The 1500s for Spain marked a century of power and exploration. Numerous expeditions were sent throughout the Americas to explore the unknown lands that helped Spain maintain its dominance. One such journey, the Narváez Expedition, carried with it the first black explorer, Estebán, variously known as Estebán de Dorantes, Estebanillo, Estebán, Estebanico and Little Stephen.
Although in his time the Moor was known primarily as a personal servant to Andreas Dorantes, Estebán should also be remembered for being one of the four Spanish explorers to cross the North American continent for the first time and for his ill-fated expedition to the mythical Seven Cities of Cíbola.
Born in the city of Azemmour, Morocco, around 1503, Estebán is presumed to have been captured and Christianized in 1513, when his village was attacked by King Manuel I of Portugal. During a drought in Portugal in 1520, Estebán was sold to Andreas de Dorantes of Bejar del Castanar of old Castile. Treated well, Estebán proved to Dorantes that he could be trustworthy. He had the ability to relate to people around him, and he created a friendship with Dorantes that would last his entire life.
In 1527, Estebán and Dorantes joined the Narváez Expedition to explore the unknown lands in Florida. The journey to claim the unexplored territory included Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and Captain Alonso del Castillo Maldonado. Estebán is said to have been in his middle or late twenties when he came to the New World. His physical fitness and his strength to endure the hard work and inhumane treatment suffered in his early life as a slave would serve him well in the New World.
When the Narváez Expedition collapsed, Estebán was one of only four who survived, the other three being Dorantes, Cabeza de Vaca, and Castillo de Maldonado. In 1534, the four men continued the exploration after they escaped from natives who enslaved them.
Although Estebán was still considered a slave, once the exploration started again, he became an equal. It was decided that Estebán would lead the march and make initial contact with all natives they met.
When Estebán met with various Indian tribes, he would quickly pick up their dialects and sign language. A large man himself, Estebán often appeared to the tribes as a friendly giant and gained their trust almost immediately. By communicating with these tribes, Estebán learned which trails to follow and what to avoid during the exploration.
The four men trekked across the Southwest and traveled up the Rio Grande for about three weeks. With the help of the Jumanos Indians, the explorers traversed the desert of Chihuahua, passing through Samalayuca, about forty miles from present-day El Paso. There the explorers learned of a trail which the Jumanos said they would lead them to the sea.
Along the way, the explorers heard tales from the natives of great riches acquired by highly civilized tribes. The explorers were also offered what they thought to be five emeralds made into arrowheads.
When the four men inquired about the origin of the arrowheads, they were told that they had come from lofty mountaintops from the north, where large towns and houses made of gold existed. The men thought they were on the verge of discovering the Seven Cities of Cíbola.
When the four arrived in Mexico City in July 1536, Estebán quickly became a celebrity, in part for his color, but also for the news about the New World he helped discover. Because Estebán was recognized for his contributions as a fluent translator and for knowing the general location of the Seven Cities of Cíbola, the Viceroy of Cities of Cíbola, the Viceroy of Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza, asked all four men to lead an expedition back to the area. Estebán was the only explorer who accepted.
Because Spanish soldiers would resent his authority, a black slave could not be placed in command of an expedition. Fray Marcos de Niza, who had helped conquer the Incas in Peru, was selected to lead the expedition searching for the Seven Cities of Cíbola in 1539. Estebán, although officially only a guide, led the expedition. Members of the expedition included Indians who had traveled with the four men originally to Mexico City and also provided safe passage on their way to the Seven Cities of Cíbola.
By this time, Estebán had acquired various personal possessions, including two greyhounds and four large dinner plates called "Servicio de Mesa," or table service, and medicine rattles that would dramatically change his life. He adorned his legs with clusters of bright feathers and received greater attention by natives than Niza.
While searching for the Seven Cities of Cíbola, Estebán would make contact with the tribes ahead of the expedition and decide which route to take. He would send his personal aide, a young native by the name of Bartolome, and other native runners to announce his coming, carrying with them the sacred rattles. Other runners for Estebán would travel back to Fray Marcos, who had remained in present-day Sinaloa, bearing wooden crosses to tell the priest that something important had been found.
The further north the expedition traveled, the bigger the crosses became, and the faster Fray Marcos traveled to catch up with Estebán. He had sent message to the priest saying that great cities had been found. At this point Fray Marcos realized that Estebán's intention was never to meet up with him because of the power struggle within the expedition.
In May, 1539, Estebán traveled into New Mexico and received the message he was waiting for, that the runner had stumbled upon the Cities of Cíbola. When Estebán reached the supposed Cities of Cíbola, he found one and two-story mud houses and very distrustful Zuni Indians. This time the medicine rattle he carried would mean disaster. The Zunis believed the medicine gourd decorated with owl feathers signified death.
Estebán was not allowed to enter the Zuni pueblos, and the Indians refused to provide him and his companions food or water that night. The next morning the Zuni elders decided to attack the group, causing Estebán and the group to flee from the village. Unfortunately, everyone from the group including Estebán, was killed by Zuni warriors. Estebán had not found the mythical Seven Cities of Cíbola, but seven Zuni pueblos whose rooftops glistened in the sun, looking like gold.
Fray Niza, who later only glimpsed the pueblos from distance, reported that fabulous riches were to be found in the city, and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado would lead another expedition in 1540 to search for the treasure.
Estebán made history by becoming the first black to explore North America. His contributions will be remembered, not only for his discoveries, but for his linguistic abilities and mystical appeal to natives he met on the trail. He will forever be linked to the legendary Seven Cities of Cíbola, even though they never existed.