Monday, January 07, 2008

Cow's H.

Since I moved to Santa Fe, I've noticed there are a lot of people here with an unusual last name: CDeBaca. Sometimes there's a period or an apostrophe or a space after the C--and sometimes not. Capitalization of individual letters also varies.

A little research yielded the information that CDeBaca was originally Cabeza de Vaca. Over time in this country the Vaca became Baca, and the Cabeza was shortened to C. (The most common current version of the name is simply Baca.)

A little more digging led me to the story of Martin Alhaja, a shepherd who had played a pivotal role in a battle that Spain undertook against the Moors in 1212. Alhaja offered to show the Spaniards a path that would circumvent the mountain passes held by the Moors, and used a cow's skull to mark the trail. As a reward for his service, he was given a noble title, and took the name Cabeza de Vaca (cow's head).

Three hundred years later, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, by this time a member of a well-established noble family in Seville, sailed for North America as an officer and second in command under Pánfilo de Narváez in 1527. Their group of 600 (which included 10 women and a handful of African slaves) manned a number of ships, but the fleet was destroyed off the coast of Cuba. After finding a new ship, Narváez sailed to the Tampa Bay area in Florida, and claimed it for the Spanish crown. He divided his forces into two--a land and a sea expedition. Both Narváez and Cabeza de Vaca were part of the land contingent--the sea forces were never heard from again.

Lost and starving, the land forces were sheltered for a time by the Apalachee Indians of North Florida. After being chased away by the Indians, they lived in a coastal swamp for a period, and were reduced to eating their horses while they constructed five barges. They began their travel hugging the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, but were once again struck by a hurricane. By this time, the size of the force had dwindled to about 80. Narváez and some of his men eventually headed back out to sea and disappeared.

Cabeza de Vaca and the few men left with him struggled to stay alive on the Gulf Coast, near where Galveston is today. According to Southwest Crossroads, "Indian groups variously befriended, fed, killed, and enslaved the Conquistadors." During this period, most of the party died of Indian attack, illness, and starvation.

During his six years of slavery, Cabeza de Vaca and also his companions, began to be seen as powerful medicine men. He had a little knowledge of medicine from his Spanish education, and he was also a faith-healer, employing indigenous remedies with Christian religious ceremonials. Apparently, he honed his medical skills over the time he spent in Texas, and actually developed and refined real surgical procedures like making incisions to pull out arrowheads and giving stitches.

Eventually, Cabeza de Vaca and his three surviving companions (two Spaniards and a Moroccan slave named Estebán) escaped, and resolved to walk west and south until they reached the Spanish Empire's outpost in Mexico.

They survived in part by trading, and in part because of their reputation as healers. On their journey they were often accompanied by hundreds of Indian guides and well-wishers; according to various analysts Cabeza de Vaca appeared to have been unusually sensitive to the Indian tribe members, and an advocate for their humanity--he is said to have prevented a number of them from being captured by a slave-taking expedition when they first entered Mexico.

Nine years after that first Cuba shipwreck, in 1536, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions walked into Culiacán, in Sinaloa, Mexico.

From there he was able to travel to Mexico City, and return to Spain, where he wrote an account of his adventures originally entitled La Relación, and now known as Náufragos. (The latter title translates to "The Shipwrecked".) The work was published in 1542, by which time Cabeza de Vaca had already left for the New World again, where he had been awarded the position of Governor of the settlements on the La Plata river (an area in present-day Paraguay and Argentina).

Apparently, he was a much less successful governor than he was an explorer/survivor, and a revolt against him led to his return to Spain as a prisoner. He was convicted of the charges, but finally pardoned, and occupied an honorable and lucrative position (possibly as a judge) until his death ca. 1557. He wrote a second book on his career in South America called Comentarios which was published in 1555. His books are valuable for their first-person history of Spanish colonization, and his observations (in the first book) of the customs and manners of North American Indians. (In Texas alone, Cabeza de Vaca named and located 23 Indian groups and their clothes, language, eating habits, rituals, homes, and migrations. )

More recently, the local Cabeza de Bacas are descended from Luis María Cabeza de Baca, who was born in Santa Fe in 1753, and fathered somewhere between 15-29 children with three wives. (The latter number probably includes a number of children who were stillborn or died in infancy.)

Some claim that Luis María was a direct descendant from Alvar Nuñez, though others feel there is not enough evidence to support that claim. It is still generally assumed, however, that all of the C deBacas and Bacas originated from the Spanish noble family named for their sheepherding ancestor.

Ezequiel C De Baca (1864-1917) was elected the first Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico in 1911, and became governor on January 1, 1917, but died the following month.

A perusal of the Santa Fe phone book yields the number of local residents with some version of this name:

BACA 148

Illustration Credits and References

The painting of the young Cabeza de Vaca and the map are courtesy of the American School of Lima web site.

The surgical illustration is entitled Cabeza de Vaca Performing the First Recorded Surgical Operation on the North American Continent by Tom Lea; courtesy of the Moody Medical Library, The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

The 5 peseta stamp was issued by Spain in 1960, on the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Florida by the Spanish.

Sources used for this post include:

Research from the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University; if you're interested in more detail on Cabeza de Vaca's North American adventures, the two research articles included here are very thorough.

A review, in the California Literary Review, of a new book about Cabeza de Vaca by Andrés Reséndez entitled: A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza De Vaca : The Extraordinary Tale of a Shipwrecked Spaniard Who Walked Across America in the Sixteenth Century.

Southwest Crossroads, a site discussing cultures and histories of the American Southwest

The Sharlot Hall Museum, a museum of human and natural history in Prescott, Arizona

The University of New Mexico's e-library

The Catholic Encyclopedia


Rick Beyer said...

Neat piece, and a window to a bit of history that few of us in the New England part of the country are remotely aware of. The book sounds birthday is in April! :)

Marilyn said...

When we first saw your post, my initial response was "Yeah! I remember a TV show, 'The Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca.'" My vague memory is that it was one of a few topics that rotated episodes with "Spin & Marty" and the like. Or maybe a network show such as "The Gray Ghost" or "Jim Bowie." Yet I can find no reference whatsoever to it online. My dad was a lover of juicy historical characters and commented on de Vaca as we took family car trips through the Southwest. Where else would he have encountered the name? He didn't even finish high school. Anybody recall it? Seems to me the theme song was something like "Let me tell of Cabeza de Vaca..." with lurid Spanish guitar accompaniment. Help anybody? It's driving me nuts!