Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca

by John Guthrie Ford

Cabeza de Vaca—cow’s head—is an unusual name having a controversial origin. Some scholars believe the following account is mythical, while others believe it is true. During Spain’s 13th Century war against the Moors, the maneuvering of a Spanish army was hindered by some craggy mountains. A local peasant stepped forward and told of a secret pass. The man was sent ahead to mark its entrance, which he did using a cow’s skull. The helpful peasant later received the honorific title Cabeza de Vaca. The man took the name, and propelled by the distinction, bettered his lot in life.

The name entered the annals of history 300 years later when Álvár Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca left Spain with a New World expedition bound to what is now Florida. In April 1528, the expedition landed on the peninsula’s west coast, but disease, poor leadership and skirmishes with natives thinned the ranks to the point that the conquistadors had to withdraw. Too beat down to walk, the Spaniards built five rafts to carry them along the Gulf coast to a Spanish outpost at Panuco (now Tampico), Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca captained one of the rafts.

The eight-and-a-half year odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca is shown on the map above. At left, Álvár Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1489 – c. 1559). Images courtesy PAPHA

The rafts became separated, and in November of the same year, high surf wrecked Cabeza’s on Follets Island just south of Galveston. The exposed men were soon taken in by a band of Karankawa natives in exchange for doing, of all things, healing. His people were perplexed about what to do, so Cabeza told them to breathe on their patients, pray loudly and make the sign of the Cross. When they regained their strength most of the Spaniards left Follets Island to continue the journey to Mexico; de Vaca remained with a few of his men who were too sick to walk.

Intrigued by the fauna and flora, Cabeza, a true explorer at heart, was not inclined to leave. Wanting to see interior lands, he capitalized on the fact that his particular Karankawa band was thoroughly disliked in the region. That meant the natives were blackballed from the extensive trading of resources among regional Indian tribes. Cabeza assured his Karankawa that he could turn that situation around, which he did by becoming a well-liked and successful trader and businessman. Most importantly, the position let the intrepid trader explore the region well beyond the confines of the coast.

In 1534, Cabeza de Vaca resumed the journey to Mexico. In a few days he happened on two or three comrades who had also landed in Texas. Adopting the name The Four Rugged Castaways, the men set out together. But alas, they were soon enslaved by the Coahuiltecan near Baffin Bay. They escaped that torment in the summer of 1535, only to be told by friendly natives at the Rio Grande River that there were very hostile people between them and Panuco; to continue south meant certain death. The Four Rugged Castaways turned west.

It was on that trek that Cabeza de Vaca became immortalized. A suffering man was brought to him with an arrowhead lodged above the heart. De Vaca cut into the man’s chest and removed the object, thus saving his life – 400 years later the Texas Surgical Society chose de Vaca as its Patron Saint.

Eight-and-a-half years after landing in Texas, Cabeza de Vaca ended his odyssey in Mexico City. He and his three companions were the only ones to survive the original 300- man Florida expedition. De Vaca returned to Spain to write Relación (The Accounting), the first book about Texas. In addition to being Texas’ first author, this amazing individual was also our first historian, ethnologist, and businessman— if not first physician!

Cabeza de Vaca returned to the New World in 1540 as the governor of what is today Paraguay. Running afoul of some legal matters he eventually returned to Spain and died circa 1559.

(Some believe Cabeza de Vaca came onto Mustang and San José Islands, but they are mistaken. Perhaps the confusion stems from this Spaniard spending time among the Karankawa, who were on those islands.)

(first published in the Port Aransas South Jetty May 2013)