We have been taught that the populating of the Americas began with the migration of Asian peoples across the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska, and this is true. They were followed thousands of years later by European explorers, mostly Spanish, and then by European settlers. It was only later that African peoples arrived in the New World as part of the transatlantic slave trade. But Africans, both slave and free, arrived beginning with Columbus at the end of the 15th Century, more that 100 years before the English and Dutch appeared. Gathered together here are a number of stories about individuals of African ancestry and their experiences in the New World. ALL of these people and events were prior to the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
THE STORY OF PEDRO ALONSO NINO (1492 through 1505)
A navigator and explorer of African ancestry, Pedro Alonso Nino traveled with Christopher Columbus’ first expedition to the New World in 1492. He was also known as “El Negro” (The Black). Pedro Nino was the pilot of Columbus’ ship the “Santa Maria.” In 1493, he also accompanied Columbus on the explorer’s second voyage which discovered Trinidad and the mouth of the Orinoco River in South America, piloting one of the 17 ships in the fleet. This voyage also brought the first Africans, who were actually free men, to Hispaniola. Pedro Nino led his own expedition, financed by the Council of Castile, to find gold and pearls in areas not already discovered by Columbus. He returned to Spain very wealthy but did not live up to an agreement he had with the King to turn over 20% of his treasure (known as “The Royal Fifth”). He was arrested and died in prison before his trial.
AFRICANS ASSIST BALBOA IN DICOVERING THE PACIFIC OCEAN (1513)
Vasco Nunez de Balboa founded the first permanent European settlement on mainland American soil in 1510. It was called Santa Maria and was located near today’s Cartagena, Columbia. Balboa brought in enslaved Africans from Hispaniola to help construct the village. Three years later, with 190 Spanish Conquistadores and 30 African auxiliaries, Balboa sailed to the Isthmus of Panama. The expedition headed overland through the dense rainforests. Along the way, his men fought many local Indians, killing hundreds and taking their gold. From a hilltop in modern Panama, Balboa became the first European to see the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean, which he claimed for Spain. The African contingent became the first of their race to see the Pacific as well.
BUILDING SETTLEMENTS IN HISPANIOLA (1517)
Bishop Bartolome de Las Casas petitions Spain to allow the importation of 12 enslaved Africans for each household immigrating to the colony in Hispaniola. Africans were used to replace the devastated native population as enslaved laborers. Criticisms of Las Casas point to him as responsible for starting the transatlantic slave trade. Yet later in life, he apologized for his earlier views and declared that all forms of slavery were wrong.
THE STORY OF JUAN GARRIDO (1513 through 1538)
He was born in Africa. As a young man he was taken to Seville as a slave. There is no record of his tribal name, but he took the name Juan Garrido meaning “Handsome John” while a servant to the Spaniard Pedro Garrido. About 1502, Juan arrived in Santo Domingo as part of an expedition to the new world. He was among the first Africans to land in the Americas. He was trained in the military arts of the “conquistadors.” Garrido was counted among the men that went with Ponce de Leon on his search for the Fountain of Youth in Florida in 1513.
In 1519, he was a member of the expedition led by Hernan Cortes that invaded Mexico, beginning the conquest of the Aztecs. They laid siege to the city of Tenochtitlan and conquered it. The following year, Juan Garrido built a chapel to honor the many Spanish soldiers killed by the Aztecs. But the Aztecs regrouped and retook the city. In 1521, the Spanish finally defeated the native population and Tenochtitlan was renamed Mexico City.
Garrido settled in Mexico City, married, and raised a family but he was denied land and Spanish citizenship because of his ancestry. After years as a soldier, he had to provide proof of his service. In 1538, he testified, “I, Juan Garrido, black in color, a resident of this city appear before Your Mercy to provide evidence. I served Your Majesty in the conquest and pacification of New Spain, from the time when Hernan Cortes entered it. And in his company, I was present at all the invasions which were carried out. All of which I did at my own expense without being given either salary or allotment of natives. I went to discover and pacify the islands of Puerto Rico, and also I went on the conquest of the island of Cuba with Diego Velazquez. For thirty years I have served Your Majesty.” Juan Garrido received his allowance of land and became a farmer. Later he produces the first commercial wheat crop in the New World.
THE FIRST AFRICANS COME TO PRESENT DAY U.S. TERRITORY (1526)
The Spanish expedition of Lucas Vasquez Allyon planned to establish a European colony on the coast of North Carolina. In late 1526, six hundred settlers landed and laid out the village of San Miguel de Gualdape. Time was running short as winter approached so a group of Africans were brought in to erect the settlement. It was the first instance of African slave labor to be used within the territory of today’s United States. The colony only lasted for six months as the severe winter, hunger, and disease ravaged the population. When disputes arose between groups of Europeans, the slaves took an opportunity to gain their freedom. They fled to the interior and settled among the local Indian populations, or “re-indigenized.” It was the first recorded slave rebellion in North America.
THE STORY OF ESTEBAN (1527 through 1539)
Estevanico, better known to history as Esteban (or “Little Stephen”) is considered the first Black Conquistador. Born in Africa, the ten-year old was brought to Spain in 1513 as a slave. The boy became the personal servant of his master, Andres de Dorantes.
