If you’ve walked along Bangor’s Waterfront, you may have stopped in front of one of the several works of public art and memorials that dot the parks along the Penobscot River, and wondered: Who is Estevan Gomez?
The concrete cross, erected in 1999, that sits in the park located at the corner of Broad and Washington streets bears only limited information about Gomez, a Portuguese navigator who sailed in the service of Spain in the 1520s. But Gomez, for whom that park is named, was an important part of the early history of European history in the Americas: he was the first European to make landfall in what is now Maine.
Furthermore, he made that landfall along the banks of the lower Penobscot River, sometime in the first half of 1525 — nearly 500 years ago — at this time of year.
Gomez was born in 1483 in Portugal, and moved to Spain as an adult. In 1519, he went on his first major sailing expedition as pilot of the San Antonio, one of the ships on Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. As they reached what is now known as the Strait of Magellan in 1520, however, Gomez led a mutiny aboard the San Antonio, saying the sea was impassable and the ship would not survive the trip. Gomez sailed back to Spain and was imprisoned in 1521 for mutiny; he was freed in 1523, after convincing King Charles V that the Strait of Magellan was too dangerous to be used as a viable trade route.
Gomez believed there was a faster route to be found from Europe to the Indies — the fabled Northwest Passage. While that passage was not discovered for more than three more centuries, when explorer Robert McClure traversed a route through the Canadian arctic in 1850, Gomez was one of a number of European explorers vying to find it. King Charles V financed Gomez’s journey, and a 29-man crew set off from Galicia, Spain, on Sept. 24, 1524.
While his exact route isn’t known due to the fact that no written account was saved from the journey, it is believed that Gomez reached Newfoundland in February 1525. He then sailed south, hugging the coast of what is now the eastern U.S. and exploring large river estuaries that they came across, hoping that each one might connect them to the Northwest Passage.
The first large river he encountered after sailing around Newfoundland and Nova Scotia was the Penobscot. It’s not known exactly how far up the river Gomez sailed, but sometime in the spring of 1525, he made it at least as far inland as present-day Bangor. A map drawn up by cartographer Diego Ribero in 1529, based on Gomez’s rough maps, shows that Gomez named the Penobscot “Rio de las Gamas,” because of its abundance of deer.