Hernando De Soto – Exploring the Southeast

Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto

By Herbert Eugene Bolton, 1918

Hernando de Soto was about 36 years old when he was appointed adelantado of Florida. He was “a gentleman by all four descents,” and had recently been created by the Emperor, a knight of the order of Santiago. He had already led a career of adventure not often equaled. He had served under Pedrarias in Nicaragua, and, by his marriage to Pedrarias’ daughter, Dona Isabel, had become brother-in-law to Vasco Nunez de Balboa, discoverer of the Pacific Ocean. Later, in following the fortunes of Francisco Pizarro in Peru, he had “distinguished himself over all the captains and principal personages present, not only at the seizure of Atahualpa (Inca), lord of Peru, and in carrying the City of Cuzco, but, at all other places wheresoever he went and found resistance.” Thus does the Gentleman of Elvas, comrade of Don Hernando and narrator of his exploits, pen his biography in a line. A man of blood and iron, wherever he “found resistance” there, Hernando de Soto was roused to action. He brooked neither opposition from foes nor interference from friends; and, for him, no peril, no hardship, could surpass in bitterness the defeat of his will.

His nature was to be read plainly in his swarthy, strongly lined face and burning black eyes, and in the proud carriage of his head; so that, though he was hardly more than of medium stature, men remarked him and gave him room. He had an agreeable smile at rare moments; he was renowned for courage, and his skill as a horseman was noted among those lovers of horses, the Spanish nobles. He was able to set up a fine establishment and to lend money to Emperor Charles V, from whom he was seeking high office. And so, the Emperor made him Governor of Cuba and adelantado of Florida. Panfilo de Narvaez had pictured in Florida another Mexico. De Soto hoped to find there another Peru.

The news of De Soto’s expedition took his countrymen by storm. When Cabeza de Vaca, fresh from his wanderings, appeared at court and told his great tale, the enthusiasm increased. Rich nobles sold their estates, their houses, vineyards, and olive fields, their plate and jewels, their towns of vassals, to participate in the venture. There, assembled in Seville so many “persons of noble extraction”‘ that a large number of those who had sold all they had were forced to remain behind for want of shipping. De Soto mustered his volunteers for review at the port of Sanlucar. Here, he scanned them carefully and picked out his men, who were then counted and enlisted. They numbered 600. And, considering the small size of the ships of that day, they and their supplies must have been tightly packed in the nine vessels that bore them, from Spain.

On Sunday morning of the day of St. Lazarus, April 1538, Hernando de Soto in a “new ship fast of sail” led his fleet over the bar of Sanlucar, “with great festivity.” From every vessel, artillery roared at his command, and trumpets sounded. Favorable winds urged his vessels on; his adored Dona Isabel was beside him, adventure and fame were before him. On Pentecost Day the ships were moored in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba. All the horsemen and footmen of the town surged down to the landing: and Don Hernando and Dona Isabel, followed by their train of 600, rode into the city, where they were “well lodged, attentively visited, and served by all the citizens.” From Santiago, Don Hernando sent Dona Isabel and the ships to Havana, his port of embarkment for Florida; while with 150 horsemen he made a tour of the cities under his authority. Presently, he heard that his ships bound for Havana had experienced severe storms, which had swept them out of their course and separated them. But, after 40 days, they had all come safely to Havana. Leaving his cavalcade to follow as it might, Don Hernando mounted and made all speed to Havana and Dona Isabel.

De Soto Landing

De Soto Landing

On Sunday, May 18, 1539, De Soto said farewell to his wife and sailed from Havana for Florida, the land still reputed to be “the richest of any which until then had been discovered”; and on May 30th he landed his men near an Indian town on Tampa Bay. Here, the Spaniards immediately had a brush with the natives, who let drive at the armored horsemen with their arrows. Two Indians were killed; the others fled through wooded and boggy country where the horses could not follow.

When the Spaniards lay in the camp that night, they could see flames come out against the blackness, dwindling in the distance to specks like fireflies, as the Indians passed their fiery warning inland. Two days later, they came upon a deserted town of eight huts. De Soto established headquarters there and sent out several companies on horse and foot to explore. He ordered the woods felled “the distance of a crossbow shot” around the town. He set sentinels about the place and detailed horsemen to go the rounds. After having made all secure, he lodged himself in the chief’s house.

