Hernando De Soto

Hernando De Soto was born at Villanueva de la Serena, Badajoz, Spain, 1496 or 1500; died on the banks of the Mississippi the latter part of June, 1542.

He was given the rank of captain of a troop of horsemen in 1516 by Pedrarias Dávila (also known as Pedro Arias de Avila), governor of Darien, who admired his courage, and he took an active part in the conquest of portions of Central America. In 1523 he accompanied Francisco Fernández de Córdoba who, by order of Pedrarias, set out from Panama with an expedition which explored Nicaragua and Honduras, conquering and colonizing the country as they proceeded. In 1532 he joined the expedition of Francisco Pizzaro starting from Panama for the conquest of Peru. Recognizing his importance, Pizzaro made de Soto second in command, though this caused some opposition from Pizzaro's brothers. In 1533 he was sent at the head of a small party to explore the highlands of Peru, and he discovered the great national road which led to the capital. Soon afterwards he was selected by Pizzaro as ambassador to visit the Inca Atahualpa, lord of Peru, and he was the first Spaniard who spoke with that chief. After the imprisonment of Atahualpa, de Soto became very friendly with him and visited him often in his confinement. De Soto played a prominent part in the engagements which completed the conquest of Peru, including the battle which resulted in the capture of Cuzco, the capital. Upon his return from an expedition, he learned that Pizzaro had treacherously ordered Atahualpa to be put to death in spite of Atahualpa's having paid a large ransom. He was much displeased at the crime, and, becoming disgusted with Pizzaro and his brothers, he returned to Spain in 1536, taking back with him about 18,000 ounces of gold which represented his share of the booty taken from the Incas.

He settled in Seville, and with the gold he had brought home, he was able to set up an elaborate establishment with ushers, pages, equerry, chamberlain, and other servants required for the household of a gentleman. In 1537 he married Inés de Bobadilla (sometimes called Leonor or Isabel), the daughter of his former patron, Pedrarias Dávila. He had settled down in Seville to enjoy life quietly, when the exaggerated accounts of Cabeza de Vaca concerning the vast region then called Florida fired his ambition to undertake the conquest of this land which he considered no less rich than Peru. He therefore sold all his property, and devoted the proceeds to equipping an expedition for this purpose. He readily obtained from Charles V, to whom he had lent some money, the titles of Adelantado of Florida and Governor of Cuba, and in addition, the title of marquis of a certain portion of the territory he might conquer, said portion to be chosen by himself.

The expedition consisted of 950 fighting men, eight secular priests, two Dominicans, a Franciscan and a Trinitarian, all to be transported in ten ships. To this armada was added one of twenty more ships which was on its way to Vera Cruz, but was to be under the orders of de Soto while the courses of the two fleets lay along the same route. The whole squadron set sail from Sanlúcar on April 6, 1538. On Easter Sunday morning, fifteen days later, they arrived safely at Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, where they stopped for one week and then continued their way without incident. When near Cuba, the twenty vessels destined for Mexico separated from the others and proceeded on their way. The ten ships of de Soto shortly after arrived in the harbour of Santiago de Cuba where the members of the expedition were well received by the Cubans, whose fêtes in honour of the new-comers lasted several weeks. The new governor visited the towns in the vicinity of Santiago and did every thing in his power to better their condition. At the same time, he gathered as many horses as he could, and, as good ones were plentiful in Cuba, it was not long before he had a fair number of mounts for the men of the Florida expedition. Just about this time, the city of Havana was sacked and burned by the French, and de Soto, upon learning of it, despatched Captain Aceituno with some men to repair the ruins. As he was contemplating an early departure for his conquest of Florida, he named Gonzalo de Guzmán as lieutenant-governor to administer justice in Santiago and vicinity, while for affairs of state, he gave full powers to his wife. Meanwhile, he continued his preparations for the expedition to Florida. In the latter part of August, 1538, the ships sailed for Havana, while de Soto started by land with 350 horses and the remainder of the expedition. The two parties arrived at Havana within a few days of each other, and de Soto immediately made plans for the rebuilding of the city. He also entrusted to Captain Aceituno the building of a fortress for the protection of the harbour and the city from any possible future attack. At the same time he ordered Juan de Añasco, a skilled and experienced sailor, to set out in advance to explore the coasts and harbors of Florida so that it would facilitate matters when the main expedition sailed. Añasco returned at the end of a few months and made a satisfactory report.

