Cabeza de Vaca|
Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures|
in South America 1540-1545
Alvar Nuñez Cabeça (Cabeza) de Vaca was one of four survivors of
the expedition to Florida commanded by Pánfilo Narvaez. He spent eight
years with the native tribes of the Texas-Northern Mexico region learning
their languages and customs. Six of the eight years were spent in the
vicinity of Galveston Island as a trader between tribes. Cabeza de Vaca,
as an outsider, could carry out mutually beneficial trade between tribes
that were often at war with each other. When he and the three others left the
Galveston area they functioned as faith healers among the natives. Cabeza de Vaca, who
had been a simple soldier of fortune, became devoutly religious.
Cabeza de Vaca and the others eventually reached the Spanish Empire outpost of
of miles away on the west coast of Mexico in what is now the state of
After of period of recovery in Culiacan, Cabeza de Vaca and the others
traveled on to the city Guadalajara and from there to Mexico City. Many
Spanish Empire officials
recognized that Cabeza de Vaca's experience would make him extremely
valuable on any future expeditions into the interior of North America.
He knew several native languages and understood the cultures. Cabeza de
Vaca himself wanted to go back and bring the native tribes into the
Spanish Empire and convert them to Christianity by humane and enlightened
means. But Cabeza de Vaca knew that if he were to carryout the spread of
Christianity and Spanish civilization by humane means it could only occur
if he were the leader of the expedition.
He undertook a perilous journey back to Spain to seek his appointment
by the King to the leadership of another expedition. Unfortunately for
Cabeza de Vaca and for the natives the King had already appointed
Hernando de Soto to lead the next expedition. De Soto asked Cabeza de
Vaca to join his expedition but Cabeza de Vaca refused. De Soto was a
soldier, an accomplished military leader, and was not likely to give much
credence to Cabeza de Vaca's concern for humanity and fairness.
The King offered Cabeza de Vaca the leadership of an expedition to
explore the northeastern part of North America but Cabeza de Vaca turned it
down. However the King did appoint Cabeza de Vaca to leadership of an expedition but
not in North America. The Spanish colony in the region of the Rio de la Plata
in South America was in trouble. The Governor of the colony was missing
and feared dead. Cabeza de Vaca was to go to Rio de la Plata area and
seek out the missing governor and if that governor was dead Cabeza de Vaca
was to take his place as governor.
Time Line of
Cabeza de Vaca's
Expedition and Governorship
of the Rio de la Plata Colony 1540-1545
- 1535: Pedro de Mendoza establishes a settlement at Buenos Aires.
- 1536-1537: After an initial period of peace the natives of the area attack the
settlement and wage war against the Spanish settlers.
- 1537: Pedro de Mendoza the governor of the settlement sails for Spain.
He appoints Juan de Ayolas as lieutenant governor to rule in his absence.
Ayolas is away on an exploring expedition and it is not known whether he
is still alive. Domingo de Irala serves as interim governor.
- 1537: Pedro de Mendoza dies at sea on the ship Magdalena.
The Magdalena stops at the Azores while Cabeza de Vaca is there
awaiting the safety of a Portuguese convoy before continuing on to Spain.
- 1541: Settlers at Buenos Aires abandon the site and move to the
settlement of Asuncion on the Paraguay River.
Background Material on Cabeza de Vaca's Return to Spain
and his Negotiations with the King for a New Commission
- July 1536: End of Cabeza de Vaca's sojourn among the natives of
Mid-North America. Cabeza de Vaca and the other three survivors of the
Narvaez expedition are welcomed to Mexico City by Hernan Cortez and
Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain. Mendoza wanted the four
to go back to the North with an expedition for making further exploration.
Cabeza de Vaca and the others decline. Later Estabanico joins Coronado's
expedition and is killed by the natives.
- October 1536: Cabeza de Vaca is ready to sail for Spain but the ship he
is to travel on is destroyed in a storm.
- April 1537: Cabeza de Vaca sails for Spain.
- July 1537: Cabeza de Vaca's ship arrives in the Azores where it is saved
from a French privateer by Portuguese warships.
- August 1537: Cabeza de Vaca arrives in Spain.
- November 1537: Cabeza de Vaca reports to the House of Trade (Casa de
Contratacion) in Seville.
- 1538-1540: Cabeza de Vaca arranges for an audience with the King of
Spain, Charles I, and makes a secret report to the King on the potential
wealth of the area of Mid-North America which he visited. It is reputed
that Cabeza de Vaca indicated that he saw some signs of mineral wealth but
that he emphasized the productivity of the land. The King offers him the
opportunity to lead an expedition to explore northeast North America.
