One of the greatest odysseys in American history began in the little town of Azamor on Morocco’s west coast at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The young man who had spent his early years within sight of the Atlantic shore could have had no inkling of the bizarre future that fate had in store for him–a journey across the ocean to lands and people unknown to the Islamic world in which he was raised, where he would die as a nominal Christian in a city reputed to contain fabulous riches. Yet, given the path he would follow, the youth must, even then, have exhibited a lively interest in the ways of other peoples, a sharp ear for different patterns of speech, hardy stamina, and the ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
The black-skinned Moor might have been purchased from slave raiders who worked the African coast or taken captive in one of the frequent military clashes between Spain and Morocco that continued long after the Moors were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. Given the Christian name Estévanico when he was baptized by his Spanish owners, the Moorish youth was probably in his late teens or early twenties when he left Africa for the Caribbean as a slave.
By 1527, Estévanico was in the service of Andrés Dorantes, commander of a company of infantry in the expedition being formed by Pánfilo de Narváez to explore and conquer the lands stretching west from Florida along the Gulf of Mexico. A man of fairly modest origin, Dorantes had come to the New World in search of gold and glory.
Narváez, having spent more than twenty years as a conquistador in Mexico, had received a royal appointment as Spain’s governor in Florida and was eager to take control of his new territory, explore it, and begin exploiting its wealth. The companies assembled for this undertaking were a motley collection of soldiers of fortune from many lands, under the command of Spanish officers.
The expedition suffered one setback after another. A hurricane destroyed one of Narváez’s ships and damaged the others, forcing the party to winter in Cuba. When they set out again in February 1528, they had to weather still more violent storms before reaching Florida. It was mid-April when the four original ships and a brigantine purchased to replace the vessel that had been lost, with a complement of some four hundred men and the 42 horses that survived the trip, finally dropped anchor on the western coast of Florida, just north of Tampa Bay.
Going about his duties as Dorantes’ personal servant, Estévanico (or Esteban, as he was sometimes called) undoubtedly felt the same excitement that gripped the rest of the party as they set foot for the first time on Florida’s soil. The natives of a small village nearby gave them a gift of fish and venison and then vanished into the night, leaving behind, among their fishing nets, a golden rattle. This find was a promising token to the Spaniards, eager as they were to find treasure.
After Narváez went ashore to claim the territory officially in the name of King Carlos I of Spain, he divided his force, taking three hundred men–forty of them on horseback–to explore the land. He sent the ships ahead to the fine harbor that his pilots claimed was somewhere in the vicinity.
Three long, desperate months later, the shore party reached a town called Aute. They had traveled through swamps and across rivers and fought with unfriendly natives, but they had found no sign of gold, pearls, or jewels–nothing, in fact, to make conquest of the area profitable. They also saw no sign of their ships.
By this time, more than forty members of the party had died–some due to hunger or disease, others the victims of accidental drownings or the arrows of the natives. Narváez, himself sick, hungry, and discouraged, decided to give up the expedition and return to civilization. Without vessels to carry them back, the survivors set about constructing five ‘barges.’ For six weeks they worked, melting down spurs, bridles, stirrups, and crossbows to make nails; braiding ropes from palmetto fronds and horsehair; and sewing their shirts together for sails.
On September 22, 1528, having eaten all but one of their horses, they set sail for Mexico. The shallow, overloaded rafts each held about fifty men and their meager supplies. The water bags made from horses’ legs rotted within a day or two, leaving the men without fresh water, and the only food remaining was a little dry maize. Estévanico and his master, Dorantes, shared a raft with another company captain, Alonzo del Castillo Maldonado, and 48 men from their two commands.
‘So great is the power of need,’ wrote Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, the expedition’s treasurer, ‘that it brought us to venture out into such a troublesome sea in this manner, and without any among us having the least knowledge of the art of navigation.’ To compensate for their lack of seamanship, the travelers tried to keep their craft within sight of land. But, weak from hunger, thirst, and exposure, the men could do little more than let the barges drift with the wind and current. When, toward the end of October, they reached the strong current that flows from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, it became impossible for the boats to stay together. One by one they were destroyed; some were wrecked against the shore, others–including Narváez’s own vessel–drifted out to sea and vanished.
Dorantes’ craft capsized, but all aboard made it safely to a nearby island, where they joined the survivors from the raft commanded by Cabeza de Vaca, whom the local natives had fed and sheltered. So pathetic were the strangers that the Indians’sat down with us and all began to weep out of compassion for our misfortune . . . .’ Despite the natives’ show of kindness, the Spaniards worried that they would become the victims of some ritualistic sacrifice. Instead, they were treated’so well that we became reassured, losing somewhat our apprehension of being butchered.’
