Hernando de Soto, born in 1496 or 1497 in Extremadura, Barcarrota or Jerez de los Caballeros, Spain, and died on May 21, 1542 in present-day Arkansas, was a Spanish conquistador and explorer. While still a teenager, he participated in the conquest of Central America alongside the first governor of Panama, Pedrarias Dávila. He joined Francisco Pizarro in the early 1530s during his conquests in South America.
In 1539, de Soto undertook the most important of the first Spanish colonial expeditions. A vast undertaking that took him across the southeastern part of the present-day United States in search of gold and a passage to the “South Sea” that would open the way to China, thus pursuing the same objectives as Juan Ponce de León in 1513, Lucas de Ayllón in 1526 and Pánfilo de Narváez in 1527.
De Soto died of fever in 1542 on the west bank of the Mississippi, in an Indian village called Guachoya (near present-day McArthur, Arkansas).
Hernando de Soto comes from a family of poor hidalgos from Extremadura, a poor and arid region that young people try to flee to seek their fortune.
De Soto embarked for the New World in 1514 with the first governor of Panama, Pedrarias Dávila. The latter made him a captain because of his bravery, loyalty and intelligence during the conquest of Panama. He was a famous horseman, a fighter and a tactician, but from today”s point of view, he was extremely brutal.
In 1523, he accompanied Francisco Hernández de Córdoba who, by order of Pedrarias, set out to conquer and explore Central America, especially Panama, Nicaragua and Honduras. De Soto became regidor of León, Guatemala, in 1528, and then led an expedition to the coasts of the Yucatán Peninsula in search of a passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Unsuccessful in this endeavor, and without sufficient means to continue his explorations, de Soto, upon the death of Governor Dávila, joined Francisco Pizarro in his conquest of Peru in 1532.
With a group of fifty men, de Soto follows the Inca path to Cuzco, capital of the Inca Empire, and becomes the first European to befriend Atahualpa, the Inca Sapa. The Spanish conquest of Peru ends with the execution of Atahualpa by Pizarro, although the Inca honored his promise to fill with gold, for the Spaniards, El Cuarto del Rescate (“the Ransom Room”).
Return to Spain
De Soto returns to Spain, in 1536, rich: he received an important part of the catches, during the conquest of the Inca Empire. He is celebrated as the hero of this conquest and integrates the prestigious order of Santiago. He married, in 1537, Inés de Bobadilla, daughter of Pedrarias Dávila, who belonged to a noble and influential family of Castile.
De Soto asked Charles V for the post of governor of Guatemala, “with permission to discover the South Sea,” but he was instead given the governorship of Cuba and the title of Adelantado de Florida. He was expected to colonize the North American continent on behalf of Spain within four years. As a reward, he and his descendants would obtain a marquisate over a large portion of the conquered territory.
Fascinated by the stories of Cabeza de Vaca, a survivor of Pánfilo de Narváez”s expedition to North America who had just returned to Spain, de Soto chose 620 young Spanish and Portuguese volunteers to govern Cuba and conquer North America.
On April 6, 1538, de Soto and his new fleet of nine ships left San Lúcar and arrived a few weeks later in Santiago de Cuba, where he was joined by other ships that Charles V had promised him a few months earlier.
Exploration of North America
The exact route of the de Soto expedition is subject to discussion and controversy among historians. The most commonly accepted is the one drawn by the commission created by the United States Congress and chaired by the anthropologist John R. Swanton and published in 1939 in The Final Report of the United States De Soto Expedition Commission (in French: “Rapport final de la commission chargée de l”étude de l”expédition menée par de Soto aux États-Unis”). While the first part of the expedition”s route (up to the battle of Mabila in Alabama) is, today, the subject of only a few discussions of details, the following part is more contested. The route that de Soto took, as defined by Congress, crosses the present states of Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas. Others believe that he took a more northerly route through present-day Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana from Mabila.
Archaeological reconstructions and the oral tradition of indigenous peoples have only been considered at a later date. One of the main difficulties is that most of these historic sites were built within the past 450 years. The only site clearly associated with de Soto”s expedition is the Governor Martin Site in the Apalachean American village of Anhaica, located two miles east of the present Florida state capitol in Tallahassee. It was discovered by archaeologist B. Calvin Jones (en) in March 1987.
The latest theories are based on the personal diaries of three survivors of the expedition led by de Soto: his secretary, Rodrigo Ranjel, the king”s representative, Luys Hernández de Biedma, and a Portuguese man, called Chevalier d”Elvas. Between them, they describe the route followed by de Soto from Havana, from where they embarked, the Gulf of Mexico, which they skirted, the Atlantic, which they approached in their second year of travel, high mountains, which they crossed immediately afterwards, and dozens of other geographical descriptions of their journey – including wide rivers and swamps – at given moments of their route. Since the land geography of this region has not changed since that time, these diaries, analyzed with today”s topographic means, allow for a more accurate mapping of their journey.
