Remembering Estevanico, America's First African Explorer

When I was growing up in Arizona, we celebrated Rodeo Week, not Black History Month, in February.In fourth grade, I was paraded into a local TV studio with two other kids for a very early morning talk show. The interviewer waved an Arizona flag to prod some life out of us as we spoke about our respective races in Arizona history."First came the Indians.""Then came the Spanish and Mexicans.""Then came the Anglos," I mumbled.On our way home, we passed Estevan Park, renamed during World War II after the first explorer in the Southwest.Estevanico was a black slave from Morocco, who served as a scout for the Spanish expeditions. During the war, the park's swimming pool was the first available to African Americans -- but they could use the pool only once a week, and the city would drain the water after "Negro day." When I was a kid, Arizona history didn't include Blacks -- or pioneering Jews, Serbian copper miners, Scottish Highlander cowboys, Japanese farmers -- and we didn't dwell on the fact that our neighborhood had been inhabited by indigenous communities for 6,000 years.And Estevanico's story was overshadowed by the many accounts of the Spanish conquistadors. Yet his is one of the most fascinating stories in the exploration of America.He was one of four survivors, out of 600 men, of the failed Narvaez expedition to conquer Florida in 1527. They sludged through Florida's malarial swamps in search of gold, and then reboarded rafts that would eventually wreck along the eastern coasts of Texas.For nearly a decade, the four men endured slavery, hunger, torture and deprivation among indigenous tribes in Texas. They were the first men from the Old World to see buffalo. The details of their journey were penned in a spell-binding narrative by one of the survivors, Cabeza de Vaca, the first ethnography on North American cultures.In 1535, the four men escaped and headed west, walking to Mexico. Gathering followers along the way, playing the role of healers -- they even claimed to have raised the dead -- the four were led from tribe to tribe, across the Rio Grande and Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, until they stumbled onto Spanish slave-raiders in northern Mexico. The Spaniards didn't recognize their long-forgotten Spanish mates in rattles and loin-clothes.Estevanico's owner, Andres de Dorantes, was also one of the survivors. The men had journeyed a decade together, traveling over 6,000 miles under the most extreme circumstances. Cabeza de Vaca noted that Estevanico did not play the servant's role, but took the lead as main interpreter and scout. The African, according to Cabeza de Vaca, determined the routes, learned the languages and dealt first with native tribes.In Mexico City, Dorantes sold (or, in some documents, loaned) Estevanico back into slavery, to serve as a guide on an expedition the other survivors refused to lead. Dorantes turned down the Viceroy's offer of 500 pesos for the slave, though he did receive significant land grants and the Viceroy presided over Dorantes' wedding to a wealthy conquistador's widow.Estevanico led the first expedition into the American Southwest. Coronado, the famed conquistador, was at that moment putting down a rebellion of African slave miners in Mexico.Going days ahead of a Franciscan friar, who would be given historical credit for the journey, Estevanico was the first non-native to enter the territory now known as Arizona and New Mexico. The friar and the slave made an agreement -- Estevanico was to send back a cross the size of a hand if he made any discoveries. Estevanico sent back a cross the size of a man.The symbol was providential. When he entered the Zuni pueblos, Estevanico was killed as a warning to the Spanish.The friar fled back to Mexico City. To console himself, he described the pueblos, in one of the most ridiculous fables of the Spanish conquest, as the seven cities of gold, launching Coronado's great expedition, another colossal failure that only managed to introduce horses to the Great Plains.Until recently, Estevanico has been overlooked, except for a sort of "black legend" -- based on hearsay among Coronado's force -- as "a lusty Arab" who consumed women. His role, and the possibility of his being a Muslim, have never received any in-depth scholarly treatment. In fact, the most accurate portraits are on the shelves of juvenile literature. An Estevanico Society, founded by a Texas photographer a few years ago, encourages research.Near Estevan Park the other day, I stopped and asked an older woman, across the street from the boarded-up school for Blacks, about the park's name. She smiled. "I've lived here for 30 years, son, and I always wonder about that," she said. "Estevan," she went on. "Must have been one of those Spanish pioneers."The park is the only monument to Estevanico in the country.PNS correspondent Jeff Biggers is a writer based in Tucson whose work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, USA TODAY, Bloomsbury Review and Utne Reader/Web Watch Daily.

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