The expedition was finally made ready, and on 18 May, 1539, de Soto set sail with a fleet of nine vessels. He had with him 1,000 men exclusive of the sailors, all well armed and making up what was considered to be the best-equipped expedition that had ever set out for conquest in the New World. They proceeded with favorable weather until 25 May, when land was seen and they cast anchor in a bay to which they gave the name of Espiritu Santo (now Tampa Bay). The army landed on Friday, 30 May, two leagues from an Indian village. From this point the Spaniards began their explorations of the wild unknown country to the north and west which lasted for nearly three years. They passed through a region already made hostile by the violence of the invader Narvaez, and they were constantly deceived by the Indians, who tried to get them as far away as possible by telling them stories of great wealth which was to be found at remote points. They wandered from place to place, always disappointed in their expectations, but still lured onward by the tales they heard of the vast riches which lay just beyond. They treated the Indians brutally whenever they met them, and they were, as a result, constantly at war with them. Setting out from Espiritu Santo, de Soto, with considerable loss of men, went through the provinces of Acuera, Ocali, Vitachuco, and Osachile (all situated in the western part of the Florida peninsula), with the purpose of finally reaching the territory of Apalache (situated in the northwestern part of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico), as he considered the fertility and maritime conditions of that country well suited to his purposes. He finally reached the province, and after some fighting with the Indians, subjugated it. In October, 1539, de Soto sent Juan Añasco with thirty men to Espiritu Santo Bay where he had left his ships and a portion of his expedition, with orders to start from there with the ships and follow the coast until he reached the bay of Aute (St. Marks on Apalachee Bay) in the province of Apalache. Here he was to be joined by Pedro Calderón, who had orders to proceed by land with the remainder of the expedition and the provisions and camp equipment that had been left on the coast. At the same time, Gómez Arias was to sail to Havana to acquaint de Soto's wife with the progress of the expedition. After many hardships, Añasco reached Espiritu Santo Bay, whence he started with the ships to carry out de Soto's orders. He arrived at Aute in safety, and was there joined by Calderón with the land forces according to arrangement.

Meanwhile, Gómez Arias had fulfilled his mission to Havana and the triumphs of the Spaniards in Florida were fitly celebrated in that city. De Soto now ordered Diego Maldonado, a captain of infantry who had served him well, to give up his command, and take two ships with which he was to explore the coast of Florida for a distance of one hundred leagues to the west of Aute, and map out its bays and inlets. Maldonado did his work successfully and upon his return, in February, 1540, was sent to Havana, with orders to inform the Governor's wife and announce to the Cubans as well all that they had seen and done. De Soto gave him further orders to return in October and meet him in the Bay of Achusi which Maldonado had discovered during his exploration.

He was to bring back with him as many ships as he could procure, and also munitions of war, provisions, and clothing for the soldiers. But de Soto was destined never to see Maldonado again, nor was he to have the benefit of the supplies for which he was sending him, for, though Maldonado was able to carry out his orders to the letter, when he arrived at Achusi in the fall he found neither trace nor tidings of de Soto. He waited for some time and explored the country quite a distance, but without finding him, and was forced to return to Havana. He tried again the next year and again the following year, but always with the same result.

