Narváez’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s Expeditions

After claiming Florida for Spain, Spanish explorers faced attacks by North American Indians and lost hundreds of crew members to hunger, disease, and weather. A report by the expeditions’ four survivors is the first European document to describe a hurricane, the buffalo and the opossum, local geography, and the interaction of Europeans and indigenous peoples in North America.

Summary of Event

Spain had expanded its empire from a few islands to include Mexico, or New Spain, after the conquest of the Aztecs in 1521 by Hernán Cortés. Operating from bases in the Caribbean, Juan Ponce de León and other Spanish explorers had also explored and established a short-lived colony in Florida. These expeditions fueled the imagination of other Spaniards, and after the conquest of Mexico, Florida acquired important strategic value. In 1527, the Spanish crown approved another expedition to Florida, to be commanded by Pánfilo de Narváez, a veteran of the conquests of Cuba and Mexico. The treasurer and second in command of the expedition was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Exploration and colonization;Spain of North America
Narváez, Pánfilo de
Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez
Dorantes de Carranza, Andrés
Castillo Maldonado, Alonso del
Mendoza, Antonio de
Coronado, Francisco Vásquez de
Narváez, Pánfilo de
Dorantes de Carranza, Andrés
Castillo Maldonado, Alonso del
Mendoza, Antonio de
Marcos, Fray
Coronado, Francisco Vásquez de

Although he had not been to America, Cabeza de Vaca had an impressive military background and pedigree. His mother’s surname, which means “head of the cow,” was an honorary title her family had received when an ancestor marked a mountain pass with a cow’s skull that enabled the Christians to surprise the Muslims in a crucial battle. His paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vera, was the conqueror of Gran Canaria (Grand Canary), and Cabeza de Vaca grew up with indigenous Guanche slaves from the Canary Islands and his grandfather’s stories of conquest and adventure. Born around 1490, Cabeza de Vaca reached adulthood during Spain’s imperial expansion and chose a military career. Before his assignment to the Narváez expedition, he had already served the Crown in Italy, Navarre, and Spain.

Commander Narváez already had an ill-starred career. During the conquest of Cuba, he oversaw the slaughter of thousands of indigenous peoples. When he was sent to arrest Hernán Cortés, Narváez lost his men to the conqueror of Mexico and he lost an eye in the process. The Florida expedition also started off badly when 140 men deserted shortly after arriving in Santo Domingo. On their way to Florida, the fleet was scattered by a hurricane off Cuba, several ships ran aground, and 60 men and 20 horses were lost.

The expedition finally reached Florida on April 12, 1528. After claiming the land in the name of the king of Spain and trading with the North American Indians for food, the expedition moved inland in search of Apalachen, a province purportedly rich in gold. Despite the objections of Cabeza de Vaca to separating the ships from the land force, Narváez ordered the ships to sail on to a port, leaving three hundred people on shore. It was the last time they would see their ships.

The Spaniards encountered a fierce resistance from indigenous archers whose arrows could penetrate trees and Spanish armor. When they reached Apalachen, it was a disappointing village of forty thatched huts inhabited by women and children, and they were constantly under attack. Suffering from wounds, hunger, and disease, they tried to locate a harbor where they might find the ships. Failing that, they decided to build barges to escape to Pánuco, Mexico, by sailing along the Gulf coast. After consuming their horses, the 242 survivors embarked in five leaky and overcrowded barges. Narváez and his men, separating from the slower barges, disappeared, never to be seen again.

After almost two months at sea, Cabeza de Vaca and his troops crashed on Galveston Island, off what is now Texas. Although they were befriended by local tribes, they had little food. All but sixteen of the ninety Spaniards died from disease and hunger, while their hosts were dying from a disease they blamed on the Spaniards. Gradually, all but four of the Spaniards perished, some resorting to cannibalism before dying or being killed by shocked Indians.

The four survivors, Cabeza de Vaca, Captains Andrés Dorantes de Carranza and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and Estevanico (sometimes called Esteván), a Moorish slave, spent the next seven years wandering among the indigenous tribes of what is now the southwestern United States. Although initially worshiped for their medical powers, they were reduced to slaves and forced to work under harsh masters. After he escaped from his group, Cabeza de Vaca took up trade and became a successful merchant who could travel freely between hostile tribes. Despite his new status, he was naked and barely survived on the roots or plants he could scavenge.

When the four survivors were reunited, they became medicine men, praying over their patients, who experienced miraculous recoveries. Considered to have magical powers, they became famous, and their fame as healers spread. They were followed by hordes of believers and were welcomed and showered with presents in every village they visited. Although they developed an appreciation for their hosts and the indigenous cultures, they never abandoned their Christian faith and viewed their own survival and medical cures as divinely inspired.