There, in the dust flooring, under his torch’s glare, he found a small scatter of pearls. They were ruined by the fire used in boring them for beads; but, to him, they were typical of the jeweled chain of fortune which should link him with greatness to his life’s end and as long after as men’s tongues should wag. So, had Panfilo de Narvaez thought when he found the golden ornament. When the exploring parties returned they could relate that the Indians of Florida were no mean foes. One party brought back six men wounded — one so badly that he died. But, they had captured four women. Another party brought in a man — a white man. This was Juan Ortiz, of noble lineage, and follower of the fortunes of Panfilo de Narvaez, and for the last eleven years a slave among the Indians.

He had entered Florida with Narvaez, but, instead of following his leader inland, had stuck to the ships and had returned to Cuba. Then Narvaez’s wife had sent him back to Florida to look for her husband, and there, he had been taken captive. An Indian girl, he said — apparently a prototype of Pocahontas — had romantically saved his life, just as he was about to be roasted alive at the command of her father. In passing from tribe to tribe, sometimes in barter, sometimes as a fugitive, Ortiz had become conversant with several dialects and he could now play the role of interpreter. To De Soto’s eager inquiries he answered that he had seen no gold nor jewels, but, had heard of a rich country thirty leagues inland. This was enough. De Soto now dispatched his ships to Cuba for more supplies and ordered his company to make ready to march. This was the beginning of three years of restless wandering, in the course of which De Soto and his men traversed Florida, Georgia, Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas.

Leaving at the camp, a garrison of 50 footmen with 30 horses and food for two years, on August 1, 1539, De Soto set out. In his train, were some 550 lancers, crossbowmen, and arquebusiers; about 200 horses, a number of priests and Dominican friars — with the sacred vessels, vestments, and white meal for the Mass; a physician and his medicines; a ship’s carpenter, caulkers, and a cooper for the boat-building that might be necessary on inland waters — perhaps to construct a ship to bear Don Hernando to China by that fabled waterway Columbus had not found. And, there were armorers and smiths, with their forges and tools, for mail shirts must be mended at times, swords tempered, and the great bulk of iron chains and iron slave-collars kept in good repair.

They were bound northwestward to the country of Cale. Indians had told them that beyond Cale, “towards the sunset,” lay a land of perpetual summer where there was so much gold that, when its people came down to war with the tribes of Cale, “they wore golden hats like casques.” On towards that land of golden hats went the Spaniards; over the low thicketed country full of bogs and swamps, where the horses, weighted by their own armor and their heavily accoutered riders, mired and floundered. They crossed several small rivers on logs, swimming the horses over by a hawser. This was not the country, “very rich in maize,” which Indians had told them stretched along the way to Cale. Pinched by hunger, the Spaniards ate young palm shoots and watercresses “without another thing.” And, from the thickets about the bogs and marshes, invisible Indians sent a rain of arrows upon them.

They were bound northwestward to the country of Cale. Indians had told them that beyond Cale, “towards the sunset,” lay a land of perpetual summer where there was so much gold that, when its people came down to war with the tribes of Cale, “they wore golden hats like casques.” On towards that land of golden hats went the Spaniards; over the low thicketed country full of bogs and swamps, where the horses, weighted by their own armor and their heavily accoutered riders, mired and floundered. They crossed several small rivers on logs, swimming the horses over by a hawser. This was not the country, “very rich in maize,” which Indians had told them stretched along the way to Cale. Pinched by hunger, the Spaniards ate young palm shoots and watercresses “without another thing.” And, from the thickets about the bogs and marshes, invisible Indians sent a rain of arrows upon them.

“He came to Cale and found the town abandoned,” tersely writes the Gentleman of Elvas. Cale was a puddle of mud and palmetto huts somewhere on the Suwanee River. But, there was ripe maize in the Indian fields, enough to supply De Soto’s men for three months; three men were killed during the husking. The Indians kept under clear, and no slaves could be taken; so the Spaniards were forced to grind their own corn for bread. Some of them ground it in the log mortars they found in the town and sifted the flour through their mail shirts. The majority, disdaining this menial toil, ate the grains “parched and sodden.”