On May 18, 1539, the expedition left Havana, and on May 25, it sailed along the coast of Florida. On May 30, with the nine ships and 570 men and women, de Soto arrived at a place that he named Espiritu Santo in Tampa Bay in the United States.) On board were priests, artisans, engineers, farmers, and merchants; some with their families, some from Cuba, most from Europe, and even some from Africa. Few of them had ever traveled outside of Spain, even outside of their villages.
A young Spaniard named Juan Ortiz, born in Seville, who had come to Florida in search of the Narváez expedition, which had disappeared in 1528, and who had been captured by a Calusa tribe, was seen near the expedition”s anchorage. The daughter of the chief Hirrihigua of the Calusa tribe begged for her life to be saved, when her father had ordered that Ortiz be burned alive. Ortiz, who survived the torture and captivity, willingly joined the expedition.
On March 3, 1540, the expedition left Anhaica; having heard of gold mines “in the direction of the rising sun,” they set out northeastward through the present states of Georgia and South Carolina to the present-day city of Columbia, South Carolina. There they were greeted by a woman who ruled the community. She offered them beads, food, cloth and anything else the Spaniards could desire. However, there is no gold.
On May 3, de Soto headed north to the Appalachian Mountains of present-day North Carolina, where he spent a month, until July 2, letting the horses graze on fat grass and resting while his men searched for gold. They then entered the territory of present-day Tennessee and northern Georgia, where they stayed until August 20, then headed south to the Gulf of Mexico to find two ships bringing supplies from Havana.
On October 18, while crossing the present state of Alabama, they found themselves in front of a summarily fortified city named Mavilla or Mauvila (probably close to the present city of Mobile). A converted Indian advised them that the city was full of warriors and weapons. One of his captains suggested that de Soto set up camp outside the city, but de Soto refused, wanting to stay at Mavilla. The Choctaw tribe of Mavilla, commanded by Chief Tascalusa, prepared an ambush inside the city walls. The Spaniards were trapped and had to fight hard to escape before they managed to reduce the city to ashes. The battle lasted nine hours, eighteen Spaniards were killed, one hundred and fifty of the survivors were wounded, twenty of whom would die of their wounds in the following weeks, twelve horses were killed and seventy wounded. Among the Choctaw warriors, there were about two thousand five hundred dead or one thousand one hundred according to other estimates.
Since entering Florida, the expedition has lost 102 men, plus much of its property and horses at the Battle of Mavilla. These Spaniards were wounded, sick, surrounded by enemies and short of equipment. Fearing that this situation would become known in Spain, if his men reached the ships waiting for him in Mobile Bay, on November 18, de Soto decided that all of them should leave Mavilla and he led them further north to what is now the state of Tennessee, where they would spend the winter.
While setting out again towards north, the expedition meets the Chickasaw tribe. De Soto asks them for 200 men as porters. They refused and, on March 8, they attacked the Spanish camp during the night. The Spaniards lost eleven men, fifteen horses and most of their equipment. According to the chroniclers who accompanied him, at that moment, the expedition could have been annihilated. The Chickasaws, undoubtedly impressed by their own success, nevertheless let it go. On April 25, after tending to the wounded and making some repairs to their equipment, they set out westward.
On May 8, 1541, de Soto and his troop reached a river half a league wide, muddy and with a violent current that continually carried away tree trunks. This immense river was full of fish, full of species unknown in Spain and the Spaniards named it Rio Grande or Rio de Espiritu Santo. In fact, they had just discovered the Mississippi. It is not certain that they were the first Europeans to discover the Old Man River, but they were the first to report and document the fact.
De Soto is only little interested by this discovery, he sees rather an obstacle to his mission. He has 400 men to cross this immense river whose banks are populated with hostile natives. After a month devoted to the construction of four barges, the Spaniards finally crossed the Mississippi and continued their journey westward towards the present-day states of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. They spent the winter in Autiamque, on the banks of the Arkansas River. The expedition, since its departure, has already lost 250 men and 150 horses.
After a rigorous winter, the expedition raises the camp on March 6, 1542. Their faithful guide Juan Ortiz died during the winter. It is more and more difficult for them to find their way, to obtain food and to communicate with the natives. The expedition goes to the Caddo River, where it is confronted by the Tula tribe, whose warriors the Spaniards will say are the most talented and dangerous they have encountered. The confrontation took place in the area of the current Caddo Gap (in Arkansas) (a monument is erected there today). The Spaniards then decided to return to Mississippi.