A decade later both Dorantes and Esteban joined the expedition of Narvaez to conquer Florida for Spain. The Spanish King had granted to Narvaez all of what is today the Gulf Coast of the U.S. provided he establish several villages and forts in the region. Six hundred Spanish, Portuguese, and African troops arrived in Santiago, Cuba, in the autumn of 1527. In April of 1528, the expedition entered Tampa Bay and landed near present day St. Petersburg. Narvaez was declared the Royal Governor of La Florida. Not long after, Timucua and Apalachee warriors attacked the expedition using guerrilla tactics.
The Spanish struggled for survival and had to build new boats using tools recast from their iron weapons. Only 242 soldiers remained. Gulf storms then reduced this number to 80. A hurricane washed the last remaining four men ashore near the site of Galveston, Texas. Surviving was Cabeza de Vaca (an explorer), Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Dorantes, and his servant Estaban. They were the first men from Europe and Africa to enter the southwestern part of the U.S.
Esteban was captured by natives and held as their slave for five years. He finally escaped and rejoined the other three. Esteban was adept at learning native languages and acted as a translator for the group. These four men proceeded to walk from south Texas through New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico all the way to Mexico City. Their journey took four years
In 1536, Estaban accompanied Cabeza de Vaca on explorations in northern Mexico. He served as an interpreter and scout for the de Vaca Expedition; and later took command of the group after natives killed its leader. Three years later, he was part of an expedition led by Friar Marcos de Niza from Mexico City into the far north of New Spain. It was a reconnaissance in force that scouted the terrain for Francisco Coronado’s search for the “Seven Cities of Gold.” Esteban was popular with the native tribes he encountered until reaching northeast New Mexico. There, the Zuni’s saw him as a harbinger of death. He was killed at the Zuni town of Hawikuh, just east of the present day border of Arizona and New Mexico. His reports indicated that he had seen a city “as large as Mexico City” on a hill and that it looked wealthy - but Coronado was never able to find the city that Esteban saw.
THE BLACK CONQUISTODORS (1520 through 1600)
Although most Africans came to America, in the early days, as slaves; records show that many black freedmen from Seville and other Spanish cities found passage to the New World either to settle in the Caribbean region or to follow the conquests of Mexico and Peru. They identified themselves as Catholic subjects to the King with the same privileges as opportunities as white Spaniards.
Many people of African descent used military service as a means to emancipation and inclusion in Spanish society. As the numbers of settlers in Spanish territory increased, the Black Conquistadors acted as pacifiers and security forces. Some of them were awarded land grants and special recognition.
Notable Black Conquistadors included Juan Garrido and Estaban (both mentioned earlier) as well as Sabastian Toral who fought in the conquest of the Yucatan and Juan Valiente who helped pacify Guatemala, Peru, and Chile. Some, like Juan Garcia, fought well then returned to Spain as wealthy men.
Conquistadors of African ancestry accompanied the expedition of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado from Mexico City to what is now central Kansas. Some Africans remained behind in Kansas and New Mexico after Coronado departed, and are believed to have been absorbed into the native tribes.
AFRICAN POPULATION SOARS (1570)
Between 1519 and 1600, about 151,000 “Spanish” Africans arrived in the Americas. The population of colonial Mexico included 20,600 blacks and 2,500 mulattoes. This is more than three decades before the first English colonists arrive in the Virginia.
THE STORY OF ISABEL DE OLVERA (1598)
Isabel de Olvera, a free woman living in Mexico, accompanied the Juan Guerra de Resa Expedition which colonized what is now New Mexico. She is best known for a deposition given before a Spanish court avowing her rights before her journey.
“I am going on the expedition to New Mexico and have some reason to fear that I may be annoyed by some individuals since I am a mulatta, and it is proper to protect my rights in such an eventuality by an affidavit showing that I am a free woman and the legitimate daughter of Hernando, a Negro, and an Indian woman. I therefore request your grace to accept this affidavit which shows that I am free and not bound by marriage or slavery. I request that a properly certified and signed copy be given to me in order to protect my rights, and that carry full legal authority. I demand justice.” Despite her fear, Isabel made the journey.
YANGA LEADS HIS PEOPLE TO INDEPENDENCE (1570 through 1609)
Gaspar Yanga, a slave but also a member of the royal family of Gabon in western Central Africa, becomes a leader of revolting African slaves near Vera Cruz, Mexico, during the height of the Spanish Empire. His people escaped bondage and hid in the forests of the Mexican highlands for thirty years. They survived in the rugged terrain by capturing Spanish supply caravans.
In 1609, the Spanish government decided to end this revolt once and for all. A force of 600 troops moved into the area to face Yanga’s outnumbered and poorly armed colony. At first Yanga offered peace terms similar to those accepted from native tribes. They were refused by the Spanish. Therefore, Yanga decided to use his knowledge of the terrain to resist the invasion
THE STORY OF ANTONIO THE NEGRO (1619)
One of the few recorded histories, and taken from court records, of an African in America tells the story of “Antonio the negro.” He was brought to the Jamestown colony in 1619. His name is recorded in the 1625 Virginia census. English law does not define racial slavery, so he was called simply an indentured servant. After securing his freedom by paying off his debt, Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson, married an African woman, and had four children; and the family was free. They went on to own land, buildings, and livestock. Still, by 1650, the Johnsons were only six of the 400 Africans among the Virginia Colony’s 19,000 settlers.