Estevan, or Estevanico, Spanish for “Little Steven” was apparently from Morocco, which means he may have been of mixed African and Arabic descent. He is often referred to as a slave, but this term can be misleading. He may well have been captured by the Spanish in some battle and then enslaved, but like many such captives, he probably became a trusted free servant.
Estevanico was attached to an expedition that sailed from Spain in 1 527, the same one that included Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (see no. 3). Like de Vaca, he was among the 80 survivors of the storm that blew them onto the future site of Galveston, Texas. Eventually, Estevanico, de Vaca, and two other Spaniards found themselves being held captive by a tribe of Cahoques Indians.
For the next several years, the four remained among various Indian tribes on an island south of the Galveston site.Finally, in September 1534, Estevanico, de Vaca, and the two Spaniards made their escape. For 17 months, they walked across what would become Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in one of the most harrowing journeys ever made.
By the time the four men arrived in Mexico City in June 1536, Estevanico had long since ceased to be regarded as an inferior slave.Indeed, Viceroy Mendoza assigned Estevanico to guide the expedition led by an experienced Franciscan priest-explorer, Fray Marcos de Niza.
The goal was to seek out the fabled seven Cities of Cibola. Some Europeans claimed that hundreds of years earlier the Portuguese had gone to the New World and established these cities that were supposedly full of gold.
The de Niza expedition set out in March 1539. They went into New Mexico and Fray Marcos sent Estevanico ahead with some Indian guides. He was instructed to mark his trail with crosses; the larger the size of the “city” he passed through, the larger the cross.
Fray Marcos followed this trail for two months. The large crosses he found suggested Estevanico must have found great cities. Messengers returning from Estevanico confirmed this. That May, Fray Marcos received word that Estevanico was killed by Indians at the Zuni Hawikuh pueblo near modern-day Gallup, New Mexico.
He was probably killed by the Indians to prevent him from leading more Europeans—who were going to bring trouble—into the area. In any case, Fray Marcos did not try to enter Hawikuh and returned to Mexico City. Like so many of the early explorers to enter North America, Estevanico had failed in his original goals, but he helped pave the way for future expeditions.