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.

One of the interesting undercurrents of Cabeza de Vaca's narrative, which refrains from critical remarks about the Governor, is the implicit antagonism between them. Narváez deliberately sent Cabeza de Vaca on dirty-work reconnaissances, sent him into a possibly hostile village first, put him in charge of the more dangerous vanguard while he brought up the rear, and tried to get rid of him by assigning him to the ships. The climax of their rivalry came when Cabeza de Vaca dramatized his correctness in asking the Governor for orders while the Governor was running out on the majority of his expeditionaries.

The modem reader may at first find himself carried along by his interest in the expeditionaries' struggle for survival, but in time will likely grow increasingly interested in the struggle for survival of the aborigines. Cabeza de Vaca's ability to survive depended in large measure on his capacity to adjust to them and identify with them. His induplicable anthropological information on the paleolithic and neolithic cultures of coast, forest, river, plains, mountain, and desert tribes presents hitherto untapped "news of the human race" on a considerable scale. Anthropologists and psychologists can make much of such data as, for instance, the prevalence of illnesses due to hysteria. The reactions of the retreating expeditionaries to a variety of extreme tests constitute an important section of the "news of the human race" in this little book. One of their first tests, though not so mortal a one, was the blandishments of Santo Domingo. Another of the preliminary tests - a kind of harbinger of the tragedies to come - was the hurricane that caught the expedition in Cuba. And among the many firsts of Cabeza de Vaca's narrative, this is the first description in literature of a West Indies hurricane.

Cabeza de Vaca gives an unvarnished, soldierly account of what he went through in the years 1527-37 which leaves much to be inferred - and much is inferrable. He passes up most of his opportunities to dwell on morbidity or his own heroism, fiercely jealous though he is of his honor and tantalizing as is the possibility, to him, of his having received divine favor. He remains the central figure and guiding spirit throughout the epic, even if omitting to mention this role most of the time. It was his resilience and resourcefulness and, above all, venturousness which gave momentum to the survivors' sojourn. The others who got back with him had, in one stretch of years, come to a paralyzed impasse which could not be broken until he joined them. He had been actively working himself out of servitude as a far-wandering merchant during these same years. He would attempt cures and operations that others would quail from. Even toward the end, at the climax, he could not induce his fellow Spaniards to rush on ahead, but went himself.

He must have had a penchant for austerity. In time, all four survivors were thriving on it - walking all day and eating only one meal, a spare one at evening, and feeling no weariness. Even the Indians were amazed. One suspects that his companions had less zest for this life and harbored some resentment at being thus driven. They had twice given him up for dead and gone on without verification.

The Indians found Castillo the most attractive most of the time; and it becomes an interesting puzzle to try to ascertain why, from the limited evidence given. Captain Castillo was a well-bred hidalgo from the university town of Salamanca, the son of a distinguished and learned father. He was the least bold of the four survivors and the one who slipped most quickly and quietly into obscurity when the trek was over. He is the one who taught the other four the art of faith-healing; yet he felt the most inhibitions in exercising the art because of a sense of unworthiness. Maybe Castillo was really the one responsible for deepening Cabeza de Vaca's mechanical religiousness to genuine devoutness. Cabeza de Vaca, in any event, learned a lot. Both Castillo and Dorantes, we see early in the narrative in Florida, had a certain rapport with Cabeza de Vaca; and Dorantes intended to continue in association with him after the journey's end in Mexico City.

The Pimas in northern Sonora presented Dorantes with the more than 600 opened deer hearts, and desert Indians in New Mexico had given him a precious copper rattle. He seems gradually to have displaced Castillo as the Indian favorite; but it is Cabeza de Vaca who emerges clearly dominant at the last.

When he returned to Spain in 1537, ten hard years older and wiser, his consuming ambition was to go back to the region in which he had so frequently faced death, as first in command. A half-year's delay in getting home to Spain, occasioned by the capsizing of his intended ship at Veracruz, may have been the factor which gave the leadership to De Soto instead. De Soto did all he could to engage Cabeza de Vaca as his second in command, but after Cabeza de Vaca's experience under the incompetent Narváez, he could not consent to seconding any commander again. One reason he wished to go back to "Florida" was his belief in the land's possibilities for agriculture, grazing, and mining - especially for gold, silver, emeralds, and turquoises. He also had become convinced that a fabulous aboriginal nation existed in the north, not far beyond the perimeter of his recent circuit, and another on the Pacific, which he believed much nearer the northern pueblos than was remotely possible. The evidence he gives of these opulent places quickly convinced many others. They, in fact, leaped to connect the unseen pueblos across the desert with the legendary Seven Cities of Cíbola, which supposedly had been founded somewhere in the west in the eighth century by seven fugitive bishops.

