This article was published online on May 4, 2021.
When I was growing up in Conroe, Texas, about 40 miles north of Houston, my classmates and I took Texas history twice, in the fourth and seventh grades. We learned about Texas’s history in the United States, its previous existence as a republic, and its time as a province of Mexico. Among other things, we were exhorted to “remember the Alamo” and “remember Goliad,” famous events in Texas’s fight for independence from Mexico. Some other aspects of the state’s history were less covered. I didn’t need school lessons to tell me that Black people had been enslaved in Texas, but in the early days of my education, the subject was not often mentioned.
Some of our lessons did, however, involve the “period of Spanish exploration.” And I remember hearing in those lessons stray references to a man of African descent—a “Negro” named Estebanico—who traveled throughout what would become Texas. Estebanico was described, according to Andrés Reséndez’s book A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, as a “black Arab from Azamor,” on the coast of Morocco. A Muslim, he had been forced to convert to Christianity and sold away from his home to Spain; he eventually found his way to Texas in the company of the famous explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. He arrived in the area of the future Galveston, where Union General Gordon Granger would proclaim the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery in Texas more than 300 years later, on the day now known as Juneteenth. Estebanico’s journey across Texas as an interpreter for Cabeza de Vaca made him one of the first people of African descent to enter the historical record in the Americas. He was part of a cohort of African people who predated plantation slavery in the Americas, and had stories and legacies outside that institution. And the time in which he entered the story of the continent—in the 1520s—is roughly a century earlier than when the most popular stories about Black people in America begin.
The arrival in Virginia in the early 1600s of “20. and odd negroes,” as John Rolfe announced, is often taken as the beginning of what we might call Black America—from that 20 to nearly 47 million souls today. Historians study those earliest years to, among other things, pinpoint the beginning of American slavery. They also look to this time to see if they can discover how deeply ideas about race were embedded in the culture of the people who established the English colony in Virginia. From these histories, people create and curate origin stories, of both themselves and the ideas they hold. And what these stories leave out—including Estebanico, the period of Spanish exploration, and years of Black and Indigenous history on the continent—is as important as what they include.
Origin stories matter, for individuals, groups of people, and nations. They inform our sense of self, telling us what kind of people we believe we are, what kind of nation we believe we live in. They usually carry, at least, a hope that where we started might hold the key to where we are in the present. We can say, then, that much of the concern over origin stories is about our current needs and desires, not actual history. Origin stories seek to find the familiar, or the superficially familiar—memory, sometimes shading into mythology. Both memory and mythology have their uses, even if they must be separated from the facts of the past. But in the case of Black people, the limitations of the history and possibility of our origin stories have helped create and maintain an extremely narrow construction of Blackness.
The two origin stories that American children are most often taught are those of Jamestown, Virginia, an English colony founded in 1607 as a moneymaking venture, and Plymouth, Massachusetts, where people escaped religious persecution in 1620. The latter narrative is more inspirational and more in keeping with America’s sense of moral exceptionalism than the former, which is perhaps why it has tended to loom larger in the American mind. Both origin stories emphasize the triumph of amity over enmity between Indigenous people and English settlers, something very different from what actually happened. But Black people are absent in the story of Plymouth, and the role of Jamestown as a hub of chattel slavery is often minimized. For Black Americans, neither origin story is sufficient.
Another origin story might be more suitable. St. Augustine, Florida, was not at all a part of my early education, but it’s where race-based slavery, as an organized system, began on American soil, established by the Spanish as early as 1565. Enslaved and free African laborers helped build the settlement and its fortifications. In 1693, the king of Spain offered freedom in Florida to enslaved people who escaped from the British colonies if they converted to Catholicism and swore their allegiance, and in 1738, the Spanish governor established a settlement for them in St. Augustine. The story of Africans in St. Augustine is rich, as documented in surviving parish records. The settlement of free Blacks existed in some form until the British acquired Florida in the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
I had heard of St. Augustine by the time I got to college. But even then, it was presented as a historical footnote. The English had “won” the contest against the Spanish in North America—in Texas and in Florida. What was the point of incorporating this story of Africans and Spanish people into the general narrative of American history or, more specifically, the history of African Americans? The same could be said of the French, in their beaver-trapping colonies near the Great Lakes. They were “also rans” in the race for the territory that became the United States. The French influence in Louisiana—its civil-law approach to marriage, its stratification of people of African descent into several social spheres based on white ancestry, the French Quarter in New Orleans, the arrival of Cajuns (descendants of the people exiled in the 18th century from the French colony Acadia by the victorious British)—has been treated as mere seasoning for a culture almost universally recognized as Anglo-American. Similarly, the brief period of Dutch slave ownership in New York is almost totally out of the picture.