Meanwhile, de Soto had started in March, 1540, from the province of Apalache with the intention of exploring the country to the north. He explored the provinces of Altapaha (or Altamaha), Achalaque, Cofa, and Cofaque, all situated in eastern and northern Georgia, meeting with fair success. He then worked his way in a southwesterly direction, intending to reach the coast at Achusi where he had agreed to meet Maldonado with the supply ships. But when he reached the province of Tuscaluza in southern Alabama, where he had been told there were immense riches, the Indians in large numbers offered a more stubborn resistance and gave him the worst battle he had yet had. The battle lasted nine hours and was finally won by the Spaniards, though nearly all the officers and men, including de Soto himself, were wounded. According to Barcilasso, there were 70 Spaniards and 11,000 Indians killed in the battle, and in addition the town of Mauvila (now Mobile) was destroyed by a fire which also consumed the provisions of the Spaniards. While in Tuscaluza, de Soto heard of some Spanish ships which were on the coast at Achusi. These were the ships which Maldonado had brought back from Havana with the supplies. De Soto thought he would be able to reach them in a short time for he had been informed that he was then but thirty leagues from the coast. But his troops were so exhausted that he was forced to rest for a few days. Worn out by the long marches and the hardships they had undergone, and disappointed at not finding any treasure, some of de Soto's followers secretly plotted to abandon him, make their way to Achusi, and sail to Mexico or Peru. Learning of this, de Soto changed his plans, and, instead of marching toward the coast to join Maldonado, he led his men toward the interior in a westerly direction, knowing that they would not dare to desert him with the ships so far away. He hoped to reach New Spain (Mexico) by land. In a night battle (December, 1540), he lost forty men and fifty horses besides having many wounded, and during the next four months he was attacked almost nightly. In April, 1541, he came upon a fort surrounded with a stockade, and in storming it nearly all his men were wounded and many were killed. It is said that over 2,000 Indians were killed in this battle, but so many of the Spaniards were wounded that de Soto was compelled to stop for a few days in order to care for them. Notwithstanding his repeated losses, de Soto continued toward the interior, traversing several provinces constituting the present Gulf States, until he reached the Mississippi at a point in the northern part of the present state of Mississippi.

He crossed the river and pushed on to the northwest until he reached the province of Autiamque in the northwestern corner of Arkansas, where he passed the winter of 1541-42 on the Dayas River, now the Washita. In the spring of 1542, retracing his steps, he reached the Mississippi in May or June. Here, on 20 June, 1542 (according to some authorities on 21 May), he was stricken with a fever, and prepared for death. He made his will, named Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado as his successor in command of the expedition, and took leave of all. On the fifth day de Soto succumbed without having reached New Spain by land. His companions buried the body in a large hole which the natives had dug near one of their villages to get materials to build their houses. However, as de Soto had given the Indians to understand that the Christians were immortal, they afterwards disinterred the body, fearing the hostile savages might possibly discover it, and, finding him dead, make an attack. They then hollowed out the trunk of a large tree and, placing the body in it, sank it in the Mississippi which they called the Rio Grande.

The shattered remnant of the expedition under Moscoso then attempted to work their way eastward, but, driven back by the Indians, they floated down the Mississippi and, after many hardships, finally reached Pánuco in Mexico. This expedition of de Soto, though it ended so disastrously, was one of the most elaborate and persistent efforts made by the Spaniards to explore the interior of North America. It was the first extensive exploration of at least seven of the Southern states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, and their written history often begins with narratives which tell the story of de Soto's expedition. From these same narratives we also get our first description of the Cherokees, Seminoles, Creeks, Appalachians, Choctaws, and other famous tribes of southern Indians. The story of this expedition also records the discovery of the Mississippi River and the first voyage of Europeans upon it. Click here for an excellent map showing de Soto's entire campaign in North America.

