In celebration of Black History Month, I plan to write a series highlighting the often-brief stories of black men and women that made their mark on Texas history. Estevanico (often called Esteban and Esteban the Moor) was captured in 1513 in Morocco when he was about
thirteen years old and sold to a Spanish nobleman. Estevanico and his master sailed from Spain in 1527 on the ill-fated Pánfilo de Narváez Expedition, contracted by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain) to settle and colonize for Spain all the land between Florida and present Tampico, Mexico. Included in the 600-man, five-ship expedition was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca whose account of the adventures, the first written history of Texas published in 1542, tells the story of this expedition.
Upon reaching Tampa Bay on Florida’s western coast in April 1528, Narváez decided, against the advice of his captains, to abandon his ships and take 300 men—half his entire expedition—to explore inland. He believed it was only thirty to forty miles to their destination, when it was actually closer to 1,500 miles. By September, after having lost over fifty men to disease and Indian attack Narváez ordered construction of five rafts that traveled through shallow waters edging the coast until a storm separated the group. Two rafts, including the one captained by Cabeza de Vaca and one that bore Estevanico wrecked, probably just west of Galveston Island. By the spring of 1529 disease and Indian attacks left only fourteen men alive. Cabeza de Vaca left the island and spent the next four years roaming over the inland reaches of Texas, trading with the Indians, and acting as a medicine man.
Meantime, Estevanico and those remaining on the coast began traveling southwest along the barrier islands edging the Gulf of Mexico. When they reached present Matagorda Bay in the spring of 1529 their numbers had dwindled to three. They were captured and enslaved by Coahuiltecan Indians who lived southwest of the Guadalupe River. After more than three years of captivity, Cabeza de Vaca, whom they thought was dead, suddenly appeared and was taken as a prisoner. It was two more years before all four castaways finally escaped and fled inland to the Rio Grande near present Falcón Lake Reservoir. Estevanico quickly learned the dialects and sign language of the various Indian tribes they encountered, and by posing as healers all four of the men gained the trust of the tribes they met and were being welcomed as word spread of their skills. They also heard tales of rich, inland cities that they called the Seven Cities of Cibola. Continuing to walk barefoot across northern Mexico, they reached the Pacific Coast where they found fellow Spaniards who directed them to Mexico City. Arriving in July 1536, after a journey of 2,400 miles, the four ragged men out of the 300 that had set foot on the Florida coast in 1528, finally reached the capital of New Spain.
After recounting their fantastic journey and sharing the stories of riches that lay to the north, Cabeza de Vaca continued his service for Spain, the two other men quickly married wealthy widows and settled down to a comfortable life in Mexico City, and Estevanico experienced the harsh reality of slavery. He was sold or loaned to the viceroy of New Spain who, excited about the prospects of finding wealthy cities, sent Estevanico on an expedition in 1539 headed by Fray Marcos de Niza to explore the lands through which the castaways had just traveled. Estevanico, serving as a scout, moved ahead of the expedition. When he reached the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh in present western New Mexico, he disappeared, reportedly killed as the Zuni fired many arrows into his body. Some accounts say the Zuni believed Estevanico, with his black skin and body covered in feathers, looked like a wizard. Others claim that he offended the Zuni by demanding women and turquoise. Fray de Niza was sufficiently convinced of Estevanico’s cruel death that he quickly returned to Mexico City. In 2002 Juan Francisco Maura published an article in the Journal Revista de Estudios Hispánicos titled “Nuevas interpretaciones sobre las aventuras de Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Esteban de Dorantes, y Fray Marcos de Niza” (New Interpretations about the Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca, Esteban of Dorantes, and Fray Marcos de Niza) in which he claimed that Estevanico and his friends faked his death so that he could gain his freedom. Let’s hope that is the way his story ends.