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The Expedition of Hernando de Soto
to Southeastern North America,
1538-1543

An expedition under the command of Panfilo Narvaez was sent by the King of Spain to explore the Spanish territory of Florida, which included at that time the whole of southeastern North America. The Narvaez expedition had disappeared and what happened to it would not be known until eight years later when Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions walked into the city of Culiacan in what is now northwestern Mexico in 1536. However prior to the return of Cabeza de Vaca the King was ready to try again to find out what treasures might be in the territory of Florida and selected Hernando de Soto to command the new expedition. De Soto was 39 years of age and had had a successful career in the King's military. He had first served in Panama and later went to Peru with Pizarro.

Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain shortly after de Soto was selected and de Soto wanted Cabeza de Vaca to be part of his expedition. Cabeza de Vaca knew the customs and languages of several of the tribes of the territory of Florida and would have been an extremely valuable addition to the expedition. Cabeza de Vaca knew however that unless he himself was the commander of an expedition the natives would not be treated humanely and Christianized. He therefore turned down de Soto's offer.

Hernando de Soto was a son of a squire in Jerez and had gone to Panama as a common soldier and was promoted because of his courage and abilities to be the captain of a troop.

Later de Soto went to Peru with Pizarro where he made a fortune of nearly 200,000 reals. He returned to Spain and lived the life of a gentleman. Since he was considered to a competent leader he was selected by the King of Spain to be the governor of Cuba and any territories captured and occupied in the territory of Florida. The title for this possible governorship was Adelantado.

De Soto then began to assemble his expedition in Spain. He put together an expedition involving initially six ships outfitted at his own expense.

A group of Portuguese gentlemen sought to join the expedition. They were accepted and occupied one of the six ships. The chronicler of the expedition was one of those Portuguese gentlemen and he was not identified other than as the Gentleman from Elvas. (Elvas was a Portuguese city across the border near Seville.)

In the Chronicle there were a number of items of Portuguese chauvinism. For example, the members of the expedition were mustered at the command of de Soto. The Portuguese showed up in their armor with their weapons polished whereas the Chronicle noted that the Spanish showed up in their best fine clothes. De Soto ordered the members of the expedition to show up the next day in their armor with their weapons. The Chronicle indicated that this Spanish showed up with their armor and weapons rusted and not in good condition. The Portuguese, on the other hand, had been in proper condition from the first day and merely returned as they were.

While de Soto was in the court Cabeza de Vaca arrived to give his report to the king. No one but the king knew what Cabeza de Vaca had seen in his travels. De Soto asked Cabeza de Vaca to join his expedition. Cabeza de Vaca wanted to lead his own expedition that would bring the natives of the Americas into the Spanish empire and convert them to Christianity. Cabeza de Vaca knew that only if he were a command with the natives be treated with fairness and humanity. He therefore declined to join de Soto is expedition.

In April of the year 1538 the expedition sailed from Spain. It sailed first to the Canary Islands where de Soto purchased another ship. From the Canary Islands the expedition sailed for Cuba and arrived at the city of Santiago on the eastern part of the island. At that time Santiago consisted of about 80 dwellings. From the description in the narrative Santiago seemed to be a prosperous colony. The city of Havana at the western part of Cuba was about the same size as the city of Santiago.

De Soto and several other members of the expedition brought their wives along to stay in Cuba while de Soto and the other conquistadores would be on their expedition to the territory of Florida. The Spanish territory of Florida consisted of the Florida Peninsula and the territory that it is now the southeastern United States.

De Soto sent his wife Isabel to Havana with the ships while he and others of the expedition journeyed by horseback to Havana. On the way de Soto purchased horses for the expedition.

The narrator of the Chronicle heard of a curious incident near Santiago. It seems that there was a mine belonging to Vasco Porcallo, an important figure in Cuba, being worked by native slaves. The overseer was working them so hard that they decided to commit suicide. The overseer heard about their plans and he showed up at the tree in the forest where they were going to hang themselves. He told them that he knew their every thought and that he was going to hang himself as well and follow them into their afterlife. There he would make their lives even more miserable than they were in this life. The slaves decided to go back to the mines.

De Soto made Vasco Porcallo a captain-general of the expedition. There were several reasons for this appointment. Porcallo was a wealthy Cuban plantation and mine owner who was able to supply the expedition with provisions, notably a herd of pigs. A second reason was that de Soto wanted to punish the man, Nuño Tobár, who had been captain-general. Nuño Tobár had had the audacity to get pregnant a maid of de Soto's wife Isabel. Nuño Tobár redeemed himself before the expedition left for Florida by marrying the maid.

