Black History: Esteban the Explorer

Born in Morocco, early in his life Mustafa El-Azemmour was captured and enslaved by the Portuguese and sold to a Spanish man, Andres Dorantes de Carranza. The Moroccan captive was asked to renounce his Muslim faith and be baptized a Christian; renamed Esteban de Dorantes. Only Christians were allowed to travel to the Americas by the Spanish. In 1527, Esteban and Commander Andres Dorantes de Carranza participated in the spectacularly ill-fated Pánfilo de Narváez Expedition in the area now known as Florida.

Six hundred men began the voyage. One ship sank. 400 men and 42 horses completed that voyage. In exploring Florida, they did not find the riches they sought, were attacked by the Apalachee Nation, and lost track of their ships. The group put together makeshift barges to head toward a Spanish stronghold along the Gulf of Mexico. The expedition leader Narváez’ barge was swept out to sea with the force of the water from the Mississippi Delta, and he was never seen again.

Only 15 people survived the crossing, including Esteban whose barge capsized but he and Andres Dorantes made it to shore at Galveston Island in what would become Texas. Native People there, the Karankawas, were kind to them and gave them food.

Later in 1529, walking along the Texas coast, the men were captured by the Coahuilteca Nation. The explorers were forced to do hard labor and given very little food. The prisoner’s ranks dwindled to a handful. Esteban and Andres were two of very few survivors. Esteban learned the Coahuiltec language and culture. History is unclear whether the four men escaped in 1535, or were ransomed by the Spanish.

Estevan de Dorantes Art: José Cisneros

In 1536, they made it to Mexico City with the help of Spanish soldiers they met along their journey. That was 8 years of traveling! Esteban’s language skills were central to their survival. Many historians believe Dorantes rewarded this loyal scout and interpreter by selling Esteban to the Viceroy Don Antonio de Mendoza.

In 1539, the Viceroy sent Esteban north as a guide for an expedition in search of the seven cities of gold in what is today New Mexico. That year he reached the Hawikku Pueblo of the Zuni. Esteban was the first non-Native person the Zuni Pueblo met. History is divided, either he was killed as a suspected spy, or the pueblo helped him escape and become free.

Esteban is remembered to this day in Zuni ceremonies with the Chákwaina kas’tina (kachina), a Black figure that represents the change that his visit brought to the tribe, the Spanish Conquest.

In the 12 years after he left Spain, Esteban traveled a large part of what would become the continental United States, bravely journeying through danger, surviving solely through his wits and powers of communication. ¡Olé! –Rebecca

Rebecca Cuningham

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