Cabeza de Vaca turns down the offer.
Time Line of Cabeza de Vaca's Expedition
to the Rio de la Plata
- March 1540: The King offers Cabeza de Vaca the leadership of an
expedition to take supplies to the colony in the Rio de la Plata region of
South America. The colony is in difficult circumstances. The Governor
died and his designated successor is missing and possibly dead on an
exploratory expedition. Cabeza de Vaca is to take a mission of about
four hundred people to relieve the colony of its shortages. If the
missing Governor-designate is determined to be dead then Cabeza de Vaca
is to be the governor of the colony. If the missing Governor-designate
is alive Cabeza de Vaca is to be the Lieutenant Governor. Separate from
the matter of the governorship Cabeza de Vaca is given by King the
control of the island of Santa Catalina off the coast of what is now
Brazil for twelve years. This is to compensate Cabeza de Vaca for the
funds he must invest in outfitting the expedition. Cabeza de Vaca agreed
to invest at least eight thousand ducados. His salary was to be two
thousand ducados per year.
- March to September 1540: Cabeza de Vaca outfits three ships for his
expedition. He spends fourteen thousand ducados, much of it borrowed.
Some of the cost is borne by Pedro Dorantes, a man appointed by the
King to be the factor or merchant for the expedition.
- July 1540: The King grants Cabeza de Vaca's request that lawyers and
attorneys be prohibited in the province of Rio de la Plata for ten years.
- September to December 1540: The ships are ready for sailing but have
to await fair winds.
- December 1540 to March 1541: Voyage from Cádiz to South America
with a stop at the Canary Islands where Cabeza de Vaca acquired a fourth
ship for the expedition and another stop at the Cape Verde Islands.
- March 1541: Expedition arrives at Santa Catalina Island, an island
off the coast of Brazil. At that time the island was under the control
of Spain but a later partition of South America put it under Portuguese
control and it is now Brazil's Santa Catarina Island. Cabeza de Vaca had
been given the control of this island for twelve years by the King of Spain as a way to
compensate for Cabeza de Vaca's expenses in outfitting the expedition.
- March 1541: Cabeza de Vaca lands the people, supplies and livestock of
the expedition on Santa Catalina Island.
- April 1541: Cabeza de Vaca makes the acquaintance of two Franciscan
friars who had come to Rio de la Plata in 1538, Bernardo de Armenta and
Alonso Lebrón. These two would play a significant role in
Cabeza de Vaca's future.
- May 1541: Cabeza de Vaca learns from refugees from Buenos Aires
that that settlement had been attacked by natives and seventy of the survivors had
evacuated the settlement and moved to Asunción, up the Paraguay River at a more
defensible site. Subsequently the rest of the survivors also fled to
Asunción. Cabeza de Vaca also learned that Ayolas, the designated
governor of Rio de la Plata province, had been killed by natives while on
an expedition. This meant that Cabeza de Vaca was the official governor of
- September 1541: Cabeza de Vaca decides to travel overland to
reach the surviving settlement of Rio de la Plata province, Asunción.
- October 1541: The expedition leaves Santa Catalina Island.
- November 1541: Cabeza de Vaca with 250 soldiers, 25 horses and a variety
of other groups including some soldier's wives, native carriers and the
two Franciscan friars
enters the interior by way of the valley of the Itabucu River north
of the island. The expedition's reception by the natives was peaceful
because Cabeza de Vaca traded for the supplies the expedition needed
from the natives. He treated the natives fairly and punished expedition
members who tried to treat them otherwise. He gave gifts to the chiefs
and gained their confidence. The natives of the region spoke dialects
of the Guaraní language, the same language as those of Santa Catalina
- January 1542: The expedition reaches the Iguazú River, a tributary
of the Paraná River.
- March 1542: Cabeza de Vaca and his expedition arrive in Asunción.
Some expedition members who were ill had been left at the Igauzú River
near the Falls.
Background on the Political Situation
in the Rio de la Plata Province
at the Time that Cabeza de Vaca
Assumes the Governorship
The name of the river, Rio de la Plata (the River of Silver), came from
Spanish observation of silver articles possessed by the natives of the region.
However this silver was silver that raiding bands of natives from the region
brought back east from the Andean Empire of
the Inca. The Spanish thought there was sources of silver in the territory and
hence the river was named River of Silver.