No golden hats were found in Cale, so De Soto pushed on northwestward to Caliquen. Along his route, he set a company of his horsemen and a pack of greyhounds sharply to work catching Indians. An army in a strange land needed guides, and gentlemen unskilled in bread-making needed slaves. Like Hernando Cortes, he made a practice of seizing the chief of each town on his march — after an exchange of greetings and fraternal testimonials. Then, he held him to ensure the tribe’s peaceful conduct; and forced him to supply food and women for the use of the army.

De Soto enslaves the Indians

De Soto enslaves the Indians

Hernando de Soto’s first pitched battle with the Indians resulted from an attempt made by the natives of Caliquen to rescue their chief. Ortiz, who knew their language, informed him of the plot. Four hundred natives stationed themselves outside the camp and sent two men to demand their chief’s release. De Soto took the chief by the hand and led him out, accompanied by a dozen foot soldiers; and then, having thrown the Indians off guard by this strategy, he ordered the trumpet sounded. Shouting their battle cry of “Santiago” the Spaniards bore down upon the Indians, and, after a brief fierce fight, routed them and killed from 30-40, while the rest leaped into two nearby lakes to escape the horsemen’s lances. The Spaniards surrounded one of the lakes; and during the night, some, more alert-eyed than others, observed the odd phenomenon of water-lilies slowly moving inshore over the moonlit surface of the water. The Indians had put the lilies on their heads and were swimming noiselessly and with barely a ripple towards land. The Spaniards rushed in, to their horses’ breasts, and drove them back. The next day, all but a few were captured and divided among the Spaniards as slaves. The forges were in full blast that day for the riveting of chains and iron collars. But, though chained, the natives of Caliquen were not tamed. They rose against their captors, seized their weapons, and, whether lances or swords, handled them as if accustomed to use them all their lives. “One Indian, in the public yard of the town, with blade in hand, fought like a bull in the arena, until the halberdiers of the Governor, arriving, put an end to him.”

A further march of about 30 miles brought the Spaniards to a town of the Appalachee near Tallahassee, Florida probably the same visited by Narvaez. There, they found the October fields of grain, beans, and pumpkins ready to harvest, and decided to go into camp for the winter. From this point, De Soto dispatched communications to his ships at Tampa and sent letters, with a gift of twenty Indian women captives, to be carried to Dona Isabel in Cuba. The army remained in camp until March. Besides the men sent to the ships at Tampa Bay — who were to bring back the garrison left there — De Soto sent out two exploring parties. One of these parties discovered Pensacola Bay. The other came suddenly upon a beautiful bay at no great distance from the camp. Its blue waves, with the amethystine streak characteristic of Southern waters, were vivid under the sun. This bay was the Bay of Horses, where Narvaez and his men had set out in their horsehide boats. The glistening white heaps were the bleached bones and skulls of their slain mounts. Besought by his men “to leave the land of Florida,” lest they all perish like Panfilo de Narvaez, De Soto sternly replied that he would never turn back. In his heart, he had already resolved to go on until he should find the golden country he sought; or, failing in that search, to perish rather than return to bear the chagrin of seeing himself outdone by some other conquistador who, by greater perseverance, might discover “another Mexico” in the great interior.

So, on March 3, 1540, Hernando de Soto broke camp and took his way northeastward, across the present State of Georgia, through the country of the Creek Indians. Towards the end of April, he reached a town called Cufitachiqui. It was on the Savannah River, probably somewhere below Augusta; Indian tradition locates it at the modern Silver Bluff. The cacica, or chief, richly draped in furs and feathers, with loops of pearls extending on her neck, crossed the river in a canoe to greet Don Hernando, accompanied by her men of state and followed by a fleet of canoes laden with gifts for the visiting prince.

After speeches of welcome, she took off a large string of pearls and threw it about De Soto’s neck. Then, she offered more canoes brought to convey him and his men to the other side. Seeing that the pearls rejoiced him, she told him that if he would open the burial mounds he would find many more and that, in some deserted towns nearby, “he might load all his horses with them.” So from the graves at Cufitachiqui, De Soto took 350 pounds of pearls “and figures of babies and birds made of them.” He found also, a dirk and some rosaries that had once belonged to Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon’s followers.

