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Estevanico, the First African Man to Explore the Americas

His contribution to various expeditions has been largely overlooked.

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  • Photo Credit: Texas State Historical Association

One of the earliest explorers of North America was an African-born slave by the name of Esteban de Dorantes, or Estevanico. Despite his indispensable role in European exploration and colonization of the Americas, Estevanico is often sidelined in historical accounts. Even in his companions’ chronicles, he was relegated to a footnote until his contribution to their disastrous Gulf Coast expedition suddenly became too important to ignore. His unknown origins, arduous journey, and mysterious disappearance leave him shrouded in mystery.

The mystery surrounding Estevanico begins with his first breath. We know that he was born circa 1500, and his birth name, Mustafa Azemmouri, suggests that he hailed from the Moroccan city of Azemmour. It is unknown how he came to be a slave, but he was eventually purchased by Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, the son of a Spanish lower nobleman. At Dorantes’ insistence, Azemmouri converted to Catholicism and took the name Estevan, from which he eventually gained the diminutive nickname Estevanico (“Little Steven”).

Spain had a policy of primogeniture—when a patriarch died, all of his wealth would pass to his firstborn son, leaving the rest of his progeny in the lurch. Among these shortchanged hidalgos was Pánfilo de Narváez. Like many of his peers, Narváez resolved to seek his fortune in the gilded New World. Although Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, couldn’t legally sponsor the voyage of a second son, he wished to gain a foothold along the Gulf of Mexico’s coast before Hernán Cortés could. He granted Narváez permission to raise a force of 600 men, sail for the Gulf Coast, and establish at least two towns and two forts, of which Narváez would be governor. In return, Charles would receive a one-fifth share of any plunder brought back.

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  • Photo Credit: National Park Service

Narváez had no trouble rounding up the necessary funds. His fellow hidalgos saw opportunity in the New World, and many happily paid for passage. Among those who were aboard his fleet when it set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda on June 7, 1527 were Dorantes and Estevanico.

It was a miserable ordeal from the start. The ships were battered by rough waters, and infested with roaches, rodents, and fleas. Drinking water was in short supply, and the sailors’ diet of salted meat and hardtack would have only intensified their thirst. Deserters, hurricanes, and an incompetent navigator wracked the expedition at every turn. In April of 1528, they sighted land near present-day St. Petersburg, Florida, and dropped anchor. 

Narváez immediately declared himself governor and split his forces: a land party to make contact with the indigenous people there, and a sea party to sail ahead. Estevanico joined the land party. Beset by confusing rumors of gold to the north and repeated attacks by Apalachee warriors, Narváez quickly lost track of his ships. Eventually, the land party settled in the abandoned town of Aute, where they resolved to melt their weapons and armor down, reforging the metal into tools with which to build new boats. 

Despite limited supplies and continued Apalachee attacks, Estevanico and the rest of the party constructed five boats, departing for Mexico on September 22, 1528. Storms instead cast them to a small barrier island off the coast of Texas. The 80 survivors would suffer disease, starvation, and war. Estevanico, Dorantes, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and numerous others were captured by different indigenous groups and forced into hard labor. There Estevanico began to master the sign language that served as a lingua franca in the region, as well as some spoken languages.

Each fall, many gathered in present-day Texas in order to harvest the abundant fruit of the prickly pear cactus. It was in the fall of 1533 that Estevanico, Dorantes, and Cabeza de Vaca, along with a fourth survivor named Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, were reunited in the prickly pear groves. With the help of a group Cabeza de Vaca called the Anagados, rivals of the coastal people that had enslaved the expeditionaries, they managed to escape captivity during the following harvest. 

Although the Spaniards were free, Estevanico remained enslaved to Dorantes. After learning that the Anagados, too, intended to force them into slavery, the four fled again. They continued for two days before encountering a camp, where they met a multilingual trader of the Avavares. Estevanico shared a language with him, and successfully arranged winter lodgings in his village. 