The port city of La Ciudad de la Santa Maria del Buen Aire (The City of Saint Mary of the Good Air)
was established in 1536 by a large expedition led by Pedro de Mendoza. Mendoza
served as governor until 1537 when due to ill health he left the colony
and set sail for Spain. Enroute he died. When he left
he designated as lieutenant governor, Juan de Ayolas. But Ayolas was away
on an entrada, an expedition, up river looking for precious metal
and his fate was unknown. Several prominent citizens, the most important
of which was Domingo de Irala, took control of the government in lieu of
an official governor. Irala and the others governed several years and
established another settlement on the Paraguay River which was named
Asunción. Irala was a capable but sinister figure in the
events that transpired after
the King of Spain sent Cabeza de Vaca to rule if Ayolas was determined to
have been killed.
When the natives of the region around the settlement, which later
came to be known as Buenos Aires, attacked Irala and the other leaders
decided to move to the more defensible site at Asunción. A group of
about one hundred was left to defend the settlement but this
group left Buenos Aires shortly thereafter and joined the first
refugees at Asunción. The Spanish settlement of
Buenos Aires ceased to exist until it was re-established in 1580.
Under Irala and the other leaders the natives in the region around
were exploited for the
benefit of the Spanish. There was
no attempt to change the natives' practice of selling war captives into
slavery or the practice of cannibalism. Another native practice that
created problems was that of giving away women to cement tribal alliances.
These women were given to the leaders of other tribes or to the Spanish when
they became important in the power structure of the region. Soon any
leader that did not refuse the gift of women would soon have a harem of
dozens of native women. When Cabeza de Vaca came to Asunción he
set about to curb cannibalism, slavery and the concubinage as well as to
regulate the trade between the Spanish and the natives.
Cabeza de Vaca's curbing of slavery hit hard at the source of income
of the established Spanish leaders such as Irala. They were dependent upon
cheap slave labor on their farms.
The matter of the native women was more complicated. The women served
not only as concubines but as laborers. The Spanish men had many mestizo
children from these women and they did not want these families taken away
from them by the new governor, Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza de Vaca was determined
to end this concubinage for a variety of reasons. It was not just immoral
in itself. There was the additional problem that these harems contained
closely related women such as sisters or mothers and daughters. This was
against the canon law of the Church and was looked upon by Cabeza de
Vaca as comparable to incest. Additionally the immorality of the Spanish
men created a problem when natives were converted to Christianity and were
told they could have only one wife. The natives were sensitive to the
hypocrisy of the Spanish with their many concubines.
It is not surprising that Cabeza de Vaca faced a touchy political situation
when he commenced his rule of the Spanish colony.
Return to the Time Line of Cabeza de Vaca's
Expedition to the Rio de la Plata
- April 1542: Cabeza de Vaca issues his first edicts for the governance
of the colony. These included:
- The Spanish were to treat the natives fairly. This meant that the
Spanish were not to take natives possessions by force but were instead to
trade for what they want. Likewise the natives were not to be forced into
labor and they were to be paid for the labor they performed.
- Native women who were close relatives were not to live under the control
of the same Spanish man.
- Natives, especially women, were not to be traded or sold without a
- No one was to sell metal objects that could be used as weapons, such as
machetes and daggers, to the natives. Damaged and useless weapons such as
swords or crossbows were to be turned over to the Governor.
- Spaniards were not to go to natives' dwellings without the approval of
- Any sale of natives' land or dwellings to a Spaniard had to be reviewed
by the Governor for fairness.
- Cabeza de Vaca's edicts were of his own devising but they corresponded
to the New Laws promulgated from Madrid. Cabeza de Vaca's appointment
was connected to the agreement of his ideas concerning the treatment of the
natives with the thinking that was emerging within the King's circle.
Later the New Laws significantly reduced royal revenues and
provoked rebellion in Peru. There was a subsequent reaction in the King's
circle against the philosophy of humane treatment for the natives of
the Spanish Empire and this backlash affected the royal perception of
Cabeza de Vaca's rule in Rio de la Plata province.
- April 1542: Cabeza de Vaca decreed that the natives were to stop eating
human flesh. Warfare among the natives led to captives and these captives
could be eaten or sold as slaves. Cabeza de Vaca asserted that he would
make war against those who
did not obey this edict. Opponents of Cabeza de Vaca pointed out
that his attempt to suppress slavery worked against his campaign to
- July 1542: A punitive expedition of two hundred Spanish soldiers, a
dozen horsemen and ten thousand Guaraní warriors under the
command of Cabeza de Vaca set out from
Asunción against the Guaycurúes, a tribe that refused to
make peace with the Spanish and the Guaraní.
The expedition achieved a victory but stopped short of destroying the
military power of the Guaycurúes. Cabeza de Vaca hoped a display
of military prowess by the Spanish would convince the Guaycurúes
to make peace with the Spanish.