De Soto and the Indian Queen

De Soto and the Indian Queen

At Cufitachiqui, De Soto’s men desired to make a settlement. It was a favorable point to begin colonization. It lay but two days’ journey from the sea “to which could come all the ships from New Spain”; and it was “a good country, and one fit in which to raise supplies.” But, De Soto was looking for another treasure such as he had wrested from the Inca in Peru and he “would not be content with good lands nor pearls,” saying that “should a richer country not be found, they could always return to that who would.” He then asked the cacica if there were “any great lord farther on” and was blandly told of the rich province of Chiaha, subject to a chief of Coosa. To seek this new goal, he resolved to go at once, and “being an inflexible man, and dry of word, who, although he liked to know what the others all thought and had to say, after he once said a thing he did not like to be opposed, and as he ever acted as he thought best, all bent to his will . . . there were none who would say a thing to him after it became known that he had made up his mind.” It was discovered presently that this red-skinned Cleopatra now wished to slip away from her Antony, and without giving him carriers for his supplies, “because of the outrages committed upon the inhabitants,” so, De Soto put her under guard and carried her away on foot with her female slaves. This treatment “was not a proper return” for the hospitality and affectionate welcome he had received.

Seven days’ marching brought the Spaniards into the country of the Cherokee; and five days later they reached Xualla, a Cherokee town above the junction of the Tuckaseegee and Oconaluftee Rivers in North Carolina. On the way, the cacique of Cufitachiqui had escaped; and had carried into the thickets with her, “a cane box, like a trunk,” full of unbored pearls. Still pushing on towards that “richest province,” De Soto crossed the Smoky Mountains and went into Tennessee. He tarried at Guaxule, where the chief’s house stood on a great mound, surrounded by a terrace on which, half a dozen men could walk abreast. Here, he was fortunate enough to get three hundred “dogs” — perhaps opossums — as meat for his army. But, this hilly country was unprofitable to man and beast. De Soto, therefore, turned south into Georgia, to see that “greatest prince” of Coosa. There was no lack of food as he pressed on southward; for the natives willingly contributed mulberries, nuts, maize, and wild turkeys.

De Soto’s course took him down the Coosa River to Chiaha, a town of the Creek Indians. Coosa, in Talladega County, Alabama, where men and beasts waxed fat on the abundance of the land, was reached on July 26, 1540. Remembrance of Coosa lingered with these Spaniards and lured some of them back in after several years. The chief of Coosa, arrayed in a wonderful shawl of marten skins and preceded by men playing upon small flutes, came out to meet De Soto and invited him to settle in his country. But, De Soto was not interested in furs, and he saw no gold in Coosa. So, after having seized a number of slaves and the chief himself, he went on, southward now, through Alabama. Near the Alabama River he was shown another gloomy memento of Spanish adventurers in that land. This was the dagger of Theodoro, the Greek, who had come ashore at the river’s mouth to get fresh water for Panfilo de Narvaez’s men some eleven years before.

On the 15th of October, having crossed the Alabama River, De Soto reached Maravilla, a large town near the present Choctaw Bluff. The name Maravilla is preserved in that of Mobile, city and river. At Maravilla, was fought the fiercest combat of the entire march. The Indians soon set upon the Spaniards and drove them outside the walls of the town. They seized all the baggage, including provisions, some arms, and the 350 pounds of pearls, gathered in the slaves, struck off their chains and armed them. De Soto drew up his army and made a fierce assault upon the stockade, while, within one of the houses, some soldiers, a priest, and a friar, who had been trapped there, fought off the Indians at the door with swords and clubs. De Soto ordered the town fired; and, as the flames burst forth from the roofs and the natives attempted to flee, he broke through with his soldiery and took possession. Eighteen Spaniards and twelve horses were killed, and 150 Spaniards and 70 horses were badly wounded with arrows. The Indians were slaughtered almost to a man; for, as they attempted to flee, the Spanish horsemen drove them back into the burning town. There, “losing the hope of escape, they fought valiantly; and the Spaniards, getting among them with cutlasses, they found themselves met on all sides by their strokes, when many, dashing into the flaming houses, were smothered, and, heaped one upon another, burned to death. The struggle lasted so long that many of the Spaniards, weary and very thirsty, went to drink at a pond nearby, tinged with the blood of the killed.” In the fire, were consumed all the baggage and supplies, the pearls, and the vessels for the Mass.

