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Now you see him, now you don't
The disappearance, re-appearance and disappearance again of Esteban the Moor. (Moments that Made America)
In 1536 four men stumbled into the village of Culiacán in northern Mexico. Their appearance suggested that they had been through a harrowing ordeal. One was clearly of African descent, with tightly curled hair to match his dark skin. The other three were almost as dark, though their complexion appeared to have been burnt into them rather than inherited. And their hair was straight. All four spoke Spanish, the language of the governing class of Mexico. But they looked as wild and weather-beaten as any of the Indians who called this part of the world home.
They told a story that was even more astonishing than their appearance. They had been part of a Spanish expedition that had set sail eight years earlier for Florida. The conquest of Mexico and the capture of its treasures of gold and silver were still fresh in the minds of the Spanish, and every soldier dreamed of being the next Cortez and becoming famous and fabulously wealthy. The expedition, headed by Pánfilo de Nárvaez, reached Florida in 1528 but fell on hard luck. Nárvaez drowned trying to cross a river, and discipline dissolved. Survivors sailed west, became lost and hungry, and were cast by a hurricane on the coast of what would later be called Texas. Their number dwindled further, from exposure and starvation, until only a handful remained.
These included Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, descendant of a resourceful Spanish patriot who had saved the day in a thirteenth-century campaign against the ruling Moors by marking a hidden mountain pass with the skull of a cow—“cabeza de vaca.”
They also included a Moor, as Muslim Africans were called in Spain. Yet this was no ruler but rather a slave, named Esteban. His master was one of the other two survivors.
Esteban and his three companions had spent eight years in Texas and northern Mexico. At times they were the slaves of Indian tribes of the region—tribes that were so poor that when the four escaped, their owners lacked the energy and resources to chase them. At times they were treated as shamans and healers. When their medicines and methods worked, they were honored. When their patients died, their own lives were threatened. Finally they made their way across the continent to the Pacific coast of Mexico and eventually south to Culiacán.
The four told of the many tribes they had encountered, and of villages where the people lived in houses and cultivated maize and squash and beans. Cabeza de Vaca provided the first account by a European of the bison, or buffalo, of the Great Plains, although he called them cows. “They appear to me of the size of those in Spain,” he wrote. “Their horns are small, like those of the Moorish cattle; the hair is very long, like fine wool and like a peajacket; some are brownish and others black.” The geology of the country was promising. “Wherever it is mountainous, we saw many signs of gold, antimony, iron, copper and other metals.”
The disappearance of the Narvaez expedition had dampened Spanish interest in the regions north of Mexico. Would-be conquistadors instead look south, to South America, where Francisco Pizarro seized control of the Inca empire and its treasures. The tale now related by the Narvaez survivors rekindled interest in the north.
First to follow up were friars looking for converts. A Franciscan named Marcos de Niza enlisted Esteban as a guide and headed out from Culiacan.
Niza quizzed everyone he met about what lay ahead. One man’s response particularly piqued his curiosity. The man told of a province called Cibola, thirty days’ journey to the north. “He affirmed also that there are seven great cities in this province, all under one lord,” Niza reported, “the houses whereof are made of lime and stone, and are very great, and the least of them with one loft above head, and some two and of three lofts, and the house of the lord of the province of four.”
Niza proceeded north. The farther he traveled, the more appealing the picture painted for him by his informants. One claimed to be from Cibola. “He told me that Cibola was a great city, inhabited with a great store of people and having many streets and marketplaces; and that in some parts of this city there are certain very great houses of five stories high, wherein the chiefs of the city assemble themselves at certain days of the year. He said that the houses are of lime and stone, according as others had told me before, and that the gates and small pillars of the principal houses are of turquoises, and all the vessels wherein they are served, and the other ornaments of their houses, were of gold; and that the other six cities are built like unto this.”
Niza’s guides were willing to take him almost to Cibola, but they declined to go into the city. The inhabitants were fierce and unfriendly. Indeed, the Cibolans killed Esteban, who was scouting ahead of Niza’s party.
This, at any rate, was the conclusion Niza drew from Esteban’s disappearance. Quite possibly it was true. But Niza never saw a corpse, and Esteban might simply have to decided that life among the native peoples was preferable to life as a slave among the Spanish, and made his getaway.
Niza pressed on. “I came within sight of Cibola, which is situated on a plain at the foot of a round hill, and makes show to be a fair city, and it is better seated than any that I have seen in these parts,” he wrote. He embellished his account with more of what he heard from the locals. “They have emeralds and other jewels. . . . They use vessels of gold and silver, for they have no other metal, whereof there is greater use and more abundance than in Peru.”
Niza wanted to enter Cibola, but his guides wouldn’t take him. Prudence dictated caution. “If I should die, the knowledge of this country would be lost,” he reasoned. So he withdrew, and he carried that knowledge back to Mexico.
It soon set the engines of conquest in motion. An expedition headed by Francisco de Coronado marched north in search of Cibola. The expedition never found the riches Niza promised, and it never found Esteban.
But it discovered the Grand Canyon and the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico, whose houses fairly fit Niza’s description. And it planted the seeds of a Spanish-American culture that would expand and grow in the American Southwest during next half-millennium, until the present.