However let us return to the earlier point in the story. De Soto and other members of the expedition were traveling by horseback from Santiago on the east of Cuba to Havana on the west. His wife Isabel and the rest of expedition were traveling by ship to Havana. The expedition ships ran into a severe storm, perhaps a hurricane, that drove them almost to the coast of Florida. This trip ended up taking forty days, by which time the ships were short of water and provisions.

After a period rest in Havana de Soto and the expedition set sail for the Florida peninsula in nine vessels on the 18th of May of the year 1538 to begin the exploration of the territory of Florida.

The expedition arrived the 25th of May at the bay now known as Tampa. There 213 horses were put ashore to lighten the ships. Nearby there was a village in which the Chief's name was Ucita. This village had only seven or eight houses built out of timber and roofed with palm leaves. De Soto and a hundred of his men arrived in the deserted town of Ucita on the first of June. The residents had not surprisingly had fled after two of their number had been killed earlier in the forest by the Spanish. De Soto's soldiers made use of attack dogs. These animals would frighten anyone.

De Soto and his top two leaders, Vasco Porcallo and Luis Moscoso, stayed in the chief's house. There was obviously not enough room for the rest of the troop of one hundred in the other houses. The natives' houses were torn down and the trees around the village were cut down secure some open space for the Spanish.

Soon afterwards a survivor of the Narvaez expedition, Juan Ortiz, was found living among the natives in the village of a chief named Mosocos. His story is told elsewhere. Ortiz joined the expedition and was extremely valuable as an interpreter.

Vasco Porcallo, the wealthy Cuban plantation and mine owner who had joined the expedition as captain-general, wanted to capture natives for slaves for his plantation and mines. De Soto wanted to look for treasure and this would be easier if he could be on good terms with the natives. Thus the objectives of de Soto and Porcallo conflicted and they stopped speaking to each other. Finally Porcallo asked permission to leave the expedition and this was granted.

The expedition had a difficult time with the crossing of rivers and swamps. At each village the residents told the Spanish that there was no gold nearby but that there was gold in a distant region. When the Spanish arrived at those distant places they heard the same story. "Not here, but way over there."

The Spanish had need of two things that they usually had to take from the villages. These were food, primarily corn (maize), and interpreters and guides. The villages usually had barely enough food stored for their own needs to survive the winter. They could not really even share it with the Spanish without creating a future famine for themselves. They however did not have a choice. The Spanish horde of six hundred simply confiscated the food of villages which had populations of no more than a hundred. De Soto's expedition was like a horde of locusts devouring everything in its path.

Sometimes guides and interpreters were willingly supplied, perhaps to expedite the departure of the Spanish horde, but often the Spanish simply took principal people of the villages, sometimes in manacles to prevent their escape. Later the Spanish would need also clothing or hides to make clothing.

By the 17th of August of 1539 the expedition had reached a village where they were told of a province of Apalache, reputed to be populous and wealthy. Many in the expedition felt that they should end the exploration and return to the ships. De Soto was adamant; he would not turn around until the exploration of the unknown territory was complete. The Narvaez expedition had not gone beyond Apalache because not route seemed available beyond that point because of the rivers, lakes and swamps. The Narvaez expedition then traveled to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and built rafts to try to reach New Spain (Mexico) by sea.

De Soto pushed the expedition onward, building bridges where necessary and fording rivers. At that point he held captive the chief of a village to serve as a guide. The people of that chief's village came to rescue him and a major battle ensued. A substantial number of natives were captured in that battle and enslaved. Those enslaved natives had not given up their seeking of vengeance. When another battle broke out there were about two hundred who were subdued. De Soto ordered their execution. The executions were carried out by natives of other tribes who had voluntarily joined the expedition.

When the expedition reached Apalache it found no gold but there was much food. In addition to corn there were pumpkins, beans and dried persimmons.

Beyond Apalache de Soto took the expedition to the coast where vessels were sent to Cuba to tell of the expedition's progress. De Soto sent twenty native women to his wife Isabel on those vessels. From this point the expedition journeyed along the coast looking for a river entrance back into the interior.

One of de Soto lieutenants, Francisco Maldonado, found a suitable bay and de Soto sent him to Cuba to obtain provisions for the expedition. Maldonado was to bring the provisions back to that bay and wait for the expedition or if necessary to return the next year. At this point a young native man was found who was not from that region. He came from a distant region called Yupaha which was ruled by a woman. The youth said this queen received a tribute of gold from neighboring tributary regions.

