Estevanico was born in the port city of Azemmour, Morocco, circa 1503. After a fierce struggle between the Portuguese and local leaders, the Portuguese captured Azemmour in 1513. During the great drought of 1520-21, the Portuguese sold many Moroccans, including Estevanico, into slavery in Europe. Estevanico became the personal servant of Andres de Dorantes of Bejar del Castanar of old Castile. There he was treated well, and master and servant became close friends. In 1527, Dorantes joined an expedition to conquer the unknown lands of Florida. Also on the expedition were Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado. The force landed in Florida on April 12, 1528. Three hundred men made their way on land, through jungles and Indian attacks, sustaining many casualties. The survivors, in desperation to get away, made crude barges and set sail into the open sea, hoping to reach what they believed was the nearby Mexican coast. Only eighty men survived the crossing; the boats capsized on the Texas coast near Galveston.
The natives were friendly at first, but then enslaved the explorers. They remained there for five years. Of the eighty, only four survived: Estevanico, Dorantes, Cabeza de Vaca, and Alonso Castillo. In 1534, the four escaped inland and lived among another Indian tribe who coerced them into becoming medicine men. Their methods proved effective, and their reputation as healers spread far and wide. The Indians respectfully called them "The Children of the Sun" because they traveled from the east to the west. Estevanico was especially gifted in languages, and became fluent in several Indian dialects. He carried a medicine rattle, a feathered, beaded gourd given to him by a chief, as his good luck symbol and trademark. Thousands of Indians took turns guiding the travelers through each of their respective lands. The four traveled from the Galveston area west through Texas, up the Rio Grande, through Presidio, and crossing into Mexico near El Paso, they arrived at San Miguel de Culiacan, a small Spanish outpost in Sinaloa, Mexico, in May 1536. From there they traveled to Mexico City, arriving in July of that year.
The Viceroy of Mexico was eager to hear their story, and asked them to lead an expedition back into Arizona and New Mexico. All but Estevanico refused. In February of 1539, he led a small reconnaissance party on foot northward from Culiacan, Mexico. This party was under the command of Franciscan priest Fray Marcos de Niza. Estevanico went ahead of the priest, sending runners back daily bearing wooden crosses to indicate the promise of the country ahead. The crosses grew larger and larger each day. Estevanico arrived in Northwest New Mexico and saw a large village with buildings constructed of stone several tiers high. This was Hawikuh, a Zuni pueblo, and upon discovering it, Estevanico sent a runner back to Fray Marcos with a huge cross. Estevanico's arrival in the village was met with distrust by the Zunis. His medicine gourd was trimmed with owl feathers, a bird that symbolized death to the Zuni. Estevanico was housed outside the village while the elders debated his fate. The next morning, Zuni warriors attacked, and Estevanico was killed.
Lachel Eldassi served as the model for John Houser's bust of Estevanico included in the city of El Paso's Twelve Travelers project.
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