- April-September 1542: Cabeza de Vaca tried to achieve peaceful relations
with the Agaz tribe. After initial conflict that killed many Agaz warriors
their leaders agreed to peace. But the Agaz leadership never intended to
live in peace with the Spanish. Instead they signed an agreement to live
in peace in order to have time to prepare for renewed war. When the Agaz
attacked the Spanish and their allies Cabeza de Vaca put them down by
force and captured a dozen Agaz warriors. These he had hanged on the
basis that they agreed to peace and then betrayed their pledge.
- October 1542: Cabeza de Vaca sends an exploratory expedition,
an entrada, up the Paraguay River from Asunción. The entrada
consisted of about ninety Spaniards and many native allies. It was commanded
by Captain Domingo de Irala. One of the native guides for the expedition
was a chief of a subtribe of the Guaraní, Aracaré who was
secretly intent upon destroying the mission. While the Spanish were
traveling in hostile country Aracaré would set fires to alert the natives
of the presence of the entrada. Aracaré also persuaded the other
guides to abandon the Spanish to leave them lost in hostile territory.
Despite Aracaré's best efforts the Spanish made it back to
- December 1542: Another expedition leaves Asunció and is attacked by
Aracaré in the back country. Aracaré was declared a principal enemy and
sentenced to death. When Aracaré was captured Cabeza de Vaca
had him hanged.
- February 1543: A fire broke out at dawn in Asunción burning two hundred
of the two hundred and fifty houses, leaving most of the Spanish settlers
destitute, even naked. Cabeza de Vaca at his own expense gave them supplies.
When the settlers started to rebuild they chose more fireproof structures,
such as adobe.
- February 1543: Domingo de Irala returned to Asunción from his entrada and announced
that he had been shown good routes inland away from the river. The natives
had some gold and silver. He picked a site for a base for future exploration,
which he called Puerta de los Reyes, the Port of the Kings. The reference to kings in
this name is to the Biblical Magi, the three wise men from the east. He chose
this name because he arrived there on January sixth, the day associated
with the Magi.
- February-March 1543: Tabaré A brother of Aracaré, leads some
of the Guaraní in rebellion against the Spanish. Cabeza de Vaca sends
troops under Irala to put down the rebellion but he instructs Irala to
do the least injury possible in doing so. After the rebellion was suppressed
Tabaré and other chiefs sought peace with the Spanish.
- April 1543: Cabeza de Vaca forbids the further collection of a tax that
Irala and the others had imposed when they controlled the colony. The tax
was called the quinto because it was one fifth of the earnings and
possessions of the settlers. The quinto was supposed to be levied only on
the precious metals and gems that were acquired in the colony. Since there
was no precious metals or gems found Irala and the others imposed it
upon anything of value in the colony. The former leaders of the colony
such as Irala greatly resented Cabeza de Vaca taking away from them the
- June 1543: Cabeza de Vaca was ready to lead an entrada but had to
deal with the flight of the two friars, Armenta and Lebron. These two
resented the restrictions the Governor had imposed upon their relation
with native women and girls. The friars fled with a large number of
these native females who had been placed in their charge to learn Christianity.
The parents of the girls were upset at the friars taking them away and
complained to Cabeza de Vaca who sent troops to capture the friars. They
were captureds a short distance from Asunción. The friars' entourage
moved relatively slowly. The friars were brought back for questioning.
- June-July 1543: Legal hearings were held to uncover the nature of the
plot against the Governor. Several of the royal officials who had ruled
prior to Cabeza de Vaca's arrival confessed
and lost their positions. But Cabeza de Vaca dealt with them leniently.
Irala was not even charged even though Cabeza de Vaca knew him to be the
ring leader. Cabeza de Vaca hoped by generosity to win the allegiance
of Irala and the others.
- June-August 1543: Cabeza de Vaca planned his entrada. In his planning
he listened to the suggestions
of many of the Spaniards. Generally they advised caution. It was suggested
that the entrada be divided into a number of units and that these units
enter Puerta de los Reyes in stages so as to avoid disrupting the native
populations of the area too abruptly. Cabeza de Vaca listened but
decided to launch the entrada more quickly than was suggested.
- September 1543: Cabeza de Vaca's entrada leaves Asunción. He
takes four hundred Spanish soldiers leaving two hundred in Asunción
under the command of Captain Juan de Salazar. Along with the Spanish soldiers
there were twelve hundred native allies traveling in 120 canoes. The entrada also took ten
bergantinas (river boats) to carry supplies.
