In the wake of Columbus, other adventurers sailed to America to see what could be made of it. Hernando de Soto, a Spanish soldier who had tasted the rewards of conquest, dreamed of matching the deeds of the celebrated conquistadores. When he was granted a license to explore La Florida, his prospects were good. De Soto was ambitious, seasoned by forays in Central and South America, and commander of one of the best armies to set foot in the Americas. After landing on Florida's west coast in May 1539, probably near Tampa Bay, his army spent the next four years threading its way some 4,000 miles across what is now the southeastern United States.
De Soto's march was difficult, but it was not a trek entirely through wilderness. In the 1500s this land was settled by tens of thousands of Native Americans in hundreds of villages. De Soto and his men spent much of their time moving from village to village, walking on Indian trails, led by Indian guides, and eating Indian food. Conscripting Indians as servants and porters as it progressed, the horde at times numbered a thousand people. Since many tribes were not willing supporters of the expedition, the Spaniards fought countless skirmishes and four major battles. Persevering despite the attrition of men, horses, weapons, and supplies, De Soto's troops were the first Europeans to push deep into North America, the first to see the Mississippi above its mouth.
Yet it was a futile mission, doomed by unfamiliarity with the land, hostile Indians, and the leader's overzealous pursuit of riches. What had begun as an adventure became an ordeal. Driving his army relentlessly, De Soto killed and enslaved large numbers of Indians and lost half his soldiers to sickness and Indian retaliation. He found no gold, established no colonies. Three years after landing in Florida, he was felled by fever and buried in the Mississippi River. Sixteen months later his second in command led the ragged army back to Mexico. The expedition was inconsequential for Spain but disastrous for the Indians it encountered, leaving behind disease and social dislocation. Despite its failures and acts of inhumanity, however, the venture was not without benefit. De Soto and his men were among the first to encounter North American Indians before European settlement. The real treasure brought out of the New World was the rich store of information about the American land and its first people.
Hernando de Soto's agreement with Charles V of Spain was simple: he was to explore, exploit, and colonize Florida, bearing all costs. In return he would become governor of Cuba and of the new colony. They would divide the spoils. De Soto and his 622 soldiers arrived in Havana in June 1538. He swelled the expedition's ranks with enslaved carriers and camp followers, including several women; artisans and priests; an engineer; 200 horses; a herd of pigs; and fierce dogs for punishing Indians. Landing in Florida on May 30, 1539, he left a temporary colony of 100 men and led his army inland.
It started well. They found a Spaniard from an earlier expedition who had lived among the Indians and could translate. But before they reached the village of Ocale, they were dependent on the Indians for food. Hungry and impatient for gold, they threw to the dogs guides who deceived them. Many were ready to stop and settle in rich Cofitachequi, but De Soto insisted they keep searching. Even after the battle at Mabila, where 22 were killed and supplies were lost, he refused to meet a supply fleet at Mobile Bay, afraid of mass desertion.
Indians inflicted even greater damage at Chicaza: more dead, horses and pigs lost, clothes and weapons destroyed by fire. By spring 1542 it was over. Their translator was dead, and cavalry parties to the north and west had found only nomadic hunting tribes. After De Soto's death in May, his army made an abortive overland attempt to reach home, then spent one more winter on the Mississippi. They built boats, abandoned 500 slaves in alien country, and in July 1543 they floated down the river to the Gulf.
Scholars debate the exact route of the De Soto expedition. Archeological excavations and discoveries of documents are adding to our knowledge of this event. The research is being conducted by scholars interested in the expedition, its route, contacts with Native Americans, and the consequences.
Quotes are drawn from personal accounts of the expedition or from interviews with survivors.
