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Estevanico the Moor: Slave and Explorer

In Recognition of Black History Month


The life of Estevanico is one of the most fascinating stories of American history. Estevanico was the first non-native person to visit the areas of Arizona and New Mexico. Known as Estevanico the Black or Estevanico the Moor, he was a slave who didn't fit the stereotype of a slave. He was friends with his owner, and he was at times given a great deal of responsibility and independence.

Estevanico was born in Azamor, Morocco. When he was a teenager, during the drought of 1520-21, the Portuguese sold many Moroccans into slavery. Estevanico was sold to Andres de Dorantes, and the two joined an expedition to the lands of Florida. It was to be a tragic expedition: Although they reached Florida in 1528, many on the expedition died of illness, injuries and attacks. Many fled by boat, reaching the Texas coast, where they were enslaved. By 1534, only four were alive: Estevanico, Dorantes, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado. (The most famous of those is Cabeza de Vaca, whose writings are an important source of information on the Americans of the 16th century.)

The four fled. They lived with another tribe of natives who encouraged them to become medicine men. Apparently, they were quite successful. They were guided throughout much of Texas and northern Mexico. Estevanico was gifted in languages, and he became the explorers' scout and interpreter. He carried an owl-feathered gourd as a medicine rattle that became his trademark.

The four arrived at Mexico City in July 1536. The Mexican viceroy asked them to lead an expedition into Arizona and New Mexico; only Estevanico complied.

The party was under the command of Fray Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan friar. Estevanico went ahead of Marcos, and he had agreed to send back a runner with a small cross if he found a great discovery. When he saw the Zunis (a people of New Mexico), he sent back a cross the size of a man.

Unfortunately, Estevanico met his fate in New Mexico. His owl feathers were a Zuni symbol of death, and the frightened Zunis killed Estevanico. Marcos returned to Mexico City.

Estevanico is not well-known today. But there is one organization, The Estevanico Society, that is researching his life and travels.

This article was written for Black History Month, celebrated each February.

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