Hernando de Soto and his men

Hernando de Soto and his men

Now, De Soto, himself severely wounded, — for always he led his men when he ordered an attack, — heard that at the coast, six days distant, ships from Cuba, commanded by his lieutenant, Maldonado, rode at anchor waiting for news of him and bearing supplies for the army, as well as letters from Dona Isabel. But, he ordered that this information be kept from his men, who were already disillusioned about golden Florida and eager to leave it. The pearls which he had intended to send to Cuba “for show, that their fame might raise the desire of coming to Florida,” had been destroyed; and as he feared, the effect of sending word of himself without “either gold or silver, or other thing of value,” he determined to send no news of himself until he had discovered a rich country. So, the ships waited their appointed time, and then sailed home again, bearing to Cuba no word of its Governor, and to Dona Isabel only silence.

At the time of his decision, De Soto’s force was lessened by 102 men, who had been slain or lost on his long march; the remainder were in tatters, or naked, under their rusty mail; many of his horses, all his supplies and extra clothing, and his slim booty were destroyed; and his men no longer shared what little hope may have remained to him of ever reaching that richest province “beyond.” But, if his decision, made for his pride and his honor and against the love of his wife and his own chances of survival, cost him anything, no hint of that cost passed his stern lips. For 28 days he rested at Maravilla to allow the wounded, who dressed their wounds with the fat of the slain Indians, to recover; then he took up the search again.On November 17, 1540, De Soto moved northwestward in quest of another Promised Land, a place called Pacaha. He crossed the Black Warrior and the Tombigbee Rivers and a month later entered a Chickasaw town in the present State of Mississippi, where he went into winter quarters.  Before spring, he had his troubles with the proud and warlike Chickasaw. Some of the natives, caught in theft, were executed; and another, “his hands having first been cut off,” was sent back to the chief as a visible warning. Four Spaniards, who pillaged some Indian houses, almost met with as hard a fate; for De Soto, stern with friend and foe alike ordered two of them put to death and the other two deprived of their goods. Deaf to all pleas, he would have seen the sentence carried out but for the subtlety of Ortiz, the interpreter, who translated the complaints of the Indians into prayers for pardon.

When, in March, Hernando de Soto was ready to depart, he made his usual demand for male carriers and for women. The Chickasaw considered this an insult to be wiped out in blood. They fell upon the Spaniards at dawn; and, “by the time those in the town were aware, half the houses were in flames.” The men, running in confusion from the fire, blinded by the smoke and the glare, not able to find their arms nor to saddle their horses, fell easy prey to the native archers. The horses snapped their halters and stampeded, or were burned to death in their stalls. It would have been a complete victory for the Indians — and the end of the expedition — if the natives had not believed that the thunder of hoofs meant that the cavalry was gathering to fall upon them. They fled, leaving only one dead on the field. He had been killed with a lance by De Soto, who was unhorsed in the act because his saddle girth was loose. Eleven Spaniards and fifty horses perished. The army then quickly moved to another town and turned to making saddles and lances from ash, and grass mats, to protect their naked bodies from the cold. Towards the end of April, De Soto started on, northwestward, and, during the first week in May 1541, not far from the Chickasaw Bluffs, he stood on the east bank of the Mississippi River.

Indians in canoe

Indians in canoe

On the plains, a crossbow’s shot from the steep timbered bank, the army pitched camp. De Soto set his men at once to felling trees and constructing vessels in which to cross the river; for on the west shore to the north, lay the “richest province” of Pacaha, whither he was bound. Presently, the cacique of Aquixo, or Arkansas, came over to visit him, with his lesser chiefs and 200 warriors. The chiefs sat in the sterns of their canoes under skin awnings; and chiefs and warriors were “painted with ochre, wearing great bunches of white and other plumes of many colors.” Some held “feathered shields in their hands, with which they sheltered the oarsmen on either side, the warriors standing erect from bow to stern, holding bows and arrows.  These were fine-looking men, very large and well-formed; and what with the awnings, the plumes, and the shields, the pennons, and the number of people in the fleet, it appeared like a famous armada of galleys.” The canoes also bore gifts of furs, buffalo robes, dried fruits, and fish for the white chief. These, the cacique sent ashore; but, when De Soto and his men came down to the water’s edge, making signs to him to land, he hastily ordered his oarsmen to retreat, evidently in the apprehension of the strange men in armor the like of which he had never seen before. De Soto, construing this as hostility, ordered the crossbowmen to fire. Half a dozen Indians fell; but, the canoes continued to retire in good order, not an Indian “leaving the oar, even though the one next to him might have fallen.”‘ During the month, consumed in barge-building, the Indians appeared in midstream several times but, came no nearer. Early one June morning the barges were passing to and fro across the Mississippi River; and by sunrise, all the men and horses were on the west bank. The barges were then taken to pieces and the iron spikes were kept for making other vessels when needed.