1 Near Ocale, August 1539
2 Anhaica, Winter 1540
3 Aute, Fall 1540
4 Near Ocmulgee, April 1540
5 Coosa, July 1540
6 Etowah, August 1540
7 Apafalaya, December 1540
8 Pacaha, June 1541
Conflict and Decline
De Soto the Conquistador
In 1539 the New World still existed on the edge of myth. Maps showed the Americas as a vague outline of unknown sizeterra incognita inhabited by subhumans. But the tales also told of green Edens and unimaginable wealth. The facts alone were enough to whet ambition and spur greed in restless soldiers. They learned of small bands of Spaniards whose horses and guns had defeated armies of native warriors, opening the way to great caches of silver and gold. Monarchs in need of coin metal sanctioned expeditions to find more.
Their motives were not entirely mercenary. Eight centuries of war with the Moors in Spain had produced a class of warriors who clung to the ideals of a now defunct knighthood. After the expulsion of the last Muslims in 1492, they were left with no outlet for their religious and nationalistic impulses. Conquistadores found it in America, where the heathen Indian replaced the heathen Moor, and where old practices continued, from the battle cry of "Santiago!" to the use of war dogs.
A moral basis for coercion of the native population was provided by Catholic dogma, which taught that the Indians had to be redeemed by being brought into the Church. Though the Crown warned against ill treatment of the Indians, its concern rang hollow, given its own orders to obtain as much treasure as possible. (In De Soto's agreement with Charles V, the crown was to get one fifth if the treasure was taken by battle or trade, and half if by the easier method of grave or temple plundering. Mining was not mentioned.) In any case, moral guidelines were a loose rein on hardened warriors an ocean away.
It was in this rough school that Hernando de Soto learned his trade. Leaving Spain a youth of 14, he raided in what is now Panama, made a fortune in Indian gold and slaves in Nicaragua, and joined Pizarro in the conquest of Peru. He returned to Spain 22 years later a skilled soldier and a rich man. But he grew bored with the idle life, chafing to go to La Florida at the head of his own army. That De Soto invested in his second trip virtually the entire fortune he had won during the first may account for the single-mindedness with which he pursued treasure.
Returning to the Americas he adopted the predatory methods of his mentors Pedrarias and Pizarro. On reaching a village, he took the chief hostage to ensure he would supply food, women, and guides and porters to the next village. He appropriated whole towns as winter quarters. If a village resisted, the army terrorized the peoplelooting, burning houses and fields, raping, enslaving, and cutting off noses and hands. The defiant were burned alive or thrown to the dogs. De Soto's tactics kept him and half of his army alive for three years, but they gained him nothing but the hostility of Native Americans.
The Native Americans
Europeans had difficulty defining Native Americans. Early reports painted them as gentle, thoughtless children of paradise. As explorers met more resistance and began to exploit the Indians, they portrayed them as brutal, promiscuous cannibals subordinate to Europeans in the natural order. Both portraits denied them humanity, until the Pope in 1537 finally pronounced them "true men" with souls.
The true men and women encountered by De Soto represented the flowering of the ancient Mississippian culture. Also called Temple Mound Builders, they had first settled the rich Mississippi valley in farming communities around 800 C.E. (Common Era). Maize, the grain that sustained De Soto's army, was the center of their economy, but they also raised beans and squash, hunted, gathered wild plants, and harvested the rivers.
Influenced by the civilizations of Mexico, their aggressive culture spread over much of the southeast, with local variations in language and religion. At its peak the Mississippian culture was probably the most sophisticated in North America. The tribes were often organized into chiefdoms, held together by diplomacy and force. The most powerful was the Coosa Confederation, whose supreme chief exacted tribute from subordinate towns. Treated like a god, the chief reigned over a complex society divided into hereditary ranks of nobles and commoners.
While the Indians had no treasures of the kind sought by the Spanish, the soldiers were impressed by their towns, some quite large and protected by palisades and moats. The religious centers featured earthen mounds20 or more in the largest citiesbuilt around central plazas. Up to 80 feet high, they served as bases for temples and the homes of the elite. The Spanish also admired the Indian arts. Most intriguing were the ritual masks, pendants, and gorgets (throat armor) associated with a widespread spiritual movement now called the Southern Cult. Motifs like skulls, weeping eyes, and rattlesnakes lead some to call it a death cult. Others associate it with harvest and renewal or with ancestor worship.
