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Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.
Introduced by Fanny Bandelier.
Introduction. The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca.

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THIS volume offers the original narrative of the first white man to cross North America. The remarkable journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and the Moor Estévanico, from Florida to Northwestern Mexico (Sonora and Sinaloa), near the Pacific coast, antedates the expeditions of Coronado and De Soto, whose histories have already been published in The Trail-Makers. Nevertheless, it is proper to publish his narrative later. Compared with either of them, the journey of Cabeza de Vaca and his companions is an episode, important, but an incident brought about by a disastrous failure. This history describes the only — and comparatively meagre — results of the expedition undertaken by Pámfilo de Narvaez in 1527, and an outcome which had nothing more to do with Narvaez and his ill-conducted scheme.

Yet it is certain that the appearance of Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow-sufferers at Culiacan, and their statements, directed the attention of the Spanish authorities at the young city of Mexico to the North more than the reports about the Seven Cities and the raids which Nuño de Guzman had made in that direction. Nevertheless, the importance of the story of Cabeza de Vaca must not be overestimated. A perusal of the narrative shows that the forlorn wanderers were not — as it has long been admitted — the “discoverers of New Mexico.” They never saw, nor do they claim to have seen, any of the so-called “Pueblos.” They only heard of them, in a more or less confused manner. On the other hand, more precise than their information on this point is what they said about the plains, their Indians; and it seems above all doubt that the first knowledge of the American Bison, or Buffalo, is due to their descriptions.

On the minds of the Spanish occupants of Mexico, especially on what may be called the floating population (proportionately large at the time, as everywhere in newly occupied countries), the impression of the feat performed by the travellers and the tale of their unequalled sufferings produced a much greater effect than on the authorities. The people saw in their reports an outline for a possible advance into the unknown beyond. The picture of the country traversed was, in the main, not enticing, but the allusion to permanent settlements beyond the unprepossessing plains was looked upon as full of promise. The outcome was a moderate “excitement” among the adventurous and the idle, and this excitement was ably taken advantage of by the Viceroy of New Spain, Don Antonio de Mendoza.

This high functionary, as sagacious as he was cautious, regarded the real merits of Cabeza de Vaca (who is the representative figure in the whole episode) with reserve. On February 11th (old style), 1537, he wrote to the Empress recommending Cabeza de Vaca and Dorantes (the letter mentions Dorantes, but it was Castillo who went to Spain with Cabeza de Vaca) to the benevolence of the monarch, in consideration of “what they have done in it [this country] and suffered, and their disposition to continue there and here, wherever they may be sent.” He does not seem to attach more than a modest importance to the practical results of their adventures. In that same letter he states that the wanderers had already made a report to him on their journey, which report he had sent to the Empress previously. It cannot be the one contained in Oviedo’s Historia General y Natural de Indias (Edition of 1850, Vol. Ill, Lib. XXXV), since the latter was directed to the Audiencia of Santo Domingo. There is a fragment of a Relation attributed to Cabeza de Vaca alone, without date, in Vol. XIV of the Documentos Inéditos de Indian. It reads like a résumé, or condensation, of the narrative presented in this volume. This fragment terminates abruptly at the time when a meeting of Cabeza de Vaca and Do-rantes was being prepared. It is entitled, “Relacion de Cabeza de Vaca, tesorero que fué en la conquista” and preceded by a truncated copy of the directions which the King issued to Cabeza de Vaca as “Factor” of the expedition. Whether this document (noticed in the Index under a very misleading title) is perhaps the first report mentioned in the letter of Mendoza from February, 1537, I am unable to decide thus far, but there are some indications favoring the supposition.

The influence which the return and reports of Cabeza de Vaca and companions may have had upon the subsequent enterprise of Hernando de Soto was, if any, but slight. The contract made with the latter by the Crown on April 20, 1537 (Documentos de Indias, Vol. XXII, pp. 534 to 546: Capitulacion que se tomó con Hernando de Soto, para conquistar y poblar desde el Rio de las Palmas hasta la Florida) does not permit any conclusion on this point. The first report of the outcasts had probably reached Spain before that time, but on August 15, of the same year, Cabeza de Vaca was still at Lisbon. The statements of other survivors of the expedition of Narvaez (mentioned at the close of our narrative as having been met by Cabeza de Vaca in Mexico and in Spain) cannot have been very encouraging to a fresh attempt at penetrating Florida. Still, Soto tried to enlist the services of Cabeza de Vaca, but failed.

Of the biography of Cabeza de Vaca only such portions are well known as relate to his career in America. It is also known that he was born in Jeréz de la Frontera, in Spain, and hence was an Andalusian. His father — according to Oviedo — was Francisco de Vera, son of the Spanish Conqueror of the Canaries, Pedro de Vera. His mother was Teresa Cabeza de Vaca, a native of Jeréz. Why he assumed the name of his mother in place of his paternal appellative I am unable to state. The family of Cabeza de Vaca bore, originally, the name Alhaja. They were simple peasants until after the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, on July 11, 1212, which the Kings of Castile, Aragon and Navarra gained over the Moors. A few days before the battle, a shepherd by the name of Alhaja offered to show the Christian forces a path by which they might circumvent the mountain-passes held by the Moors in strong force. To indicate it, he placed at the entrance of the defile the skull of a cow. In recompense for this eminent service, Martin Alhaja, until then a humble shepherd, .was ennobled, and he changed his name into that of Cabeza de Vaca (head of a cow, literally) in memory of the origin of his improved social condition. Several of his descendants held comparatively high positions, among them Don Pero Fernandez Cabeza de Vaca, elected grand master of the order of Knights of St. James in 1383.

The career of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca in America was particularly unfortunate. After the disastrous termination of Narvaez's expedition and his (almost miraculous) return to Spain, he obtained as a reward for his sufferings the position of Governor of the settlements on the La Plata river, vacant since the death of Pedro de Mendoza. Reaching his post in 1541, he soon became the object of sinister intrigues on the part of his subordinates. The animosity against him broke out, in 1543, in open revolt. He was seized and sent to Spain as a prisoner. His (mild) captivity there lasted eight years. It is asserted that he lived in Sevilla to an advanced age, and occupied, up to his demise (the date of which I have not yet been able to find), an honorable and fairly lucrative position.

Concerning the conduct of Cabeza de Vaca as Governor on the La Plata, or Paraná, the opinions of eye-witnesses are divided. Some speak in his favor; others, like the German Ulrich (or Huldreich) Schmiedel, of Straubing, accused him of haughty demeanor towards his men and cruelty. Oviedo, who knew him personally and conversed with him on the matter, is non-committal. It seems likely that Cabeza de Vaca was an honest and well-intentioned man, and he may have been a good subaltern but unfit for superior command. Hence he proved a failure as soon as raised to a position above the scope of his abilities. Of the three companions of Cabeza de Vaca little is known. Andrés Dorantes, who had been a captain with Narvaez, was the son of Pablo Dorantes, a native of Gibraleon, Castilla. Maldonado was from Salamanca, and the son of Doctor Castillo and Aldonza Maldonado. He is said to have remained in Spain, whereas Dorantes stayed in Mexico, and entered, in 1538, into an agreement with the Viceroy for a journey of exploration to the north or Sinaloa. It was never carried out. Lastly the “negro,” Estévanico was an Arab Moor, from the town of Azamor, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. It is therefore not unlikely that he was not a negro proper, but from one or the other of the tribes of the desert. His subsequent fate is well known. As guide and advance scout of Father Marcos, of Nizza, he became the victim of his own imprudence, or lafck of understanding of the differences in customs and beliefs between Indian tribes far distant from each other.

It is well known that Cabeza de Vaca wrote two principal works, both of which were published at Valladolid in 1555 by Francisco Fernandez de Córdova. The first one of these two books is a second issue of the one translated here. The other gives an account of his vicissitudes in Paraguay and what is now the Argentine Republic, and bears the title of Comentarios de Alvar Nlines Cabeza de Vacu, Adelantado y Gobernador del Rio de la Plata. The print from 1555 is the earliest known of the Comentarios. Of the Naufragios here translated an earlier issue has been foundr. Only two copies of it are known: One, which is perfect, is at the Lenox branch of the Public Library of New York; the other, somewhat damaged, at the British Museum. This oldest print of the Naufragios is from 1542 and was published at Zamora. Its text has been followed exclusively in this translation. The (reduced) photographic reproductions of the title-pages of both editions and of the kolophon of the first edition give an idea of the appearance of both of these books, the extreme rarity of which makes it difficult for the general reader to see them. Both are small quartos. The 1542 edition has no headings for chapters, and this has been followed here.

Oviedo, who gives the text in full of the Letter handed to the Audiencia of Santo Domingo by Cabeza de Vaca and Castillo when they touched that port on their return to Spain, in 1537, has used the 1542 print for comparison with that letter. The second edition appeared two years before his death (which occurred in 1557), but it is manifest that he did not use it.

Comparing the Letter to the Audiencia with the book of Cabeza de Vaca, Oviedo inclines in favor of the former. He remarks: “But in a certain way I hold the report of the three to be good and more clear than the other one, which a single man made and has had printed,” &c. But Cabeza de Vaca was one of the three who framed the Letter to the Audiencia, and this document is merely a more concise narration than his book, and does not, on important points, conflict with it. The latter was written in Spain, when the author had leisure to recollect and to write. In a foot-note I have alluded to the statement, made in the book, about little bags filled with silver, which, Oviedo says, contained only mica. This, however, he distinctly attributes to a misprint, not to a misstatement by the author. On the whole, the difference between the two documents is so slight that there has been no occasion to publish the Letter to the Audiencia also.

Oviedo mentions Andrés Dorantes among the signers of the Letter, which was, as he states, sent to the Audiencia at Santo Domingo from Havana. Cabeza de Vaca affirms Dorantes remained at Vera Cruz, and thence went back to Mexico. This is fully established by the communications of the Viceroy, Mendoza, notwithstanding Her-rera says he returned to Spain with his companions. The objection may be removed, however, by supposing, as is very likely, that the Letter was writen in Mexico, when the three were still together.

A very serious objection to the credibility of the three narratives, however, arises from the fact that all are based upon recollections only, and not upon journals or field-notes of any kind. It was, of course, impossible for the outcasts, shifted and shifting from tribe to tribe, to keep any written record of their trip. Many of their descriptions are not, therefore, expected to be fully accurate.

At the end of the eight years of constant misfortune and suffering, memory clings most to personal vicissitudes, and the narrative of these does not appear exaggerated. The descriptions of the countries traversed, superficial as they must be, still leave some recognizable data, and so do the descriptions of plants and animals. It is acknowledged that through Cabeza de Vaca the first knowledge of the buffalo reached Europe, and his description of the hunchbacked cows, while very brief, is quite accurate.

Descriptions of customs and habits of Indian tribes or bands, especially of such as lived east of the Rio Grande, must of course be accepted with proper reserve. Still, many may yet prove to be of ethnologic value. The general picture of the condition of these tribes is very likely to be exact, while, on the other hand, many details are probably misstated, through having been misunderstood or superficially observed. It might be worth while to make a special study of these ethnographic data and compare them with whatever material of the kind has been placed on record by subsequent explorers and narrators.

In the statements regarding the “faith cures” which the travellers claim to have performed, and to which they attribute the success of their desperate attempt to cross the continent, there is truth as well as honest delusion. Indian medicine itself bases largely upon conceptions of the kind, and empirical hypnotism plays a part in the performances of their medicine-men. Cabeza de Vaca, unconsciously and by distinct methods, imitated the Indian Shamans and probably succeeded, in at least many cases, since the procedure was new and striking. That they attributed their success to the direct aid of divine power was in strict accordance with the spirit of the times and by no means to their discredit. On the contrary, there is a commendable modesty in their disclaimer of merits of their own. It should also not be forgotten that men in their exceptional situation, without reasonable hope of salvation, relentlessly persecuted by misfortune and the worst hardships for many years, have their imagination finally raised to the higest pitch, and exaggerations and misconceptions become therefore excusable. There is no doubt that they sincerely believed their own statements. Not only the times must be taken into account when judgment is passed, but also the violent strain under which they labored for such a long period.

