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Well, Not First…

Website Ancestry.com got some attention this week for their finding that Barack Obama is descended from an African-American slave. Interestingly, this ancestor is on his mother’s side of the family.

Something in the release from Ancestry.com struck me:

A research team from Ancestry.com, the world’s largest online family history resource, has concluded that President Barack Obama is the 11thgreat-grandson of John Punch, the first documented African enslaved for life in American history.

Okay, here we dive head first into one of my favorite snits: saying that Punch was the first African slave in “American history” reveals a rather narrow view of what American history is, one that is viewed entirely through an Anglo-Saxon lens.

Yeah, it’s a weird point to argue: “But my ancestors had slaves first!” But, ignoring what came before John Punch ignores our nation’s Hispanic, Native American and, yes, African American history.

In 1527, more than a century before John Punch was enslaved, and decades before Virginia was even colonized, a man named Pánfilo de Narváez was leading an expedition to Florida. Among his companions in this expedition was Andrés Dorantes de Carranza and his African slave, Estevan de Dorantes, sometimes referred to as Estevanico.

Estevanico’s arrival in Florida made him, in essence, the first African-American. Things did not go well, and the hungry explorers tried to set sail to Mexico. A hurricane stranded them on Galveston Island with only four survivors: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Dorantes and Estevanico.

The four survivors wandered what is now the Southwestern United States, and Estevanico was a particular asset for his talent for learning local languages. The four men managed to survive by offering their services to different tribes as healers. Cabeza de Vaca’s diary became the first written account of the American Southwest.

After they made it to Mexico, Estevanico offered his services as a guide to Marcos de Niza, who was looking for the Lost Cities of Cibola. Estevanico served as a sort of herald to de Niza.

Estevanico’s career and life ended in the village of Hawikuh in present day New Mexico. Historians speculate that he was killed because the local tribe distrusted him or that he made unreasonable demands. One popular rumor is that he faked his death to secure his freedom.

The kachina Chakwaina is said by some to be based on Estavanico. It’s hard to confirm, but Chakwaina carries the gourd rattle that Estevanico carried as a symbol of authority.

I suppose you could argue that Florida and the Southwest wasn’t the United States yet. Then again, neither was Virginia.

We miss some fascinating and important parts of our history when we pretend that our history is only an Anglo history. Of course, acknowledging that in our schools is considered too radical.

Yeah, I went there. Sue me.

5 Comments

  1. Gene Chewning wrote:

    Very interesting, thank you.

    Wednesday, August 1, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink
  2. Ken Clark wrote:

    THIS is why RRR is such a great blog. Thanks, Ted.

    Thursday, August 2, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink
  3. Republitard wrote:

    The first part of your article I enjoyed. When you turned an other wise interesting article to justify your political agenda I felt sad.

    What part of “American” don’t you understand?

    Thursday, August 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  4. Old AZ Dem wrote:

    Great stuff, Ted.

    Thursday, August 2, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink
  5. Georgia wrote:

    Keep the history coming, Tedski. We don’t hear enough about Esteban these days. Time was we spoke of him in school regularly. Students were often surprised that he was black because of the name. I always thought the journey of Estevan and Cabeza de Vaca was one of the great adventures of the early times and a true one to boot. Just looking at a map of the distance covered by these guys was really impressive. Excellent point in your final paragraph.

    Friday, August 3, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink