Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was the only conquistador I got right on my grade school history tests. Anyone named Mr. Cowhead is pretty funny stuff to a fifth grader, and he tended to stick in my memory. Besides, there wasn’t that much to remember. Cabeza de Vaca, a black slave, and a couple of other Spaniards were shipwrecked on the Gulf Coast of North America and spent several years wandering around Mexico until they were rescued. A mildly interesting story, but I didn’t remember many of the details. Decades later, when I was actively pursuing research on Hernando de Soto’s trek through La Florida, Cabeza de Vaca’s sojourn was still little more to me than prelude to the real entrada. Or so I thought until I read Andrés Reséndez’s A Land So Strange.

The four-year ordeal of De Soto has nothing on the travails of Cabeza de...

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