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Esteban: the African guide in 1539 AD of Spanish explorers entering North America (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Northern Mexico)

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Esteban was also known as Estabanico, Estavanico, Esteban De Dorantes, Esteban the Moor, Mustapha Azemouri, Black Stephen and Stephen the Moor.

These were the many names by which this man, an African, was known. His achievements in the 16th century largely remain undervalued due to his status as a slave. He was among the only four survivors of about 600 men[1] that went on a Spanish (conquistador) expedition to present-day Florida in the United States of America and widely believed to be the first African to have reached the continent of Present-day USA[2].

Born around 1500s Azamor Morocco, he was enslaved at a very young age by the Portuguese who ruled Morocco at the time (around 1520) and he was sold to a Spaniard Andres Dorantes de Carranza. Andres so much desired to explore and colonize new territories for Spain along the Gulf of Mexico starting from Florida all the way to the Rio Grande. By 1527 he was a commander in the disastrous Panfilo de Narvaez expedition.

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Panfilo de Narvaez was an accomplished conquistador with over 20 years of experience and had just received a royal appointment by the King of Spain as Spain’s governor in unexplored Florida. He took with him about 600 men including Andres Dorantes de Carranza who was his commander and of course Esteban followed his master. Esteban was raised a Muslim and had to convert to Christianity to be part of the expedition crew. He was baptized and christened Estevanico. At the time Spain forbade non-Christians from traveling the New worlds thus his conversion.

The Panfilo de Narvaez expedition crew sailed in five ships from Sanluca de Barremeda Spain in 1527 and after many challenges including a loss of one of the Ships, they anchored at the western coast of Florida north of Tampa Bay. About 400 men and 42 horses survived the journey[3]. All were excited to explore and discover the riches this new world had to offer. Making Esteban the first African to set foot on Florida soil, according to some scholars. Narvaez sent his ships to a harbour which his pilots claimed purportedly existed somewhere within the vicinity and took with him about 300 men some of them on horses to explore the new territory.

By 1528, after months of marching across swamps, fighting hostile natives and crossing rivers in search of valuable natural resources, they found nothing valuable. Worse, they were lost and had a sign of their ships. Their numbers kept dwindling due to diseases, drowning and constant fierce attacks by native Apalachee Indians.

Narvaez decided to retreat to a Spanish settlement in Mexico via the Gulf of Mexico, but with their ships nowhere in sight, they resorted to building make-shift barges. They melted the metals from their bridles, spurs, crossbows, and stirrups, killed their horses for food and used its hairs for ropes made from horse hair and palmetto fronds. They used their clothes for sails by sowing them together. And quickly they constructed five make-shift Barges to transverse the ocean with, each overloaded with about 50 men. Esteban and his master Andres sailed together in the same boat with Alonzo del Castillo Maldonado. The men weak from hunger and thirst just let the barges drift with the current and by the time they reached the strong current of the Mississippi River that flows into the Gulf of Mexico around September of 1528 the poorly constructed barges started disintegrating. Some were wrecked, and it became impossible for all the boats to stay together. The barge that Narvaez was on drifted out to sea and was not seen again. Esteban’s barge capsized but they luckily made it to shore off the coast of Texas at Galveston Island where they joined with Cabeza de Vaca and some men from his boat, who had already reached the island and were given food and shelter by friendly Indian natives.

By now only about 15 men survived including Esteban and his master Andres.  Around April 1529 Andres de Dorantes with the survivors on his boat left the island and made their way by foot down the Texas coast where they got captured, enslaved and subjugated to gruelling hard labour, constant beating and starvation by the Coahuilteca Indians. Captives that tried to escape were killed by the Indians leaving only Andres, Estaban, and Castillo. The three men were joined about three years later in 1532 by de Vaca who was captured by the same Indians that enslaved his counterparts.

Esteban being highly intelligent quickly learned a great deal of the local Indian’s culture, way of life and language which proved very significant for the survival of the men. What happened next is disputed: either, the four men escaped captivity 3 years later around September 1535; or, as some scholars narrate, the four men were ransomed by the Spanish.

Whatever the means of regained their freedom, they moved inland by foot across present-day Texas and northern Mexico where they met and lived among friendly Indian tribes and somehow (there is no clear account on how this happened) they became revered as medicine men by the local Indians and were accorded great respect. The locals believed they possessed healing powers and this attracted many followers and admirers who showered them with gifts and escorted them as they moved from village to village trying to make their way to Culiacan, a Spanish settlement, on the west coast of Mexico.

By this time Esteban had become fluent in several Indian dialects and was in constant conversation and interaction with the locals. He did most of the talking, getting directions, finding out the names of towns and villages and obtaining other useful info for him and his party. He especially had an affinity for the local women and had many relationships.

