Today in 1542, Hernando de Soto died on the bank of the MIssissippi River near the present-day town of Lake Village, Arkansas. His exploration of the southeastern United States in search of a passage to China and untold riches gave Europeans their first substantial assessment of the North American continent. It also served as another brutal introduction to inland Native Americans of what was to come.
De Soto was born in Extremadura, a region of Spain that produced many explorers, in 1496 or 1497. He was born in the decade that saw the defeat of the last Islamic forces in the country. The new century brought with it tales from the New World, a place of gold and glory that was ripe for the picking. A generation of Spanish men too young for the war against the Muslims was eager for both.
De Soto's first trip to the New World took place in 1514 with the newly-appointed Governor of Panama. He proved himself ambitious and was influenced by explorers such as Magellan and Balboa. He was also a good soldier, but became somewhat infamous for his cruelty to the natives in the area. In 1528, de Soto lead an expedition up the Yucatan Peninsula in search of open water that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but found nothing.
In 1532, de Soto became part of what is called today the Conquest of South America. He was the first European to meet the Inca Chief Atahualpa and did so on relatively friendly terms. The relationship soon soured, however, when Francisco Pizarro and his forces kidnapped the Inca Chief and eventually executed him despite his people having paid the demanded ransom. Pizarro would meet his own brutal end in 1541 at the hands of one of his rivals.
De Soto returned to Spain in 1536 a wealthy man. He was given the governorship of Cuba with orders to begin colonization of the North America within four years. De Soto had heard the stories of Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish man who had survived a shipwreck off the North American coast only to see all but four of his party die. He was held as a slave by various tribes until he eventually made his way to Mexico City six years later. He told stories of gold, stories that doubtless helped de Soto recruit men for his trip to Cuba and subsequent expedition into North America.
620 men left from Havana on nine ships carrying weapons, armor, livestock and enough equipment for a four year exploration. We no longer know the exact course de Soto and his men took through the North American wilderness, but we do know some specific points. The expedition landed at Charlotte Harbor, Florida in May, 1539 and soon met Juan Ortiz, a Spaniard who had survived an earlier expedition only to be captured by a local tribe of Native Americans. Ortiz would act as interpreter and guide for most of the expedition along with a 17-year old boy from the area that is now Georgia who was given the name of Pedro.
The expedition traveled along the gulf coast of Florida, occasionally skirmishing with native tribes. The more friendly locals spoke of gold mines to the east and north, so the party headed through Georgia and into South Carolina, stopping near the present day city of Columbia. No gold was found, so de Soto pushed further north, into the mountainous terrain of North Carolina. The search for gold there proved fruitless as well, so the party headed back south through Tennessee and Georgia on their way to the Gulf of Mexico to meet up with two supply ships from Havana.
The expedition met serious trouble in central Alabama when the Choctaw tribe ambushed the men after leading them into their fortress-like encampment. The Spaniards fought their way out and were successful in burning most of the place to the ground. Several thousand Choctaw died during the battle and resulting blaze, while only 20 Spanish died. While this victory appears lopsided at first glance, the Spaniards lost most of their equipment, supplies and forty horses. Instead of racing for the coast and their waiting supplies, de Soto instead headed north into Tennessee for the winter. He did not want word to reach Spain of his expedition's failures.
In May, 1541, the party reached the MIssissippi River. De Soto may not have been the first European to see the river, but he was certainly the first to write about it in an official report. It took a month for the men to cross the wide channel, but once across they were on their way to the area that is now Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma. It was during this time that Juan Ortiz, the expedition's interpreter, died. His absence made it more difficult for the men to get directions and find food. After tangling with a tribe called the Tula, the Spaniards made their way back to the Mississippi.
One year after first seeing the MIssissippi River, de Soto was back on its banks. He caught some sort of unknown illness in May, 1542 and died of fever on the 21st of that month. The remaining men tried to hide his death because de Soto had convinced local natives that he was immortal. The party sank his body in the middle of the river late one night, but this ruse was ineffective.
The expedition had at this time been in the wilderness for three years. Half of the original men were dead. The decision was taken to walk to Mexico, a Spanish possession. Once they encountered the wilderness of Texas, however, the men turned back once again to the Mississippi. They built boats out of whatever they could find, but winter and spring floods delayed them. When they finally cast off, they were pursued by hostile tribes that attacked them over the entire length of the river. 11 men died during this running battle, which lasted two weeks. Once in the Gulf of Mexico, they stayed close to the shore and made it to Panuco, a Spanish frontier town. From there, they made their way to Mexico City. 311 men survived the trip, almost exactly half of the original expedition. Most of these men stayed in the New World and never saw their homeland again.
In the end, the biggest influence of the expedition was in the diseases it left behind. Although we do not know for sure, it has been estimated that the de Soto expedition was responsible for the deaths of up to 10,000 Native Americans. However, the knowledge they gained concerning North America was invaluable for future explorers. And, even though they did not know it at the time, these Spaniards were the last outsiders to see the MIssissippian culture, which built mounds up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, before it died out completely.