Indian Village

Indian Village

Marching north through Arkansas, from some captives, now De Soto heard more of Chisca, beyond Pacaha, where there was much gold. He found the towns along his route deserted. The inhabitants had fled and hidden; but, the Spaniards felt their presence in the arrow flights which descended on them from the ravines and thick timber, as they paused to find the best crossings over streams and marshes. After crossing Fifteen- Mile Bayou in St. Francis County, Arkansas, they marched all day until sunset over the flooded ground. The water was sometimes as high as their waists. At night they reached Casqui, where they found the Indians off their guard, never having heard of them. They seized all the buffalo robes and furs in the town and many of the men and women. The towns here were thickly set in a very fruitful country; so that, while the footmen were despoiling one town, the horsemen could sweep down upon another.

Hernando de Soto made friends with the chief of Casqui, who was on bad terms with the chief of Pacaha, and set up a cross in his town. After having “pacified” Pacaha, De Soto reconciled its chief to the chief of Casqui and entertained both worthies at dinner. Whereupon the chief of Casqui gave De Soto his daughter to wife; and the chief of Pacaha, by an equally simple marriage ceremony, gave him two of his sisters, Macanoche and Mochila. Of the Pacaha ladies, they were described as “They were symmetrical, tall, and full; Macanoche bore a pleasant expression; in her manners and features appealed the lady; the other was robust.” Again it was the same old story. No gold was found at Pacaha; but, at Caluga “beyond,” there was said to be some. So, 80 men were sent out to look over Caluga and to discover the best road to Chisca, where there was gold in plenty and a copper foundry. We can only conjecture as to what the Indians were trying to tell De Soto when he visualized, from their signs, a copper foundry. When his party of explorers returned after a week’s journey northward across Missouri, they could report no gold, but, they had heard of the great buffalo-covered prairies beyond. In their wanderings, they had perhaps reached the Osage River or even the Kansas River.

These dispiriting reports determined Don Hernando not to seek for Chisca and its fabled gold. After a rest of some weeks in Pacaha, he moved westward across northern Arkansas to the abundant grain fields of Tanico, probably on the Neosho River in Oklahoma. Here, he halted for a month to gamer supplies and fatten his horses. From Tanico, he turned southeastward. He crossed the Arkansas River in the vicinity of Fort Smith on the dividing line between Oklahoma and Arkansas and went into winter quarters about 30 miles east of the line at an Indian town named Autiamque on the south bank of the Arkansas River. Here, the Spaniards spent three months, during one of which snow fell almost continuously. The shackled Indians built a high palisade about the camp, hauled wood for fires, and trapped rabbits for food. Juan Ortiz, the castaway of Narvaez’s expedition, died at Autiamque; and, as he was the only man with a fair knowledge of Indian speech, his loss was a serious blow to De Soto’s army.

Spring came, and in March 1542, De Soto broke camp and continued down the Arkansas River. By this time, of the 600 who had come with him from Spain, he had not over 300 efficient men, nor more than 40 horses. Some of the beasts were lame, and useful only in making out the show of a troop of cavalry; and, for the lack of iron, they had gone a year without shoes.” De Soto resolved now to go to the seacoast, which he imagined to be not far off. There, he would build two vessels, one to be sent to New Spain and the other to Cuba, “calculating, out of his property there, to refit and again go back to advance, to discover and to conquer farther on towards the west.” It was three years since he had been heard of by Dona Isabel, nor did he know how she fared. In April, he reached Guachoya, at the mouth of the Arkansas River, and, as usual, lodged his men in the town, from which most of the natives had fled at his approach.

De Soto discovering the Mississippi,Gebbie and Co, 1893

Hernando de Soto discovers the Mississippi River, Gebbie & Co, 1893.

