resources for educators

The Portal to Texas History

Primary Source Adventures

Cabeza de Vaca


    This Primary Source Adventure examines selected portions of Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación, allowing learners to examine his first-hand account of events. Incidents highlighted include his treatment at the hands of Indians, his medical feats, and the contrast between how Indians viewed him versus other Spaniards.

    Worksheet questions stem from a variety of learning styles so that each student has the opportunity to shine. Teachers may also modify and easily incorporate these worksheets into their predesigned lesson plans.

    The web links provided will help each instructor prepare, present, and highlight primary sources.



    Building Texas: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

    by Vale Fitzpatrick

    Cabeza de Vaca wrote The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca: and His Companions shortly after his journey ended in 1536. The Relación (the Spanish title for his work), published in Spain in 1542, is an account of his eight year (1528-1536) ordeal to reach Spanish settlements.

Cabeza de Vaca possessed a keen mind, inquisitive nature, and exceptional memory, which made him an ideal explorer. He provided the first descriptions of Texas landforms, Indians, and botanical specimens. Cabeza de Vaca was the only Spaniard to record the names and practices of the Indian tribes of South Texas and to locate them relative to each other. Historians T.N. Campbell and T.J. Campbell state that “his [Cabeza de Vaca] cultural information quantitatively exceeds that of all his successors combined.”1

Cabeza de Vaca’s journey began with Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition to explore Florida. Narváez left Spain in June 1527, wintered in Cuba, and landed near Tampa Bay with 300 men in the spring of 1528. Moving inland despite Cabeza de Vaca’s objections, Narváez and his men quickly became lost and were separated from their support vessels, stranded on the Florida coast. Under attack by Indian tribes, running out of food, and suffering from disease, Narváez decided to chance a sea voyage. On September 22, they set sail on five improvised barges. Within a month the small fleet passed the mouth of the Mississippi River and arrived off the Texas coast, where they were caught in a violent storm.

The two surviving rafts crashed at San Luis Island, now called Follets Island, near Galveston. The survivors named their island Malhando, meaning misfortune. They were the first non-Indians to set foot upon Texas soil. Determined to continue, Cabeza de Vaca and other survivors relaunched their barge, which capsized and killed three members. Naked and miserably cold, they presented such a sad spectacle to the Karankawa Indians that they sat down with them and cried. Of the eighty survivors, only four lived to make their way overland to New Spain.

Read Full Article

The Karankawa took Cabeza de Vaca as a slave and treated him very badly. When the opportunity arose, he fled to another tribe and became a trader.2 The Indians ordered Cabeza de Vaca to heal the sick as he was a wise man who had “greater power and virtue.”3 Cabeza de Vaca lived as a poor trader for four years, until he meet three surviving members of the expedition: Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, his African-born slave Estevancio and Alonso Castillo Maldonado. They attributed their reunion to “God’s will,” further remarking that it was “their obligation. . . as Christians. . . not to live such a savage life, so far from the service of God.”

During their wanderings, the four castaways established a reputation as medicine men among the Indian tribes. The way they treated many of the sick was to breathe on them, make the sign of the cross, and pray for them. Cabeza de Vaca claimed many were healed through God’s will and mercy.

Before crossing into Mexico, Cabeza de Vaca performed his most famous medical feat, the first surgery in the Southwest. An Indian had an arrowhead lodged over his heart, so Cabeza de Vaca cut into the Indians chest, removed the arrowhead, and stitched closed the wound. This feat astounded the Indians. Cabeza de Vaca recalled “nothing was talked about in this whole country but of the wonderful cures which God, Our Lord, performed through us, and so they came from many places to be cured.”4 The Indians offered the castaways prickly pears and large flint stones. After Cabeza De Vaca’s successful surgery, their reputation as powerful medicine men spread far. Indians began seeking them out to be blessed and healed. Such a reputation made their journey smoother as most villages welcomed them, freely giving them food and lodging, while bringing their sick for healing and asking the castaways for blessings. Cabeza de Vaca recalled “we were received well everywhere.”5 Eventually the famed healing of the four castaways reached a point were a large number of Indian followers accompanied them on their journey.

They lived for seven years amid Indians who were in a constant state of warfare. They endured the harsh environment of the Texas coast, and after an incredible odyssey reached Mexico City in the summer of 1536. Since fleeing from the tribe of Indians that had enslaved them, they had traversed an estimated twenty-five hundred miles, most of them on foot. Throughout his ordeal, Cabeza de Vaca lived as a slave, trader, shaman, and surgeon.

In his report to the Viceroy of Mexico City, he claimed to have seen evidence of gold and silver in the mountains of northwestern Mexico, which renewed interest in the lost seven cities of Cíbola. Cabeza de Vaca’s recounting of Indian rumors persuaded the Viceroy of New Spain to sponsor the overland expedition of Francisco Vázques de Coronado to search for Cíbola. Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain in 1537, where he sought a reward from King Charles V for his services. He was awarded the title of adelantado, and governor and captain general of the Río de la Plata in South America.


1In Search of Cabeza de Vaca’s Route Across Texas: An Historiographical Essay. Chipman, Southwestern Historical Quarterly 91 (October 1987), 130.

2See PowerPoint slide two for a description of some of the conditions he was forced to endure.

3Journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, 69.

4Ibid., 107.

5Ibid., 132.