How many people know that the first Post Colombian explorer to reach Arizona was a Black Muslim? His name was Esteban. When Esteban first arrived in the New World he was not listed among the crew but the cargo. It was noted that a hidalgo named Dorrantes had brought along two slaves on the Navarez expedition.
The Navarez expedition was a complete disaster. More than four hundred men set out to conquer Florida under Navaraez’ command and only four would survive. Four conquistadors, Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, Dorrantes and his slave Esteban wandered slowly westward, always expecting to find Mexico City over the next hill. From beginning to end the journey took nine years and covered thousands of miles. It is believed they became the first conquistadors to enter Arizona somewhere around the Chiricuahua Mountains.
Faster than Europeans could reach the interior of the North American continent, germs and disease were racing inland, creating plague and devastation. Everywhere the conquistadors went the local populace was devastated by plague. The four men began to perform faith healings, and were soon given credit for miraculous cures including curing the blind and raising the dead. They soon were accompanied by thousands of Native Americans who believed the lost and wondering conquistadors to be holy men and referred to them as the Children of the Sun.
Upon their triumphant return to Mexico City, Cabeza de Vaca wrote a book about the experience which contained rumors of undiscovered wealthy kingdoms on the northern frontier. These kingdoms made of gold were called The Seven Cities of Cibola. When the Moors were overrunning the Iberian Peninsula in the 700’s there were stories that the seven bishops of Antilles had fitted a sailing ship and sailed west. When Cortes overthrew the Aztec empire, all the looted gold made Spain the richest nation in the world. The Aztecs had an origin story that detailed them migrating from a place called the Seven Caves of Aztlan. Now De Vaca, Esteban and the other members of a long lost expedition arrived with news of a rich kingdom to the north called Seven Cities of Cibola. Seven, seven, seven, many believed that it could not be a coincidence and urgent demands for an expedition to head north soon followed.
Esteban was the only surviving member of the Navaraez expedition willing to return to the wilderness frontier. However, the Spanish never would have allowed for a Black Muslim slave to lead an expedition of Christians. The governor of Mexico put Fray Marcos de Niza, a religious man, in charge of the exploration party. On the Arizona border with Mexico, at the tiny town of Lochiel, a monument was erected to designate the spot where Esteban and De Niza may or may not have crossed into what is now Arizona in 1539.
Esteban quickly shed his European clothing, stripping down to a loincloth, feathers, and body paint. At every village Esteban would announce, “I am a Child of the Sun, perhaps you have heard of me, line up your women and bring me some turquoise.” Esteban quickly assembled an entourage of five hundred followers and a harem of fifty women. De Niza complained in his journal about Esteban’s “frequent, loud and vigorous” enjoyment of his harem. Esteban was soon sent ahead in his familiar role as a scout.
Esteban and much of his entourage were slaughtered by the Zuni at the village of Hawikuh. A frightened de Niza got a glimpse of the adobe pueblo in the distance as the sun was setting and declared that it was made of gold. He returned to the colonial capitol of Mexico City and the stories got grander.
A new expedition set out, this one led by Francisco Vazquez de Coronado with Fray Marcos de Niza as scout. The Coronado expedition was tremendous with hundreds of men, many of them astride horses as their metal armor gleamed in the sun. There were hundreds of followers, many of them Native Americans from further south in Mexico. There was livestock; cows, sheep and horses. These were the first domestic animals besides dogs to enter North America. From the southwest, horses spread all across the continent, traded from native peoples to native peoples, changing culture after culture.
When Coronado and his soldiers arrived at Hawikuh they were enraged to discover the adobe pueblo walls were made of mud not gold. They were so angry they almost hung the priest Marcos de Niza. They invaded anyways. Coronado was almost killed when one of the Zuni warriors defending the pueblo threw a rock which struck Coronado in the helmet. Dazed, Coronado was pulled from the fray by his officers. The Coronado expedition split up into many smaller groups who scattered and made themselves a terrible nuisance all across the region.
The soldiers under Cardenas were the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon. They were unimpressed until they sent two scouts ahead to try and cross it. Believing California to be an island, a small force under Alarcon was sent by boat to resupply Coronado in New Mexico. They towed their sailing ship up the Colorado River for many weeks before abandoning their journey. A small band of hearty adventurers under the command of Melchior Diaz was sent across some of the most rugged deserts on planet earth to meet up with Alarcon. The Diaz group consisted of about fourteen conquistadors and forty sheep. The wolves in the area were very happy about the sheep. While battling the wolves, Melchior Diaz impaled himself upon his own lance and died soon after. His ghost is said to rise from the desert sands on full moon nights, still astride his horse and ready to battle the ghost of wolves who have been extinct in this region since the 1970s. Coronado and his men conquered the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico before departing to invade Kansas while looking for another lost mythical city called Quivira. Quivira was never found and the Coronado expedition returned to Mexico City after a couple years, deemed a failure. Cardenas later wrote in his journals that if instead of looking for lost cities of gold they had noticed the wonderful countryside around them, they could have become farmers and ranchers, leaving behind vast estates for their future grandsons. Instead they were consumed only with gold.