Hernando Desoto Essay, Research Paper
De Soto Legacy of a Conquistidor
In 1539 Hernando de Soto and five hundred adventurers began on a journey of exploration
that would take 4 years and would travel through 10 states in the southeast United States.
His goal was to discover a source of wealth, preferably gold, and around his mines establish
a settlement. During his travels through La Florida he encountered numerous groups of
native peoples, making friends of some and enemies of others. His expedition was not the
first in La Florida; however, it was the most extensive. In its aftermath thousands of
Indians, both friends and enemies, would die by disease that the Spaniards brought from the
Old World. De Soto would initially be written of as a great explorer but, would be later
viewed as a destroyer of native culture; however, in truth de Soto was neither a hero or a
villain but, in reality a man of his era and place of birth.
De Soto was born somewhere around the year 1500 in Jerez de los Caballeros in
Extremadura in what is now Spain (Milanich & Hudson 26). Contemporaries of de Soto would
include Cortez, Balboa, and Francisco Pizzaro with whom he would share a great adventure.
De Soto’s ancestors had been part of the reconquista and as aristocrats many had been
knighted for their part in driving the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula (Milanich & Hudson
26). Hernando would have played no part in the expulsion of the Moors; however, family
legacy would have played no small part in developing his frame of reference. It is thought
that by the time do Soto was fourteen he was on his way to the new world.
In 1514 de Soto sailed with the new governor of modern day Panama. Six years later he
was a captain who because of his part in military action against the Indians of Panama had
earned the right to own Indian Slaves. By the age of 31 de Soto had gained a substantial
amount of wealth based on the slave trade and gold the Indians had provided for him
(Milanich & Hudson 27). Between 1531 and 1535 de Soto would amass the greatest fortune he
would ever obtain.
De Soto was present with Francisco Pizzaro when the Inca Empire was conquered. De Soto
played an important part in the conquest where his military leadership was of great
importance to Pizzaro (Milanich & Hudson 27). His reward was a fortune in booty from the
conquered Inca which provided the opportunity for de Soto to marry and be welcome at the
On April 20, 1537 Carlos V of Spain awarded de Soto a contract to conquer and settle
200 leagues of La Florida. La Florida encompassed all of the land north of present day
Mexico from which de Soto could choose. The contract required de Soto to supply the
venture, pay his men, and build three forts out of his pocket. For his contribution de Soto
would receive titles, lands, and a share in the colonies earnings (Milanich & Hudson 27).
Do Soto was given the title of Adelantado and given the option of choosing the 200 leagues
of coast line he desired.. The charter given de Soto had been standardized by the monarchy
and was used for all expeditions into the New World (Milanich & Hudson 35). It spelled out
de Soto’s responsibilities to his men, to the crown, and especially made clear the division
of wealth. A return on no investment was a great deal for the monarchy. All charters after
1526 also incorporated a provision which became Spains policy in the New World.
This provision made clear the responsibility of the state and the church in dealing
peoples of the New World.. According to the provision the Spanish crown required the
allegiance of the New World peoples and the only goal in conquest was to establish
Catholicism as the official religion (Milanich & Hudson 35). The people could remain free;
however, upon encounter the Spanish would read a copy of the Requeimiento. The Requeimiento
informed the Indians that they and all their lands were now owned by the Spanish monarchy
and if they accepted Catholicism no servitude could be imposed upon them; however, in
reality it provided the means for the agents of the crown to enslave the Indians. Cultural
differences made it all but impossible for the native Americans to understand what the
Requerimiento really meant. To not obey the Requerimiento brought down the wrath of the
Spanish military and possible involuntary servitude. De Soto’s charter made him
representative of the crown, the church, and, God’s representative on earth, the pope
(Milanich & Hudson 37). In de Soto’s mind his authority led right to God’s throne.
In April of 1538 de Soto and his expedition left for the New World. They made a brief
stop at the Canary Islands and then on to Cuba. In Cuba de Soto gathered feral pigs as a
food source for his journey in the New World. The same pigs de Soto would use as a food
source were also a potential host for swine flu (Viola & Margolis 86). According to John
Verano and Douglas Ubelaker, editors of Disease and Demography in the
Americas, swine flu may have been the first serious epidemic in the New World
(191). A potent ally in controlling native populations micro organisms; however, did not
discriminate between friendly Indians, unfriendly Indians, or Spaniards. Influenza, small
pox, and measles are thought to have been the most commonly spread diseases from European to
Indian; however, others such as diphtheria, bubonic plague, and malaria were not found in
the western hemisphere before Columbus (Viola & Margolis 85). It was with a portion of this
potential host of allies that de Soto left Cuba heading for La Florida.
