Black History Month: Juan Garrido

Juan Garrido

(c. 1480 – c. 1550)

1st - Juan Garrido

[su_note note_color=”#40cd11″ radius=”5″]Noteworthy Accomplishments & Historical Facts

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  • 1st documented Black African to travel to America
  • 1st Black Conquistador
  • 1st person to grow wheat in New Spain
  • He took part in the discovery of Florida, USA (FL)


Who is Juan Garrido?

Juan Garrido was a black African-Spanish conquistador. More importantly, he was the first documented black African in America. His arrival predates the Mayflower and the Angolans arrival in Virginia by more than a century.

A Young Boy with a Mission

According to historian, Ricardo Alegria, Juan Garrido was born off the coast of West Africa around 1480. Said to be the son of a King who traded with the Portuguese, Juan was sent to Portugal to become a Christian and acquire Portuguese education in order to facilitate commerce between the nations. In 1495, at just 15 years of age, Juan traveled to Lisbon, Portugal as a free young man. There, he converted to Christianity and later moved to Seville, Spain.

Muddled History

Now here’s where history gets a bit unclear. Somewhere along his trip he met with a man named, Pedro Garrido. The relationship between Pedro and Juan is uncertain. Most historians agree that Juan was indeed a free young man who traveled to Lisbon to fulfill his mission, and that he may have accompanied Pedro as his protégé. They (historians) believed that once baptized, Juan changed his name, taking on the identity, Handsome John.

A few other historians believed that Juan was Pedro’s servant, and joined the early conquistadors to fight in exchange for his freedom. They believe he took on the name of his master, as most slaves had done in the past. However, according to historians Ricardo Alegria and Jane Landers, Garrido’s notorized “probanza” (manifesto, if you will), Juan stated that he traveled from Africa to Portugal as a free man, and all sworn witnesses stated that he was indeed a free man when he arrived in Spain.

No matter the origin of his name, one thing’s for sure, they did not call him Juan Garrido in Africa.

Ponce de Leon & The Discovery of Florida

In 1508, he joined Ponce de Leon along with approximately 50 other conquistadors to explore Puerto Rico. They found gold in Puerto Rico, and from then on, Juan’s life became a 30 year adventure of exploring, fighting, and looting!

Ponce de Leon settled Puerto Rico and became its governor. Between 1508 and 1519 he participated in the conquests of Puerto Rico and Cuba, and in the unsuccessful attempts to conquer “the islands of Guadeloupe, Dominica and other islands and in all fought Caribs” (NPS Ethnography). When Ponce lost his position to Diego Columbus in 1513, he took Garrido and other soldiers to look for another treasure island. Instead, they found the huge peninsula of Florida. They were not equipped to take on the Florida natives. They claimed it, named it, and planned to return later to conquer it (Augustine). Upon returning to Florida in an attempt to conquer the land, Ponce de Leon took an arrow shot and was rushed to Cuba for medical attention. Unfortunately, he could not be saved and died about a month later. Juan worked with him for 13 years.

Mexico City & The Cultivation of Wheat

With the death of Ponce de Leon, Juan was seeking other ways to find treasure; in walks Hernando Cortez. Juan joined Hernando in his efforts to conquer the mighty city of Tenochtitlan (now known as Mexico City) from the Aztecs and won. However, there were many casualties on both sides. As a reward for helping conquer the city, Hernando awarded Juan land near the city gate. There Juan built a chapel and buried some of the fallen conquistadors.

With the help of slaves, he farmed the land near the gate of Mexico City and planted the first three seeds of wheat grown in New Spain. He grew wheat and produced flour in commercial quantities on his farm. Sometime during this period he got married and began to raise a family. Also, Hernando awarded him with many different paid positions, including doorkeeper, town crier, guardian of the Chapultepec aqueduct, and city manager.

However, Juan Garrido was more of an adventurer at heart; so in 1523 and 1527, he and a group of treasure hunters rushed for the gold that was reported in Michoacan. He used his own money to fund the trip, and came back empty handed within the year. He went to Zacatula the following year with a slave gang to mine for gold, but again found nothing.

Now 48 years old, Juan settled down at his plantation for another five years. But he could barely make ends meet. He was deep in debt when Cortez tempted him for the last time in 1533. Garrido followed Cortez to another legendary island (Baja California) supposedly filled with black women, gold, and pearls. Once again, he returned to Mexico City empty handed. He had borrowed money for the trip, and came home broke two years later.

After returning from Baja california, Garrido lived quietly in his Mexico City home for eleven more years where he died in 1547 at 67 years of age. He left a wife and three children (Alegria 2004). During his time back home he submitted his request for pension in 1538.

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NPS Ethnography: African American Heritage & Ethnongraphy

The Root