In April 1528, the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition landed in Florida, off-course and destined for Mexico, bringing with it a Moroccan slave who would become the first black explorer of North America.
And it happened in St. Petersburg, in Boca Ciega Bay.
The slave was named was Estevanico. He belonged to Andrés Dorantes de Carranza. He was one of four survivors of out of more than 400 voyagers from the expedition. Together, they became the first nonnatives to traverse what is now the United States, trekking 3,500 miles from Boca Ciega Bay to Mexico City over eight years, living among the natives.
Never heard of him? Or the expedition? You’re probably not alone.
A recently formed History Council in St. Petersburg, a collective of organizations and individuals, wants to change that. Helmed by historian and chairman James MacDougald and executive director Amy Miller, the council aims to spread awareness of the Florida Suncoast’s cultural heritage.
“We started comparing notes and realized that the city of St. Petersburg doesn’t do much to herald the significant events in its history,” MacDougald said. “It relies on tourists to go to the beach and come to the Dalí Museum but they don’t sell the assets as a cultural and historical place.”
MacDougald first learned about the Narváez expedition in 2002. He was shocked that even locals didn’t know the first major inland exploration of North America set off in St. Petersburg.
He dived deep into research over 15 years, consulting huge volumes by Yale scholars, and multiple translations of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s account of the expedition, first published in Spain in 1542. As one of the four survivors, his chronicle was the first book to describe Native Americans, especially the Tocobaga, whom they first encountered, and the flora, fauna and wildlife.
MacDougald contacted scholars to show them the research he had conducted, which included studies of maps and tides. As a sailor, he was interested in how the water and coasts would have looked to the explorers. They persuaded him to write a book, so he did. The Pánfilo de Narváez Expedition of 1528 published this year.
MacDougald was able to make a determination of the landing spot at Sacred Lands, the Indian shell mound on Boca Ciega Bay in the Jungle Prada neighborhood.
A sign there commemorates the landing: “From the Site of this Ancient Indian Village was Launched the First Exploration by the White Man of the North American Continent.”
MacDougald believes this deserves a little more fanfare. And that Estevanico deserves a mention.
The St. Petersburg Museum of History is working with MacDougald to create an exhibit centered around Estevanico, featuring a bronze bust of him that MacDougald had commissioned from Western artist John Wesley Sherrill.
The council has proposed to have a monument created by local artist Mark Aeling. The statue would feature the key players of the first contact: Narváez, Chief Ucita of the Tocobaga, Cabeza de Vaca and Estevanico, all standing back to back. Underneath would be friezes telling the story.
But instead of the Jungle Prada site, they’re looking for a prime location downtown to place the statue.
“It could be an attraction, but it’s a residential area and we don’t want to attract a million visitors,” said Miller. “We want it downtown on the waterfront where all the tourists will be for the new pier.”
They met with Mayor Rick Kriseman and his staff to discuss placement.
“The mayor’s really intrigued by the idea,” said the mayor’s spokesman Ben Kirby. “He fully appreciates our city and state’s history.
The History Council also plans to have a smaller monument at the site at Jungle Prada, based on a Florida Native American eagle totem from 800 A.D. But MacDougald feels having the monument in St. Petersburg’s thriving downtown will best forward the area as a destination for historical tourism.
“What we’re trying to create is a sense of place that you can tell the story from,” he said. “We’re trying to induce the city of St. Petersburg to capitalize on its historic heritage and marry it with its cultural heritage.”
Contact Maggie Duffy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @maggiedalexis