For those miffed about the lack of diversity in Oscar nods, I have a story idea that would get the attention of the Academy. It is a story laden with strife, overwhelming obstacles, survival, debauchery, lies and violence and it is a true story. The Academy loves true stories.

Esteban de Dorantes

Esteban de DorantesPeople often cite Coronado as being the first explorer to make contact with the inhabitants of New Mexico. Actually, the man who first interacted with the indigenous population was Esteban de Dorantes, a Moorish slave from Portugal. His life was nothing short of extraordinary and there is debate regarding how it ended.

Esteban, born Mustafa Zemmouri around 1501, was a Berber in the coastal city of Azemour in Morocco. The Portuguese military conquered the city in 1522. They captured Esteban  and sold him into slavery to Andreas Dorentes. Seeking glory and riches, Dorentes signed on to take part in the Narváez expedition. He took Esteban with him.

The Florida Expedition

Narváez had spent 20 years in Mexico as a conquistador. The Spanish court had appointed him the Governor of Florida and he was eager to pillage the treasures of the native villages. 300 people accompanied him on his journey. They set sail in 1527.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. A hurricane destroyed one of the ships and damaged the others, forcing the party to stay in Cuba for the winter. Additional men and supplies were dispatched from Spain. By the time they arrived on the west coast of Florida, north of Tampa Bay, in April, the party consisted of 400 men and 42 horses.

Pillaging for food, supplies and gold in the native villages did not endear them to the locals. They looked for treasure for three months. They were constantly under attack and many starved to death. The party started slaughtering their horses for food. They decided to flee. They melted the metals in their weapons and used their remaining supplies and clothes to make five boats. The plan was to sail across the Gulf of Mexico to reconnoiter with the main Spanish settlement in New Spain, aka Mexico City.


On September 22, 1528, having eaten all but one of their horses, the remainder of the original party set sail. Each boat carried about fifty men and their remaining supplies. They ran out of food and fresh water within a few days. One of the survivors, the expedition’s treasurer Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, wrote “So great is the power of need that it brought us to venture out into such a troublesome sea in this manner, and without any among us having the least knowledge of the art of navigation.”

Their lack of navigational skill wasn’t the only issue. Many didn’t know how to swim, including Esteban. When they encountered the Mississippi river delta, the current made it impossible for the boats to stay together. The ships were destroyed one by one, including Narváez’s boat. They either ran ashore or they drifted out to sea and vanished.

Esteban’s boat capsized and half of the men drowned. Esteban and Dorantes were pulled into another boat. The survivors wrecked off the coast of Texas late in 1528. 80 men remained; exhausted, starving and weak.

Delayed in Texas

They washed ashore on Galveston Island where they encountered locals who provided food and shelter. They spent the winter with them, but disease and hunger took a toll. 15 survived to see Spring.

In April, 1529, Dorantes gathered the survivors from his boat, including Esteban, and crossed to the mainland. A less hospitable tribe promptly captured them and enslaved them for six years, forcing them to do hard labor. A few attempted to escape. Their captors executed them. Others died due to disease, exposure to the elements, and starvation. By 1534 only Dorantes, Esteban, Castillo and de Vaca were alive.

Dorantes wanted to escape. Esteban and Castillo didn’t want to join him. Despite the mortality rate associated with their captivity, the prospect of crossing more waterways or potentially encountering natives who were more hostile than their captors was terrifying. PTSD perhaps. With the help of de Vaca, Dorantes eventually convinced the men to join the escape plan.

Successful Escape

They escaped in 1534. Rather than encountering hostile tribes as they headed west, they were welcomed, perceived as faith healers. As they traveled, they acquired some fluency in six native languages, which they supplemented with sign language. However, to preserve the illusion of their authority, the three Spaniards relegated most of the communication and interaction to Esteban. He gathered information, handled trading transactions, got directions, etc. He became the most fluent with both language and customs.

The party traveled west to the Sonoran Desert where they encountered a group of Spanish slave hunters. They convinced them to help them get back to New Spain (Mexico City), though they had to dissuade them from taking the party’s native guides.

When the party arrived in Mexico City in 1536 they regaled the Spanish aristocrats with tales of wealthy indigenous tribes to the north. The Spaniards had already heard rumors of roads paved with gold in the Seven Cities of Cibola. These rumors got the treasure seeking Spaniards excited about the prospect of another Aztec windfall.

Depiction of Hawikuh
Depiction of the Zuni village of Hawikuh, one of the seven cities of Cibola.

Coronado’s Scouting Party

The three white survivors refused to lead an expedition north. Instead, Dorantes sold Esteban to Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain. Mendoza conscripted Esteban to serve as a guide, sending him north in 1539 with Friar Marcos de Niza to search for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. This expedition preceded Coronado’s by a year.

Esteban and Niza didn’t get along. The tribes encountered treated Esteban with respect. They perceived him as a powerful figure and a healer. He spoke their language and engaged them. Niza was relegated to a secondary role. As the leader of the party and a respected friar, he didn’t appreciate being secondary to a slave. Furthermore, Esteban’s penchant for turquoise and Native American women rankled the pious friar.

When the party reached the desert beyond the mountains, Niza suggested that Esteban go ahead with a few Sonoran scouts and send back word of his progress via crosses, with the size of the cross indicating the wealth found. When Esteban arrived at Hawikuh, reputed to be the legendary city of Cibola, he sent back a cross larger than a man.

The End of Esteban

Niza was excited. He caught up to the scouting party quickly, but by the time he arrived, Esteban was gone. The scouts reported that when they entered Hawikuh, Esteban had claimed the village in the name of the Spanish crown. The Zuni weren’t impressed and locked Esteban up while they debated what to do with him. Some legends say he was killed while trying to escape. Other legends assert that Esteban had friends among the Zuni and they helped him fake his death to gain freedom. Some folklore suggests that the Kachina figure, Chakwaina, is based on Esteban.

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado
Francisco Vázquez de Coronado

What is known is the Zuni released everyone in Esteban’s party unharmed, allowing them to pass along news of his demise to Marcos Niza. Niza didn’t enter Hawikuh. He promptly scampered back to Mexico City and lied to the Viceroy. He told him that Hawikuh was wealthier than the legends of Cibola implied. It was this rumor that inspired the Coronado expedition the following year.

As Coronado’s troops approached the Zuni village, it was obvious there was no gold, but they attacked anyway. They killed many Zuni warriors and set in motion the conflict and violence that would define the arrival of the Spanish in New Mexico.

Tour Zuni Pueblo

If you would like to visit Hawikuh, the Great Kivas, Zuni Mission or to view the extensive petroglyphs of Zuni, contact the Zuni Pueblo Department of Tourism at 505-782-7238. Ask for Kenny, Marla or Tom.

Zuni Pueblo Tours


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