I’ve been wanting to write about this fascinating fellow from my hometown for quite some time now, but the truth is that no matter how much I think about it, I don’t know how to approach Álvar’s life and convey everything he experienced in just a simple blog entry.
A little bit of research is enough to realize that each source adds more and more information. I must confess, this fact only makes me more engrossed.
With that said, I’ve considered that breaking it down into parts is the best option for both the reader and myself. So, humbly, I’m going to try to do my best.
Let’s start then with the first stage of Álvar’s life and the background of his adventure to the New World, prior to the grand journey of the renowned Florida expedition.
Origins, Youth, and First Feats
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a native of Jerez de la Frontera, was born in the late 15th century into the midst of two powerful families.
(as a curiosity, there’s an old manor house on Cabezas Street, located between the ancient neighborhoods of San Mateo and San Lucas in Jerez, whose courtyard features columns with cow head capitals… perhaps the family residence?)
The great conqueror and governor of Gran Canaria, Pedro de Vera, was Álvar’s paternal grandfather. His father, Francisco de Vera, was a recognized knight of Jerez.
His mother, Teresa Cabeza de Vaca, came from a noble family. As the story goes, the shepherd who guided the Christian knights by marking the path with a cow head to surprise the enemy in the Battle of Tolosa was an ancestor of his (hence the surname).
And if that weren’t enough, Álvar’s maternal aunt, Beatriz Cabeza de Vaca, married the conqueror of Melilla, Pedro de Estopiñán.
I don’t lie when I say that difficulties in our protagonist’s life were constant.
From a very young age, Álvar became an orphan and was under the care of his relatives.
It’s known that Álvar deeply admired his uncle Pedro de Estopiñán, who took it upon himself to a great extent to educate his nephew.
Estopiñán took advantage of the good relationship he had with the Medina Sidonia family, a powerful noble family in the province of Cadiz, and placed his nephew as a page and chamberlain in the service of Alfonso Pérez de Guzmán, the third Duke of Medina Sidonia.
It is in the service of this family that in 1511, Álvar takes part in the Holy League that confronted Italians and French. Later, with King Charles V’s troops, he will fight in the uprising of the comuneros and the French invasion of Navarre.
Upon his return to Seville, where he resided in the service of the duke, he married María Marmolejo, whose family belonged to the Seville bourgeoisie.
The influence of the Medina Sidonia family undoubtedly granted him the opportunity to join the expedition led by Pánfilo Narváez to Florida, holding the position of chief constable and treasurer of the expedition.
The Expedition to Florida, Background.
Juan Ponce de León y Figueroa, born in Valladolid in 1460.
Linked to the descendants of Pedro Ponce de Cabrera, husband of Infanta Aldonza, the illegitimate daughter of King Alfonso IX of León.
His education was overseen by his relative Ramiro Núñez, in Seville.
As a page of King Ferdinand the Catholic, he took part in the conquest of Granada alongside his uncle Rodrigo Ponce de León.
There is uncertainty about whether he encountered the New World with Columbus on his second voyage or later with Nicolás de Ovando.
Thanks to the intervention of Bartolomé Colón, he managed to obtain a title from King Ferdinand the Catholic to explore the lands north of Cuba.
In 1513, he set sail with three ships from San Germán, navigating through the Bahamas to reach the island of San Salvador.
On the feast day of Pascua Florida (Easter), he arrived at a peninsula that he named in honor of the holiday, La Florida.
Pánfilo de Narváez, possibly born in Segovia in 1470.
We know he served in Jamaica.
In 1510, he was promoted to lieutenant under the general governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuellar. He actively assisted in its conquest.
He carried out expeditions to the westernmost region around the year 1514.
Faced with the disobedience of Hernán Cortés, the general governor of Cuba once again placed his trust in Narváez and sent him to capture Cortés, either alive or dead. The outcome of the mission was disastrous, as not only was Narváez defeated, but he was also captured in a battle in which he lost an eye, in addition to his honor.
Once liberated, he managed to obtain from King Charles V the title of Adelantado of Florida, with permission to explore and govern any land he discovered starting from the Las Palmas River.
Narváez organized an expedition, securing 5 ships and 600 men, among whom was our Jerezan protagonist.