To ascertain how near the sea was, he sent several men down the Mississippi River, but, when they returned after more than a week’s absence it was to tell him that only the river’s tide, to bayous and swamps stretched for miles upon miles below. Nor could the Indians they had captured down the river tell them of any other great water.

No news of the sea — and men and horses dying off; his little company ringed round with hostile tribes, whom he had treated without mercy in the days of his strength; and no relief anywhere. At the recognition, at last, of defeat, the strong spirit of Don Hernando broke and his body weakened under the fever of torment that took hold of him. But still, he had nerve. From his straw pallet he dispatched a messenger commanding the chief of Quigaltam across the river to send him carriers and provisions; for he was the “Child of the Sun,” and “whence he came all obeyed him, rendering their tribute.” The chief returned an answer that the Child of the Sun should be able to dry up the river between them. On that token, he would believe. “If you desire to see me come where I am . . . neither for you nor for any man, will I set back one foot.”

Here, at last, by his words, was the “greatest prince” so long sought. De Soto was already low by the time his messenger returned; but, on hearing the chief’s insolent answer, his haughty spirit blazed up once more and he grieved that there was not bodily force left in him to enable him to cross the river and abate that pride. As an object lesson not alone to the lofty cacique but also to the Indians of Guachoya, whose treachery he feared, he sent an expedition to lay waste and slaughter the town of Nilco some distance off. The Spaniards took the inhabitants so entirely by surprise that, when the captain ordered all males slain, not an Indian was ready to draw his bow in defense. “The cries of the women and children were such as to deafen those who pursued them. About 100 men were slain; many were allowed to get away badly wounded that they might strike terror into those who were absent. Some persons were so cruel and butcher-like that they killed all before them, young and old, not one having resisted little or much.” If the Indians of Guachoya had indeed been planning an attack, the object lesson had the desired effect.

Hernando De Soto dies

Hernando De Soto dies

Hernando de Soto’s hour had struck, and he lay dying in loneliness. His officers and men, gloomy over their own prospects and resentful against the commander who had led them to this pass, held aloof — “each one himself having need of sympathy, which was the cause why they neither gave him their companionship nor visited him.” On the day before his death, he called for them. After giving thanks to God, he confessed his deep obligations to them all “for their great qualities, their love, and loyalty to his person”; and he asked their prayers and their forgiveness of any wrongs that he might have dealt them. And, to prevent divisions, he requested them to elect his successor, saying “that this would greatly satisfy him, abate somewhat the pains he suffered, and moderate the anxiety of leaving them in a country, they knew not where.” One officer responded in behalf of all, “consoling him with remarks on the shortness of the life of this world,” and with many other high-sounding cold phrases; and requested the Governor himself to select their new leader. De Soto chose Luis de Moscoso Alvarado, and the others willingly swore to obey him. On the next day, May 21, 1542, having made his last will and his last confession, “departed this life the magnanimous, the virtuous, the intrepid captain, Hernando de Soto, Governor of Cuba and adelantado of Florida. He was advanced by fortune, in the way she is wont to lead others, that he might fall the greater depth.”

The death of the “Child of the Sun” was kept a secret from the Indians, from fear of an uprising. His body was buried at night just within the walls of the town and the Indians were told that he had ascended to the Sun, but the natives observed that the earth near the wall had been disturbed and were seen talking among themselves. So, as secretly as it had been buried, De Soto’s body was dug up. A safer grave must be found for it — a grave safer to the living. Packed with sand to weigh it down, and the mass wrapped and closely bound in “shawls,” it was taken out in a canoe to midstream, and there under the blackness of the night — with no sound save a whispered order and one deep answering note from the waters — it sank into the river.

The adelantado had fallen, but, the wanderings of his followers were by no means over. “Some were glad of the death of Don Hernando de Soto, holding it certain that Luis de Moscoso Alvarado, who was given to leading a gay life, preferred to see himself at ease in a land of Christians, rather than continue the toils of war, discovering and subduing, which the people had come to hate, finding the little recompense that followed.” After consultation with his officers, Moscoso decided to try to reach Mexico by land. On the 5th of June, the Spaniards moved westward, headed for Panuco. They crossed southern Arkansas and reached the Red River near Texarkana, but, were prevented for a week by a flood from crossing the river. Their march duplicated many past events, in battles with Indians, in slave-catching raids, and ambushes. At the Red River, they changed their course to the south and entered the Caddo villages of eastern Texas; then, veering southwest again, they came to a large river, probably the middle Brazos. Here, as in Missouri and Oklahoma, they heard of the buffalo plains beyond, but, did not reach them. October had come, winter was on the way, and the country promised little succor through the cold and snow. So, they turned back on their trail to one of the villages on the Mississippi River near the mouth of the Arkansas River, where De Soto had died.

