Esteban the Moor

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Speculation abounds regarding the origins of the black slave of the Spaniard Andrés Dorantes, Esteban de Dorantes, also known as Esteban the Black, Estebanillo, and Estebanico. The only eyewitness account available comes from Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the chronicler of the disastrous 1528 Pánfilo de Narváez expedition to La Florida. He gave scant information when he wrote that Esteban was a black Arabic-speaker, a native of Azemmour, Morocco, and a Christian. Neither his date of birth nor his given name have been recorded, neither the names of his Islamic parents, nor his physical description can be found in the documentary record.

Some historians have suggested that Esteban was born in the early 1510s and that he sold himself into slavery or indentureship to alleviate his own or his family's dire financial circumstances. Azemmour was a port town under Portuguese control during Esteban's time and the area suffered from economic and environmental disasters. If Esteban was, in fact, a captured slave, he may not even have hailed from Azemmour but some other Moroccan town. Often a slave's origin was designated as the port from which he was shipped and not necessarily from whence he originated. He most likely was converted to Christianity after reaching the Iberian Peninsula. Esteban became the slave (esclavo ladino) of Andrés Dorantes from Béjar del Castañar, Salamanca, a province on the border of Spain and Portugal.

On June 17, 1527 the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez left Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the port on Spain's southern coast, headed to the New World. The expedition's mandate was to conquer and govern the lands and peoples along the Gulf of Mexico from the Florida Peninsula to the modern state of Tamaulipas in Mexico. The expedition made landfall at Tampa Bay in mid-April 1528.

During the early months of the expedition Cabeza de Vaca in his chronicle made no overt mention of Esteban. However, he did record a trek down the Río de la Magdalena to Apalachee Bay with captains Alonso del Castillo and Andrés Dorantes. There is no reason to suspect that Esteban did not accompany Dorantes on this reconnaissance, so that, in effect, they were already well acquainted with each other before their famous trek.

By September the Narváez expedition had been reduced to eating their horses and building rafts in order to reach Pánuco, Mexico. As the five rafts attempted to set to sea, captains Alonso del Castillo and Andrés Dorantes and assuredly Esteban were together on one raft and Cabeza de Vaca on another. The five rafts made their laborious way along the coast, always travelling west, suffering many hardships of hunger, thirst and Indian hostilities. As the situation deteriorated each raft had to look after itself and thus became separated, one from the other. By late November or early December Cabeza de Vaca's raft landed at Galveston Bay, Texas and was later shipwrecked near there. He and the survivors of his raft shortly met up with Dorantes, Castillo and all the men from their capsized raft, including Esteban. By April 1529 of the eighty men who survived the shipwrecks of the rafts only fifteen remained alive, all of them captives of the local Indians. The small group spent the winter on the island Cabeza de Vaca called Malhado, or modern Galveston Island.

As the years past the remaining Spaniards dwindled to four: Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban. They spent many months planning their escape whenever they managed to be reunited. Many have questioned why Esteban did not simply escape and melt into the landscape, rather than throwing his lot in with the Spaniards. It has been pointed out elsewhere that he was already highly acculturated and basically considered himself allied with the Europeans to such an extent that escape would have been meaningless and quite likely dangerous.

Finally in the fall of 1534 they were able to make their escape. It was at this point that Esteban began his career as a healer and regularly appeared in Cabeza de Vaca's chronicle. With so few men left alive, Esteban was apparently not considered any differently by the Indians and quite possibly neither by the surviving Spaniards, thus his status as slave probably improved dramatically.

Traveling west toward Pánuco and known Spanish settlements, Esteban was often sent ahead as scout to talk with the Indians, ask what roads to take and where villages further on were located. Clearly, Esteban at this point was an important asset to the survivors, because he could apparently pave a peaceful way through the Indian communities. As the tiny group got closer to where Christians were, Cabeza de Vaca took Esteban with him and went forward to find them. At last in late April 1536, eight years and 2,000 leagues after the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition set foot in Florida, the four survivors reached Culiacán in western Mexico.

When the four survivors presented themselves before Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza in Mexico City, their tales of adventure and rumors of large populations of civilized Indians to the north, spurred Mendoza to contemplate another expedition. The viceroy attempted to enlist Cabeza de Vaca to undertake the trip, and when that failed he nearly convinced Andrés de Dorantes, but he also declined. However, before Dorantes and Cabeza de Vaca set sail for Spain the following spring of 1537, Mendoza purchased Esteban, who he described as being an intelligent person.

While the viceroy made preparations for the 1539 expedition to the north, Esteban was most likely living for those two years in his household and conversing with Mendoza regarding what he had seen and what he had heard in his eight years of captivity and escape. Whatever Esteban told him certainly did not discourage Mendoza from continuing with his plans.

By early March of 1539 the Franciscans fray Marcos de Niza and fray Onorato, along with Esteban and an unknown number of native allies were escorted to Culiacán by Governor Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. Marcos was instructed to reconnoiter that land and convert the Indians and Esteban was to go as scout and interpreter and to obey fray Marcos.