An attempt to retrieve Dorantes’ capsized boat failed, and the two groups of castaways were forced to spend the rest of the winter on the island, which they nicknamed Malhado, or Misfortune. Of the 80 men cast ashore, only 15 survived until spring. Gripped by hunger, one group of Spaniards shocked their comrades and their native hosts when in desperation they ate the flesh of those who had died.
In April 1529, Andrés Dorantes gathered the survivors of his boat, including Estévanico and Castillo, and crossed to the mainland, leaving Cabeza de Vaca and his men behind. Captured by natives considerably less friendly than those on the island, Dorantes’ party spent the next six years doing heavy labor and enduring the taunts and blows of their captors. Five men who tried to escape were shot with arrows and killed; others died of cold and hunger, until only Estévanico, Castillo, and Dorantes remained.
Back on the island, Cabeza de Vaca had continued to live with the natives, working as a servant and then a trader, dealing in shells, beads, ochre dye, hides, and other commodities. He made no attempt to escape from Malhado Island, he later reported, because the only other survivor from his party–Lope de Ovieda–could not be convinced to leave. When he was finally able to persuade Ovieda to go in search of fellow Christians, Cabeza de Vaca ‘took him away, and carried him across the inlets and through four rivers on the coast, since he could not swim.’
Eventually, after six years of separation, Cabeza de Vaca met up with the other remnants of Narváez’s expedition–Dorantes, Castillo, and Estévanico. The four men exchanged such news as they had gleaned from occasional encounters with other survivors, gradually putting together a picture of the fate of their comrades.
Dorantes told Cabeza de Vaca that he had attempted to convince Castillo and Estévanico to join him in trying to escape from the natives and head toward the Spanish settlements in Mexico, but they had refused. Their experience with the rafts had apparently unnerved them; there would be rivers to cross, they protested, and since neither of them could swim, they preferred to remain where they were. But by mid-September 1535, with Cabeza de Vaca having added his persuasive talents to Dorantes’, the two holdouts finally agreed to attempt a getaway.
At first the four men traveled cautiously, fearful of being followed and murdered by natives. Then something happened that improved their circumstances dramatically. Natives, struck by the unusual appearance of the travelers, concluded that these men must possess magical powers. Soon after their escape, Estévanico and the three Spaniards met men who asked to be cured of severe headaches. ‘As soon as [Castillo] made the sign of the cross over them and recommended them to God,’ Cabeza de Vaca recounted in his report to the Spanish king, ‘at that very moment the Indians said that all the pain was gone.’
The ‘treatment’ having worked, others came to the strangers seeking similar cures. Fearful of what would happen should his efforts fail, Castillo surrendered the role of chief healer to Cabeza de Vaca, who soon was faced with a real challenge–a man who, to all appearances, was already dead. Cabeza de Vaca prayed over the man, and as if by a miracle, the man recovered. ‘This caused great surprise and awe,’ according to Cabeza de Vaca, the equally incredulous healer, ‘and all over the land nothing else was spoken of.’
Predictably, this astonishing incident caused word of the castaways’ healing powers to spread like wildfire. An admiring escort followed the men from village to village. They were showered with gifts–food, deer skins, cotton blankets, and valuable trinkets such as coral beads, turquoises, arrow-shaped emeralds, and a large copper rattle embossed with the figure of a human face–which they shared with their followers. As their reputation grew, the healers were treated with ever-increasing honor and called the ‘children of the sun.’ Their patients became so numerous that all four men had to serve as healers, and their reputations were so solid that when someone died, the people assumed that the deceased had somehow offended the healers and deserved his fate.
Having acquired some fluency in six native languages, which they supplemented with sign language, the travelers generally made themselves understood ‘as if they spoke our language and we theirs,’ Cabeza de Vaca claimed. But it was Estévanico who did most of the talking, since, in order to preserve their influence and authority, the three Spaniards seldom spoke directly with the natives. The young Moor was ‘in constant conversation’ with the local people, finding out in what direction the party should travel, by what names the towns and tribes were called, and any other information that the Spaniards thought might be helpful.
At length, Dorantes and the others, along with their Indian followers left the coast, traveling inland across what is now Texas and northern Mexico until they were within a few days’ journey of the Pacific Ocean. Here they began to hear news of their own people, until in April 1536, they encountered a group of Spanish soldiers who were in the area on a slave-raiding expedition. The meeting between the castaways–dressed as their followers were in skins and carrying large gourds, decorated with feathers as signs of their office–and their fellow countrymen proved rather awkward. The latter were, to the dismay of the four ‘healers,’ as interested in capturing the travelers’ native entourage as they were in hearing the tale of their adventures. Before moving on, Cabeza de Vaca extracted promises that the Indians would be allowed to live in peace.
