Who Was the First African American?

Juan Garrido (left) (Diego Duran, Historia de las Indias de Nueve Espana e Islas de la Tierra Firme, 1581)
Juan Garrido (left) (Diego Duran, Historia de las Indias de Nueve Espana e Islas de la Tierra Firme, 1581)

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 2: Who was the first African to arrive in America?


Like many of you, I was always told that the first Africans to arrive in what is now the United States were the "20 and odd" Africans who arrived as slaves in Jamestown, Va., from what is now the country of Angola, in 1619. But this turns out not to be true. As a matter of fact, Africans arrived in North America more than a century before both the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock and before these Angolans arrived in Virginia. What's more, we even know the identity of the first documented African to arrive. His name was Juan Garrido, and more astonishing, he wasn't even a slave. Next year will be the 500th anniversary of his arrival in Florida, and the state plans to commemorate this remarkable event.

Juan Garrido was born in West Africa around 1480. According to the historians Ricardo Alegria and Jane Landers, Garrido's notarized "probanza" (his curriculum vitae, more or less), dated 1538, says he moved from Africa to Lisbon, Portugal, of his own volition as a free man, stayed in Spain for seven years, and then, seeking his fortune and perhaps a bit of fame, he joined the earliest conquistadors to the New World. All the sworn witnesses to this document affirm that Garrido was "horro," or free, when he arrived in Spain. Sailing from Seville around 1508, he arrived on the island of La Española, which is today called Hispaniola, the island on which the Dominican Republic and Haiti reside. He later settled in San Juan, Puerto Rico.    

Garrido is the first documented black person to arrive in this country, and he is also the first black conquistador. And like the other conquistadors, Garrido soon succumbed to the lure of wealth and fame in the New World. He joined Diego Velazquez de Cuéllar and the legendary Juan Ponce de León in the colonizations of Cuba and Puerto Rico, respectively. Then, in 1513, he joined de León's well-known expedition to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth, when he became the first known African to arrive in this country. 

In his "probanza," and in a gesture worthy of the signifying tradition that would follow, Garrido claimed to have been "the first to plant and harvest wheat" in the New World. Lest we are tempted to romanticize him, it is important to remember that Garrido, like the other conquistadors, was no saint: He also participated in Hernando Cortes' destruction of the Aztec empire, along with 100,000 Tlaxcalan allies. He settled in Mexico City in 1524 for four years, and then began a gold mining operation with slave labor. He joined Cortes in the 1530s for still another expedition into lower California, in search of the mythic Black Amazons. He was rewarded for his services to Cortes with land and paid positions. 

According to Matthew Restall's Black Conquistadors (pdf), between 1524 and 1528, Garrido was a resident of Mexico City, and on February 10, 1525, he was granted a house-plot. Between 1524 and 1526, he held the post of "doorkeeper" ("portero") and was also a "crier" ("pregonero") and guardian of the Chapultepec aqueduct. Criers could function as constable, auctioneer, executioner, piper, master of weights and measures, and doorkeeper or guard.

He spent his final years as a Spanish subject back in Mexico City, where he died in the late 1540s.


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.