The story of Estebanico is part of this historical marginalia. Estebanico came to the Americas with the man who enslaved him, Andrés Dorantes, and Cabeza de Vaca, two of the leaders of a 300-person expedition to Florida and lands west. A series of disasters—food shortages, illness, and skirmishes with Indigenous people—spurred them to cross the Gulf. The men built rafts and split up, 50 men to a raft.
Dorantes, Estebanico, and most of the men on their raft made it to Texas, as did Cabeza de Vaca and most of the men on his. The other parties landed south of them and died as a consequence of either attacks by Native Americans or starvation. Dorantes’s party made contact with Cabeza de Vaca and his party. Many died during a cold and hard winter. Estebanico ended up in a small group with Dorantes, Cabeza de Vaca, and another man. Their ordeal moved into another phase when they were enslaved by Indigenous groups living along the Texas Gulf Coast. The men endured almost six years of slavery but eventually managed to escape. They then embarked upon an epic journey, walking for about 10 months across Texas and Mexico to the Pacific Coast.
Cabeza de Vaca, who wrote a widely read memoir about the extraordinary adventure, noted that Estebanico had played a key role as the chief translator between the Spaniards and the Indigenous people they encountered along the way, because of his great talent for learning and speaking languages. Estebanico appears to have achieved a measure of respect among his fellow explorers, but that respect disappeared once he and his fellow wanderers came upon a group of Spaniards in what is now Sinaloa State, in northwestern Mexico. Once they were safe and back among a strong complement of other Spaniards, Estebanico’s Spanish companions were again in their element, and Estebanico was, again, their slave.
Like Estebanico’s journey, the experiences of so many other Black people and communities have been pushed to the sidelines, held in thrall to the prerogatives of white storytellers and the needs of white origin stories: The United States’ own nationalist-oriented history focuses intensely on what happened within the boundaries of the British colonies, and on the perspective of English-speaking people. The world enclosed in that way leaves out so much about the true nature of life in early America, about all the varied influences that shaped the people and circumstances during those times. That focus prevents vital understanding about contingency—how things could have taken a different turn.
According to the conventional narrative with which most Americans, it is safe to say, are familiar, Black people came to North America under the power of the English from places that were never clearly identified, because where they came from didn’t matter much. They went from speaking the languages of their homelands to speaking English. They worked on plantations, in the fields or in the house. This highly edited origin story winds the Black experience tight. To be sure, the institution of slavery itself circumscribed the actions of enslaved Black people, but it never destroyed their personhood. They did not become a separate species because of the experience of being enslaved. All of the feelings, talents, failings, strengths, and weaknesses—all of the states and qualities that exist in human beings—remained in them. There has been too great a tendency within some presentations of enslaved people to lose sight of that fact, in ways obvious and not.
We can see this tendency in the historical treatment of that most basic of human traits: the ability of enslaved people to acquire language and speak. Estebanico’s talent for languages might seem to mark him as exceptional, but actually helps us understand the multilingual nature of slavery and enslaved people. For example, Dutch was the first language of the noted abolitionist Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree in Swartekill, New York, near the end of the 1790s. She almost certainly spoke English with a Dutch-inflected accent. Yet reproductions of her speech were written in the stereotypical dialect universally chosen to portray the speech of enslaved Black people, no matter where in the country they lived. Under this formulation, the experiences of growing up hearing and speaking Dutch had no effect on Truth. It was as if the legal status of being enslaved and the biological reality of having been born of African descent fixed her pattern of speech, almost as a matter of brain function.
When I was working on my first book, writing about the way historians had handled the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, I noticed that one line of attack on the veracity of Madison Hemings’s statements to the journalist Samuel Wetmore, in which he said that he was the son of Jefferson and Hemings, was to suggest that they were unreliable because they had been recorded in standard English. The notion that a formerly enslaved person could speak that way was treated as presumptively incredible. Even a brief thought about the circumstances of Hemings’s life, viewing him as a human being, tells a different story. Hemings’s recollections make clear that his older siblings—Beverley and Harriet—left Monticello to live as white people. Both married white people who may not have known that their spouses were partly Black and had been born enslaved. The communities where they lived evidently did not know that either.
How did Madison Hemings’s siblings live convincingly as white if they spoke in the dialect applied universally to enslaved people? Why would Madison speak differently than his siblings? Taking into account the Hemingses’ actual circumstances would have proved absurd the assumption that Madison Hemings could not have spoken in the way portrayed in his conversation with Wetmore.
A similar analysis, or lack of analysis, has often been at play in writings about the Hemings children’s mother, Sally. As I have traveled the country talking about the books I have written about the Hemings family, I’ve been struck by the responses to the fact that Sally Hemings and her brother James learned to speak French during their years in France. On several occasions I have been asked, with seeming wonder, how they could have learned to speak French. How could they have gotten along there? Because slavery in the United States was racially based, it was easy to graft the legally imposed incapacities of slavery onto Black people as a group, making incapacity an inherent feature of the race.
