English Class: American Literature

Cabeza de Vaca’s Experiences in The Americas

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain sometime around the year 1490. He became a Spanish soldier, eventually joining the Narváez expedition in 1527 as second in command. This expedition, with Pánfilo de Narváez in command, was intended to explore and colonize Florida. The fleet of five ships set sail from Spain on June 17, 1527 stopping in Hispaniola for supplies. While they were there 150 men left the ships, wishing rather to stay on the island. In order to recruit more men and obtain additional supplies, Narváez sent Cabeza de Vaca with two of the ships to Cuba. Sadly, a fierce hurricane hit the area, destroying the town and the two ships with the men onboard. Cabeza de Vaca along with only a few other men survived the disaster. By April 1528 the expedition had reached Florida anchoring near Tampa Bay. From then on many disasters struck the expedition starting with the decision by Narváez and others to take 300 men and leave their ships in order to explore the land. After having a difficult time in exploring the area, it was decided to try to head west in search of Pánuco which they believed was close by, but in reality was in Central Mexico on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. They worked their way west, casualties befalling them as they went. After the first winter only 15 men of the initial 300 lived. Cabeza de Vaca writes in La Relación about his ten-year long expedition . In La Relación we eventually find out that there were only four men left (including Cabeza de Vaca) who by trading and healing people, ultimately made their way down to Mexico.  Cabeza de Vaca wrote this account after he returned to Spain.

Cabeza de Vaca's estimated journey, Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Cabeza de Vaca’s estimated journey, Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Cabeza de Vaca also wrote about the many different situations he faced in the Americas, including his encounters with the Native Americans. His descriptions about how the Native Americans lived were quite interesting to me. Most of the tribes he encountered were nomadic, although some tribes were more settled, especially those Cabeza de Vaca and his companions met as they traveled down into Mexico. One theme that seemed to appear throughout Cabeza de Vaca’s time with the Native Americans was the scarcity of food, most prominently among the hunting and foraging tribes. His descriptions about the lack of food interested me because I had not really been aware of the extreme condition some of the Native Americans found themselves in. Cabeza de Vaca also mentioned some of the Native American’s cultures and beliefs. The Native Americans had some traditions that were not at all exemplary. Some tribes, though not all, made their women and old men do the hard work in the village. According to Cabeza de Vaca, there were two tribes that murdered many of their baby girls because the tribe/parents didn’t want them to marry into the neighboring tribes which they were constantly at war with. But there were also better tribes and in some instances beliefs that were founded on the truth. One example was when Cabeza de Vaca and his companions reached the Spaniards in Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca and the Spaniards asked some of the Caciques (Chiefs) if they would convert to Christianity. Cabeza de Vaca wrote:

“The caciques answered through the interpreter that they would be faithful Christians and serve God. Asked whom they sacrificed to, worshiped, and entreated for rain and health, they replied: a man in Heaven. We asked his name. Aguar. They said they believed he created the whole world and everything in it. How did they know this? Their fathers and grandfathers had told them; it had been passed down from a distant time; the old men knew that Aguar sent rain and all good things.”

Although the Native Americans did not have the Bible, God had not left them without some knowledge of the truth. The fact that many Native Americans were aware of the Supreme Being that had made them and everything in the earth, was a very interesting part of Cabeza de Vaca’s account.

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