Did you know African history in New Mexico started in the year 1539?

In 1539, Esteban, an African Moor, was the first official representative of Spain to the Native people of New Mexico at Zuni. He was an adventurer, explorer and original member of the ill-fated Pánfilo de Narváez expedition from Cuba to explore the Florida coast in 1527.

Esteban was shipwrecked with Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and others on the present-day south Texas coast, and wandered through the Southwest for almost 10 years. He was one of the leaders of the Fray Marcos de Niza expedition of 1539 to Cíbola, present day New Mexico. It is believed he was killed on the expedition.

Álvaro García Holgado was one of the soldier settlers of the Oñate expedition in 1600. He was an African New Mexican, described in documents as dark-skinned and also as a mulatto, as was his wife Juana de los Reyes. They had three sons and possibly a fourth daughter, and are cited as ancestors to many New Mexicans.

García Holgado was not the only person of African ancestry who settled in that period of New Mexico history. Records from the time period dealing with witchcraft accusations report women of mulatto, or mixed African and Spanish ancestry, as part of the community.

Sebastian Rodríguez, a native of Guinea, Africa, came as a settler to New Mexico in 1692. He was the drummer and town crier for the Vargas expedition of that year. He was one of the early Black settlers of New Mexico and cited as a common ancestor to many.

Sebastian arrived at Guadalupe del Paso by 1689. He married Juana Apodaca at Santa Fe in 1697. One son, Esteban, followed in his father’s footsteps as pregonero (town crier) and drummer in Santa Fe, while another son, Melchor, was one of the first settlers of Las Trampas.

The families from Mexico City that came to New Mexico in 1693 to recolonize the region under the leadership of Diego de Vargas were technically supposed to be Spanish. However, at least two families, the Fernández Valerio and Arroyo Sagayo families, had African ancestry.

Many of the colonists that were recruited at Zacatecas, Mexico, to come settle New Mexico in 1695 were mulattos, meaning half-African mixed with Spanish or Native blood. In the 1770s at Cochiti, a priest named Fray Mariano de Marulanda described the local non-Native people as mulattos in baptismal records.

Diligencias Matrimoniales, or marriage investigations, from the 1680s to the mid-1850s show many people described as mulattos and moriscos (quarter-African), as do the 1750 and 1790 census records for New Mexico. People of African ancestry were a significant part of the demographic history of New Mexico during the colonial period.

When Pedro Bautista Pino was selected to represent New Mexico and report to the king of Spain about his homeland in Cadiz, Spain, in 1812, he told the officials present that New Mexico had the distinction of having no persons of African caste, that the province was populated only by Spanish and Native people, who looked almost the same. Clearly, he was mistaken, having had a bout of historical amnesia.

During the U.S. Territorial period, African-American cowboy George McJunkin was born in Midway, Texas, to slaves in 1853. By 1868 George was living in New Mexico, a free territory of the United States at that time, working as a cow hand on various ranches. He became a foreman on a ranch near Folsom, N.M. McJunkin was a cowboy, a buffalo hunter, a historian and even played guitar and fiddle.

What he is most known for was his discovery, in 1908, of prehistoric bison bones at Folsom after a devastating rain storm that exposed both animal remains and the debris of humans. The animals had been killed using stone-age weapons.

This discovery by McJunkin extended back our knowledge of human presence in the area by about 7,000 years to 9,000 B.C. Over the years, McJunkin would participate directly in this significant archaeological find that revealed a great deal about Native history in New Mexico.

Rob Martinez, New Mexico’s state historian, writes a column about the state’s rich past every month in The New Mexican.

(3) comments

Tupaq Amaru

So called "black people" are the true Native Americans (We originate everywhere). We have been here Forever, African or not!!! Research this topic if you are interested, or if you are black.

Ivanhoe Miller

New Mexico has no clue about Black people or our history. New Mexicans think Black people is what is depicted on television or rap music.Dumb, criminals, uneducated. New Mexico is about 50 years behind the times.

Jonathan Vigil

Rob, thank you for writing this article. Most if it is new information to me and it shows New Mexicans that African American history runs deep in the state. Those of us from NM of African descent can take note of this early involvement in the states early history by our predecessors. This being said we know that ancient archeological finding prove that people from the African continent had traveled to the Americas through ocean sailing

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