In 1527 Cabeza de Vaca was appointed to be treasurer of a royal expedition, led by Pánfilo de Narváez, to map and explore the area now known as Florida. In April of 1528 the expedition sailed into Tampa Bay after having experienced hurricanes and the destruction of several ships. Narváez and 300 men began an overland march to meet the remaining ships up the coast at a good harbor but hardship and native hostility ended the expedition. The survivors attempted to reach Mexico in makeshift barges but misfortune and incompetence led the separation of the groups. Cabeza de Vaca, separated from Narváez, led a small band of survivors to an island, probably Galveston, where most of them died of starvation and exposure. Cabeza de Vaca was left to his own devices on the mainland for several years, trading with the Natives. In 1532, he was told by the natives of other men like him in the area and here he met up with other survivors of the original expedition, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico the Moor, who were being held captive. Cabeza de Vaca himself was enslaved and the four remained together this way for a year until they escaped and began their journey across what is now the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and a small group of other survivors from the Panfilo de Narváez expedition may have reached present-day New Mexico in 1535. In 1536 they reached a Spanish settlement (Culiacán) on the Sinalo River in Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions were the first Europeans to travel the Southwest and to write reports. Cabeza de Vaca's reports on his journey from 1528-1536 included information about numerous tribes, flora and fauna. The firsthand observations recorded in Los Naufragios (the shipwrecked men), is a unique ethnographic picture of this journey, the first anthropological record and contemporary observation of archaic bands encountered at this early date.
Cabeza de Vaca’s story concerning the cities of Cíbola which caused much excitement in New Spain and the rush to find gold in Nueva Mexico was precipitated by his statement that the Indians at one point in his journey (in the upper Sonora Valley) told him that in the mountain country to the north were some “towns with big houses and many people” with whom they traded parrot feathers for turquoise. These towns were the group of six Zuni pueblos in western New Mexico. The Indians pointed the way to the pueblos and it was thought at the time that these pueblos were in the area of the large buffalo herds of which the Spaniards had vague information.
Hallenbeck, Cleve. Land of the Conquistadores. Caldwell Idaho: The Caxton Printers, 1950 (12-23).
Vaca, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de. “Relacion de los Naufragios y Commentarios,” in J. F. Jameson, Original Narratives of Early American History. Vol. II. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907.
Bruce-Novoa, Juan. 1993. “Shipwrecked in the Seas of Signification: Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación and Chicano Literature.” In Reconstructing a Chicano/a Literary Heritage: Hispanic Colonial Literature of the Southwest, ed. María Herrera Sobek, 3–23. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.