May 21

This Day in History

Old West

May 21, 1539:

Black Spanish explorer Estevan is reported killed

Word reaches Fray Marcos that Indians have killed his guide Estevan, a black slave who was the first non-Indian to visit the pueblo lands of the American Southwest.

Thought to have been born sometime around 1500 on the west coast of Morocco, Estevan was sold to the Spanish as a slave. He ended up in the hands of Andres Dorantes de Carranza, who took him on an ill-fated expedition to Florida in 1527. A series of disasters reduced the original exploratory party of 300 to four men: Estevan, Dorantes de Carranza, Cabeza de Vaca, and Alonso del Castillo. The four survivors lived with Indians on the Gulf of Mexico for several years before finally heading west in hopes of reaching Mexico City. With the assistance of Spanish slave hunters they encountered, they finally made it to Mexico City in 1536, where their amazing story of survival caused a sensation.

Intrigued by reports by the four men of rich cities of gold to the north, the Spanish Viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, immediately began to plan an expedition. The three white men, however, wished only to return to Spain and refused to serve as guides. As a slave, Estevan had no choice in the matter and he was sold to the viceroy.

In 1539, the viceroy ordered Estevan to lead the Catholic friar and explorer Fray Marcos de Niza on a preliminary mission to investigate the rumors of cities of gold. Setting out on March 7, 1539, the two men and a party of retainers headed north into the modern-day states of Arizona and New Mexico. On March 21, Marcos sent Estevan ahead to scout the territory, in part because the pious Marcos had become annoyed with Estevan's penchant for collecting turquoise and his too-evident enjoyment of the native women.

Six days later, Estevan sent back word to Marcos that he had encountered Indians who had told him spectacular places lay ahead. Marcos took this to mean that Estevan had heard reports of one of the fabulous golden cities. The two travelers trudged on through the hot desert sands, with Estevan traveling ahead by several days and periodically sending Indian messengers back to the friar with reports. By mid-May, they were nearing the White Mountains of Arizona. On this day in 1539, another messenger came riding from the north to tell Marcos that Estevan was dead.

From the messenger, Marcos learned that Estevan had made contact with a band of Pueblo Indians. In his earlier transcontinental trek, the black man had acquired a sacred rattle used by the Plains Indian tribes. Estevan had previously found that the gourd filled with pebbles worked wonders in gaining the trust and respect of certain Indians. The Pueblo people, however, deeply feared anyone using the paraphernalia of a Plains Indian medicine man. Estevan may have also further alienated the Pueblo Indians by demanding women and treasure. After keeping him for three days, the Indians killed Estevan near the modern-day Arizona border southwest of Zuni, New Mexico.

Upon hearing this frightening news, Marcos immediately returned to Mexico City. Based on the third or fourth-hand reports from Estevan of spectacular places ahead, Marcos told the viceroy the rumored golden cities of the north might actually exist. Encouraged by the friar's tales, the explorer Coronado headed north a year later, confidently promising to return with hordes of gold. Like Estevan and Marcos, he found no gold but he did return with a wealth of useful knowledge about the geography and people of the Southwest. However, it was the black slave Estevan, not the white nobleman Coronado, who was the first non-Indian to penetrate the southwest territory.

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