tampa Bay, Cabeza de Vaca urged Narváez to stay close to the ships so that they could escape immediately in case of an emergency. However, Narváez decided to go deep inside the territory in search of gold, a journey that resulted in ambush by natives, diseases, starvation and deaths. When they returned to the bay with the surviving members, they could not locate the ships and had to build crude boats. Eventually, they sailed down the Gulf of Mexico in five crude boats with forty sailors in each. In September 1528, they were once again hit by storms and two of the boats, one of which carried Cabeza de Vaca, were wrecked on Galveston Island in today’s Texas. There they were taken as slaves by the Native American Indians and were made to do women’s work.

Later Years

By the winter of 1528, the number of survivors had dwindled to fifteen. Sometime thereafter, Cabeza de Vaca and three other men were able to escape, taking refuge with other tribes, very often pretending to be healers in order to get better treatment and food. For the next eight years, they traveled on foot from place to place, exploring places, adapting to the lives of the native tribes. Finally, in 1536, he was spotted by some Spaniards and returned with them to Mexico, eventually sailing back to Spain in 1537. In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca was sent to South America as the governor of the Río de la Plata. Shortly, he embarked on a journey into the interior of the continent, discovering many new trails, becoming the first European to see the Iguaçu Falls. He also tried to prevent the European settlers from abusing the Native Americans, a measure that proved very unpopular among the former. The former governor, Domingo Martínez de Irala, took advantage of the situation and organized a revolt against him. On April 25, 1544, Cabeza de Vaca was arrested. He was imprisoned for eleven months before being sent back on his journey to Spain on March 8, 1545, reaching Seville, Spain, on September 2, 1545. Here, he was imprisoned for three months before being released on bonds. In 1551, he was convicted of malfeasance by the council of the Indies and was not only stripped of his titles, but was also sentenced to a five-year banishment to a penal colony in Onan (now Algeria). In addition, he was forever banned from entering the Americas. In 1552, he appealed against the verdict and won. Very soon, he was able to restore his position in the royal court, being appointed chief justice of the tribunal of Seville by the crown in 1556.

Major Works

‘La relación of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’, which chronicles Cabeza de Vaca’s remarkable journey from Florida to Mexico during the Narváez Expedition is one of his most important works. The book, which contains the first descriptions of many places, is now considered a must-read for historians, ethnographers and anthropologists.

Family & Personal Life

Sometime in the early 1510s, while serving in the Italian War, Álvar Núñez married María Marmolejo, scion of a prominent converso family. They had at least one son, Cristobal II Diego Luis Cabeza De Vaca. He spent his last years in Seville, breathing his last sometime between 1559 and 1560. Later, he was buried in the family vault in Jerez de la Frontera.


According to folklore, the Cabeza de Vaca family originated from Martin Alhaja, the shepherd who helped the Spanish Christians to win against the Moors in 1212. It is believed that Álvar Núñez’s mother bestowed the Cabeza de Vaca name on him in order to remind him of the lineage.

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