It must be noted that Alonso de Pineda discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1519, and that Cabeza de Vaca crossed it near its mouth in 1528.

 c.1500-1542, Spanish explorer. After serving under Pedrarias in Central America and under Francisco Pizarro in Peru, the dashing young conquistador was made governor of Cuba by Emperor Charles V, with the right to conquer Florida (meaning the North American mainland). He led an expedition that left Spain in 1538 and landed on the Florida coast, probably near Tampa Bay, in 1539. That was the start of an adventure that took him and his band nearly halfway across the continent in search of gold, silver, and jewels, which they never found. After wintering near Tallahassee they went north through Georgia and the Carolinas into Tennessee, then turned south into Alabama, where de Soto was wounded in a battle with Native Americans. He was so determined to continue his treasure hunt that he refused to inform his men that Spanish vessels were off the coast. In the spring of 1541 they again set forth and were probably the first white men to see and cross the Mississippi. A journey up the Arkansas River and into Oklahoma disclosed no treasures, and, discouraged, they turned back to the banks of the Mississippi. There de Soto died; he was buried in the river, so that the Native Americans, whom he had intimidated and ill-used, would not learn of his death. His men went west again across the Red River into northern Texas, then returned to the Mississippi and followed it to the sea. A remnant of the expedition made its way down the coast to arrive at Veracruz in 1543. The chief chronicle of the expedition is by a Portuguese called the Gentleman of Elvas. Click here to read an excellent excerpt of de Soto's exploration of the Carolinas in 1540 with the author's analysis of where the exploration traveled in terms of today's geography.

De Soto, "dih SOH toh," Hernando (1500?-1542), a Spanish explorer, helped to defeat the Inca empire and led the first European expedition to reach the Mississippi River. From 1539 to 1542, he led a large Spanish expedition through what is now the southeastern United States. His army landed in Florida and crossed about 10 present-day states. De Soto became known as a courageous explorer who helped conquer the New World for Spain. However, the era of exploration was marked by greed, intolerance, and cruelty. In their search for wealth, de Soto and his men tortured and brutally killed many Native Americans.

Early expeditions. De Soto was born in the province of Extremadura in Spain. As a teenager, he sailed to the New World and began his career as an explorer in the tropical rain forests of Panama. De Soto served in expeditions to enslave Indians and to search for wealth.

By the early 1530's, de Soto was known as an excellent soldier and horseman. He joined an expedition led by Francisco Pizarro, another Spanish explorer, against the empire of the Inca Indians in what is now Peru. After a short delay, the men began their journey in 1532 with a small army of 168 men. They reached the city of Cajamarca, where a huge Inca army, commanded by Emperor Atahualpa, was camped.

Pizarro sent de Soto with a small troop of 15 cavalrymen to invite Atahualpa to meet with Pizarro. The Spaniards ambushed the Incas and captured their emperor. Although the Inca paid an enormous ransom for their emperor, the Spaniards executed him. De Soto helped Pizarro capture Cusco, the Inca's capital, in 1533.

In 1536, de Soto returned to Spain a rich man from treasures collected during the Inca conquest. He could have led a noble lifestyle, but he sought his own command in the New World. King Charles I of Spain appointed him governor of Cuba and authorized him to conquer and colonize the region that is now the southeastern United States.

Journey to the Mississippi. De Soto arrived below present-day Tampa Bay in 1539. He brought more than 600 men equipped with horses to help him colonize the land and search for gold. De Soto planned to capture Indian chiefs, take hundreds of Indians as ransom, and march through their territories.

The army camped for the winter in what is now northern Florida and headed north during the spring and summer of 1540. They traveled through the present-day states of Georgia and the Carolinas, crossed the Great Smoky Mountains, and headed south through the Georgia and Alabama area. In October 1540, followers of the Choctaw leader Tuscaloosa ambushed de Soto's army at the town of Mabila, south of present-day Montgomery, Alabama. Despite emerging victorious, de Soto's army retreated northward, where he discovered then crossed the Mississippi River.

On May 21, 1542, de Soto died from a fever by the banks of the Mississippi River. The remains of his army, led by Luis de Moscoso, reached New Spain (now Mexico) the next year.