Very quickly Onorato became ill and was left behind. As fray Marcos stated in his final report he sent Esteban ahead to ascertain whether the grand things they were seeking, namely the magnificent towns of Cíbola, were a reality. He continued in his report that "I arranged with him that if he received word of a settled and rich land (which would be a grand thing), he was not to travel farther, but to return in person or send me Indians with this sign which we agreed on. If what [was reported] was of moderate importance, he would send me a white cross [the size] of one palmo; if it was grand, he would send one two palmos [in size]; and if it was something grander and better than Nueva España, he would send me a large cross." Given this code of crosses between Esteban and fray Marcos, it is quite conceivable that Esteban was illiterate and unable to send written messages and that fray Marcos did not trust the spoken reports of his Indian allies. Shortly afterwards fray Marcos received a cross as large as a man from Esteban's messengers.

Esteban, not heeding fray Marcos's instructions to wait, proceeded forward with many Indian allies, two Spanish greyhounds and his various personal accoutrements for healing the natives and impressing them with his authority. Among his personal items was a gourd adorned with bells and one red and one white feather, which he had acquired from Indians in what is now Tamaulipas, Mexico. He also wore bells and feathers on his arms and legs and carried some green-glazed European ceramics presumably for trade. Fray Marcos was unable to catch up with Esteban, who was probably 300 miles ahead of him, and it was with a great shock and disappointment that several of Esteban's Indian allies returned with bad news.

One of the Indian messengers told Marcos "that one day’s journey before reaching Cíbola, Esteban sent his gourd [ahead] with messengers in the same way he was always accustomed to send it in advance, in order that [the natives] might know he was coming." The gourd's symbolism for efficacious healing and assuring native groups of Esteban's peacefulness, had quite a different effect on the Cíbolans, where the principal or chief "flung it to the ground with much wrath and anger. And he told the messengers that they must leave immediately. [He said] that he was acquainted with who those people were. [He told] the [messengers] to tell them not to enter the ciudad. [He said] instead that [if they tried to enter, the people of Cíbola] would kill them all."

Despite these warnings, Esteban was not deterred from his mission. When he reached the first Cíbolan village, most likely the now ruined town of Hawikku, just southwest of modern Zuni, he was taken to a building at some distance from the village. Here he was divested of all his goods, given nothing to eat or drink and was interrogated by the Zunis. Esteban's Indian companions later reported to fray Marcos that they had fled from the hostile Zunis before actually seeing Esteban killed, but that they supposed he had been killed while attempting to flee. Esteban's death was later confirmed by Vázquez de Coronado when he reached Zuni and was even talked about among the Colorado River Indians that Hernando Alarcón encountered, hundreds of miles to the west.

Many reasons have been posited for the death of Esteban in early May 1539 at the hands of the Zunis at Hawikku. Vázquez de Coronado claimed that the Zunis told him that they had been warned about the wickedness of Esteban by Indians in southern Arizona and how he had made inappropriate contact with Indian women. Castañeda thought his death was due to his greed for turquoises and women. Alarcón heard that his death was to prevent him from informing on the Zunis, their position and warrior strength.

The nineteenth century anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing retold a Zuni tale of how a "Black Mexican," a man with "chile lips," was killed at Kiaki:ma (another ancestral Zuni settlement) because his Indian allies from Sonora reminded them of their enemies the Apaches and the red feathers on Esteban's gourd meant violence to the Zunis. While the twentieth-century anthropologist and Zuni, Edmund Ladd did not dispute the death of Esteban, he gave no credence to Esteban's characterization as a "Black Mexican" or a man with "chile lips." Further, Cleve Hallenbeck supposed that Esteban was killed for attempting to escape. Hallenbeck also felt that the Zunis would never have treated the paraphernalia of a reported religious figure, like Esteban, with such patent disregard, and therefore, would not have smashed his gourd on the ground. Ethnohistorian Carroll Riley surmised that Esteban was seen as a political or military threat, exhibited improper behavior and possibly intruded into a religious ceremony. In any event, Esteban's presence still holds sway in Zuni history, and some have suggested that his personality has been embodied even into the kachina pantheon.

Sources Used:

Adorno, Rolena and Patrick Charles Pautz. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, His Account, His Life, and the Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez. 3 vols. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Bennett, Herman L. Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity, and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570-1640. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 2003.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton. "A Lesson in History." In Zuñi: Selected Writings of Frank Hamilton Cushing,ed. Jesse Green, 172-75. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Flint, Richard and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds. and trs. Documents of the Coronado Expedition, 1539-1542: "They Were Not familiar with His Majesty, nor Did They Wish to Be His Subjects. Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 2005.

Hallenbeck, Cleve. The Journey of Fray Marcos de Niza. Dallas: University Press, 1949. Reprint, Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1987.

Ilahiane, Hsain. "Estevan de Dorantes, The Moor or the Slave? The Other Moroccan Explorer of New Spain." The Journal of North African Studies 5(3) (2001):1-14.

Ladd, Edmund J. "Zuni on the Day the Men in Metal Arrived." In The Coronado Expedition to Tierra Nueva: The 1540-1542 Route Across the Southwest, ed. Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, 225-33. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

Riley, Carroll L. "Blacks in the Early Southwest." Ethnohistory19/3 (Summer 1972): 247-60.



Esteban the Black, Estebanillo, Estebanico, Esteban de Dorantes

Black history in New Mexico begins with Esteban de Dorantes, a Moorish slave.  Having survived the 1528 shipwreck of the Narvaez expedition and an eight year trek across Texas and northern Mexico, he ended his days violently at the hands of the Zuni Indians of New Mexico in 1539.

Courtesy of the State Records Center and Archives.