When they arrived in Mexico in the spring of 1536, eight years after landing in Florida, their reports of their experiences stimulated interest in further exploration. Seeking to preempt any competitors, the Spanish viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, dispatched Fray Marcos and Estevanico on a reconnaissance mission to northern Mexico. When Estevanico disappeared, apparently killed by resentful Mexican Indians, Fray Marcos returned with reports of seven fabulous cities, rumored to be the Seven Cities of Cíbola Seven Cities of Cíbola founded by seven legendary bishops who had fled Portugal centuries earlier.

Acting on this news, Mendoza authorized Francisco Vásquez de Coronado to explore northern Mexico. With three hundred soldiers, seven Franciscans, and a thousand indigenous allies, Coronado searched as far as Kansas without locating any fabulous riches, and returned to Mexico a broken man. Nevertheless, his expedition had initiated the Spanish conquest of Texas and New Mexico and the introduction of horses and cattle into these territories.


In 1537, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain and presented his official report to Charles I, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. This document, along with a joint report prepared by Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, and Dorantes, described the disastrous Florida expedition and is an important source of information on the explorers’ experiences and the indigenous cultures they encountered from Florida to Mexico, many of which were soon extinct.

Although Cabeza de Vaca considered Florida to have great potential as a colony and believed in other fabulous civilizations in North America, he refused to offer his services as second in command of Hernando de Soto’s ill-fated expedition to Florida. In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca sailed to South America in command of an expedition to relieve a struggling Spanish settlement in Paraguay and marched 1,000 miles overland to Asunción. He was overthrown because of his efforts to protect the indigenous from enslavement and was sent back to Spain in chains. Although he was deprived of his titles and banished from the Indies, he also was pardoned and given a pension by the king just before his death around 1560.

Further Reading

  • Adorno, Rolena, and Patrick Charles Pautz. Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: His Account, His Life, and the Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez. 3 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Volume 1 contains Cabeza de Vaca’s own narrative of his adventures. Volumes 2 and 3 provide close readings and interpretations of the narrative together with analyses of its place in literary history and in the history of Spanish exploration in the Americas.
  • Bishop, Morris. The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991. The best full-length biography of Cabeza de Vaca. Describes the conqueror’s early life but has been challenged for the accuracy of Cabeza de Vaca’s itinerary.
  • Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. Translated and edited by Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. A stand-alone edition of Adorno and Pautz’s critically praised translation of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative.
  • Chipman, Donald E. “Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.” In The New Handbook of Texas, edited by Ron Tyler et al. Vol. 4. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1996. The best brief biography of Cabeza de Vaca, with a good review of the issue of his route to Mexico and his place in history.
  • Chipman, Donald E. “In Search of Cabeza de Vaca’s Route Across Texas: An Historiographical Survey.” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 91 (October, 1987): 127-148. A survey of the literature on Cabeza de Vaca’s route through Texas and New Mexico.
  • González-Casanovas, Roberto J. Imperial Histories from Alfonso X to Inca Garcilaso: Revisionist Myths of Reconquest and Conquest. Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 1997. Examines the political and ideological functions of official historiographies of Spanish conquest in America and reconquest in Iberia. Includes a reading of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative and the ways it authorizes Spanish colonialism.
  • Hallenbeck, Cleve. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: The Journey and Route of the First European to Cross the Continent of North America, 1534-1536. Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1940. A still-valuable reconstruction of the itinerary of Cabeza de Vaca through Texas across the Rio Grande into Northern Mexico.
  • Hedrick, Basil C., and Carroll L. Riley, eds. and trans. The Journey of the Vaca Party: The Account of the Narváez Expedition, 1528-1536, as Related by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés. Carbondale: University Museum, Southern Illinois University, 1964. Translation from the sixteenth century Spanish chronicler’s general history of the Indies. Includes the joint report of Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, and Dorantes, written in Mexico in 1536.
  • Howard, David A. Conquistador in Chains: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997. A biography of Cabeza de Vaca that sees his Texas experience as a key influence in his change from exploiter to protector of the American Indians in the Rio de la Plata province.
  • Sauer, Carl O. Sixteenth Century North America: The Land and the Peoples as Seen by the Europeans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. An analysis of sixteenth century European descriptions of North America by a well-known scholar of cultural geography.

1493-1521: Ponce de León’s Voyages

1495-1510: West Indian Uprisings

Apr., 1519-Aug., 1521: Cortés Conquers Aztecs in Mexico

May 28, 1539-Sept. 10, 1543: De Soto’s North American Expedition

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

Sept., 1565: St. Augustine Is Founded