When the renowned Hernando De Soto, who had been in close attendance on Pizarro throughout his romantic career in Peru, asked for and obtained permission from Ferdinand of Spain to take possession of Florida in his name, hundreds of volunteers of every rank flocked to his standard. Narvaez had failed for want of knowledge as to how to deal with the natives; doubtless the land of gold could yet be found by those who knew how to wrest the secret of its position from the sons of the soil; and so once more a gallant company set forth from Spain to measure their strength against the craft of the poor Indians of Florida.

De Soto, who was in the first place appointed governor of Cuba that he might turn to account the resources of that wealthy island, sailed from Havana with a fleet of nine vessels and a force of some six or seven hundred men on the 18th May, 1539, and cast anchor in Tampa Bay on the 30th of the same month. Landing his forces at once, the leader gave orders that they should start for the interior immediately, by the same route as that taken by his unfortunate predecessor; and the men were eagerly ploughing their way through the sandy, marshy districts immediately beyond the beach, driving the natives who opposed their progress before them, when one of those romantic incidents occurred in which the early history of the New World is so remarkably rich.

A white man on horseback rode forward from amongst the dusky savages, who hailed the approach of the troops with wild gestures of delight, and turned out to be a Spaniard named Juan Ortiz, who had belonged to the Narvaez expedition and had been unable to escape with his comrades. In his captivity amongst the Indians he had acquired a thorough knowledge of their language, and his services alike as a mediator and a guide were soon found to be invaluable.

Led by Ortiz, the exploring army wandered through the unknown land of Florida until the ensuing spring, when the march was resumed under the guidance of a native who said he would take the white men to a distant country, governed by a woman, and abounding in a yellow metal, which the Spaniards naturally took to be gold, but which proved to be copper. After wandering to the southern slope of the Appalachian range, marking their course by pillage and bloodshed, and finding the land of gold ever receding before them, they reached the dominions of an Indian queen, who hastened to welcome them, perhaps with the desire of conciliating her dreaded visitors.

Very touching is the account given by the old chroniclers of the meeting between the poor Cacica and De Soto. Alighting from the litter in which she had travelled, carried by four of her subjects, the dusky princess came forward with gestures expressive of pleasure at the arrival of her guest, and taking from her own neck a heavy double string of pearls, she hung it on that of the Spaniard. Bowing with courtly grace, de Soto accepted the gift, and for a short time he kept up the semblance of friendship; but having obtained from the queen all the information he wanted, he made her his prisoner, and robbed her and her people of all the valuables they possessed, including large numbers of pearls, found chiefly in the graves of natives of distinction. We are glad to be able to add that the poor queen effected her escape from her guards, taking with her a box of pearls which she had managed to regain and on which de Soto had set especial store.

The home of the Cacica appears to have been situated close to the Atlantic seaboard, and to have been amongst the villages visited by De Ayllon twenty years previously, the natives having in their possession a dagger and a string of beads, probably a rosary, which they said had belonged to the white men. Unwilling to go over old ground, the Spaniards now determined to alter their course, and, taking a northwesterly direction, they reached, in the course of a few months, the first spurs of the lofty Appalachian range, the formidable aspect of which so damped their courage that they turned back and wandered into the lowlands of what is now Alabama, ignorant that in the very mountains they so much dreaded were hidden large quantities of that yellow metal they had sought so long and so vainly.

The autumn of 1540 found the party, their numbers greatly diminished, at a large village called Mavilla, close to the site of the modern Mobile, where the natives were gathered in considerable force; and it soon became evident that an attempt would be made to exact vengeance for the long course of oppression of which the white intruders had been guilty in their two years' wanderings.

