Crossing the Continent, 1527-1540: The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South

Crossing the Continent, 1527-1540: The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South

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by Robert Goodwin, Simon Prebble

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Over That Winter of 1528 to 1529, for the first time in the history of modern American soil, an African slave shed his bonds and became a man in the eyes of his former masters. Over that winter, the first African-American was born. Esteban must then have felt the first thrill of power.... For the first time in the history of America, an African is mentioned by name...


Over That Winter of 1528 to 1529, for the first time in the history of modern American soil, an African slave shed his bonds and became a man in the eyes of his former masters. Over that winter, the first African-American was born. Esteban must then have felt the first thrill of power.... For the first time in the history of America, an African is mentioned by name.... Both in real life and in the writings of historians, the slave was to prove more important and more famous than his master. What is more, by a curious irony, it was the master's testimony that served to leave a record of the slave.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Goodwin (visiting research fellow, University Coll., London) presents the fascinating history of Esteban, an African slave who, along with three Spanish explorers, including his owner, struggled to survive as they traveled from what is now Florida to Texas and eventually on to Mexico between 1528 and 1536, becoming the only known survivors of a disastrous 1527-28 expedition to explore Florida. Goodwin examines and critiques the primary sources on the journey, focusing on accounts by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, himself one of the four survivors, and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Váldes, the Spanish court-appointed chronicler for the Americas at that time. Goodwin tends to favor the veracity of Oviedo's account, which is similar to that of Cabeza de Vaca but contains fewer sensationalist elements, and focuses on Andrés Dorantes, Esteban's owner. Goodwin searched diligently for clues about Esteban and his role in the journey west, seeking to present him as a leader, a shaman, and the expedition member with the greatest cultural understanding of the various Native American groups encountered. While Goodwin is an engaging storyteller who has done a great deal of research, known facts about Esteban's life remain relatively few, making this account highly speculative. An optional purchase for academic and large public libraries; for a more scholarly look at this amazing survival story, Andres Resendez's A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza deVaca is preferable. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/15/08.]
—Elizabeth Salt

Kirkus Reviews
Speculative life of the African slave who traveled with Cabeza de Vaca across the unknown deserts of Texas and Mexico. The known facts about Esteban-Estevanico or Estebanico, in much of the literature-are few. That does not keep British scholar Goodwin from insisting that he was "almost certainly Negroid and of sub-Saharan ancestry," even though Esteban's contemporaries referred to him as el Moro, "the Moor," or morisco, "Moorish," which could have meant that he was a Berber, Moor or Taureg, if not black. Goodwin soon allows that the interpretations are many, but asserts that it could "be racist to make [any ethnic] distinction." Against common usage, too, he insists that Esteban should be considered African-American because . . . well, he was an African in America. Objections aside, Esteban lived an indisputably adventurous if star-crossed life; he was shipwrecked with Cabeza de Vaca and some 300 other Spaniards off the coast of Texas and was one of four to survive an overland crossing to Mexico. Goodwin inclines to the hagiographic on that near-miraculous survival, by virtue of which Esteban "was now a revered shaman." Though the author faults Cabeza de Vaca ("[his] own account in Shipwrecks is hardly convincing"), who told the shaman tale in the first place, he is comfortable in assigning a fairly specific geography and chronology to events and places over which generations of scholars have argued. Goodwin also offers a conspiracy-tinged hint of Esteban's end, though he makes the good point that it arrived after Esteban had decided to release himself from slavery on his own authority. Students of Southwestern and Spanish colonial history will want to have a look, if only to argue.General readers will find more firmly grounded accounts in Paul Schneider's Brutal Journey (2006) and Andres Resendez's A Land So Strange (2007).
From the Publisher
"Goodwin succeeds in lifting an important historical figure out of the fog of myth." —The Washington Post

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Crossing the Continent 1527-1540

Chapter One

Journey's End

The First Crossing of America, 1536

In the far northwest of Mexico, a posse of Spanish cavalrymen was riding deep in Indian country. History has marked these men as among the most bloodthirsty and brutal of the notoriously cruel conquistadors, the soldiers of fortune who forged the great Spanish Empire in the Americas. It was about the time of the spring equinox in 1536, the "ides of March," long believed to be a season when the Fates might conspire to destroy a man.

They had ridden far beyond the frontiers of their own world in search of peaceable Indians to capture and sell as slaves. A wave of fear had broken across the country. The inhabitants had fled high into the Sierra Madre or had taken refuge in the thick brush. No one had tilled the soil; there were no crops; the desert plain was barren; the fertile river valleys were emptied of people.

The conquistadors now reaped the harvest of those seeds sown in wrath and greed. Men and horses were weak with hunger. For days they had found no victims to enslave in that abandoned world, and they had no idea where they were. There was no one to guide them, nor lead them to water, nor give them food, and little grazing for their horses. They were hungry and thirsty, lost in the network of Indian trails that cut through the impenetrable backwoods of brush and thorn scrub, cactus, mesquite, and ebony, which closed in claustrophobically around them. The threat of ambush was unrelenting and terrifying in a land where the Indians used arrows poisoned with the sap of venomous trees. Their Mexican foot soldiers wererestless.

