Who Was the 1st Black to Explore the West?

"Estavanico," by Jose Cisneros, published in Cleve Hallenbeck's The Journey of Fray Marcos de Niza (1973).
"Estavanico," by Jose Cisneros, published in Cleve Hallenbeck's The Journey of Fray Marcos de Niza (1973).

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 6: Who was the first black explorer of the North American Southwest?


The first enslaved African to arrive in Florida whom we can document by name was a black man named Esteban. And, long before the explorers Lewis and Clark crossed the continent, he would traverse the land that later became the United States, through the Southwest, to the Pacific Ocean.

Esteban was born in West Africa and sold into slavery in a Portuguese town on Morocco's Atlantic coast. According to the historian Robert Goodwin, Esteban was shipped to Spain as a slave from the town of Azemmour, in Morocco, in 1522. Andres Dorantes de Carranza purchased him and brought Esteban to Florida in April 1528.

Under attack by the Native American residents where they landed, the expedition sailed on rafts across the Gulf of Mexico to what is today Galveston, Texas. There, a storm sank three of the five rafts. Esteban, his master and 13 others survived the storms and the harsh conditions during the winter of 1528. And then the real fun began.

When the party decided to travel inland, they were captured and enslaved for five years by the Karankawa Indians. In 1534, Esteban and the four remaining survivors escaped and were befriended by other Native Americans, who regarded the tiny band of strangers as healers and medicine men. Esteban, according to an eyewitness account, was a gifted linguist and quickly mastered different Native American languages, so he served as translator. 

Incredibly, the men traveled through what is now Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Northern Mexico, ultimately a total of 15,000 miles! Esteban's luck eventually ran out, though: In May 1539, the Zuni Indians of Hawikuh in New Mexico executed him, regarding him as a harbinger of more unwanted and dangerous visitors. But by the time of his death, Esteban and his three companions had seen more of the North American southwest than any other non-Native American.

How did historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof (and the inspiration for this current series), do on Esteban? In Amazing Fact #23, Rogers identifies a man named "Estevanico," as "a Negro from Morocco," "one of a party of four to cross the North American continent for the first time. The journey took nine years. In 1539, he headed an expedition that discovered Arizona and New Mexico," opening up "the Southwest and states west of Florida, as far as the Pacific." A bit of an exaggeration, but essentially correct!


As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.