After nineteen days at sea the expedition landed at now what is thought to be Tampa bay
on the Florida gulf Coast. Over the next several days over six hundred Europeans including
2 women, a number of priests, a cobbler, and a tailor would disembark (Milanich & Hudson
38). Two hundred twenty horses and the herd of swine were also part of the venture. The
first native peoples the expedition encountered were the Uzita; however, they abandoned
their villages and fled before the Spanish.
The Uzita had reason to fear the Spanish because of the way they had treated captured
members of the Narvaez expedition. Eleven years prior to De Soto landing a Spaniard named
Narvaez had visited the region and four of his soldiers had been taken prisoner. Three were
killed as they ran a gauntlet of arrows and the fourth, Jaun Ortis, had been tortured.
Harriga, the cacique of the tribe, was the principal torturer of Ortis and at one time had
him half roasted alive only to save him for future torment. Harriga demonstrated all of his
hate for the Spanish on Ortis because they had cut off his nose. Upon learning of a plan to
kill him Ortis escaped to a neighboring tribe (Shipp 259-261). When de Soto’s expedition
arrived Ortis was overjoyed to rejoin the Spanish. While in the land of the Uzita the
Spanish managed to capture some of the women; however, there were no major confrontations
and the Uzita escaped any excessive military harm though they continued to harass the
De Soto directed the majority of his expedition in a northeasterly course looking for
but, also hoping to find native towns where he might obtain food (Milanich & Hudson 82).
Four days after leaving his base camp at Tampa Bay de Soto found native corn. Though not
completely ripe it must have seemed like a banquet to people who had been eating roots and
swamp grass. The continual need for food kept the expedition moving and ever vigilant for
native sources of supplies. The numerous violent encounters with Indians in the area could
have been caused by the commandeering of food or the trespass through the individual
territories. The theft of food sources combined with the diseases the Europeans left behind
helped to depopulate the areas; however, epidemics may have been localized because of
uninhabited lands between individual cultures (Verano & Ubelaker 188).
While still in the modern day state of Florida one of the more notable peoples
by de Soto were the Apalachee. The Apalachee lived south of what is present day
Tallahassee. These were a well organized people, large in number, and had the ability to
provide resistance to the Spanish. De Soto lingered in the land of the Apalachee for five
months spending the winter because of the abundance of food in spite of the constant
guerrilla warfare the Indians utilized (Varner & Varner 176-184). Large numbers of the
native peoples were killed in the many skirmishes; however, so were numerous members of the
expedition. The Apalachee had a bow so powerful that arrows tipped with flint could
penetrate the Spanish armor and on several occasions during armed conflict the Apalachee
scalped their dead antagonists (Milanich & Hudson 228-229).
In the spring of 1540 the expedition left the land of the Apalachee and traveled north
where they encountered the Capachequi and the Ichisi. Unlike the Apalachee these Indians
were willing to share their food and in exchange de Soto gave them some pigs of the more
than three hundred he had at the time. During the initial encounter with these peoples they
asked de Soto whether he wanted peace or war and when he left these lands he left in peace
and friendship (Varner & Varner 268-270). Traveling north de Soto came to the land of the
The Hymahi welcomed the Europeans and emptied a village for them to live. They
expressed their willingness to serve de Soto and offered food in the form of corn, beans,
wild fruits, and nuts (Varner & Varner 277). In return de Soto gave these people some pigs.
He also made it known that he was interested in the wealth that existed in the land of the
Cofitachequi, a neighboring chiefdom. The people of the Hymahi and the Cofitachequi were
enemies and the cacique of Hymahi sent four thousand warriors along with de Soto to carry
supplies; however, upon reaching the land of the Cofitachequi the Hymahi began to war upon
them (Varner & Varner 274-282). De Soto sent the Hymahi home with gifts hoping to make no
enemies in this new land.
In this chiefdom, in present day South Carolina, de Soto saw evidence of some great
pestilence. Numerous towns were deserted and few people were to be found. In the
Cofitachequi town of Talomeco four large houses were filled with the people who had died
from the pestilence (Varner & Varner 325). Perhaps disease left by earlier Spanish efforts
to explore and colonize had ravaged the Indians.
In 1521 Juan Ponce de Leon had tried to start a small settlement but failed and in 1528
Panfilo de Narvaez led a four hundred man expedition across parts of La Florida. Illness
struck the Narvaez expedition and they were forced to leave. In 1526 Lucas Vasquez de
Ayllon had started a small colony in Georgia; however, it lasted only a short period of time
(Milanich & Hudson 38). These ventures; however, had been considerably earlier than the
time the disease afflicted the Cofitachequi in 1538-1539. The more likely probability is
that the disease had spread from the land of the Inca where smallpox had made it possible
for the Spanish to conquer the huge empire (Viola & Margolis 86). Whatever the disease may
have been it caused the almost total collapse of the chiefdom. According to the Lady of the
Cofitachequi more food could have been provided for the de Soto expedition if the disease
had not killed so many (Varner & Varner 300).
