Estevanico (1500?-1539), often called "the Black," was a Moroccan slave who accompanied Cabeza de Vaca on his odyssey through the southwestern United States. His visit to the "Seven Cities of Cibola" preceded that of Coronado.
Estevanico (also known as Estevan and Estebanico) was born sometime around the beginning of the 16th century in the town of Azemmour on the west coast of Morocco. During that time the Arabs of Morocco were in constant warfare with their Spanish and Portuguese neighbors to the north. At some point, Estevanico was captured and sold as a slave in Spain. He was often called Estevanico the Black, and it may well be that he was African or part-African in descent, since there were many years of contact between the Arabs and Berbers of North Africa and the Blacks who lived south of the Sahara.
Estevanico (which is a Spanish diminutive for "Stephen") came into the possession of Andres Dorantes de Carranca, a nobleman of the Extremadura region of Spain. Dorantes joined the expedition to North America led by Panfilo de Narvaez that included Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. They landed in Florida in April 1528. Disregarding the advice of his captains, Narvaez abandoned his ships and marched into the interior on May 1 in search of gold. The history of the succeeding trek comes from the report that Cabeza de Vaca made after his return to Spain. At first, there is no mention of Estevanico.
Narvaez's expedition was attacked by Native Americans near the modern city of Tallahassee. The Spaniards went to a bay on the Gulf of Mexico and constructed five boats with which to sail along the coastline to a Spanish base in Mexico. They set sail on September 22, 1528; Estevanico was in the third boat, commanded by Dorantes. In November they were hit by storms and Dorantes' boat and the one captained by Cabeza de Vaca were wrecked on Galveston Island off the coast of Texas. In the spring of 1529 only 15 men were still alive. Thirteen of them, including Estevanico, left Galveston to try to get to Mexico overland. Cabeza de Vaca was too sick to travel and was left behind.
The party commanded by Dorantes headed west and south. Several died along the way, and the rest were captured by Native Americans at San Antonio Bay. By the autumn of 1530 only Dorantes, Estevanico, and Alonzo del Castillo Maldonado were still alive. They were harshly treated by their captors. Dorantes escaped and went inland to a village of the Mariame tribe, where his life was easier. In the spring of 1532 Estevanico and Castillo also got free and made it to Dorantes' village. In the spring of 1533 they were surprised to see Cabeza de Vaca, who was working as a trader among the various tribes, turn up. The four men were forced to separate but agreed to meet the following autumn at the annual festival to celebrate the harvest of prickly pears.
They did meet in the fall of 1533 but were unable to escape. They returned with their different captors and met again in the fall of 1534 at which time they were able to escape. They came to a camp of the Avavares tribe where they were warmly welcomed as medicine men. Estevanico joined the others in healing the Indians, and was especially noted for his ability to learn to speak other languages and to use sign language. They stayed with the Avavares until the spring of 1535. Their reputation as healers preceded them, and they were welcomed wherever they went.
As the four men went farther west, they saw evidence of different cultures. They saw a metal bell and medicine gourds made by the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. Estevanico took one of these gourds and used it in his healing act. The four Westerners reached the Rio Grande River at the end of 1535, and Castillo and Estevanico headed upstream. There they came upon the permanent towns or "pueblos" of the Jumano tribe. When the others caught up with them, they found Estevanico surrounded by Indians, who treated him like a god. Along the way, the men heard tales of a group of rich cities in the interior, which they called the Seven Cities of Cibola.
From the Rio Grande, Estevanico and the three Spaniards traveled into what is now the Mexican state of Chihuahua. As they traveled, they saw more and more evidence of contact with Europeans. They met up with a party of Spaniards in March 1536 and entered Mexico City on July 24, 1536. The four men, including Estevanico, were well received by Viceroy Antonio Mendoza, who was intrigued by their tales of wealthy cities to the north.
Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain while Castillo and Dorantes married and settled down in Mexico. Dorantes sold or gave Estevanico to Viceroy Mendoza. Mendoza wanted to send an expedition north and eventually accepted the offer of a Spanish friar, Fray Marcos de Niza, to lead it. He appointed Estevanico to be his guide. They went north to the town of Culiacan in the autumn of 1538, where Francisco Vázquez de Coronado had recently been appointed governor. Estevanico and Fray Marcos left Culiacan on March 7, 1539. On March 21 Fray Marcos sent Estevanico ahead to scout the trail. Four days later, Native American messengers returned to Fray Marcos to report that Estevanico had heard news that he was 30 days' march from Cibola and asked Fray Marcos to join him.
Fray Marcos headed 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 on. Fray Marcos chased after him for weeks but was unable to catch up. Estevanico headed through the large desert region of the Mexican state of Sonora and southern Arizona; he was the first Westerner to enter what are now Arizona and New Mexico. Wherever he traveled, Estevanico sent his medicine gourd ahead of him to announce his arrival. In May he reached the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, the first of the "Seven Cities of Cibola." There he showed his magic gourd, but the chief threw it down in anger and told Estevanico to leave the town. The chief took away all his possessions and put him in a house on the edge of the town without food or water. The next morning he was attacked by a band of warriors and killed.
Several of the Native American escorts escaped and returned to tell Fray Marcos the news of Estevanico's death. In his report to Mendoza, Fray Marcos said that he continued to trael north until he could see Hawikuh, or Cibola, but did not enter the pueblo. In his report he said that it was a rich place that was even bigger than Mexico City. Since it is in fact only a small pueblo, it seems as though Fray Marcos did not make the trip he claimed. However, his report inspired Mendoza to send out the ill-fated Coronado expedition. When they reached the small village of Hawikuh they learned that Fray Marcos had been lying. They also found that the chief had appropriated Estevanico's green dinner plates, his greyhound dogs, and his metal bells.
When asked why they had killed Estevanico, the Zuni said that he had claimed that there was a huge army coming behind him with many weapons. The chiefs met in council and decided that he was a spy and that it was safer to kill him. Once dead, they cut up his body into little pieces and distributed the parts among the chiefs.
The original source materials that we have on Estevanico are the Joint Report, written by Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, and Castillo; Cabeza de Vaca's Relation; and the reports sent back to Mendoza by Fray Marcos. Fray Marcos's account is available in a new edition along with a study of his journey: Adolph F. Bandelier, The Discovery of New Mexico by the Franciscan Monk Friar Marcos de Niza in 1539, translated by Madeleine Turrell Rodack (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1981).
These original documentary sources have been used to construct a narrative of Estevanico's adventures by John Upton Terrell in Estevanico the Black (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1968), which served as the basis for this account. Terrell includes an extensive bibliography of the original sources and selected secondary sources that discuss the role of Estevanico.