Esteban de Dorantes is one of the most mysterious and fascinating figures connected to the Coronado Expedition. This is partly due to the lack of information about Esteban in the historical record, but also because Esteban was of African descent; an enslaved man who would be the first non-native person to visit the vast southern reaches of the Colorado Plateau in today's Arizona and New Mexico.
Esteban de Dorantes has many names. He is referred to as simply Esteban or Estevan, more commonly as Estevanico, and also referred to as Esteban the Moor. His formal name "de Dorantes" comes from his status as a slave. He was the property of Andrés Dorantes, a captain of the ill-fated Narváez Expedition of 1527. This entrada of 300 men shipwrecked of the coast of Texas. Only Esteban and three others (including Alvár Núñez Cabeza de Vaca who would write an acclaimed account of the ordeal) survived and for the next 8 years they wandered the Southwest US and northwest Mexico. During this time Esteban would learn the languages and cultures of indigenous people of the region, skills that would serve him well. The shipwrecked quartet eventually reached Spanish settlements near Cúliacan, Sinaloa in 1536. The testimonies from their journey would fuel the rumors of wealthy civilizations in the north1.
Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza began dreaming of the expedition to find these fabled cities of "Tierra Nueva" and desired experienced travelers to lead a reconnaissance expedition to scout the region. Who better to lead the journey than the surviving members of the Narváez Expedition? When the other three Narváez members declined to go, Mendoza purchased Esteban from Andrés Dorantes and contracted him to accompany a Franciscan priest, fray Marcos de Niza, to Cíbola (the name eventually given to the mythical cities of “Tierra Nueva”).
When Esteban and Marcos entered "Tierra Nueva", Esteban was sent ahead to see what he could learn about Cíbola from the native peoples. An arrangement was made between the two men. If what he learned was of moderate importance Esteban would send back to Marcos a small cross the size of one palma (about the span of four fingers), if it was of great importance he would send a cross two palmas in size, and if it exceeded expectations he would send a large cross. Marcos wrote, "in four days the messengers came from there from Esteban with a very large cross the height of a man"2.
Esteban continued traveling north, becoming the first non-native to contact the indigenous people of this region. As he traveled, he continued to learn more of Cíbola. Marcos was elated and hurried to join Esteban. As Marcos neared Cíbola he came upon the native guides that had escorted Esteban. They were fleeing and reported violence near Cíbola – and the death Esteban.
The native guides reported to Marcos that Esteban had been blocked from entering Cíbola and the group was forced to shelter that night in a structure outside of the community. In the morning, Esteban attempted again to approach Cíbola but this time was met with aggression. Esteban and the group fled, while arrows rained down upon them. One of the native guides claimed, “ we saw no more of Esteban; rather we believe they shot him with arrows as they did the rest who were traveling with him ... [we believe no one] escaped except us"3.
This last account of Esteban is one that has fueled alternative interpretations of what happened that day near Cibola and perpetuated the romance and mystery surrounding the man. Was this his chance for freedom? Was he really killed? Or did he disappear into “Tierra Nueva”? The truth is that there is a dearth of information and evidence of Esteban de Dorante’s life, and death, to know definitively what happened.
What we do know is that Esteban was courageous, resourceful, and a skilled interpreter, often called upon to communicate with many of the indigenous peoples of "Tierra Nueva".
1Richard Flint, No Settlement, No Conquest, New Mexico, 2008, p27-29 2Richard Flint, p33 3Richard Flint, p35