Perhaps there is something about French, for a long time the language of diplomacy and culture. It is considered “fancy” in a way that goes along with the country’s cuisine and vaunted high fashion—haute cuisine, haute couture. What of individuals born at the lowest rung of society? Could enslaved people, Black people, ever lay claim to sophistication? More than a century after James and Sally Hemings’s time in France, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, while contemplating a crisis in Haiti, exclaimed, “Dear me. Think of it. N*****s speaking French.”
The fiction that has African Americans naturally speaking in a particular way, or unable to learn a language, slyly promotes the notion that Black people are somewhat less than human. At the very least, the ideas about Black people and language convey the supposed gulf that exists between the races. Editors and interviewers for the Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives of the 1930s, which gathered the recollections of formerly enslaved people, engaged in a concerted effort to render the speech of the interviewees into stereotypical Black dialect. As a result, the accents and speech of all the interviewees—whether from Virginia or Georgia or Texas—appear exactly the same. The exaggerated dialect was supposed to signal “authenticity”—an authenticity defined by incapacity.
I don’t recall whether Estebanico’s language skills featured in the fleeting mention that was made of him in my early education. I do wonder what difference it might have made to my and my classmates’ understanding about the enslaved to have had a more fully realized example of someone who displayed such perseverance and talent. Estebanico was a flawed man—there were complaints about his treatment of some of the women he encountered, and he ultimately died in a hail of arrows, killed by Native Americans after he insisted on taking gifts of “turquoise and women” from them—but even these negative notes would have helped us see him as a human being with strengths and weaknesses. We would have encountered a known person, to substitute for the nameless people in cotton fields who, at least in my education, never broke out or appeared as anything other than fungible agricultural workers. Of course, I know now that the lives of enslaved field-workers were more complicated than portrayed during my childhood, and worshipping heroism, as typically defined, works against the idea that the lives of common people count and hold lessons for us as well. But learning that the Spanish explorers and the Indigenous people they encountered and lived with at times relied on Estebanico to help them speak with each other brings another dimension to our understandings about slavery and the people enslaved.
Even more, knowing that some of the Black people who came to the Americas with the Spanish went off on their own to lead expeditions in Mexico, Central America, and South America would have altered the framework for viewing people of African descent in the New World. Africans were all over the globe, having all kinds of experiences. Some founded free settlements, decades before the English arrived. Some, like Estebanico, were instruments of conquests. Some became bound to the institution of chattel slavery. But in all that, one thing is certain: Blackness does not equal inherent incapacity or limitation.
Over the past several decades, academic historians have emphasized that enslaved people in North America did more than work in the fields. The insights from this scholarship have filtered down to public-history sites where enslaved people lived and labored, changing the presentations at those places. If one goes to Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia, one sees actors portraying enslaved people who were skilled artisans of one sort or another. At Monticello, guides point out the work of John Hemmings, the carpenter and joiner who made furniture for Jefferson and worked on the physical structures of both Monticello and Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s home away from home in Bedford County, 90 miles from his mountaintop mansion.
As has been said many times, Black history is American history. People of African descent, however, occupy a special place in the narrative of the rise and fall of European nations in North America. For all its problems, nationalist-oriented history presented a cogent telling of the origins of the United States, though a superficial one. It made some degree of sense to sunset the influence of the other European nations with which the English settlers contended for control of the continent. American culture continued under the influence of what had been, at the time of the separation, a British society.
But a closer look at the story of the 20 or so Africans who landed at Jamestown contains a hint of the broader nature of the origin story: The Africans, from the region of Angola, had been taken after a battle with a Portuguese galleon. The Spanish, and their Portuguese neighbors, had been enslaving Africans, working with elites within African societies, for centuries by this time. The English were relative newcomers to the practice. The field of Atlantic history, which studies the era of contact among the peoples of Africa, Europe, and the Americas in the 16th through 18th centuries, began to take hold in the 1980s, when I was in college and law school. It has expanded further, as a challenge to inward-looking nationalist history. Thinking of these interactions as part of a global system makes even more clear that the origin story of Africans in North America is much richer and more complicated than many people like to believe.
Would it make sense for African Americans enslaved under English rule to think they had absolutely no connection to enslaved people who spoke Spanish or French? What enslaved Africans had in common, what really ordered their lives, was the experience of enslavement in a world where the notion of white supremacy was ascendant. National borders cannot contain the experiences shared by families enslaved across the Caribbean and the entire breadth of two continents. There is no reason for the people taken from Africa to define themselves strictly by the countries, languages, or societal roles their captors created. Even though the Spanish “lost” Texas and Florida, Estebanico and the Spanish-speaking Blacks of St. Augustine should be seen as a part of the origin story of African Americans. The echoes of that world reverberated from the 1500s through to my classrooms in the 1960s and ’70s, and continue to reverberate today.
This article has been adapted from Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book, On Juneteenth. It appears in the June 2021 print edition with the headline “Estebanico’s America.”