In regard to the route followed by the outcasts, there are but very few ascertained points. Opinions vary so much that I shall not attempt to trace the course of their wanderings except by referring to the sketch-map appended. The route traced is a mere suggestion of possible approximations, as stated on it. It will certainly be modified by the results of investigations in the countries themselves, which I have not been and am not able to carry on myself. It seems, however, that the overland journey of the four began at some point west of the Mississippi, and that they successively traversed the State of Texas and the northern part of the Mexican Republic into central Sonora. It is not likely they touched New Mexico, and they certainly never saw the New Mexican pueblos, but heard of them in Sonora. Cabeza de Vaca therefore but confirmed the few vague notions extant at his time about the sedentary Indians of New Mexico, but was not the real discoverer of that country.

The bibliography of the book of Cabeza de Vaca is soon told. In addition to the two issues often mentioned — the Editio Princeps from 1542, and the second of 1555 — there are two more Spanish publications of it known. The earliest is in Volume II of the Collection by Andrés Gonzales Bárcia, Historiades primitivos de Indias, 1749. Its title is: Naufragios y relation de la Jornada que hizo á la Florida, con Páilo de Narvaez.

The other is found in Volume II of the Historiadores primitivos de Indias, by Enrique de Vedia. The title of this (the text of which was taken from the Edition of 1555) reads: Naufragios de Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca y Relation de la Jornada que hizo á la Florida con el Adelantado Pdniilo de Narvaez. It is well known that the two volumes of Vedia's reprints of older narratives and histories touching upon America form a part of the voluminous collection entitled, Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, published at Madrid, and thaft the two volumes of Vedia were printed in 1852.

An Italian version, under the title of Relation che fece Alvaro Nvnez detto Capo di Vacca, di quello ch’ intervenne nell India all’ armata, della qual era gouernatore Pamphilo Naruaez, dell anno 1527 fino all 1536, che ritorno in Sibilla con tu soli suoi compagni, is contained in Volume II of the celebrated collection of travels and voyages by Gian Battista Ramusio, Delle Navigatione è Viaggi, 1556, Venice.

Of English translations there have appeared thus far three: In Samuel Purchas: His Pilgrimage, London, 1625-1626, Volume IX: Relation of the fleet in India, whereof Pamphilus Naruaez was gouemor. The Narrative of Alva Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, translated by Buckingham Smith, Washington, 1851. This translation is justly prized. A second edition of it appeared at New York in 1871, edited by the late John Gilmary Shea. Finally there is a paraphrase of the book in Tales of Old Travels, Narrated by H. Kingsley, London, 1869.

In the French language there is the well-known translation by H. Ternaux Compans in the first series of his collection: Voyages, Relations et Mémoires originanx pour servir d l’Histoire de la Découverte de l’Amérique. Date of publication, 1837. Title: Relation Vaca, Adelantade et Gouverneur du Rio de la Plata.

A word yet touching the translation here given. The narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is very difficult to translate for the reason, thai the criticism by Oviedo about its lack of clearness is too well founded. Many parts of chapters and also whole chapters are so confused that it is impossible to follow the original more than remotely, and paraphrasing had to be resorted to. Even then, in several instances, the meaning remains possibly somewhat obscure. It is as if the author, in consequence of long isolation and constant intercourse with people of another speech, had lost touch with his native tongue. There is less of this in his later work, the Comentarios, written after a number of years of uninterrupted intercourse with his countrymen.


New York City, March 28, 1905.

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de Vaca, Alvar Núñez Cabeza. The Journey of Alvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca and His Companions from Florida to the Pacific: 1528-1536. Trans. Fanny Bandelier. New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1905. Internet Archive. 04 Dec. 2007. Web. 14 May 2014. <https:// archive.org/ details/ journeyof alvarn00nuoft>.

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