The tale of gold was enough to set the expedition off to find Yupaha and its queen. The soldiers were commanded to supply themselves with enough corn for a march through sixty leagues of deserted territory. This was a substantial burden. The soldiers had to carry their own supplies because most of the natives that had been brought along to serve as porters had died during the winter.

The expedition reached a river that was difficult to cross. A chain was strung across it and the men crossed pulling themselves along by means of the chain. The horses were pulled by means of a windlass set up on the farther shore.

The houses encountered in this region differed from those of the territory the expedition had passed through. The houses in this region were made of canes lashed together whereas the other houses had been made of grass. The natives here made a kind of cloth from the inner bark of a tree. When beaten this inner bark matted together enough to create shawls. The natives clothed themselves in these shawls as well as in deer skins. The women wore two shawls; one wrapped around their waist and another thrown over their left shoulder. The men wore loin clothes of deer skin and had shawls draped over their shoulders.

De Soto told the chief of the territory that he, de Soto, was the child of the Sun and came from where the Sun lived. He said he was seeking the greatest lord and the richest province. The chief offered friendship and provided a guide to help the expedition on its way to the next province. The Spaniards set up a large cross in the chief's town and instructed the townspeople about how it was to be venerated.

The next province had food in plenty and provided the expedition with small game and corn. They also provided them with dogs, which the expedition members had become accustomed to eating.

The youth who set the expedition on its search for Yupaha and its queen was still with them. At one point that youth experienced was apparently was an epileptic seizure. He was under considerable stress in trying to guide the expedition through unfamiliar territory. At one point de Soto threatened to thrown him to the dogs for having told them that a particular journey would take four days and it took more than nine days. However, he was the only person who could communicate with Juan Ortiz so he was not in any danger of being disposed of.

De Soto however was perfectly capable of committing the most atrocious acts. When four natives were captured and said they knew of no other towns than their own de Soto had one of them burned. One of the others then revealed the direction of another province two days distant.

That province turned out to be under the control of a woman. This chieftess or queen sent greetings to de Soto and then came to meet him. She was carried in a sedan chair. Upon meeting de Soto this queen removed from her neck a string of pearls which she placed upon de Soto's neck. Seeing that the Spaniards prized pearls she told them the places in the town where they could find more pearls. The Spaniards searched those places and found 350 pounds of pearls. This was the closest thing to treasure that the Spanish saw on the expedition.

In this town the Spaniards were told of another Spanish expedition that had come to the coast nearby long before. This was an expedition led by Ayllon. However soon after landing Ayllon had died and the quarrels as to who should be the leader led to murders and the expedition left without exploring any of the country.

Many of the expedition wanted to settle down in the queen's territory, but de Soto was intent upon continuing to search for precious metals. The queen wanted to leave the expedition and not provide any porters for it because of the outrages committed against her people. De Soto had her put under guard and she had to travel with them on foot. She was able to command the people that the expedition met to provide aid for its passage.

When the expedition reached the limits of the queen's territory she managed an escape. She asked permission to go into a thicket. Thinking that she needed to relieve herself the Spaniards permitted it. She managed to hide so well that they could not find her.

Three slaves of the expedition had also disappeared. A member of the expedition, Alimanos, who had been sick with a fever and had been left behind found the three escaped slaves and convinced two of them to travel with him to catch up with the expedition. The other slave went to the queen and became her consort.

De Soto and the expedition continued their journey westward through what is now the state of Tennessee and then southward into what is now the state of Alabama.

(To be continued.)


Juan Ortiz had been essential as the final link in the chain of interpreters. Long after Ortiz had joined the expedition he was involved in a dramatic episode. Two Spaniards had stolen some property of friendly natives the expedition had encountered. When the natives complained de Soto ordered the men executed. Other members of the expedition pleaded with Soto to rescind his order but to no avail. Some the natives who had been the victims of the theft came to speak with Soto, perhaps to witness the executions. Ortiz saved the Spaniards lives by giving Soto a false translation. De Soto then released the Spaniards.

Although Ortiz survived the Narvaez expedition he did not survive the de Soto expedition. He later died of natural causes. The expedition was severely hampered by the loss of Ortiz as an interpreter. Thereafter there was often confusion concerning directions of travel based upon information they thought they were getting from local informants.

