THIS SIXTEENTH-CENTURY odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca's is one of the great true epics of history. It is the semi-official report to the king of Spain by the ranking surviving officer of a royal expedition to conquer Florida which fantastically miscarried.

Four out of a land-force of 300 men - by wits, stamina and luck - found their way back to civilization after eight harrowing years and roughly 6,000 miles over mostly unknown reaches of North America. They were the first Europeans to see and live to report the interior of florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and northernmost Mexico; the 'possum and the buffalo; the Mississippi and the Pecos; pine-nut mash and mesquite-bean flour; and a long string of Indian Stone Age tribes. What these wanderers merely heard and surmised had just as great an effect on subsequent events as what they learned at first hand.

Their sojourn "to the sunset," as they told certain of the Indians in the latters' idiom, took on a great added interest and value in the 1930's with the convergent discovery of Carl Sauer and Cleve Hallenbeck that Cabeza de Vaca and his companions had traveled, for the most part, over Indian trails that were still traceable. The thorough work of these two distinguished professors, plus that of innumerable others in such disciplines as archaeology, anthropology, cartography, geology, climatology, botany, zoology and history, has given surprisingly sharp definition to much of the old narrative that had hitherto seemed vague and baffling. The present translation is the first to take advantage of the scientific findings of half a century which culminate in Sauer and Hallenbeck. Hallenbeck, in fact, incorporates and supersedes all previous scholarship on the subject (Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: The Journey and Route of the First European to Cross the Continent of North America: Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1940).

It was Álvar Núñez's mother, Dona Teresa, whose surname was Cabeza de Vaca, or Head of a Cow. This name originated as a title of honor from the decisive Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in the Sierra Morenas on 12 July 1212, when a peasant named Alhaja detected an unguarded pass and marked it with a cow's skull. A surprise attack over this pass routed the Moorish enemy. King Sancho of Navarre thereupon created the novel title, Head of a Cow, and bestowed it in gratitude upon the peasant Alhaja. Álvar Núñez proudly adopted this surname of his mother's, though that of his father, de Vera, had a lustre from recent imperialism. Pedro de Vera, the sadistic conqueror of the Canaries, was Álvar Núñez's grandfather. Álvar Núñez, the eldest of his parents' four children, spoke proudly of his paternal grandfather. It may have been significant for the boy's later career in America that he listened to old Pedro repeat his tales of heroism, and that he had a childhood familiarity with the conquered Guanche savages with whom the grandfather staffed his household as slaves.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who was born about 1490, grew up in the little Andalusian wine center of Jérez, just a few miles from Cádiz and fewer still from the port San Lúcar de Barrameda at the mouth of the Guadalquivir. This is the port Magellan sailed from in September 1519 - and Cabeza de Vaca, seven years and ten months later. Cabeza de Vaca was about ten years old when Columbus, aged forty-nine, returned to Cádiz in chains. The boy may well have seen the autocratic admiral thus - just as he himself was to be returned to the same city in chains at the age of fifty-three.

In the tradition of the landed gentry, Cabeza de Vaca turned to a military career while still in his teens. When about twenty-one, he marched in the army which King Ferdinand sent to aid Pope Julius II in 1511, and saw action in the Battle of Ravenna of 11 April 1512 in which 20,000 died. He served as ensign at Gaeta outside Naples before returning to Spain and to the service of the Duke of Medina Sidonia in 1513 in Seville, the metropolis of his home region. In the Duke's service, Cabeza de Vaca survived the Comuneros civil war (including the recapture of the Alcázar, 16 September 1520, from the Sevillian rebels), the battles of Tordesillas and Villalar, and finally, warfare against the French in Navarre.

He was a veteran of sufficient distinction by 1527 to receive the royal appointment of second in command in the Narváez expedition for the conquest of Florida, a territory which at that time was conceived as extending indefinitely westward. This appointment saved him from another Italian campaign; Charles V's Spanish and German troops ingloriously sacked Rome itself barely a month before the Narváez expedition sailed. Cabeza de Vaca married, apparently, only a short time before the sailing, though there is a bare possibility that he postponed marriage to his return.

The red-bearded, one-eyed chief commander, or governor, Pamfilo de Narváez, was a grasping bungler. He lost an eye when he took an expedition from Cuba to Mexico in jealousy to arrest Cortes. Cortes first won over most of his 900 troops and then roundly defeated the rest. Narváez was arrested wounded. As governor of Cuba, he had calmly sat on a horse one day and watched his men massacre 2,500 Indians who were distributing food to the Spaniards. It was his stupid decision to separate his cavalry and infantry from their sustaining ships that sealed the doom of his expedition in Florida - as Cabeza de Vaca forewarned in vain.