History texts for American school children and high schoolers used to spend a lot of time on explorers. It was part of a narrative that began with Columbus and saw the New World as something to be conquered and tamed for European use and occupation in which native peoples were seen only as obstacles to be brushed aside or exterminated. Perhaps that version is obsolete now and some more thoughtful analysis is now taught. Even so the participation of Africans, slaves, and servants in explorations is generally little more than a footnote. But today we will note three cases spanning more than 400 years—Esteban the Moor; York, the body slave of Captain William Clark on the expedition of the Corps of Discovery; and Matthew Henson, at first the personal valet of Polar explorer Robert E. Peary.
Esteban a/k/a Estevanico (Little Stephen), or as Esteban de Dorantes was probably born in Morocco around 1500. He was, of course, born a Muslim named Mustafa Azemmouri. He was captured as a young man by Portuguese slavers and eventually sold to the Spanish nobleman Andrés Dorantes de Carranza about 1522. Like many ambitious young Spaniards, especially younger sons who could not expect to inherit their father’s estate under the rule of primogenitor, Dorantes paid to join an expedition of Conquistadors hoping to find his fortune. He traveled to Cuba with his slave. In order to make the voyage Mustafa had to at least nominally become a Catholic, and was Baptized Esteban.
In 1528 master and slave joined the expedition of adelantado (governor) of La Florida, Pánfilo de Narváez. Narváez landed in present-day St. Petersburg on the shores of Boca Ciega Bay. Narváez ordered that his ships and 100 men and 10 women sail north in search of a large harbor that his pilots assured them was nearby. He led 300 men, with 42 horses, north along the coast, intending to rejoin his ships at the large harbor but no such haven existed and Narváez never saw his ships again.
After marching 300 miles north, they built boats to sail westward along the Gulf Coast shoreline hoping to reach Pánuco and the Rio de las Palmas. A storm struck them when they were near Galveston Island. Only about 80 men survived the gale, and were washed ashore on the island. After 1529, three survivors from one boat, including Esteban, were enslaved by Coahuiltecan natives and three years later they were reunited with a survivor from a different boat, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.
The four men escaped captivity in 1534 and traveled west into Texas and Northern Mexico. They were the first Europeans and the first African to enter the American West. Having walked nearly 2,000 epic miles since their initial landing in Florida, they finally reached a Spanish settlement in Sinaloa and then travelled to Mexico City, 1,000 miles to the south.
Cabeza de Vaca describe their odyssey in his 1542 book, the Relación the first ever published describing the peoples, wildlife, flora, and fauna of inland North America, and the first to describe the American bison. Describing Esteban as a “Black Moor” de Vaca who described him as the one who went in advance of the other three survivors, as he was the most able to communicate with the natives that they encountered. In other words the already polylingual slave was able to quickly learn at least the rudiments of the languages and signing of the tribes they encountered.
The four lived for some time with some of the natives and were said to be honored as medicine men, likely because the retained some fire arms and powder as well as bits and pieces of armor. As medicine men they were treated with great respect and offered food, shelter, and gifts, and villages held celebrations in their honor. When they decided they wanted to leave, the host village would guide them to the next. The party traversed the continent as far as the Sonoran Desert to the region of Sonora in New Spain.
It was with those people that they heard stories of fabulous cities far to the West that came to be called the Seven Cities of Gold or Cíbola. When the survivors told their tale to Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain, he asked the Spaniards to form an expedition to locate that wealth. Understandably exhausted de Vaca and the others turned him down. Perhaps in exchange for the ownership of Esteban, those three were given passage back to Spain on one of the regular treasure galleons making the trip.No contemporary images of Esteban exist, but many have imagined him.
Mendoza paired Esteban with Friar Marcos de Niza who set off on the search in the cities in 1539, a year before the much larger party under Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. Esteban once again traveled ahead of the main party with a group of Sonoran Indians. He was instructed to communicate by sending back crosses to the main party, with the size of the cross equal to the wealth discovered. One day, a cross arrived that was as tall as a person, causing de Niza to step up his pace to join the scouts.
Esteban had apparently reached the A:shiwi, now known as Zuni, village of Hawikuh in present-day New Mexico. Accounts of Esteban’s fate differ but most say that the Zuni killed him and a large number of his party. De Niza quickly returned to New Spain.
Others, however claim that the Zuni faked his death as a cover to free him and that he lived happily among them for years. After years of wandering, suffering, and travail we can hope that was so.A statue of William Clark's slave and companion on the Lewis and Clark expedition York stands in Belvedere/Riverfront Plaza in Louisville, Kentucky. It was created by Ed Hamilton and dedicated in October 2003.
York was born in Virginia in 1770, the slave of John Clark III, the father of Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark and William Clark. York, who was two or three years older than William, was given to the younger son as a boy as his personal body servant, companion; mentor in hunting, fishing, and woodcraft. This was a common arrangement among the planter class. Such close relationships often fostered bonds of familiarity, affection, and within well-defined boundaries, something like friendship. This seems to have been the case between William and York, but the white lad was sometimes apt to fits of rage and may have beaten his companion. As they grew into men, York was ever at his master’s side.
