He was one of the first native Africans to reach the present-day continental United States. In the history books he is known by a lot of different names: Esteban de Dorantes, Esteban the Moor, but mostly as Estebanico or Estevanico. The name in Spanish means “Little Steven.” But this former slave wasn’t named Steven, nor was he little by any means. Estevanico, at 6 feet 7 inches, towered over most of the Spaniards in Mexico and dwarfed the Sonoran Natives who followed him.
He had been enslaved by the Portuguese in his native African land in 1522 and taken to the new world to establish a colony in Florida, but he was one of only 80 men of the 300 who explored the peninsula to survive the mosquitos, snakes and crocodiles in that wild land.
He escaped his slavery, and with a few other men crossed the gulf states to what would become Texas; where he was again captured — this time by Native Americans. Again, he escaped and made his way to Mexico reaching the land in 1536.
Estevanico had a keen mind. Through his travels he had learned Spanish; as well as much of the Native American languages of the southwest. He had also learned the legends of the natives in this new land. One of those tales involved the Seven Gold Cities of Cibola.
The Spaniards of Mexico City had also heard these tales and had begun planning expeditions to the north to find these rich settlements. Friar Marcos de Niza was chosen to explore the deserts and he chose Estevanico to become “point man” to lead the way. The big man had told them what he knew about the fabled cities and the explorers assumed he could lead them to the site. Friar de Niza’s exploration would precede Coronado the conquistador by a year and was instructed to send back news as they ventured northward.
Estevanico’s charge from the Friar was to send back to him crosses made from the native wood he found along the way. The Friar’s party, being slower because of the supplies they carried, would follow his trail. Estevanico would take a contingent of Sonoran Natives to serve as couriers for this task. As he went forward, he was to make these crosses in various sizes to indicate the greatness of the land he traveled over. The greater the value, the larger and more ornate the crosses he sent. He would send one about the size of his hand if the land was common desert. Only if he came across fertile ground and streams of water was he to increase the size of the crosses. He was cautioned not to travel too far ahead of Friar Marco so that the Friar’s soldiers could protect the point group.
The party began its journey in 1539.
Estevanico had reached a proud point in his life. As he ventured forward he became the first man to bring the “white man’s civilization” to the land which would become Arizona, but the irony is that the first “white man” into Arizona was a black man.
As he traveled through the desert southwest, he stretched the distance between his small group and de Niza’s army – slowed by the cumbersome wagons of supplies they needed to bring.
Estevanico was feared and revered by his own group, and they impressed upon the local natives his greatness. It was an easy sell. The tribes had never seen a black man before, a man so large and dominant. As Estevanico passed through the lands of the forerunners of the Pimas and Maricopas his legend went before him. Tribes would greet him with feasts and gifts. They made impressive costumes for this large god, adorned with feathered robes and headdresses. He was given native jewelry and other gifts.
The big man continued to send back crosses to his mentor de Niza, as he had been instructed. The size and decorations of these crosses were representative of the value of his findings. At times they were the size of a man. The Friar was pleased as the Sonoran men who came with the crosses spoke of the greatness of the land in front of him.
Estevanico crossed the broad valley of the Gila and Salt Rivers. The heat of the desert was oppressive to his small party, and his supplies became dangerously low, but he was able to continue until the desert landscape changed to the slopes of the Mogollon Rim. At the top of this rising country the ponderosa pine covered the landscape and wild game became plentiful. Here the natives spoke of “the golden city” that lay to the northeast.
As Estevanico arrived to the land beyond the ponderosa it was close to evening. The desert sun was setting and cast a golden glow on the walls of the Zuni fortress. Truly, it appeared as a golden city. He decided he would approach it in the morning, dressed in his feathered costume and jewelry.
The next day he sent a Sonoran emissary with two guards to the gates of the village. They entered and were met by the chief. They announced that the god Estevanico awaited outside and would enter the village. The Zuni chief scoffed at the demands. This new “god” was not a god in the minds of the Zuni. The visitors were briskly ejected through the gate they had entered.
The Zuni tribe, it should be understood, was a proud and fearsome people. They had been able to ward off invaders for centuries.
Estevanico had come a thousand miles to find this golden city. When the sun rose the next day, he realized that the golden hue he had seen the previous day was just adobe sand, still, he insisted on going in.
He marched with all his men to the village gates and pounded on them. The gates were opened and he marched in with his followers. Once inside the Zunis attacked, killing the large black man and his followers. Only a single Sonoran, hiding in the water canal outside the gates escaped. That night he began his foot race back to tell de Niza what had happened. It would take the army of Coronado to final conquer the city of gold.