Brown Quarterly - Vol. 2, No. 1 (Fall 1997)

Hernando De Soto Expedition

By Brian Loadholtz and Susan Sernaker

Spain's New World dominion already extended across the West Indies and Central and South America, yet her foot hold was tenuous. Having few industries or resources at home to rely on, she was dependent on colonial commodities, both natural and human, to maintain her grasp in the Caribbean. The conquests of the Aztecs of Mexico (1519-21) and the Incas of Peru (1531-35) had opened fabulous veins of wealth. These conquests also alerted other European nations to the untapped profits across the Atlantic Ocean. To secure her position unquestionably, Spain sought to control all lands surrounding the Caribbean Basin. La Florida was important strategically was also a possible source of undiscovered gold and riches.

Hernando de Soto was about 14 years old when he first sailed from Spain, probably in 1514, bound for a conquistador's life in the New World. Over the next 15 years, he participated in military actions against Indians and Spanish land poachers in modern-day Panama and Nicaragua, using his rewards to fund profitable private ventures. His valor during the conquest of the Incas of Peru earned him greater wealth, which he used to finance his expedition to La Florida.

Hernando de Soto's agreement with Charles V of Spain was simple. He was to explore, exploit and colonize La Florida while bearing all costs. This would be the first major exploration of the interior of North America. In return, he would become Governor of Cuba and the new colony. De Soto and the Crown would divide the spoils. De Soto and his 622 soldiers arrived in Havana in June 1538. He filled the expedition's ranks with slave carriers, camp followers (including several women), artisans, priests, an engineer, 200 horses, a herd of pigs, and fierce fighting dogs for punishing Indians. Landing near Tampa Bay on May 30, 1539, he left a temporary colony of 100 men captained by Pedro Calderon and led his army inland.

At the beginning of the expedition, a patrol met with a small party of Indians. After a brief skirmish on "Indian" was spared because he spoke Spanish. Though tanned, painted and nearly naked, the man was Juan Ortiz, a member of an earlier expedition who lived among the Indians and knew their language. He became the mission's interpreter. Very early in the march, De Soto's army became dependent on the Indians for food. Hungry and impatient for gold, they threw to the dogs native guides who deceived them. Many were ready to stop and settle in this new, lush land, but De Soto insisted they keep searching for gold. At Cofitachequi, De Soto was given food, shelter and fresh water pearls by an Indian princess who welcomed them. He still pushed on, taking the Lady of Cofitachequi hostage and using her as a guide. After the battle at Mabila, where 22 Spanish and 2,000 Indians were killed, most of the supples were lost, but De Soto refused to meet a supply fleet at present-day Mobile Bay, because he was afraid of mass desertion.

Indians inflicted even greater damage at Chicasa; more dead, horses and pigs lost, clothes and weapons destroyed in the fire. By spring 1542, it was over. Driving his army relentlessly, De Soto had killed and enslaved large numbers of Indians and lost half of his soldiers to sickness and Indian retaliation. He had found no gold, established no colonies. After his death from fever in May 1542, De Soto was buried in the Mississippi River. His second-in-command, Luis de Moscoso, made an abortive overland attempt to reach Mexico, then spent one more winter on the Mississippi.

They built several boats and started down the Mississippi River, abandoning 500 Indian slaves in alien country. Hostile tribes fought the Spanish for every mile of river to the Gulf of Mexico. From there the ships followed the coastline to the settlement at Tampico in Mexico in September 1543. Out of the original 622 soldiers, approximately 300 had survived.

Although valuable geographical and cultural data were recorded, the expedition was a failure. No colonies or trade routes were established; no gold or riches were found. These were the measures of success. De Soto and half of his men did not survive; thousands of Indians were killed in battle. Nevertheless, the mission had an overwhelming impact on North American history. The survivors brought back to Europe memories of the abundance of fish and game and the fertility of the land. These tales spurred on the opening of the southeastern United States to European expansion. The expedition also affected American Indian tribes directly by introducing diseases against which they had no immunity. The diseases decimated populations and traumatized traditional social and cultural patterns among the survivors. De Soto's invasion and its aftermath permanently ravaged the life-ways of the southeastern Indians.

De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton, Florida, commemorates the first major European penetration of the southeastern United States by the De Soto expedition. The park was established in 1949 on the south shore of Tampa Bay. A movie about the De Soto expedition is shown throughout the day at the visitor center which is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's day. The visitor center also contains a small museum with Spanish and Indian artifacts on display. From mid-December through mid-April Camp Ucita is open. This model encampment, where reproductions of Spanish armor and weapons are displayed, represents the Indian village captured by De Soto for use as his first base camp. Rangers and volunteers dressed in period costume demonstrate how the weapons were used and food was prepared. They also talk about the expedition and the world view of the 16th century Spaniard.

De Soto National Memorial is administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. For information write: Superintendent, De Soto National Memorial, P.O. Box 15390, Bradenton, FL 34280-5390, Phone: (941) 792-0458.