York had a fiancée whom he rarely saw and lost contact with her after 1811 when she was sold to a Mississippi planter. This was often reserved has harsh punishment but her owner may have sold her as a favor to Clark who did not want York entangled with a family.
When President Thomas Jefferson picked his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis and Clark, a mere second lieutenant at the time as co-captains of the Corps of Discovery charged with exploring the upper reaches of the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase and possibly discover a long-dreamed of Northwest Passage by water to the Pacific coast there was no question that York would accompany his master.
After a year of preparation Clark and York departed Camp Dubois (English: Camp Wood), near present-day Wood River, Illinois on May 14, 1804. They traveled up the Mississippi River in their keelboat and two pirogues to St. Charles, Missouri where Lewis joined them six days later. The Corps of Discovery consisted of 45 men including hand-picked volunteer Army officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates as well as civilians and one slave. York seems to have been officially enrolled in the Army as Clark’s servant.
His presence was resented by some of the party. At least one man challenged York by saying “we don’t want no Niggers here!” and throwing sand in his face nearly blinding him in one eye. He had to stoically endure the assault because he would have been hanged if he struck a white man.
But York quickly proved himself a valuable asset to his companions by swimming ashore—almost none of the other men could swim—to collect greens for the dinner pot and shooting an elk as part of a hunting party. In defiance of law and custom York was permitted to carry arms. After confrontations with hostile Sioux on the Missouri River the Corps arrived in the more friendly territory of the Arikara who were fascinated with him having never seen a Black man before. They natives called him Big Medicine and he played with the children and told them that tall tales that he had been a wild animal that was tamed by Captain Clark and that he thought children were very good to eat. He would show them how strong he was and roar at them. The adult adored him too and one and one even led him to his dwelling to allow him to enjoy his wife for the night.York in a Mandan lodge was the object of curiosity for his black skin. Captains Lewis and Clark and a chief are seated right.
After wintering with the Mandan, the party departed west early the next spring. Now with them were two other outsiders who with York would do much to make the expedition successful. French-Canadian voyager and trapper Toussaint Charbonneau signed on as a guide and translator. Although the two Captains eventually came to distrust the Frenchman but he was essential as the Corps followed the Missouri and its tributaries west through modern Montana.
Charbonneau brought with him his teen age wife and her infant son who we know as Sacajawea. She had been captured from the distant Shoshone from the far side of the Shining Mountains by the Blackfoot from whom Charbonneau had purchased her. Her status as wife, was thus not voluntary and her husband often abused her. The young woman would save the expedition in one of its darkest hours when they met with they met the Shoshone including some of her kin. The tribe provided horses so that they could proceed to navigable waters draining into the Pacific Ocean.
The third outsider, York, proved himself increasingly useful to Clark, particularly when Lewis was laid up for extended periods of time suffering what we know recognize as severe depression caused by bi-polar disorder. Clark named two geographic discoveries after him—York’s Eight Islands and York’s Dry Creek, When a poll was taken to decide where the group should stay over one winter, York’s vote was recorded as if he was an equal member, That bitter winter was spent at well named Camp Disappointment. York became the first Black man to reach the Pacific Ocean when he walked nineteen miles from the camp with Captain Clark.
After their return in 1806 all the men of the expedition were paid according to rank $5 to $30 per month and granted 320 acres for each enlisted man, except for York. In recognition of his service York asked Clark to free him. Clark angrily refused and as punishment hired him out hard labor in Louisville, Kentucky.
Clark later told Washington Irving that he finally relented and manumitted York and gave him six horses and a large wagon to start a drayage business driving between Nashville and Richmond. As a Freeman plied this trade but ultimately failed when most customers refused to hire a Black man.
In despair he concluded that Blacks could not make a living as free men. He was reportedly trying to return to service with Clark who was living in retirement in St. Louis even though it meant he would have to return to bondage. He reportedly died of cholera in 1832 on his way to rejoin his master.
But like Esteban, stories circulated years later that a Black man living among the Crow in 1934 who claimed to have served with the Corps of Discovery.Matthew Henson, Polar explorer in his warm Inuit furs.
Our final explorer is Matthew Henson who at age 21 in 1887 was hired by U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Second Lieutenant Robert E. Peary as a personal valet. But from the beginning the young Black man was much more than a servant who laid out his master’s clothes in the morning and polished his shoes. He quickly became an all-around aide and eventually a virtual partner in polar explorations that spanned 23 years. He was also the only one of our three adventurers who received significant public recognition in his life time.
Henson was born on August 8, 1866 on his parents farm east of the Potomac River in Charles County, Maryland, who had been free people of color before the Civil War. The family was victims of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, who terrorized freedmen and former free people of color after the war. To escape from racial violence in southern Maryland, in 1867 the Henson family sold the farm and moved to Georgetown, then still an independent town adjacent to the national capital.
After his father’s early death he was sent to Washington, D.C. to live with an uncle and had a few years of education a black public school. At the age of ten the boy, previously at best an indifferent scholar attended a speech by Frederick Douglass who urge Black youth to vigorously pursue educational opportunities and battle for racial prejudice.
