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Esteban, First African Explorer of inland America

Updated on June 22, 2020

Esteban, Explorer, Guide, Linguist

Narvaez Survivors
Narvaez Survivors
Esteban the Explorere
Esteban the Explorere
Narvaez Expedition
Narvaez Expedition

First African to Explore Inland America

Esteban was born about 1500 in Morocco. He was born a slave and sold to a Spanish nobleman, Andes Dorantes de Carranza. Little is known of his early life, or parents and schooling. But somehow he learned several languages which would be his advantage. He was known by several names, "Little Stephen", Black Stephen, and Esteban the Moor".

The ill-fated expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez would prove to be grueling, arduous, and a harrowing journey. It started after leaving Cuba in February 1528 when the team was to establish a settlement near present-day Tampico, Mexico. But hurricane-like storms and fierce winds blew them off course and towards today's St.Petersburg, Florida. Narvaez would split his expedition in two, ordering his ships with 100 men and ten women to sail north along the coast to find a better harbor.

He then took some 300 men and 42 horses marching along the coast heading north, and he would never see his ships again. The walk would be testing the best of the men, encountering hostile natives, very little food, and dense jungles. They arrived somewhere around St. Marks, Florida destitute and starving, having eaten all but one of the horses.

They decided to build five barges from the pine trees, with their shirts made into sails and then set off to the west. The barges were barely able to hold the weary men, overloaded and dangerous to sail. Before long, a severe storm washed them ashore near today's Galveston Island, Texas. Only about 80 men survived this leg of the journey. Some drowned, and some took ill.

Only three survivors, including Estebanfrom, one boat made it ashore. Native Indians immediately enslaved them for years. In 1532 they were reunited with a survivor from another boat, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. By 1534, four men, Cabeza de Vaca, Andres Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and Esteban, would escape and headed west. Already from the original landing in Florida in 1528, they had walked over 2000 miles.

They still had another 1000 miles to walk to reach Mexico City. There, the governor of Mexico City employed Esteban to head north to find the wealth of the "Seven Cities of Cibola." Friar de Niza would lead the expedition and gave Esteban instructions to send back a cross sized to estimate the wealth he would find. The first couple of crosses were small, but finally, one cross was dispatched the size of a man.

Niza then lost no time in hurrying forward. Esteban had reached the area of Cibola, Pueblo country, and the Zunis people.

Trip Inland

Zuni People
Zuni People
Map of Zuni Area
Map of Zuni Area

Esteban and the Zuni

Esteban was skilled in languages and presented himself as a healer and medicine man. He was flamboyant with feathers and bells on his wrists and ankles. Some of the natives seemed to worship him and follow him everywhere. Upon seeing Cibola, Esteban sent a gourd with a red feather ahead to the village. Not knowing this was a sign of war, he had no idea of what he had done. The Zuni, therefore, decided to ambush him and kill him.

It is believed he was killed by arrows in 1539 and no clues of where his burial or body was. Folklore has many scenarios of Esteban. Some believed him to be evil and a sorcerer, and others believed he faked his death to escape slavery. It will probably never be known of what really happened.

A book was written by Cabeza de Vaca, one of the survivors, in 1542 about the eight survivors of this epic journey. His book would be the first-ever published describing the indigenous people, the wildlife, flora and fauna of inland America. He would be the first to describe the American bison.

Later, his book would be translated by David Carson. And Carson as a translator added footnotes, maps, and a prologue. It is a must-read for history buffs of America exploration. Book, The Account of Cabeza de Vaca.

Today, there are no memorials, statutes named in his honor yet Esteban was the first African to explore inland America and before the famous Coronada.

Esteban was courageous, resourceful, and skilled. Probably because of the color of his skin, never got the recognition he deserved. The Spanish realized there was no wealth or gold to be found in Cibola and would return to Mexico City.


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