La Relacion, Cabeza de Vaca

La Relacion y Comentarios del Gouernador Aluar Nunez Cabeca de Vaca, de lo acaescido en las dos jornadas que hizo a las Indias. 

The saying “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover” holds true when looking at this artifact on display at The Bryan Museum.  This plain artifact may be unassuming from the outside, but inside holds a magnificent story of exploration and the meeting of different worlds. 

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was the Royal Treasurer for an expedition to explore and settle Florida under the command of the conquistador Pánfilo de Nárvaez. The Nárvaez expedition was an ill-fated one and some members of the expedition ended up shipwrecked on Galveston Island and other barrier islands along the Texas coast. After living for six years as captives of Karankawa natives, Cabeza de Vaca and three others, including the Moorish slave Estevan, escaped their enslavement and began making their way on foot to Mexico. The journey took around two years, and along the way explorers were assisted in their travels by Coahuiltecan, Jumano, and other native Texas groups. When he finally made his way back to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca wrote an account of his time in Texas. 

First published in 1542, La Relacion is the first book written about Texas. It is a brilliantly composed ethnographic history, which provides readers with a first-hand account of life in Texas in the 1500s. Cabeza de Vaca writes about the landscapes he and his fellow travelers pass through on their epic journey as well as the people they encounter and their customs. Special attention is paid to food sources as the wanderers were often hungry.   

The copy on display in the museum dates to the second printing of the book in 1555. This version contained an expanded version of La Relacion, as well as Comentarios, which first appears in this publication, and is the history of Cabeza de Vaca’s governorship of the Rio de la Plata colony in present day Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay from 1540-1543. The book is bound in vellum and contains a title page with a large woodcut of the arms of Spain with the double-headed eagle partly hand-colored in contemporary red ink. 

La Relacion y Comentarios is on display in the Spanish Colonial gallery as part of The Bryan Museum’s permanent collection. Make sure to view it the next time you are at the museum. You can also go inside the book with an English translation available through our museum shop