It was while in the land of the Cofitachequi that de Soto had his first glimpse of
treasure. The Lady of Cofitachequi gave him fresh water pearls and told him he could have
as many as he wished. He obtained the pearls from several sources including burials. Upon
leaving the Cofitachiqui de Soto took only the food he had been given and a small number of
the pearls; however, there had been no silver or gold as he had heard.
The expedition traveled north into present day North Carolina, west into southern
Tennessee and south into Alabama. The trek put them into contact with numerous chiefdoms.
The reception they received varied from being given all they needed in the way of supplies
to having to confront native peoples and being forced to buy food. While traveling through
this region several men chose to desert the expedition and live with the Indians and one
black slave was left behind with the Indians because of being too ill to continue (Varner &
Upon reaching the chiefdom of the Tascaluza the expedition was met by a seemingly
friendly people; however, their friendliness was feigned. The Tascaluza invited the
Spaniards to the town of Mauvilla where about ten thousand native peoples attacked the
expedition. The battle lasted all day with the almost total destruction of the natives;
however, the battle had not been totally one sided.. De Soto was wounded and eighty-two
members of the expedition were killed along with numerous horses. The battle leaned in the
favor of the Spaniards because of the armor they wore and the use of horses to break up the
numerous assaults made by the natives (Varner & Varner 352-381). However, the greatest loss
to the expedition was not men or horses but was the consecrated wine and bread of the
Without bread of wheat and wine of grapes holy communion could not be given. No
substitute was acceptable attesting to the allegiance to the canon of the Catholic faith.
According to Garcilasco de la Vega, writer of The Florida of the Inca, the Christians of the
expedition suffered great mental anguish at not being able to partake of the sacraments
(Varner & Varner 382-383).
Leaving the land of the Tascaluza de Soto crossed into present day Mississippi only to
come into contact with the Chicsa another people hostile to the Spaniards. The expedition
spent the winter in one of their villages because of the abundance of food; however, they
were in constant fear for their lives.
The expedition left the land of the Chicsa in April of 1541 and traveling in a
direction came in contact with the QuizQuiz peoples. After crossing the Mississippi River
they spent some time in the area staying at a town called Pacoha. While in Pacoha de Soto
sent expeditions out to search for wealth that traveled into Arkansas and maybe Missouri
(Milanich & Milbrath 89).
In the Spring of 1542 de Soto died of fever. His captains hollowed out a tree, put his
in, and sank the log in the Mississippi River. He was buried in this manner to prevent the
natives from digging him up and defiling his body (Shipp 439). Because of the numerous
hardships experienced by the expedition the new leader, General Moscoso, opted to try and
return to New Spain.
On July 4, 1543 the three-hundred plus survivors of the expedition were fleeing for
lives, in boats they had made, down the Mississippi River. In pursuit was the cacique and
warriors from the largest town the expedition had encountered. The people from Quigualtam
were showering the expedition with arrows from their canoes. As the Indians reached the
edge of their territory one was heard to say, “If we possessed such large canoes as yours
….. we would follow you to your land and conquer it for we are men like yourselves
(Milanich & Milbrath 98).”
De Soto never found the great wealth he was seeking and his expedition was a failure;
however, the written accounts of the expedition provide clues about the numerous peoples
encountered and their cultures. Archeological evidence provides verification that the de
Soto expedition brought disease to the Indians. Numerous multiple burials and mass burials
seem to provide for epidemics; however, the numerous diseases that are often viewed as
allies of European explorers can also be seen as a detriment.
In one or more instances during the de Soto expedition finding adequate food became a
problem because of disease that had decimated native populations. The Lady of Cofitachequi
could not provide de Soto adequate provisions because numerous towns in the chiefdom were
abandoned and food had not been gathered because of a lack of labor. The ultimate effect of
disease was realized when de Soto succumbed to fever and the Spaniards gave up on the
expedition. Neither Spaniard or Indian understood the origin of disease and in some cases
both viewed it as an act of God or the gods.
De Soto can justifiably be vilified as a greedy conqueror or he can be viewed as an
who gave us a first look at the American interior. Another option may be to put de Soto in
the context of his time. He might more appropriately be seen as an adventurer or an
entrepreneur trying to make good on his investment.
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Encounters: Spanish Exploration in the Caribbean and the United States1492-1570.
Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1989. Shipp, Bernard. The History of Hernando de Soto and
Florida. Philadelphia: Lindsay, 1881. Varner, John G. and Jeanette Varner., trans., ed.
The Florida of the Inca. Austin: U of Texas P, 1951. Verano, John W. and Douglas H.
Ubelaker., ed. Disease and Demography in the Americas. Washington: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1992. Viola, Herman J. and Carolyn Martolis., ed. Seeds of Change: Five
Hundred Years Since Columbus. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.