- October 1543: The entrada reached the outpost Candelaria. It was at
Candelaria that the designated successor to Mendoza, Juan de Ayolas, and
his eighty Spaniards had been killed by natives in 1538. Cabeza de Baca
took great care to maintain good relations with the natives in the
areas he was traveling through. He gave gifts to the chiefs and paid for
any supplies he sought from the natives. Cabeza de Vaca tried to find the
gold and silver Ayolas was said to have found. When he questioned natives
on this matter they fled the area. Cabeza de Vaca sent troops to
find them but the troops were unsuccessful. Cabeza de Vaca decided to
continue up the river to Puerto de los Reyes.
- November 1543: The entrada reaches Puerto de los Reyes, a native agricultural
community of about eight hundred dwellings. Despite Cabeza de Vaca's
admonitions concerning the treatment of the natives incidents occurred.
The friction with the natives of Peurto de los Reyes not only involved
Spanish but the Guraní allies. Food was running short and natives
were reluctant to sell what they had to the entrada.
- December 1543: Exploratory parties of about a hundred Spanish soldiers
were sent out to locate tribes who could sell the Spanish the food they
needed for the entrada. Cabeza de Vaca agreed to end the entrada but had
to wait for the return of the exploratory parties.
- January 1544: One exploratory party brought back news of an area of
abundant food and possible sources of gold and silver. Other parties in their
areas of explorations found only natives determined to drive the
Spanish out. Cabeza de Vaca decides to explore further the area of
abundant food and possible precious metals. Flood waters prevented any
immediate action on this decision. Furthermore most of the Spanish were
ill and not in condition to undertake further exploration. Some natives,
particularly the tribe known as Orejones (Big Ears) set about attacking
the Spanish's Guaraní allies, believing that once the Spanish were
deprived of their allies they would be easy prey.
- February 1543: Cabeza de Vaca justifies before the officials and clergy
the necessity of going to war against the natives who have been attacking
the Spanish and their allies. Moreover those who were guilty of killing
and eating members of the entrada could be enslaved as punishment.
- March 1543: The flood water receded to a point where exploration could
be undertaken, but one official, Felipe de Cáceres, the royal accountant,
argued forcefully that the entrada should return to Asunción because
the soldiers and the allies were too weak and sick for further exploration or
even to stay at Puerto de los Reyes. Cabeza de Vaca agreed to the return,
which itself was an arduous endeavor involving fighting the Guaxarapo tribe on
the river. Cabeza de Vaca forbade the Spanish taking with them the women
they acquired while on the entrada. Many of the officials were incensed
at this order.
- April 1543: The entrada arrives at Asunción. Cabeza de Vaca is
seriously ill. Near the end of April, some officials and about thirty
Biscayans (Basques) and Cordobans invade Cabeza de Vaca's house and take him
prisoner. They were let into the house by a Basque servant of Cabeza de
Vaca. Cabeza de Vaca was marched through the streets to the dwellings of
Garci Venegas and Alonso Cabrera where he was shackled and put under guard.
Domingo de Irala, a Basque, was not among the officials arresting
Governor Cabeza de Vaca, but was the leader of the regime which ruled
the Province in the place of Cabeza de Vaca.
- April 1543 to March 1544: Cabeza de Vaca is held prisoner.
- March 1544: Cabeza de Vaca is sent on a bergatine (river boat) down river.
- April 1544: Cabeza de Vaca is placed on board a caravel. Unbeknownst to
Cabeza de Vaca's captor some of Cabeza de Vaca's supporters had a document
describing what had really happened hidden aboard the caravel for Cabeza
de Vaca to use in his defense in Spain.
- July 1544: The carvel carrying Cabeza de Vaca lands in the
Azores. There he is freed and takes another ship to Spain. In Spain
Cabeza de Vaca goes to Madrid to have his case tried before the
Council of the Indies.
- January 1546: The charges against Cabeza de Vaca are presented to
the Council of the Indies. One of the charges was that Cabeza de Vaca
had his own coat-of-arms displayed on his expeditions more prominently than
those of the King.
- June to August 1546: Cabeza de Vaca presents witnesses in his defense.
- March 1551: The Council of the Indies reached its decision. Cabeza
de Vaca was condemned to the loss of all of his offices in the government
of Rio de la Plata Province and was not to return to the Indies on penalty
of death. Furthermore he was to serve the King of Spain in Orán
in North Africa at his own expense. Cabeza de Vaca appealed the decision
on the basis of his age and hardship.
- April 1551: His exile to North Africa was rescinded and his banishment
from all the Indies was limited only to Rio de la Plata province.
- circa 1559: Cabeza de Vaca dies destitute in Valladolid.