They now resolved to descend the Great River, which must somewhere empty into the sea. In order to do, so they must build a fleet of brigantines, capable of weathering the winds and billows of the ocean. And now, Moscoso performed a feat in shipbuilding, parallel to that of Panfilo de Narvaez at the Bay of Horses. At his orders, timber was felled; a forge was set up, and iron chains converted into spikes. A Portuguese who had learned to saw lumber while a captive in Morocco, and who had brought saws with him, cut the planks and taught other men to help him. A Genoese, the only man “who knew how to construct vessels,” built the brigantines with the help of four or five Biscayan carpenters; and two caulkers, one a Genoese, the other a Sardinian, closed up the cracks with “the oakum, got from a plant-like hemp, called enequen.” A cooper, who was so ill that he could barely get about, managed nevertheless to make for each of the seven ships two half-hogsheads to hold freshwater. Sails were made of woven hemp and skins; ropes and cables from mulberry bark; and anchors from stirrups. In June, the brigantines were finished, and the high floods floated them off the building ground into the river; fortunately, for if they had been dragged down the bank “there would have been danger of tearing open the bottoms, thereby entirely wrecking them, the planks being thin, and the spikes made short for the lack of iron.” Twenty-two horses were taken aboard; the others, being done for as mounts, were killed and their flesh was served.

On July 3, 1543, the 320 Spaniards and 100 Indian slaves set sail for their unknown port. The rest of the captives had been released. Indians along their course several times beset the vessels, and ten Spaniards were slain. Seventeen days after their departure from the mouth of the Arkansas River, they reached the sea. At first, they sailed westward, following the shoreline, then steered for the open sea but, turned in again to the coast, thinking their frail vessel safer within hail of the shore. They experienced hunger and thirst, doubts and fears, and storms of the sea. Fierce headwinds forced them, at one time, to spend 14 days in a sheltered inlet on the Texas coast. On the day when again it blew fair for them, they “very devoutly formed a procession for the return of thanks,” and as they moved along the beach they supplicated the Almighty to take them to a land in which they might better do Him service.

On September 10, 1543, two months and seven days after launching their brigantines, they entered the mouth of the Panuco River, which flows into the Gulf 150 miles north of Vera Cruz, Mexico. Here, Indians in the apparel of Spain told them, in their own tongue, that there was a Christian town, 15 leagues, inland; “they felt as though life had been newly given them; many, leaping on shore, kissed the ground; and, all on bended knees, with hands raised above them, and their eyes to heaven, remained untiring in giving thanks to God.” Weather-beaten and toil-worn, they entered the town, each man clad in deerskins “dressed and dyed black” and carrying his pack on his back; and all went directly to the church to return thanks for their preservation and to take part “in the divine offices which, for a long season, had not been listened to by them.” The 310 men were warmly received by their countrymen and treated to the best the country provided.

In October, that Maldonado who had waited in vain at Pensacola Bay to deliver to Don Hernando, Dona Isabel’s letters and had twice since sought for him along the Florida coast, arrived at Vera Cruz. He then bore back to Cuba the news of Don Hernando’s fate. When Dona Isabel learned of her husband’s death she withered under the blow and died within a few days. There was no man now in the Spanish islands who desired to tempt heaven in the barren land of Florida.

Edited by Herbert Eugene Bolton, 1918. Compiled by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

Also See:

Discovery and Exploration of Florida

Early American History

Explorers, Trappers, & Traders

The Spanish Explore America

About This Article: This article was excerpted from The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest, edited by Herbert Eugene Bolton, a professor at the University of Texas. This book was one in a fifty-volume series called the Chronicles of America, published by the Yale University Press in 1918. The volumes were written by various historians of the time on topics of American History. In 1923, Yale decided to create a series of films based on the books. Fifteen films were ultimately produced. Though the article, as it appears here, is contextually the same, it is not verbatim, as it has been edited to a small extent.