But two years later a keen sense of adventure led him to quit school and sign on as a cabin boy on the merchant ship Katie Hines out of Baltimore and sailed traveling to ports in China, Japan, Africa, and the Russian Arctic seas. The ship Captain Child was impressed by the quick witted lad and not only helped him polish his reading and writing skills but taught him a great deal about sailing and the basics of navigation.
After returning to Washington Henson got more schooling and worked a variety of jobs. Clerking at the clothing store and outfitters B.H. Stinemetz and Sons was an unusual plum for a young Black. When Lt. Peary stopped by the store to get a suitable pith helmet for his first trip to Nicaragua to supervise the survey of a canal route he hired the salesman and took him on the trip. On that tip Peary was much impressed by Henson’s seamanship and his heartiness in enduring the steaming tropical heat of Central America and the diseases that felled many expedition members.
Peary had already made one trip to the Arctic—an 1885 attempt to survey Greenland by dog sled to determine if it was an island or a part of a larger land mass. Harsh conditions had forced that expedition to turn back but Peary learned much about northern survival skills. He was already thinking about more polar exploration and shared his dreams with Henson who eagerly agreed to accompany him. While they prepared, Peary taught his servant much of what he learned and practiced his critical skills as a navigator.
In 1891 Henson accompanied Peary back to Greenland on board the seal hunting ship S.S. Kite on a trip backed by the American Geographic Society, Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. In July sailing in icy waters the ship’s iron tiller suddenly spun around and broke its keel breaking Peary’s leg. The expedition established a camp at Red Cliff, at the mouth of MacCormick Fjord at the north west end of Inglefield Gulf.
During Peary’s six month recovery got to know the local Inuit people and mastered their language. They called him Mahri-Pahluk and remembered him as the only non-Inuit who became skilled in driving the dog sleds and in training dog teams in the Inuit way. After Peary recovered and pushed north he proved he was a skilled craftsman, often coming up with solutions for what the team needed in the harsh Arctic conditions and built build igloos out of snow instead of using heavy tents for mobile housing as they traveled. His and Peary’s teams covered thousands of miles in dog sleds and reached the Farthest North point of any Arctic yet and established that Greenland was indeed an island.
Henson accompanied Peary on six more trips north and was acknowledged at his First Man and de-facto second in command before the 1908-09 drive to be the first to the North Pole. It was the largest expedition yet and underwritten by the National Geographic Society and Explorers Club. Peary used his system of setting up cached supplies along the way. When he and Henson boarded his ship Roosevelt, leaving Greenland on August 18, 1909, they were accompanied by
22 Inuit men, 17 Inuit women, 10 children, 246 dogs, 70 tons (64 metric tons) of whale meat from Labrador, the meat and blubber of 50 walruses, hunting equipment, and tons of coal. In February, Henson and Peary departed their anchored ship at Ellesmere Island’s Cape Sheridan, with the Inuit men and 130 dogs working to lay a trail and supplies along the route to the Pole.
Peary selected Henson and four Inuit as part of the team of six men who would make the final run to the Pole. Before the goal was reached, Peary could no longer continue on foot and rode in a dog sled. He sent Henson ahead as a scout.
In a newspaper interview, Henson later said:
I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.
Henson and his Inuit companions were photographed at the supposed pole. Subsequent investigation citing navigational errors have cast doubt on the claim of being first to the Pole. In fact they were several miles short of that goal. But when their claim was publicized, Peary was proclaimed a hero and he in turn publicly recognized Henson in his reports to his sponsors.
In 1912 Henson published a memoir of his arctic explorations, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. In this, he describes himself as a “general assistant, skilled craftsperson, interpreter, and laborer.” He later collaborated with author Bradley Robinson on his 1947 biography, Dark Companion, which told more about his life.
At first although Peary received many honors Henson's contributions were largely ignored. Except within 1909 the Black community. Henson spent most of the next 30 years working on staff in the U.S. Customs House in New York, a political appointment by admirer Theodore Roosevelt.
He later gained renewed attention. In 1937 Henson was admitted as a member to the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City. In 1944 Congress awarded him and five other Peary aides duplicates of the Peary Polar Expedition Medal, a silver medal given to Peary. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored Henson before he died in 1955.
Henson was officially married twice. He married Eva Flint in 1891, but their marriage did not survive their long periods of separation and they divorced in 1897. He remarried Lucy Ross in New York City on September 7, 1907. That marriage endured the strains of separation until Henson settled into his duties as a Customs official. They had no children.
But Henson also had an Inuit family in the far North. His native wife Akatingwah gave him his only child, a son named Anauakaq, born in 1906. Anauakaq’s children are Henson's only descendants. After 1909, Henson never saw Akatingwah or his son again but remained in contact through mutual acquaintances and visitors to their village.
In 1986 Anauakaq and an Inuit son of Peary were discovered and brought to Washington as octogenarians where they met American relatives from both families and visited their fathers' graves. Anauakaq died a year later. He and his wife Aviaq had five sons and a daughter, who have children of their own. While some still reside in Greenland, others have moved to Sweden or the United States.