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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 Culiacan thousands of miles away on the west coast of Mexico in what is now the state of Sinaloa.

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


Background Material on Cabeza de Vaca's Return to Spain
and his Negotiations with the King for a New Commission

Time Line of Cabeza de Vaca's Expedition
to the Rio de la Plata Province

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 Asunción 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 Province

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