On April 17, the expedition arrived on the west bank of the Mississippi, in the Indian village of Guachoya (near the present McArthur in Arkansas). De Soto sent detachments to explore the area and bring back supplies, but he was soon taken by fevers. On May 20, he gathered his captains and, in order to avoid any division after his death, which he felt was near, he made them swear in his captain general, Luis de Mosoco de Alvarado. Since de Soto had spread the rumor among the natives that the Christians were immortal (in order to obtain their allegiance without fighting), his men kept his death quiet. They wrapped his body in weighted sheets and immersed it at night in the middle of the Mississippi (the Indians, however, realized the ruse).
Return of the expedition to Mexico
For three years, the expedition explored La Florida without finding the expected treasures or even a hospitable site to establish a colony. It lost half of its men, most of its horses (which gave the Spaniards a great military advantage), the survivors were dressed only in animal skins, many were wounded and their health was impaired. So, by a broad consensus, it was decided to end the expedition and find a way home, either down the Mississippi or overland through Texas to New Spain.
They decided that building ships would take too long and navigating the Gulf of Mexico would be too dangerous because they had no sailors or navigational instruments with them. So they took the road to the southwest and found themselves in an arid region, part of present-day Texas. The natives lived scattered there, looking for food, which caused a serious problem for the expedition, because there were no villages to plunder, no sufficient food and their troop was too large to live on the meager resources of this place. They were forced to backtrack to the more civilized areas along the Mississippi River, where they began to build boats.
They used all the iron they had, including horse bits and slave chains, to make the nails needed to build the boats. Winter passed, then spring, but by July they were ready to head down the Mississippi to the coast. The journey took them two weeks, they met hostile tribes on the way, they were often chased by canoes and shot with arrows – the Spaniards had no effective offensive weapons from their boats, their crossbows had not worked for a long time, they could only rely on the protection of their armor and mattresses to stop the arrows. About eleven of them were killed on this journey and several others were wounded.
Once they reached the mouth of the Mississippi River, the ships sailed near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, heading south and west. After 50 days of navigation, they finally reached the Río Pánuco river and the Spanish city of Pánuco. There they rested for a month, during which time many of the members, reflecting on what they had accomplished, became disgruntled, claiming that they had left La Florida too soon without having founded a colony there, which led to fights and even some deaths. However, after their arrival in Mexico City, Viceroy Don Antonio de Mendoza offered to lead a new expedition to La Florida, but few volunteered.
Of the 700 expeditionaries who left with de Soto, only a little more than 300 survived, most of whom would remain in the New World, settling in Mexico, Peru, Cuba and other Spanish colonies.
The journey of the conquistador de Soto to Florida, from his point of view and that of his men, is a disastrous disaster. They brought back neither gold nor riches and they did not found any colony. The reputation of this particular expedition, at the time, is closer to that of a Don Quixote than that of Cortés. Nevertheless, it had a series of important consequences in North America.
On the one hand, the expedition left its mark on the places it passed through. A few horses that escaped or were stolen contributed to the establishment of the first mustang populations in western North America. And the hogs she brought there proliferate to the south. De Soto and his troop provoked aggressive and hostile reactions, which later prevailed between the natives and the Europeans. It happened to the expedition to meet hostile tribes, but the Spaniards were even more often at the origin of the fights.
More devastating than bloody battles are the germs of diseases that the expeditionaries, and especially the pigs that were carried along, brought with them, without knowing it at first: germs that did not exist before in America, coming from Europe, more populated, and to which the Europeans are immune in a natural way (or by secular natural selection), contrary to the natives of America, with a poorer genetic diversity and a nature that is not very resistant to epidemics of viral origin. Some regions that the expeditionaries passed through became depopulated. Many natives fled the traditionally populated areas hit by the diseases to take refuge in the hills or even in the nearby swamps. The social structure of these populations, at this time, changes fundamentally. This is not specific to de Soto”s expedition, but characterizes the possible epidemic effects of the very first contacts between members of populations that had been totally isolated from each other until then, both genetically and geographically.
On the other hand, the notes of the expedition contribute greatly to the improvement of the geographical, biological and ethnic knowledge of the region by the Europeans. Their descriptions of the indigenous people of North America are the first and only sources of knowledge of pre-Columbian nations, such as the Creeks, Seminoles, Cherokees and many others.
The expedition also led the Spanish Crown to reconsider its attitude towards its colonies north of Mexico. It claimed large territories in North America for the Spaniards, creating missions mainly in Florida and on the Pacific coast.
In the poetry collection The Trophies (1893) by José Maria de Hérédia, the adventure of Hernando de Soto is narrated in this sonnet:
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