Intending to take possession of Mavilla in his usual high-handed manner, de Soto and a few of his men entered the palisades forming its defences, accompanied by the Cacique, who, meek enough until he was within reach of his warriors, then turned upon his guests with some insulting speech and disappeared in a neighboring house. A dispute then ensued between a minor chief and one of the Spaniards. The latter enforced his view of the matter at issue by a blow with his cutlass, and in an instant the town was in a commotion. From every house poured showers of arrows, and in a few minutes nearly all the Christians were slain. De Soto and a few others escaped, and, calling his forces together, the Spanish governor quickly invested the town.

A terrible conflict, lasting nine hours, ensued, in which, as was almost inevitable, the white men were finally victorious, though not until they had lost many valuable lives and nearly all their property. Mavilla was burnt to ashes; and when the battle was over, the Spaniards found themselves in an awful situations, at a distance from their ships, without food or medicines, and surrounded on all sides by enemies rendered desperate by defeat. The common soldiers, too, had by this time had enough of exploration, and were eager to return to the coast, there to await the return of the vessels which had been sent to Cuba for supplies. Evading the poor fellows' questions as to his plans, however, de Soto, who had received secret intelligence that his fleet was even now awaiting him in the Bay of Pensacola, but six days' journey from Mavilla, determined to make one more effort to redeem his honor by a discovery of importance. With this end in view he led his disheartened forces northward, and in December reached a small village, belonging to Chickasaw Indians, in the state of Mississippi, supposed to have been situated about N. lat. 32 deg 53', W. long. 90 deg 23'.

In spite of constant petty hostilities with the Indians, the winter, which was severe enough for snow to fall, passed over peaceably; but with the beginning of spring the usual arbitrary proceedings were resorted to by de Soto for procuring porters to carry his baggage in his next trip, and this led to a second terrible fight, in which the Spaniards were worsted and narrowly escaped extermination. Had the Indians followed up their victory, not a white man would have escaped to tell the tale; but they seem to have been frightened at their own success, and to have drawn back just as they had their persecutors at their feet.

Rallying the remnant of his forces, and supplying the place of the uniforms which had been carried off by the enemy with skins and mats of ivy leaves, de Soto now led his strangely-transformed followers in a north-westerly direction, and, completely crossing the modern state of Mississippi, arrived in May on the banks of the mighty river from which it takes its name, in about N. lat. 35 deg.

Thus took place the discovery of the great Father of Waters, rolling by in unconscious majesty on its way from its distant birthplace in Minnesota to its final home in the Gulf of Mexico. To de Soto, however, it was no geographical phenomenon, inviting him to trace its course and solve the secret of its origin, but a sheet of water, "half a league over," impeding his progress, and his first care was to obtain boats to get to the other side.

But on resuming his researches in the ensuing spring, though worn out by continual wanderings and warfare, and deprived by death of his chief helper, Juan Ortiz, the indomitable explorer now endeavored to win over the Indians by claiming supernatural powers and declaring himself immortal; but it was too late to inaugurate a new policy. The spot chosen for encampment turned out to be unhealthy; the white men began to succumb to disease; scouts sent out to explore the neighborhood for a more favorable situation brought back rumors of howling wildernesses, impenetrable woods, and, worst of all, of stealthy bands of Indians creeping up from every side to hem in and destroy the little knot of white men.

Thus driven to bay, de Soto, who was now himself either attacked by disease or broken down by all he had undergone, determined at least to die like a man, and, calling the survivors of his once gallant company about him, he asked pardon for the evils he had brought upon those who had trusted in him, and named Luis Moscoso de Alvaredo as his successor.

On the following day, May 21, 1542, the unfortunate hero breathed his last, and was almost immediately buried secretly without the gates of the camp, Alvaredo fearing an immediate onslaught from the natives should the death of the hero who had claimed immortality be discovered. The newly-made grave, however, excited suspicion, and, finding it impossible to prevent it from being rifled by the inquisitive savages, Alvaredo had the corpse of his predecessor removed from it in the night, wrapped in cloths made heavy with sand, and dropped from a boat into the Mississippi. 


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