Black History Month: Day 1 – Estevanico

Today I’m going to start writing about something completely different.  This isn’t going to be a radical change in the purpose of this blog.  Rather, it will be a temporary feature that I hope you all will enjoy. This is the first in a daily series of posts I’m going to make during February, a month traditionally known as Black History Month.  I’m making these posts for a few different reasons:
  • Because I need to provide myself something else to think about than current events
  • Because African-Americans have had an enormous impact on this nation, but this impact is not taught in most schools (I learned from my grandmother, and my wife learned as an adult).
  • Because I can always learn something new, and I’d wager anyone reading this could stand to learn more about citizens whose history is traditionally overlooked.
  • and because I was once a pretty competent writer, and as any Dragon Ball Z character can tell you, daily training is important.


I struggled finding who I wanted to start out writing about.  Not because I couldn’t find enough people to write about (I stopped adding to it at 51 entries), but because I wanted the first one to have some symbolic meaning.  In the end, I decided that I’d choose as my first entry one of the first Africans to step foot on American soil: Estevanico, aka Esteban de Dorantes, Estebanico, Esteban the Moor, Black Stephen, and Mustafa Zemmouri.


Estevanico, Big Willy Style

Image Courtesy of the David Weber Collection


Most sources say that Estevanico was born in 1503 in the town of Azemmour, Morocco.  Around 1520 or 1521, he was sold by the Portuguese into slavery in Europe and came into the service of Andrés Dorantes de Carranza.  Apparently the men got along well, despite being master and servant, and when Dorantes joined Pánfilo de Narváez‘s expedition in 1527 to conquer Florida, Estevanico accompanied him.  According to many sources, Estevanico became the first person from Africa known to have set foot in the present continental United States.  Some actually attribute this distinction to Juan Garrido, however Garrido possibly only reached as far as Mexico in his North American journey.


Not much is known about the unfortunate Narváez expedition.  The primary source of their tale, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, was one of four survivors of the expedition.  Although Narváez was an O.G. Conquistador (2 decades deep) and received royal appointment as Governor of Florida (pre-Jeb), he didn’t survive long enough to reap the rewards that no one else got either. The rest of his crew, boats, and horses were taken out by hurricanes, hostile First Peoples, and the deadly combo of hunger and disease.  Of the approximately 500 men and women that originally set out from Europe, roughly 80 survived the initial expedition.


These survivors attempted to sail to Mexico (which was under Spanish colonization), but ended up in Texas near Galveston in 1528. There, in an ironic twist of fate, the would be conquerors became slaves themselves (with Estevanico being a slave twice over).  Over the next 5 years, most of the survivors met death as enslaved men, scourged and tormented by their captors.  Estevanico, Dorantes, Cabeza de Vaca, and a fourth gentleman by the name of Alonso del Castillo Maldonado were the only survivors of this enslavement. In 1534 they escaped in to the American interior near Arizona. There they met other Native Americans, and the band of four gained a reputation as spiritual healers (apparently Castillo and Cabeza de Vaca became medicine men of sorts while they were enslaved).  Eventually they gained great fame among the local Indigenous tribes and amassed a group of followers with whom they traveled to New Spain (Mexico).  Estevanico, for his part, had learned much of the native languages, and became a very competent explorer.  Once the group made it back to European dominated lands, he was retained for another conquering expedition by the Viceroy in 1539.


It’s unclear whether Estevanico continued on his next journey as a free man or a slave, but two things were clear:
  1. He was supposed to be under the oder of a dude by the name of Fray Marcos de Niza.
  2. Estevanico, the survivor of a failed expedition and famed spiritual healer was feeling himself a little too much.
Estevanico fell prey to the same thing that did in MC Hammer and Kanye West: his fortune early in life made him arrogant, and this arrogance led to his downfall.


When Fray Marcos and Estevanico set out, Estevanico traveled ahead, bearing a gourd that signified his status, an entourage of 300 natives, two Castillian greyhounds, and some special ass green plates that he carried with him and on which he was fed.  He also slept each night in a specially prepared structure.  Apparently the expedition’s goal was one of the Seven Famed cities of Cibola, which were said to have streets paved with gold.  He eventually arrived at Hawikuh, a Zuni pueblo that was comprised of stone buildings several stories high.  Estevanico expected similar treatment he had received before, but the Zuni didn’t trust him.  His gourd was trimmed with owl feathers, a symbol of death to the Zuni, and his crazy stories about great white kings from far away was suspect since he was too dark to pass a paper bag test himself.


From here, there are two accounts of Estevanico’s final fate.  In most accounts, after several days of the Zuni telling Estevanico what he was not gonna do they decided he was either a spy or just annoying af and killed him when he tried to enter the village against their will.  Apparently he had angered them so much that he was killed three times over like Pookie, and his body was cut up into little pieces.  However, some say that the Zunis did not kill Estevanico, and that he and friends among the Indians faked his death so he could gain freedom from slavery.  Indeed, they never found his body, and stories of his death were told by the natives accompanying him (who could have been covering for him).  Regardless of whether he was killed or not (I like to believe the latter), the Zunis memorialized him in a black ogre kachina named Chakwaina.


Estevanico is one of many historical figures of color that used their station as a method of moving between cultures in order to become an asset.  His experiences made him one of the very first Africans in America, and for that, I have to give him his props. Unfortunately, it seems like he tempted fate one too many times, and his station couldn’t save him even though it was all good just a week ago.
Tune in tomorrow for more of the Travelbox History Corner.



Allen, Anne. “ESTEVANICO THE MOOR: August ’97 American History Feature.” HistoryNet, 2017. Web. 1 February 2017.

“History of Estevanico.” UCI Humanities, n.d. Web. 1 February 2017.

“Esteban (? – 1539).” BlackPast, 2007. Web. 1 February 2017.

“Estevanico.” Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 1 February 2017.

“Estevanico.” YourDictionary, 1996. Web. 1 February 2017.

“Estevanico; African born man who explored Mexico and Arizona in the early 1500’s.”, 2017. Web. 1 February 2017.

“Estevanico: Explorer.” Enchanted Learning, 2000. Web. 1 February 2017.

Otterness, Anders. “Cabeza de Vaca and Estevanico: A Social Biography of a life in 16th Century Africa, Iberia, and America.” UC Santa Cruz, n.d. Web. 1 February 2017.

“Stephen the Moor.” The Mariners Museum, n.d. Web. 1 February 2017.


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