Spanish Colonial Florida

The amazing story of Pánfilo de Narváez and Estéban Dorantes

Author: John E Worth

Pánfilo de Narváez is probably best remembered as the leader of the disastrous expedition that landed in Florida in 1528 and left only four survivors, including Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca , to tell the epic tale some eight years later. But Narváez’s early career in the New World was far from unsuccessful. A native of the province of Castille, Narváez arrived in the Caribbean by 1500, and in 1509 he participated in the conquest of Jamaica under Juan de Esquivel. Shortly thereafter, Narváez played a pivotal role in the Spanish conquest of Cuba under Diego Velázquez de Cuellar. After the Velázquez expedition landed on the eastern coast of Cuba late in 1511, Narváez joined him and was appointed second in command. He was promptly dispatched into the interior in charge of more than a hundred soldiers. Over the course of the next two years, Narváez gained a reputation as a brutal conquistador. He presided over a massacre at the indigenous village of Caonao, which cleric Bartolomé de las Casas witnessed, and which later played a pivotal role in the origin of the “Black Legend.”

An ill-fated expedition left Spain 6/27/1527 with 600 persons in 5 ships. Reduced by desertion and hurricane the expedition landed at Tampa Bay on 4/16/1528. Narvaez took horses and 300 men on a march up the peninsular as far as Tallahassee, and was lost from his other men and ships. After losing half of his men on the march, and with another third sick, he retreated to the area of Saint Marks where 5 barges were built. Of the 5 barges 4 men survived, 8 years later, to make it to Mexico.

Courtesy of State Archives of Florida.

I. Spaniards Enslaved by Indians.

A staunch ally of Diego Velázquez, Narváez was later appointed by the governor in 1520 to lead an expedition to Veracruz, Mexico in order to depose and arrest Hernán Cortés. (Cortés had betrayed Velázquez and personally assumed command of the expedition out of Cuba that reached central Mexico and conquered the Aztec capital and all its riches.) Narváez’s expedition was ultimately defeated by Cortés , and Narváez not only lost an eye but was imprisoned in Veracruz for several years. Upon his release Narváez returned to Spain and in 1526 obtained a royal contract to establish a new settlement along the northern Gulf coast .

This rare manuscript is in the Library of Congress. It is an account of how four men of the 600-member Narváez expedition to Florida—Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, two other Spaniards, and an African slave, Esteban—survived a seven-year trek on foot from Florida through Texas to Mexico City. The four survivors arrived in Mexico in 1536, having survived hardships, privation, Indian attacks, and even enslavement.

Courtesy of the Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (107).

Originally intending to settle at Río de las Palmas, just north of Cortés’ territory along the northern coast of modern Mexico , Narváez sailed from Spain in 1527 and wintered along the south coast of Cuba before setting sail in late February to resupply in Havana. Unexpectedly, a late winter storm drove the fleet north into the Gulf of Mexico, where they finally made landfall on the west coast of Florida, just north of the entrance to Tampa Bay, in April of 1528. Failing to confirm the location of a large bay thought to be nearby, Narváez set out with his army on land, marking the first significant penetration of Spaniards into the interior of Florida. Pushing northward and westward across the Gulf coastal plain of Florida, the army eventually entered the province of Apalachee in the environs of present-day Tallahassee. By now completely separated from their ships, the members of the expedition finally made the decision to escape westward by sea.

II. The Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez

Michael Gannon, Historian, University of Florida


Narváez moved his expedition south to the coast of Apalachee Bay, where five rudimentary barges were constructed over the course of a month and a half using available materials, including re-forged metal weapons for tools, clothing for sails, horse meat for food, horse hair for rigging, and horse hides for water bags. Setting sail on September 22, the expedition pushed west along the coast over the course of the next six and a half weeks, crossing the mouth of the Mississippi River before being scattered by a storm. The exact fate of Narváez and four of the five barges is unknown, but the vessel carrying the expedition’s treasurer Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was cast ashore on an island of the Texas coast, where his subsequent tale of survival has become an important part of the annals of American history.

III. Estéban Dorantes

Among the members of Pánfilo de Narváez”s 1528 colonizing expedition of the west coast of Florida was an African slave named Estéban, or Estébanico, originally native to Azemmour on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Along with his owner Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Estéban accompanied the expedition as it attempted to reach its original goal along the coast of northern New Spain. The expedition first traversed the western interior of Florida to the Apalachee province at modern Tallahassee, and next constructed barges and sailed west along the northern Gulf coast toward Mexico. Estéban’s barge was cast ashore on an island off the coast of Texas, where he, his companions, and a number of survivors from another barge, including the expedition treasurer Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, remained stranded through the winter. By the spring of 1529, however, only fifteen of these survivors remained, held as prisoners by local Native Americans.

Estéban (FL. 1527-39). Moorish slave and explorer. Estevanico, exploring the American southwest. Drawing.

The Granger Collection, New York

Some five years later, in 1534, Estéban and Andrés Dorantes, Cabeza de Vaca, and Captain Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, escaped their captors and traveled inland. They spent the next two years on a lengthy peregrination that finally brought them to Culiacán in western Mexico, where they were rescued by Spaniards in 1536. During this epic journey, Estéban Dorantes played a pivotal role as a healer, advance scout, and interpreter. These skills, as well as his knowledge of the interior, ultimately prompted the Viceroy of New Spain Antonio de Mendoza to purchase Estéban from Andrés Dorantes before his return to Spain in 1537. In 1539 he was assigned to Franciscan friar Fray Marcos de Niza in an expedition to locate the fabled “Seven Cities of Cíbola” at Zuni in western New Mexico. Dispatched ahead of the friar, Estéban was killed when he attempted to enter the Zuni town of Hawikuh, prefacing the Spanish conquest of the town during the Coronado expedition the following year. The enslaved African Estéban Dorantes remains an important figure in several of the most notable events of the early Spanish period in North America.

IV. Estéban - The Magnificient Black Hero


A four minute video offering an overview of Dorantes’ travels through the American South West, with emphasis placed on Dorantes being the first African in the American South West. This video is courtesy of Ayyoub Ajmi.

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