The Death of de Soto

In what is now Arkansas de Soto fell ill. Upon entering a new territory, called Quigaltam, de Soto sent his usual message to its chief saying that he, de Soto, was the child of the Sun and the chief should come to de Soto as a gesture of friendship. Contrary to what the other chiefs along the way had replied this chief said,

As to what you say of your being the son of the Sun, if you will cause him to dry up the Great River (the Mississippi), I will believe you. As to the rest, it is not my custom to visit any one, but rather all, of whom I have ever heard, have come to visit me, to pay me tribute, either voluntarily or by force. I you desire to see me, come where I am; if for peace, I will receive you with special good-will; if for war, I will await you in my town; but neither for you, nor for any man, will I set back one foot.

De Soto was outraged at the pride and arrogance of this message. If he were well he would have crossed the river and wreaked vengeance upon the impudent Quigaltam. But de Soto in poor health had to just bide his time. Soon he was informed that Quigaltam was planning to make war upon the expedition. To discourage such an attack de Soto sent a party of soldiers and cavalry to another town called Nilco, a town of five to six thousand. Knowing that Quigaltam's warriors would be observing this attack de Soto ordered his troops to massacre all of the men of Nilco that they could. It was to be an exercise in shock and awe. The narrator says some of the Spanish did not limit their butchery to the men of Nilco but killed all; young and old, men and women. Others killed only the men and captured women and children. About a hundred men were killed and eighty women and children captured.

Natives of another town witnessed the massacre, but instead of countering the Spanish those natives looted the houses where the inhabitants had fled. They filled their canoes with clothing and fled back to their own town. There they passed on the information of what the Spanish were capable of.

De Soto's health had deteriorated still further and recognizing that he did not have long to live called his principal officers to meet with him. He asked them for forgiveness for any wrongs done to them as a result of his actions. He then asked them to elect a leader to command them. One officer replied that they would respect his wishes as to who would command them. De Soto chose Luys (Luis) Moscoso de Alvarado. The next day Hernando de Soto died.

Luys Moscoso wanted to prevent the natives from finding out about the death of de Soto. De Soto had led the natives to believe that Christians were immortal. To find that they could die might encourage some natives to attack them. De Soto was buried at night near the gate of the town. When Moscoso found that the natives were talking about the loose earth where de Soto was buried he had the body secretly dug up and wrapped in shawls filled with sand. It was then taken to the river at night and submerged.

A chief of the region asked Moscoso what had happened to de Soto. Moscoso replied that the Governor had ascended into the sky as he often does and would return after some time. The chief believing de Soto to be dead said that the custom of the land was to behead two young men to be companions of the departed. The chief had brought two young men with him for that purpose. Moscoso told the chief that such a sacrifice was not necessary because de Soto was not dead and furthermore that such a practice should not be continued. The two young men were freed but one of them said he would never return to the power of someone who would sacrifice his life and asked Moscoso if he could join the Spaniards.

Moscoso held a public auction for de Soto's possessions. There were five slaves, two male and three female, three horses and about seven hundred pigs. The expedition had started with only thirteen sows so the swine had reproduced abundantly and despite the privation the soldiers of the expedition experienced de Soto had not permitted very many of the pigs to be slaughtered. De Soto was apparently a quite parsimonious man. This explains why the expedition took five years to journey from Florida to Arkansas by way of western North Carolina. They were herding several hundred pigs. A herd of foraging pigs does not cover much ground in an hour.

Since the expedition members had no money the possessions were purchased on credit and to be paid for when the expedition ended and any treasures were to be divided up. The slaves went for two or three thousand cruzados each; the pigs for two hundred cruzados each. The expedition members immediately began to butcher their pigs along the way.

The Continuation of the Expedition
Under the Command of Luys Moscoso

There were two options for the expedition at that point. They could journey to New Spain (Mexico) by land or by sea. The journey by sea would require the construction of ships to carry the 300+ members of the expedition, which would be no small feat although it was feasible. The journey by land would also be arduous but the expedition had already traveled a much greater distance by land than the overland journey to New Spain would be. The journey by land had the significant possibility that a new province would be found that would yield treasures. Moscoso and the men opted for the overland journey.

The expedition made it into what is now northeast Texas. However the expedition had lost Juan Ortiz, the only one who could speak Spanish as well as a native language. As a result the expedition would spend an entire day trying to find out from a native the directions that should be taken and as often as not still ended up taking the wrong routes. Sometimes the expedition would reach some impasse and would have to retrace its steps. After taking the wrong routes several times Moscoso and the other leaders concluded that they were impossibly lost and would have to return to the Mississippi River and build ships. At the point where they reached that decision they were not very far from the Gulf of Mexico but they did not know that. Consequently they journeyed far out of their way needlessly.

They did make it back to the Mississippi and did build ships. Against all odds they were able to travel down the Mississippi River and along the coast of the Gulf to New Spain.

(To be continued.)


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