This brutal band was led by a man called Diego de Alcaraz. He was hard and brave, a frontier man who lived in the saddle and a pirate who pillaged the land of its people. His creed was violence and his motive was greed. He cared nothing for the love of God, nor for the decrees laid down by his sovereign and the laws of Spain. He did his evil work far beyond any Spanish imperial jurisdiction, riding time and again deep into Indian country in search of peaceful victims he might easily enslave and send for sale in Mexico City.

But Alcaraz was worried that he had forced his posse of tough riders too far, farther north than any Spaniard had ever ridden before. With his men worn down by hunger and fear, he ordered a retreat, and they set out on the slow march south to the remote imperial outpost of Culiacán, the tiny military base they temporarily called home.

Culiacán was the farthest settlement on the most distant frontier of the vast Spanish Empire, a rough settlement on the green and pleasant banks of the San Lorenzo River. It marked the northern limit of a rich, fertile province known as New Galicia, ruled over by Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, by almost all accounts a "natural gangster" and one of the most merciless and pitiless of men. Yet like so many conquistadors, he was as audacious, dynamic, and brave as he was bloody.

Alcaraz was cast in Guzmán's image; they were two psychopaths with a common, perfidious ambition. They sought out violence for violence's sake. They raped and pillaged, and with their plunder and the slaves they took, they could afford the cost of further violent missions. It was this cycle that had led Alcaraz and his men to overstretch themselves in the remote region they now hoped to find their way out of.

They backtracked for a week until they reached the lush and verdant banks of the Sinaloa River, where Alcaraz ordered his men to set their camp. This was some respite, at least, from the endless flat plain, covered in scrub. Some of the men thought they recognized the river. Early the following morning, he sent his most trusted man, Lázaro de Cebreros, to search for the trail to Culiacán, or for someone who could guide them there.

As Cebreros set out with three companions, he no doubt pondered the recent past. Only three years earlier, another slaving expedition to the region had found Indians wearing jewelry of horseshoe nails and other European objects. One man even had a scrap of material from a cape.

"Where did you get these things?" the Spaniards had asked. Eventually, they were told a grim story. A troubled Spanish ship had put into a nearby harbor, the crew had come ashore in search of succor and safety, and every one of them had been mercilessly massacred by Indian warriors.

Now, in the cool of early morning, as Cebreros and his companions went about their task, they suddenly tensed. Alert with fear, they sensed danger moving in the bush. Soon, Indians appeared. Cebreros watched as a group of fourteen or fifteen men approached along the trail. Instinctively, the Spaniards reached for their swords.

Then, as the Indians came closer, Cebreros noticed that these usually beardless men seemed to be led by a strikingly hirsute African, tanned deeply black by the relentless sun. Close behind him was a European, his blond hair and long beard bleached almost white. Both wore feather headdresses and carried the sacred rattles of Indian shamans or medicine men. Rude tunics sewn from deer pelts half-covered their nearly naked bodies. They went unshod, their feet deeply lined and cracked.

The two groups stared at each other a while. Then the blond man stepped forward. "Take me to your leader!" he ordered. He may have looked sinister, with his lion-like mane and Indian clothes, but he spoke with the familiar accent and arrogance of an Andalusian aristocrat.

Cebreros and his men were dumbfounded, struck silent by such a strange and improbable meeting.

These two men were Esteban, an African slave; and Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish nobleman. One or two days' journey back along the trail were their two Spanish companions: Andrés Dorantes, Esteban's legal owner; and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, a doctor's son. These four men were the only survivors of the disastrous expedition of 300 would-be conquistadors who had landed at Tampa Bay eight years before, filled with confidence that they could conquer Florida for Spain.

Crossing the Continent 1527-1540. Copyright © by Robert Goodwin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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From the Publisher
"Goodwin succeeds in lifting an important historical figure out of the fog of myth." —-The Washington Post

Meet the Author

Robert Goodwin is a Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London. He has also studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies at University College London, and in Spain at the universities of Granada and Seville. Goodwin lives in London.

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Crossing the Continent, 1527-1540: The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a scholarly writing with a small amount of story. It was interesting to learn about Esteban, a black slave who crossed from Florida to Mexico by foot with three shipwrecked Spaniards. There wasn't much recorded about him though and most of the book was the author's search for records and descriptions of Spanish life and his contemporary experiences.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Author Robert Goodwin provides an interesting and elaborate account of the first outside explorer of the American South, an African slave called Esteban Dorantes. As Goodwin writes in his introduction, "Esteban became the pivotal character in the amazing adventures he and his Spanish companions lived through during the first crossing of North America in recorded history. The story is well documented because an official report based on the testimony of the three spanish survivors..." What makes this nonfiction particularly interesting is the overall background of Spain and African Slavery during that time period (early to mid-16th Century). This book is quite cerebral on several levels and also explores spiritual issues of the exploration. It has lots of textual information but not a map of the routes traveled as may exist in many explorer books, one probably should familiarize oneself with a map if one is not familiar with the areas mentioned in the book. On this level, it is expected that the reader is familiar with the map areas of terrain covered, making it more scholarly than a mass-market book. It is easy reading, but not quick-reading material. I am halfway through this book and I find the content quite amazing as not only are they explorers, but also pioneers of good will messages amid brutal areas in some of their travels.