Estevanico the Black, Estevanico the Moor, or Black Stephen?
Although varied versions reflect the life and death of Estevanico, I have read and compared several sources and will do my best to give you what I have weeded out as the most common thread of truth.
Estevanico was born in 1490 in Azemmour,Morrocco, North Africa during the war between the Arabs, Spanish, and Portugese. He was raised Muslim and converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of 13 when he was captured as a slave by the Portuguese. In 1520 Estevanico was sold as a Personal Slave to a Spanish Nobleman, Infantryman, and Explorer named Andres Dorantes de Carranza.
At that time in history, Spanish Emperor Carlos V wanted to colonize the entire Gulf Coast of the New World from Florida to Mexico and commissioned Pamfilo de Narvaez to head up the exploration. On June 17, 1527 de Narvaez left Spain from Cadiz with 300 men and headed to the island of Hispanola, where they stayed for about a month. Hispanola cannot be found on today’s maps because it is no longer called Hispanola, but it is the island between Cuba and Puerto Rico, which has been divided into the states of Haiti and Santo Domingo. From Hispanola, the expedition traveled to Santiago, Cuba and then on to Trinidad which is off the coast of South America.
From Trinidad they sailed north. On April 12, 1528, Narváez and his men landed in the area of (what is now) Tampa Bay, Florida claiming it as Spanish territory. On May first of that year, Narváez decided to split the expedition and set out in search of gold. The group that had set out for gold was attacked by natives and also pounded by a series of hurricanes, killing many. They turned back to their ship only to realize that the captain had abandoned them and sailed off to Mexico with his remaining crew.
There were about 300 men left stranded. As they marched along the coast toward Mexico, Narváez decided they should build some rafts and travel by sea. They built five rafts, or barges as some sources called them, and attempted to sail from Florida across the gulf to Mexico and the Spanish settlement.
It took a month to sail across the gulf. On this leg of the journey the band of five rafts was barraged by more hurricanes, sinking three along the way. Two rafts with a small group of about 80 men were shipwrecked on Galveston Island — Narváez did not survive.
The survivors fled from the island to the mainland where they were captured and enslaved by a Native American tribe, the Ananarivo of the Louisiana Gulf Islands. During their years in captivity, their number dwindled down to only fifteen. These fifteen finally escaped and traveled west toward their goal of reaching Mexico. Along the way many succumbed to cold winters, little food, and attacks from hostile natives. By 1530 only three remained.
Captured again, Dorantes de Carranza was held captive in a village separate from Estevanico and Castillo. In 1532, Estevanico and Castillo escaped to the village where Dorantes was being held — it was with this tribe they learned the practice of medicine and healing.
Unbeknownst to our core group, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca had also survived and had been held all this time by a different tribe. in 1533 he escaped and discovered the other three, later helping them to escape and continue their journey.
By 1534 this band of four men continued their course westward along the coast through Texas, along the Rio Grande, through Arizona and the Sonoran Desert, then south along the western coast of Mexico toward Spanish Territory and freedom. Their talents in healing kept them alive as they helped the tribes they met along the way.
Early in the expedition it was discovered that Estevanico, or Stephen, had a gift for learning languages quickly and became a translator for the travelers with the various tribes they encountered along their journey. He was so well trusted by his “master” Carranza that he was often sent ahead of the group as a scout.
In July of 1536 the four survivors made it to Sinaloa, Mexico where Spanish rule had been established. They were finally safe.
Here the story again diverges. Some sources say that Estevanico was given his freedom by Dorantes, and others say Dorantes sold him to the Mexican Viceroy.
In 1539, Fray Marcos de Niza (a Franciscan friar) was asked by the Viceroy to head an excursion to (what is now) Arizona and New Mexico, to the Seven Cities of Cibola.
Estevanico, whether as a volunteer or a slave, went along as translator and scout. At one point he was sent ahead to the Zuni tribe in Hawikuh (New Mexico) to represent his group of travelers for introductions. As a healer Estevanico’s trademark had become a gourd, or medicine sack, that he wore around his neck. He had decorated this with owl feathers. According to Zuni beliefs, the owl was representative of death. Estevanico’s staturesque appearance with the symbol of death hanging around his neck terrified the Zuni. They killed him on the spot.
Estevanico the Great is what his name should be! This poor guy just could not get a break! For nineteen years he survived being captured, escaping, being captured again, and escaping, over and over again. I’m not sure that any of these sources have an accurate number of how many times Estevanico survived this vicious cycle, but it was a crying shame that when he finally made it to his freedom (and I am going with the source that says de Carranza granted it), that Estevanico voluntarily went on a mission only to be slaughtered on the spot because of the decorations he chose for his medicine gourd. This guy just could not get a break, but he was made of substance and determination; that truth cannot be denied! More of us should have the perseverance that Estevanico and his companions did. It seemed that nothing but death could stop them, and eventually that is just what did it. Estavanico has my utmost respect.
Estevanico, Andres Dorantes de Carranza, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado were said to be the first non-natives to traverse North America, with Estevanico being the first African to set foot on American soil.