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c. 1500

Azemmour, Morocco


Hawikuh (a Zuni pueblo in New Mexico)

Explorer and "medicine man"

"After [Estevanico] had left the friars, he thought he could get all the reputation and honor himself, and that if he should discover those settlements with such famous high houses, alone, he would be considered bold and courageous."

Pedro de Casteñeda Estevanico.

Estevanico (also known as Estevan, Estebanico, or Esteban) was a Moroccan slave who, along with an expedition of Spanish explorers, traveled from Florida along the Gulf of Mexico into the southwestern United States. He was captured by Native Americans and escaped to become a successful "medicine man" (a priestly healer). After an epic journey he finally reached the Spanish outpost of Mexico City. Estevanico was the first Westerner to reach some areas of the southwestern United States. He preceded Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (see entry) in visiting the "Seven Cities of Cíbola," seven pueblos (Native American villages) in northern Mexico legendary for their mythical riches. Estevanico was killed there by Zuni warriors.

Taken to Spain as slave

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Estevanico was born, the Arabs of Morocco were in constant warfare with their Spanish and Portuguese neighbors to the north. During one of these conflicts, Estevanico was captured and sold as a slave in Spain. The Spanish often referred to him as "Estevanico the Black." Estevanico may well have been descended in part from black Africans, since for many years the Arabs and Berbers (native Caucasian people of North Africa) had contact with blacks who lived south of the Sahara Desert. Estevanico came into the possession of Andrés Dorantes de Carranca, a Spanish nobleman. Taking Estevanico as his servant, Carranca joined the expedition to North America led by Spanish explorer Pánfilo de Narváez. Another Spaniard, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who would later become one of the most famous explorers of North America, also took part in this voyage.

Was Estevanico a black African?

Estevanico is a fascinating figure for historians who have attempted to unravel the mysteries of his life. One of the most important controversies concerns Estevanico's "race." Chroniclers from the sixteenth century, who were contemporaries of Estevanico, considered him a Negro (a term used in the past for a black person). However, modern historians claim he was descended from the Hamites, who were Caucasians (a term for white people) living in Africa. Consequently, he could not be a black African. Historian Carroll L. Riley asserts that Estevanico was "Black in the sense that we would use the word in modern America . . . . Actually, in modern generic terms I suspect that Esteban was very mixed." She also explains that if he was considered a Negro, his mixture must have been mainly black. In addition, historians point to other evidence, including his personality and colorful dress, as well as the fact that, like most black Africans, he is often overlooked in historical accounts.

Goes to North America

In April 1528, the Spanish ships landed on the Florida coast. Disregarding the advice of his captains, Narváez abandoned the ships and marched into Florida on May 1 in search of gold. According to the report that Cabeza de Vaca made after his return to Spain, Narváez's expedition was attacked by Native Americans near the site of present-day Tallahassee, Florida. The Spaniards went to a bay on the Gulf of Mexico and constructed five boats, with which they hoped to travel along the coastline to a Spanish outpost in Mexico. Setting sail on September 22, 1528, Estevanico was in the boat commanded by Dorantes de Carranca.

In November the small fleet was hit by violent storms. Dorantes de Carranca's boat and the one captained by Cabeza de Vaca were wrecked, possibly on Galveston Island or Mustang Island, off the coast of Texas. The survivors spent the winter on the island, and by spring 1529 only fifteen men were still alive. Thirteen of them, including Estevanico, left Galveston to try to reach Mexico by walking overland. Cabeza de Vaca was too sick to travel and was left behind, presumably to die.

Captured in Texas

The party led by Dorantes de Carranca headed west and south. Several men died along the way. The rest, including Dorantes de Carranca and Estevanico, were captured by Native Americans at San Antonio Bay on the Texas coast. They were harshly treated by their captors, and by the autumn of 1530 only Dorantes de Carranca, Estevanico, and Alonzo de Castillo were still alive. Dorantes de Carranca managed to escape, traveling inland to a village of the Mariame tribe, where he was held in captivity. In spring 1532, Estevanico and Castillo also escaped and joined Dorantes de Carranca at the Mariame village.

Meets Cabeza de Vaca

During the winter of the following year, Estevanico and the others were surprised to encounter Cabeza de Vaca. He had not only survived but had been working as a trader among the various Native American tribes. The four Europeans were not allowed to stay together, but they planned to meet and then make their escape in the autumn at the annual Native American festival to celebrate the harvest of prickly pears. In September 1534, the four men managed to flee from a site near the present-day city of San Antonio, Texas. They encountered a camp of the Avavares tribe, where they were warmly welcomed as medicine men with special powers, probably because of their foreign appearance.

Becomes known as a medicine man

"Of How They Killed the Negro Estevan at Cibola, and Friar Marcos Returned in Flight"

Pedro de Casteñeda, a member of the Coronado expedition, recorded a Zuni eyewitness account of the killing of Estevanico in The Narrative of the Expedition of Coronado (published 1896).