The evidence he withheld was equally convincing. Not forgetting that he had gone out on a military expedition responsible to the Crown, he felt he should not divulge much of his new knowledge before he had first reported to the king. He also did not wish anyone else to get the jump on him in picking the "Florida" plum; so he hated to divulge what might entice others to apply to the king or what would help ensure their success. He and Dorantes hoped to return to the north together. Their very reticence fired imaginations and greed and became in itself a kind of proof of marvels. The fact that Cabeza de Vaca inadvertently left his six "emerald" arrowheads behind on the Sinaloa and could not produce the mere malachite specimens for examination gave his guarded testimony about emeralds and other precious minerals uncontradictable authority. He, of course, believed them genuine; the turquoises he had been given actually were.

When Cabeza de Vaca sincerely represented the possible riches of the unexplored country to the north in glowing terms to the viceroy (for the viceroy was the personal representative of the king), Mendoza promptly set about acting on the intelligence. Both the Fray Marcos and Coronado expeditions materialized from the direct stimulus of Cabeza de Vaca's return and reports. He repeated his confidence in the new region to Charles V in person, as well as in his full, printed report which he shared with the public in October 1542. (The viceroy had earlier transmitted a report to the king which has not survived.) At the time of De Soto's preparations, when Cabeza de Vaca's hopes of leading a Florida expedition had long since collapsed, he still kept his pact with Dorantes and would not even brief his kinsmen who had accepted commands with De Soto. But he did confidentially advise them by all means to sell their estates and go. In the long run, he far underestimated the potential of this new region, but a terrible disillusionment with it inevitably set in after a few more expeditions went through the sort of suffering the Narváez "conquerors" had experienced.

There was a more compelling reason than riches for Cabeza de Vaca's sanguine view: He had learned to love the land as beautiful and the Indians as surpassingly handsome, strong, and intelligent. In the midst of his sufferings, he caught a vision of the brotherhood of man. He wanted to bring the Indians civilization and Christianity and to establish a humane order among them. He had found that he could cure their sicknesses, communicate Christian teachings, and compose their tribal hostilities, leaving the lands he passed through in peace. The immediate result of his return - still 900 miles before he reached Mexico City - was to stop the slave raids in Sonora and Sinaloa and induce the terrified refugee population to return and rebuild their villages and cultivate the soil once more. In his strongest language, he urged an unrapacious, peaceful winning of the Indians to king and Christ. He went so far as to say that this was the only sure way to "conquer" them. The great irony of his impressive demonstration is the scale of the brutality with which the lesson was violated.

His devotion to the dual and somewhat contradictory codes of the knight and the Christian gentleman made Cabeza de Vaca appear at times quixotic to his contemporaries (nearly a century before the dear old Don); yet it was the crass, "practical" men who failed and who contributed to the failure of many others. Cabeza de Vaca succeeded, and saved three others. He would have saved many more - possibly the entire expedition - had more of the men matched his own valor and responsibleness, particularly the chief commander, Narváez, who at the last thought only of his own survival, and did not survive.

Since De Soto had already received the royal commission for Florida (by the time Cabeza de Vaca got back to Spain), the king came through with the alternative appointment of adelantado (governor) of the considerable South American provinces of the Río de la Plata, to which Cabeza de Vaca sailed in 1540.

His first concern on assuming office was to rescue the Indian-beleaguered and disease-wasting colony of Asunción. Instead of the year-long sea route via Buenos Aires, he chose to lead an expedition directly overland - 1000 miles across unknown and supposedly impenetrable jungles, mountains, and cannibal villages. He accomplished this successfully, barefoot, from late November 1541 to late March 1542, from Santa Catalina Island via Iguazú Falls. The following summer he led an even more remarkable expedition about the same distance up the Paraguay in search of the legendary Golden City of Manoa. Extreme privation, particularly during the tropical rains of the fall, forced him to turn back when his men would go no further. Back at Asunción, he fell victim to intrigue and fever. He had systematically prohibited enslaving, raping, and looting of the Indians - which were what the majority of the Spaniards had come for. So they deposed him. It is a more complicated story than that, however. The soldiers resented his dealing gently and as a divine agent. (He required them to transport a fine camp bed for himself through the jungles.) They returned him wretchedly to Spain in chains in 1543.

Not until 1551 did the Council for the Indies get round to trying him, and then they gave credence to the unscrupulous lieutenant governor who had led the mutiny in La Plata, and sentenced Cabeza de Vaca to banishment to Africa for eight years. His wife loyally spent all her fortune in his behalf and, finally, the king awoke from his habitual stupor, annulled the sentence, awarded Cabeza de Vaca a pension, and placed him on the Audiencia. He died in honor in 1557. His account of his South American adventures, which is three times longer than that of his North American journey, was bound with the second edition of the latter in 1555 under the title Comentarios.