Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: A Look into the Life of a Resourceful Conquistador Named After a Cow

Cabeza de Vaca, Portrait

Cabeza de Vaca, who would later survive an ill-fated expedition to conquer Florida, was born in Moorish-controlled southern Spain.

A Birth in Moorish Spain

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was born in the small town of Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain near the coastal citiy of Cádiz. This southern area of Spain was part of the Moorish-controlled territory of Andalusia, or Al-Andulus to the Moors and their minions. The years of his birth and death are unknown to us, but Cabeza de Vaca presumably knew them well before dying.

A Member of a Distinguished Family Named After a Long Line of Cows

Cabeza de Vaca’s father was Francisco de Vera and his mother, Teresa Cabeza de Vaca, whose name he took so as to continue the Cabeza de Vaca family’s uncompromising tradition of paying homage to a nameless, disembodied cow-corpse head that had come in so handy in the early 13th century, as will shortly be explained.

A Well-Placed Cow’s Skull Leads to the Ennobling of a Family

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s maternal ancestors were originally of peasant stock and went by the name Alhaja. That was before the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa fought on 11 July, 1212, a significant day in the annuls of Alhaja family history. It seems that the Alhajas were well rewarded for squealing. On the eve of the battle a member of the Alhajas let it be known to the Spanish Christian forces that there was a certain mountain pass, the use of which could yield favourable results in the upcoming battle against the Arab Moors. According to the Alhajas squealer, the Christians would recognise the entrance to the pass by a cow’s skull that would be hung near it. The Christians located the skull and were therefore able to slaughter their enemy with a lesser degree of fuss and muss and win the day.

The grateful kings of Aragon, Castile and Navarre made the Alhaja family into nobles for their little mountain-pass service. As for the cow’s head that had played such an important role and was responsible for the Alhajas’ good fortune, it was not forgotten: it was honoured when the Alhaja name was changed to Cabeza de Vaca, which means “head of a cow.”

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, In the Service of Spanish King Charles V, Receives a Commission to the New World

As for Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, he first came to prominence in 1526, when he was made treasurer of an expedition to conquer Florida, which at the time also consisted of a large heaping, helping chunk of Mexico. The expedition was headed by Pámfilo de Narvaez, who had formerly served under Aztec Empire crusher Hernan Cortés back in the day.

De Narvaez’ expedition consisted of up to 600 men at the start, of which less than a handful would make it back alive eight years later.