After Estevan had left the friars, he thought he could get all the reputation and honor himself, and that if he should discover those settlements with such famous high houses, alone, he would be considered bold and courageous. So he proceeded with the people who had followed him, and attempted to cross the wilderness which lies between the country he had passed through and Cibola. He was so far ahead of the friars that, when these reached Chichilticalli [a city near the Gila River in present-day Arizona], which is on the edge of the wilderness, he was already at Cibola, which is eighty leagues beyond. [One league equals 2.4 to 4.6 miles.] It is 220 leagues from Culican [a city in northwestern Mexico] to the edge of the wilderness, and eighty across the desert, which makes 300, or perhaps ten more or less. As I said, Estevan reached Cibola loaded with the large quantity of turquoises they had given him and some beautiful women whom the Indians who followed him and carried his things were taking with them and had given him. These had followed him from all the settlements he had passed, believing that under his protection they could traverse the whole world without any danger. But as the people in this country were more intelligent than those who followed Estevan, they lodged him in a little hut they had outside their village, and the older men and the governors heard his story and took steps to find out the reason he had come to that country. For three days they made inquiries about him and held a council. The account which the negro gave them of two white men who were following him, sent by a great lord, who knew about the things in the sky, and how these were coming to instruct them in divine matters, made them think that he must be a spy or a guide from some nations who wished to come and conquer them, because it seemed to them unreasonable to say that the people were white in the country from which he came and that he was sent by them, he being black. Besides these other reasons, they thought it was hard of him to ask them for turquoises and women, and so they decided to kill him. They did this, but they did not kill any of those who went with him, although they kept some young fellows and let the others, about sixty persons, return freely to their own country. As these, who were badly scared, were returning in flight, they happened to come upon the friars in the desert sixty leagues from Cibola, and told them the sad news, which frightened them so much that they would not even trust these folks who had been with the negro, but opened the packs they were carrying and gave away everything they had except the holy vestments for saying mass. They returned from here by double marches, prepared for anything, without seeing any more of the country except what the Indians told them.

Reprinted in: Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin, 1994, pp. 48–49.

Estevanico, Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes de Carranca, and Castillo performed healing rituals for the Native Americans. Estevanico was especially noted for his ability to learn other languages and to use sign language. When the four men left the Avavares in spring 1535, they found that their reputation as healers had preceded them, and they were welcomed wherever they went. As they traveled west, they saw evidence of many different cultures. Visiting the Pueblo tribes of the area that is now New Mexico, they saw metal bells and medicine gourds the Pueblos had made. Estevanico kept one of the gourds to use in his healing rituals. When they reached the Rio Grande (a river that runs between Texas and Mexico) at the end of 1535, Castillo and Estevanico headed upstream. They came upon the permanent towns (pueblos) of the Jumano tribe. When Cabeza de Vaca and Dorantes de Carranca joined Castillo and Estevanico, they found Estevanico surrounded by Native Americans, who treated him like a god.

Scouts trail to Cíbola

As they traveled toward Mexico, the men heard tales of a group of fabulously rich cities located there, called the Seven Cities of Cíbola. From the Rio Grande, Estevanico and the three Spaniards trekked into what is now the Mexican state of Chihuahua. As they moved south, they began to see more and more evidence that other Europeans were exploring the area. For instance, they met a party of Spaniards in March 1536. Finally, they reached Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City) the following July, more than eight years after they had landed on the Florida coast. Viceroy (governor) Antonio de Mendoza welcomed the three Spaniards and Estevanico in Mexico, treating them to generous hospitality. Eventually Dorantes de Carranca sold or gave Estevanico to Mendoza. Intrigued by the tales Cabeza de Vaca told of wealthy cities to the north, the viceroy commissioned an expedition to find the Seven Cities of Cíbola. He accepted the offer of a Spanish friar (a member of a religious order) Fray Marcos de Niza to lead the exploring party, and he appointed Estevanico to be a guide.

Estevanico and Fray Marcos began their journey on March 7, 1539. Two weeks later Fray Marcos decided to camp while Estevanico went ahead to scout the trail. After four days Native American messengers informed Fray Marcos that Estevanico had heard news that he was within a thirty days' march from Cíbola and he wanted Fray Marcos to join him. Fray Marcos immediately started northward, but Estevanico did not wait for him. As the friar entered each new village, he found a message from Estevanico saying that he had continued onward. Fray Marcos chased after him for weeks but was unable to catch up.

Estevanico went through the vast desert region of the Mexican state of Sonora and the area that is now southern Arizona. He was the first Westerner to enter the area of Arizona and New Mexico. In May, he reached the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, which was supposedly the first of the Seven Cities of Cíbola.

Killed by Zunis

Wherever he traveled, Estevanico sent his medicine gourd ahead of him with Native American messengers to announce his arrival. Usually this token assured him a friendly welcome. At Hawikuh, however, the reception was not as warm as he had expected. When he displayed his "magic" gourd, the Zuni chief threw it down in anger. Then the chief took all of Estevanico's possessions and put him in a house on the edge of the town without food or water. The next morning Estevanico was attacked by warriors and killed.

When the Zuni were later asked why they had killed Estevanico, they said he had claimed there was a huge army coming behind him with many weapons. Meeting in council, the chiefs decided he was a spy and that the safest course of action was to kill him. After Estevanico was dead, his body was cut into pieces and distributed among the chiefs. Several of Estevanico's Native American escorts escaped the Zuni village. When they found Fray Marcos they gave him the news of Estevanico's death.

Marcos finds Estevanico's belongings

Later, in a report to Mendoza, Fray Marcos said he traveled north until he could see Hawikuh, or Cíbola, but that he did not enter the pueblo. He described it as a rich place, even grander than Mexico City. Since Hawikuh was in fact only a small pueblo, Fray Marcos most likely lied about seeing the town. His report inspired Mendoza to send out another expedition led by Coronado. When Coronado's party reached the small village of Hawikuh, the only traces of Estevanico they found were his green dinner plates, his greyhound dogs, and his metal bells. All of these items were now in the possession of the Zuni chief.

For further research

"Estevanico the Moor." Available July 13, 1999.

The Estevanico Society. Available July 13, 1999.

Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin, 1994, pp. 48–49.

Parish, Helen Rand. Estebanico. New York: Viking Press, 1974. (Fiction)

Terrell, John Upton. Estevanico the Black. Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1968.