Dorantes’ and Cabeza de Vaca’s accounts differ, but while staying with the Avavares or shortly after, a sick person approached them and asked for healing. They had observed the local medicine men’s methods of treatment, which involved breathing and the laying on of hands. So they made an imitation, reciting Christian prayers and making the sign of the cross over the sick. Somehow, it worked. 

The four survivors began styling themselves as healers. They were richly rewarded for their services with cotton blankets, finery, and more food than they could carry. Grateful patients would share rumors of goings-on, and at times even offered to guide them to the next settlement. Cabeza de Vaca’s account states that, at times, the party had as many as thousands of believers following them (but he was also known for his tendency to exaggerate). Estevanico, who had demonstrated an incredible knack for communication and language acquisition, often went ahead of the party to spread word of the healers’ impending arrival. In this manner, they made their way across what we now know as Texas, parts of northeastern Mexico, and possibly even Arizona and New Mexico, with Estevanico as the de facto head of the party. 

That would change in 1536, when they heard rumors about a party of Spanish slave raiders near present-day Guasave, Mexico. This time, Cabeza de Vaca accompanied Estevanico in riding ahead. After their initial shock, the Spaniards gave their compatriots a hero’s welcome, plying them with questions about the lost expedition and their tribulations. Along the lengthy journey south to the Spanish stronghold of Mexico City, they recounted the tale that would prove to be Estevanico’s undoing: that of the Seven Cities of Gold.

Estevanico and his companions had heard that there existed, somewhere in the deserts to the north, seven cities of immense wealth. Their stories thrilled conquistadors in Mexico City, including Viceroy of New Spain Antonio de Mendoza. Mendoza tried to arrange for them to lead an expedition, but the Narváez survivors were understandably reluctant. But in 1537, Dorantes and Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, while Castillo settled down with a rich widow in Tehuacán. Possibly to appease the powerful Mendoza, Dorantes granted him ownership of Estevanico. 

In 1539, Mendoza sent Estevanico, along with the Franciscan Friar Marcos de Niza, on an expedition to find the Seven Cities of Gold. As usual, he traveled ahead of the rest of the party with a small group. He went ahead to the pueblo of Hawikku, but never returned. When de Niza caught up to Estevanico’s bloodied men, they told him that Estevanico and others had been killed by the A:shiwi people there. 

What happened to Estevanico at Hawikku is unknown, but many have advanced theories. It’s possible that the A:shiwi people who lived there were angered by Estevanico’s claims that a party of white men were coming—perhaps they didn’t believe him, or had heard tell of violence and enslavement at the hands of Spanish conquistadors and killed him as a warning. Estevanico was known to enjoy gifts of turquoise and the company of women, so some have suggested that he made extravagant demands that offended the A:shiwi. Or perhaps he was impersonating a medicine man as he had done during his earlier travels, a crime the A:shiwi punished by death. Others point to Estevanico’s resemblance to the katsina religion’s evil sorcerer Chaikwana; perhaps the A:shiwi misidentified him and attacked in self-defense. Some have even suggested that Estevanico stayed among the A:shiwi at Hawikku, who helped him fake his death and escape slavery. 

Whatever happened to Estevanico, it terrified de Niza, who recalled the expedition immediately. On his return, he claimed that he had seen one of the cities of gold, and that Estevanico had been murdered there. Mendoza launched another expedition, heavily armed and headed by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján, in 1540. They would never find the mythical Seven Cities of Gold, but they did conquer Hawikku, using it as a base from which to wage what became known as the Tiguex War, resulting in the Spanish conquest of Nuevo México and the deaths of hundreds of puebloans. 

Estevanico couldn’t have known what his disappearance in Hawikku would provoke, but he is nonetheless a figure of historical consequence. His daring exploration of the Americas made him a pioneer, and yet none of his traveling companions ever thought to record his opinions or perspective. His incredible story raises countless questions, many of which will likely remain unanswered indefinitely. He remains a complicated figure whose life and death still evoke speculation to this day.