This sophisticated culture met the Spanish with responses ranging from friendly (mostly early in the trek, before the army was preceded by its reputation) to hostile. Realizing the power gold had over these men, many tribes duped them, telling of gold in a city beyond the next ridge. Though they despised treachery, the Spanish admired the chiefs' noble bearing and their negotiating and rhetorical skills.
When the two warrior cultures clashed, the Indians showed other traits respected by the Spanish: prowess with bow and arrow, courage and endurance, and loyalty to their chiefs. Avoiding open battles, they relied on stealth and knowledge of the terrain. Their guerrilla tactics worked well in the forest, but in the field they were no match for cavalry charges and armored infantry wielding crossbow, lance, and halberd. Most succumbed to Spanish demands.
Twenty years after De Soto visited the Coosa towns, other explorers found barren fields, abandoned towns, and fragmented settlements where there had been a prosperous chiefdom. These were the early signs of the European disease and depredations that brought about the collapse of cultures throughout the Southeast.
De Soto's expedition alone did not cause this radical change. As early as 1502, coastal slavers had introduced to Florida diseases like smallpox, typhus, and measleslethal to Indians without immunity. But De Soto left a trail of death and cultural decline through the heart of the region. Enslavement, warfare, and disease brought by him and those to follow depopulated towns. Publicly demeaned and unable to defend their people, chiefs saw their authority weakened. Stabilizing political confederations crumbled. The helplessness of shamans in the face of new diseases undermined faith in native religion. Societal bonds dissolved as ancient lines of tribal lore died with their custodians.
Hit again and again with European military, biological, and social incursions, the tribes of the southeast never regained their balance. By the 1700s, simpler communities like the Creeks and Choctaws no longer remembered their ancestors or who had built the great mounds around them.
De Soto's first obstacle upon landing was an almost impenetrable wall of mangrove. Red Mangrove, the most common variety, is identified by its distinctive prop roots. They anchor the plant in the muddy soil, provide oxygen to the roots, and, by trapping soil particles and plant matter, create islands or expand the shoreline where new plants can grow. All varieties have developed mechanisms for adaptation to saltwater. They thrive where other plants would dieby blocking the salt at the roots or expelling it at the base of the leaves. Because the soil is too saline for seed germination, the seed germinates on the branch, producing an embryonic seedling. When it falls, it lands upright in the mud and takes root, or floats away to take root elsewhere when one end eventually sinks and touches the bottom.
Visiting the Park
A good place to begin is the visitor center, open daily. Here questions about the area or the De Soto expedition can be answered. A 21-minute film on the De Soto story is shown hourly. Artifacts of the De Soto period are on display in the museum.
From mid-December through mid-April the Replica Spanish Camp 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. Costumed interpreters demonstrate how weapons were used and food was prepared. They also talk about the expedition and the attitudes of Spaniards in the 1500s.
Between the Replica Spanish Camp and the visitor center is a large stone monument placed by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America to commemorate the expedition and mark the beginning of the De Soto Trail.
For Your Safety
Source: NPS Brochure (2011)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Annual Report: 1990
Cultural Landscape Report, De Soto National Memorial (David Sacks Landscape Architects, January 2017)
Junior Ranger Activity Book, De Soto National Memorial (Date Unknown)
Los Sobrevivientes de la Florida: The Survivors of the De Soto Expedition Research Publications of the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History No. 2 (Ignacio Avellaneda, 1990)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
De Soto National Memorial (Shaw's Point, De Soto Point) (Anne D. Castellina, April 2, 1975)
Route of the Hernando De Soto Expedition, 1539-1543 Preliminary Draft (December 1988)
Small Park, Large Issues: De Soto National Memorial and the Commemoration of a Difficult History (David E. Whisnant and Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Organization of American Historians, December 2007)
State of the Park Report, De Soto National Memorial, Florida State of the Park Series No. 29 (2016)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 01-May-2021