Last updated: September 19, 2017
Juan Garrido a.k.a "Handsome John" was an free African conquistador who worked alongside Ponce de Leon for thirteen years.
African conquistadors like Garrido were not uncommon. Many found their way into Spanish life, rather than becoming slaves. They joined Spanish conquests as soldiers, some in exchange for freedom others for financial gain. They enjoyed the spoils of their conquests, which included land, official jobs, and pensions.
Garrido was born on the west coast of African ca. 1487 and later moved to Lisbon, Portugal.
It is unknown how, when, or why Garrido was free man among the enslaved. One historian, Ricardo Alegria, suspects he was the son of a king. This hypothetical king would have traded with the Portugese and set Garrido up as a commerical liasion. Other historians argue that Garrido might have been a slave who was granted his freedom. This theory comes from the coincidence that his name matched that of a Spainard's on his first voyage to the New World. Fifteen year old Juan left Lisbon and travelled to Seville, Spain and joined the convoy to Hispaniola in 1503. Pedro Garrido, who was aboard a ship in the convoy, might have been Juan's master and Christian namesake.
Garrido spent six years in Hispaniola. The Spanish government allowed conquistadors to take land, people, and treasure. This was the Crown's attempt to convert the world to Catholicism. In 1508, he joined Juan Ponce de Leon on his mission to search for gold in Puerto Rico. Once there Ponce de Leon settled and became govenor on the island. Garrido stayed with him and fought alongside the Spanish against the natives who revolted in 1511. After Ponce de Leon lost his position to Diego Columbus in 1513, he took Garrido and others to look for another treasure island. Instead, they found Florida. Though the claimed and named the land, they were ill-equipped to fight the Florida native. They left Florida with plans to return to conquer it.
By 1519, Garrido was a veteran conquistador. He was a member of the Hernan Cortes' expedition that invaded Meco and lay seize on the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan. After watching and surviving the slaughter of Cortes' troops in 1520, Garrido helped collect the remains of Spanish soliders. He also helped erect a commemorative chapel near the site of the slaughter. For his service, Garrido was given property on a dried out lake ped outside the former Aztec capital in 1522. He became a farmers and was one of the first cultivators to harvest wheat in the America. His wheat production, along with grapes, was in direct response to Spanish secular and religious settlers in Mexico. Garrido married and settled in Mexico City. Together, Garrido and his wife had three children.
Garrido returned to Florida with Ponce de Leon in 1521. They arrived with settlers, livestock, supplies, and weapons to control the natives. Before they were able to get settled, Native American's once again ran the Spanish off. Ponce de Leon took an arrow and was rushed to Cuba for medical attention. He died a month later in Havana.
By the end of his life, Garrido had served with Spanish forced for over 30 years. He went on a final expedition with Cortes in 1533. According to legal documents, Garrido died in Mexico City sometime between 1547 and 1550.