Age of Discovery
Claim to Fame:
Mapped much of the southern half of the modern United States, from Florida to North Carolina and west to the Mississippi River.
Cause of Death: Disease
Hernando de Soto
"AN OLD PORTRAIT OF HERNANDO DE SOTO (ca. 1500-1542). Engraving from Retratos de los Españoles Illustres con un Epítome de sus Vidas, Madrid, Imprenta real, 1791." Caption, translated from Spanish: "HERNANDO DE SOTO: Extremaduran, one of the discoverers and conquerors of Peru: he travelled across all of La Florida and defeated its still invincible natives; he died in his expedition in the year 1543 in his 42nd year of age."
Hernando de Soto was born around 1501 in the Spanish province of Extremadura. Like many conquistadors, his early years in Spain are unknown, and the first reference to him is in 1519, when young de Soto shows up in the newly conquered Spanish territory of Darién, in modern day Panama.
Some say that de Soto had attended the University of Salamanca, a famous school in Spain. This would indicate that his family had some money, influence and connections.
For several years, de Soto made his living as a soldier, quieting native resistance around Central America. In 1521, a native chieftain named Urraca organized a successful guerrilla campaign against the Spanish in Darién. De Soto, fighting under the command of a ruthless captain named Francisco Pizarro, rode out to the aid of a small Spanish army led by Gaspar de Espinosa, and managed to drive Urraca and his men into the mountains. Because of his daring actions in the face of danger, de Soto and his commander Pizarro became instant heroes in Panama.
On an expedition to Nicaragua in 1524, de Soto did not gain the wealth he had wanted, but found himself instead in a political struggle. He stayed loyal to the Governor of Darién, Pedro Arias Dávila (often called Pedrarias) and his lieutenant, Hernández de Córdoba. He was rewarded for his loyalty with money and prestige and de Soto partnered with two Spaniards named Francisco Compañón and Hernán Ponce de León in the lucrative native slave trade.
Because of the slave trade, de Soto reconnected with his former army commander Francisco Pizarro. De Soto would march inland to capture natives to sell at the slave market in the newly founded town of Panama, on the Pacific coast. In 1530, Pizarro arrived in town to drum up support for a proposed expedition against the native cultures of South America’s Andes mountain region. He needed fighting men, ships and supplies. De Soto and Ponce de León agreed to support the expedition with their ships and supplies. At the end of 1530, Pizarro’s expedition of two hundred men set sail from Panama, with de Soto as one of his scouts.
De Soto returned to the New World in November 1538, and put together an army of Spanish soldiers and horses to invade Florida.
On May 18th, 1539, de Soto’s expedition of near 1,000 men and nine ships set sail for Florida. A week later, de Soto’s flagship San Cristobal landed somewhere near modern Tampa Bay, which he christened Espiritu Santo.
On May 8, 1541, they found themselves on the banks of the great Mississippi River, which de Soto dubbed the Rio de Espiritu Santo (“River of the Holy Spirit”), probably near the site of present day Memphis, Tennessee. By early June, the Spaniards felt rested enough from their recent hardships to attempt a crossing of the mighty river. The expedition constructed several barges, which they rowed down river towards the Ozark Mountains where it was rumored that the natives possessed a large fortune in gold, which proved false.
By late 1541, they had reached modern day Arkansas, where once again, the rumor of gold turned out to be false.
De Soto set up winter quarters in southeastern Arkansas, where he took stock of his expedition. There was little material wealth to show: a handful of pearls from Cofitachequi, some copper from Chiaha, but no land was conquered and settled, and no slaves were captured to take back to Cuba. Worst still, there was obviously no gold to be had. After several years on the march, de Soto had lost about half his men, most of whom were clad in animal skins like their native opponents, and they were surrounded by enemies who refused to feed them. The expedition had traveled several thousand miles through the North American continent, mapping it out and serving as ambassadors to native cultures.
Spanish scouts sent further down the Mississippi returned and reported that the way south would be difficult to travel; the land was swampy and the natives were unwilling to trade for food. After this news de Soto became sick and confessed his sins to the expedition’s chaplains. After apologizing to his soldiers for leading them into the wilderness with no way of escape, he named Luis Moscoso de Alvarado, a capable Spanish soldier used to the hard life of an explorer, as his successor.
Upon the death of de Soto, it was decided to conceal his death from the natives, so they buried him with full military honors just outside their camp, near modern day Natchez, Mississippi. The local natives grew concerned, because de Soto seemed to have disappeared, and because the Spanish had given them a very simplified explanation of Christianity, which insisted that Christians could never die. When it became apparent that de Soto had indeed died, the natives started to doubt the powers attributed to the Spaniards’ religion and began to act suspiciously around the outskirts of the camp. Moscoso de Alvarado was afraid that the natives might find and desecrate de Soto’s body, so he had his former commander exhumed and buried again, this time in the Rio del Espiritu Santo. Figuring that an attack was imminent, he ordered the men to start marching north, to where they had spent the winter. Here they constructed several more barges and made their way down what is now called the Brazos River, into the Spanish province of Panuco, in northern Mexico, by mid-September 1543. There were roughly 300 survivors.
- San Cristobal
Although no gold was found and no colonies created, the records from the expedition increased European knowledge of the geography of the New World, as well as information on the indigenous peoples. These accounts are the only European description of North American native habits and culture of the Southeast before the influence of Europeans.
Due to the failure to find wealth within the continent, Spain chose to concentrate on Florida, the Pacific coast and southern portions of the New World.
De Soto’s men instigated most of the attacks with the native peoples, leading to long-lasting mistrust and hostility between the natives and European settlers.
The indigenous peoples encountered by de Soto and his men were exposed to European diseases for which they had no immunity, such as measles, smallpox and the chicken pox, causing massive loss of life amongst the Native Americans.
Bourne, Edward G. Narratives of the Career of Hernando de Soto in the Conquest of Florida. New York: Allerton Book Co., 1922.
Clayton, Lawrence A., Clayton, Vernon J. K., and Moore, Edward C. The de Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543. University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Duncan, David E. Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas. University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
Galloway, Patricia. The Hernando de Soto expedition: history, historiography, and “discovery” in the Southeast. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.