Around April 1536, the four men with their followers encountered some Spanish soldiers who were on a slave-raiding expedition. Surprised to find Christians living among Indian infidels, the soldiers became even more amazed when they heard the tale of the experiences of the four men. de Vaca appealed to the soldiers not to capture their Indian entourage and the soldiers obliged. The four men soon found themselves on the west coast of Mexico at Culiacan. They were welcomed warmly by the authorities who also inquired and listened carefully about the routes through which they traversed. The four men after some days in the company of the soldiers reached Mexico City, ending their 8-year odyssey.

The New and First Viceroy of New Spain[4] Don Antonio de Mendoza welcomed the men. Next, most historians seem to suggest Andres sold Esteban to the Viceroy. At that time in New Spain, there were rumours and speculations about the golden cities of Cibola said to be filled with Gold and all manner of precious stones located in the north of the Sonoran mountains. Andres asked the Viceroy to appoint him the task of leading an exploration to the said city. Instead, the appointment went to a Franciscan priest named Marcos de Niza whom the Viceroy had already given the task of a reconnaissance expedition to Cibola earlier before the arrival of Esteban and his cohorts. Esteban, having demonstrated more awareness of the routes, languages, and way of life of the natives in that region was quickly appointed Marcos’s translator and guide. In 1539 the explorers set off.

Journeying through the mountains of Sonora was very easy and comfortable for Esteban although the same cannot be said for his protege. The locals were excited and happy to have one of the great healers return. They showered Esteban with gifts like fine skins, turquoises, food, and beautiful women. Esteban walked proudly interacting with the locals in their native languages. Marcos quickly found himself relegated to the background and although he was a revered man of God and the leader of the expedition, he was not accorded much attention, and this annoyed him.

He suggested Esteban with a few men should go ahead to prepare for his arrival as they reached villages while Esteban would routinely sending back word of his progress.  Esteban agreed to this and quickly forged ahead, about 300 miles ahead of Marcos and the rest of the men making arrangements for Marcos and his entourage relating to food and shelter as he reached settlements before them5.

About a month later Esteban was rapidly approaching a mud-walled pueblo, a place called Hawikuh which his followers assured him was the legendary city of Cibola. He sent word back to Marcos informing him of his arrival and with about a day’s journey left to arrive the city he sent a few of his followers with his gourd ahead into the city as he usually would do whenever he is approaching settlements; his gourd has become a well-known symbol to the natives to identify the presence of the great healer.

The Zuni Inhabitants of Hawikuh, however, reacted provocatively and sent the messengers back with a warning to Estaban not to enter their city. Now here the story gets complicated as there are several accounts of what happened next, one thing is sure though, Estaban entered the city. An overwhelming majority of historians believe Estaban was killed by the Zuni’s arrows. Although there is no account of any of his followers ever saying they saw him being killed, there are many versions of why he was killed. Vazquez de Coronado claimed the Zunis told him that they were informed of the wickedness of Esteban and his unruly attitude towards the women. Alarcon said he was killed by the Zunis to prevent him from telling about the strength and position of their warriors. Anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing reported the Zuni killed him because Estaban’s native followers might have been believed by the Zunis to be their old enemies the Apache, and the feathers on Esteban’s gourd symbolizes death and violence to the Zunis. Cleve Hallenbeck reported that Estaban was killed while trying to escape.

There are those that believe Estaban was not killed, but instead seized the opportunity to simply vanish to escape the burden of slavery.  Marcos later in 1540 accompanied Coronado on a military assault of Cibola which the Spaniards took with ease but were disappointed not to find any wealth or riches but rather corn and beans.

No one knows where Esteban was buried. His is an amazing story of survival, courage, and strength in the days when enslaved Africans in the New World had no rights or opportunities to excel. Many of his ancestral countrymen might not have even ever heard about him despite his feats. He remains one of the few unsung heroes. Esteban contributed the knowledge of Native American languages, place names, Native Indian tribes, and the mapping of parts of Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Northern Mexico. His diplomatic mediation probably safe-guarded the lives of members of the 1539 AD expedition which set off from New Spain.

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Map of the Viceroyalty of New Spain at its maximum extension

SOURCES

[1] It is not certain how many men went on the expedition, there are varying accounts ranging from 300 to 800 men

[2] Some scholars believe an African was already in Florida as early as 1513.

[3] http://www.historynet.com/estevanico-the-moor-august-97-american-history-feature.htm

[4] Mexico was the new Spain at the time.

5 http://newmexicohistory.org/people/esteban-the-moor

RECOMMENDED READING

Dennis Herrick, Esteban: The African Slave Explored America. University of New Mexico Press (October 15, 2018)

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