Juan Garrido, an African-Spanish conquistador joins the Juan Ponce de Leon Florida-discovery expedition and becomes the first known black person to arrive in what is now the United States mainland. Garrido is a free man!
While American history tells us that the first black people in colonial America are some 20 Africans brought from Angola to Jamestown, Virginia as slaves in 1609, there is ample evidence that Garrido precedes them by more than a century, that he comes on his own accord, and that he is part of a monumental feat!
He is part of the three-ship, 200-men expedition that sails north from Puerto Rico and discovers the land Juan Ponce de Leon names “Florida.” They believe they have found an unknown Caribbean island. But six years later, another conquistador is unable to circumvent “Florida,” proving that the Ponce de Leon expedition discovered the North American mainland!
Garrido, born in the Kingdom of Kongo, Africa in 1487, is sold to Portuguese slave traders as a child, and somehow acquires his freedom when he reaches Lisbon, Portugal, as a young man. When he moves on to Seville, Spain, he converts to Christianity and takes the Spanish name Juan Garrido. And when he travels from Seville to Santo Domingo, Garrido becomes one of the first free Africans to reach the Americas.
Despite whatever misconceptions we may have about Spanish conquistadors, Garrido is a black man who, before coming to Florida, participates in the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean islands with Ponce de Leon, and after Florida, with Hernán Cortéz in Mexico.
For Garrido’s participation in the conquest of the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) in 1519, Cortéz awards him land. And with the labor of Indian and African slaves, Garrido becomes the first person to grow wheat in the New World. In 1538, Garrido submits his request for pension, which includes a ‘probanza,’ or proof of merit, outlining his service to Spain for more than 30 years. He dies in Mexico City between 1547 and 1550, leaving behind a wife and three children.