Dorantes and the other survivors soon arrived at Culiacán, on the west coast of Mexico, where Spanish authorities gave them a warm welcome and questioned them closely about the country through which they had passed. There had been much speculation lately in New Spain (Mexico) about the Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola, said to be located north of the Sonoran Mountains, where the streets were paved with gold and the walls were studded with precious stones. Dorantes offered to lead an expedition to explore this northern region, but his proposal came to nothing. In 1539, however, Don Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of New Spain, authorized a reconnaissance expedition to Cíbola under the leadership of a Franciscan priest named Marcos de Niza. Because of his familiarity with the people in the Sonoran region, Estévanico received an appointment as Fray (Brother) Marcos’s translator and guide.
The Moor seems to have regarded this as a great opportunity. His journey through the mountains of Sonora was a triumphal procession. The natives, delighted to see one of the great healers return, thronged around, offering him the customary gifts of food, feathers, fine skins, turquoises, and beautiful women. He strode proudly among the villagers, speaking with them in their own languages, laying his hands on their sick, and receiving their homage.
Fray Marcos was annoyed to find himself–a man of God and titular leader of this enterprise–relegated to a secondary role. When the party reached the desert beyond the mountains, he suggested that Estévanico go ahead with a few of his men and send back word of his progress.
Estévanico gladly agreed. ‘He thought he could get all the reputation and honor himself,’ reported Pedro de Casteñeda, chronicler of Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s later expedition, ‘and that if he should discover those settlements . . . he would be considered bold and courageous.’ Estévanico pressed rapidly ahead, making arrangements along the way for Marcos and the other friars to be housed and fed as they came behind him. Within a month, the Moor had reached the adobe walls of the town that, his followers assured him, was the legendary city of Cíbola.
Hawikuh, the southernmost of the Seven Cities, was an unprepossessing place, a simple mud-walled pueblo on a small hill above a dry river. But Estévanico was not deterred. After sending word back to Fray Marcos that he had arrived at Cíbola, he dispatched one of his men into the town with his ceremonial mace to inform the Zuñi inhabitants that he was the representative of a great white king from across the sea, to whom Cíbola would now be subject and whose God they would henceforth worship. He had come, he said, to receive their tribute.
The Cibolans were not impressed. Having had no contact with the armies of Spain, they did not fear them. When they met with Estévanico, they thought it ‘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.’ And they suspected that he might be a spy for some invading army–perhaps from Chichilticalle, the land just south of the desert from which many members of Estévanico’s escort came.
It was later rumored that those followers had proved his undoing. At some point on the journey, it was said, he had killed a Chichilticalle woman, and while his reputation as a great healer prevented her relatives from taking their revenge directly, they had no objection to allowing strangers to risk heaven’s anger by treating him as a mere mortal. They informed the Zuñis that he was an evil man, who assaulted their women. The Zuñis locked Estévanico in a hut while they debated what to do with him.
The chroniclers received conflicting stories of what happened next. Perhaps Estévanico panicked; apparently he tried to escape. However it came about, the would-be conquistador died ignobly, felled by the Zuñis’ arrows as he ran from the pueblo.
All of Estévanico’s escort–except for one boy, the Moor’s closest friend, who remained behind as a hostage–were permitted to leave the town in relative safety. They rushed back to Fray Marcos with a frantic tale of Estévanico’s murder and their own near brush with death. Some of them were bleeding; all were in a great state of excitement. Their story so alarmed the friar that he turned around immediately and headed back to Mexico. He gave all of his trade goods to the native escort, whom he feared might otherwise turn against him.
Fray Marcos, who had caught only a distant glimpse of Cíbola, related to the viceroy the reports he had received indicating that the city was every bit as wealthy as had been rumored. In 1540, Marcos accompanied Coronado when he led a large armed force to conquer the fabled city. Coronado’s men took the pueblo with ease, its stout walls and valiant defenders not withstanding. They were shocked, however, to discover that the city’s wealth was limited to corn and beans.
Coronado sent Fray Marcos back to Mexico to protect him from the wrath of the disappointed soldiers, who had expected great riches. Then, after rescuing the hostage and learning the details of the Moor’s death, he and his party moved on, methodically exploring the region from the Grand Canyon to what is now central Kansas, and on to the mouth of the Colorado River. Although they added a great deal to the European map-makers’ knowledge of the interior of North America, the members of the expedition found no sign of the storied wealth of Cíbola.
No one knows where Estévanico is buried. Even Hawikuh no longer exists; it was abandoned in 1670 following a series of wars that the Zuñis fought against the Spaniards and the Apache. But the Moor’s story, recorded in colorful detail by his fellow explorers–Cabeza de Vaca, Fray Marcos, Coronado, and Pedro de Casteñeda–endures as one of the great adventures of the American West.
This article was written by Anne B. Allen and originally appeared in the August 1997 issue of American History. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!