Southwestern Saga

Southwestern Saga

A Southwestern explorer's 1555 journal goes online.

In November 1528, Spanish conquistador Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his cold, wet, hungry, mutinous crew ship-wrecked on present-day Galveston Island, off the coast of Texas. For the next eight years, Cabeza de Vaca and three other survivors lived with indigenous tribes and wandered what became the southwestern United States — making them the first European explorers in the area.

Cabeza de Vaca is also the first Southwestern writer, according to the Southwestern Writers Collection (SWC) <www.library.swt.edu/swwc>at Texas State University-San Marcos. When he finally made it back to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca — who had morphed from a cocky conquistador into a defender of native peoples’ rights — wrote La Relación (The Account) about his travels.

SWC owns a rare copy of Cabeza de Vaca’s second edition, which was published in 1555, and has just completed a four-month project to post its contents online. Besides being a good adventure read, La Relación is a fascinating anthropological study containing details of the native peoples’ clothing, homes, food, languages and rituals. In chapter 30, Cabeza de Vaca describes his hosts’ behavior after several Indians succumbed to illness: “We saw a very amazing thing: The parents and siblings and wives of those who later died were very grieved to see them ailing, but after they died the relatives showed no feelings. We did not see them weep or speak to one another nor show any emotion. They did not dare to approach their dead until we told them to carry them away for burial.”

Visit the Cabeza de Vaca project Web site <www.library.txstate.edu/swwc/cdv> to view page images and read a translation of all 38 chapters of the 1955 La Relación. You’ll also find information about Cabeza de Vaca (such as why his name means “head of a cow”), maps of his journey and links to in-depth research sources.

From the April 2004 Family Tree Magazine

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