In the early days of 16th Century Europe, the New World was more myth than reality. Maps of the day showed the Americas as “terra incognita”, a vague landmass of undetermined size populated by sub-humans. Many maps included wildly imaginative drawings of sea serpents attacking ships and devouring unlucky sailors who ventured too far into the unknown. Yet, there were wild tales of immense wealth just waiting to be taken by enterprising adventurers with the courage to seize it.
Indeed, the early Spanish explorers who penetrated this mysterious territory returned with fortunes in gold and silver taken by force from native peoples whose crude spears, bows and arrows were no match for Spanish guns and armor. Eight centuries of warfare with the Moors had left the royal treasury desperately in need of replenishment and the Spanish monarchs looked toward the New World with greed, sanctioning expeditions to exploit the vast wealth awaiting their minions.
The New World provided the ideal target, with its rumored riches and savage people. Existing religious dogma even provided a moral basis for exploitation – the Indians must be redeemed from their heathen ways and brought into the church. The official royal stance prohibited mistreatment of native populations. At the same time, explorers were ordered to obtain as much treasure as possible, by whatever means necessary.
The adventurers who went off to plunder the New World were called conquistadors. They were independent contractors sanctioned by the Spanish Crown and given official authority to explore new lands in search of wealth and territory to claim. In return for this royal blessing, the conquistadors agreed to share their plunder with the King and Queen.
One of the more notable conquistadors was 36 year old Hernando De Soto, an adventurer with a lot of experience in conquering new territory and subjugating the natives encountered along the way. De Soto left Spain as a youth of 14, raiding Indian villages in what is now Panama and Nicaragua and amassing a fortune in gold and slaves. He convinced the King to allow him to lead an expedition to La Florida in search of the fabled riches that were believed to exist in this lush Eden of green jungles and sparkling water.
As was the custom of the day, De Soto financed the expedition, investing his entire fortune in hopes of gaining even more. He began recruiting an army that included many wealthy Spaniards with a thirst for adventure and a lust for gold. Many arrived wearing brilliant suits of armor and accompanied by their personal servants and families. They all set sail in a gay armada of ten ships.
De Soto arrived in Havana, Cuba in June, 1538 with an army of 622 soldiers. There he took on a large number of artisans and craftsmen, an engineer, slaves, and female camp followers. The expedition arrived on the west coast of Florida on May 30, 1539, though the exact site is unknown.
Eager to find the wealth he had come for, De Soto did not stay long on the coast. Leaving 100 men behind at a base camp, he led the expedition inland. Soon after they began their trek, they encountered a small band of Indians. In a scene that was to play out time and time again during the expedition, the Spaniards attacked the Indians on sight, killing several. It was here they met Jean Ortiz, a survivor of an earlier expedition who had been living with the Indians for over ten years. He became the expedition’s translator.
De Soto was as ruthless a conquistador as ever lived. His method of dealing with the Indians he encountered was to seize the village chief and hold him hostage, to enslave the Indians as guides, porters, and personal servants. Anyone who did not cooperate was killed. The expedition swelled to over a thousand people, trekking along Indian trails from one village to the next.
With so many people, simple logistics began to doom the expedition. Food was in scarce supply and only by looting the villages they came upon was De Soto able to feed his huge entourage. Since they did not consider the Indians as human beings, the Spaniards felt no guilt in taking whatever they wanted by force.
The Indians quickly learned that it was gold that drove this mass invasion, and that the best way to survive was to get rid of them as quickly as possible. Since the Spaniards wanted treasure, every village they came to quickly told them stories of vast wealth waiting just a short distance further on. Hopefully the greedy conquistadors would push onward, not tarrying long to rape and pillage.
De Soto pushed his army onward in a disorganized meandering trek up through Florida, into what is now Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina, looping north in a wide arc, then back south, always seeking the treasure that seemed to elude him. He was a harsh taskmaster, not above inflecting swift, brutal punishment on soldiers and officers for the most minor rule infraction. One officer deserted, sending word back that he would rather live with the Indians than deal with De Soto any longer.
Early on, most of the Indians were friendly and welcoming, but as word of the atrocities the conquistadors committed preceded them, more and more often they met resistance. There were many brief but fierce skirmishes and four major battles. At Mabila (present-day Mobile, Alabama) the Indians attacked in force and dozens of soldiers were killed and most of their supplies lost. Still obsessed with greed, the stubborn De Soto refused to meet a supply fleet at Mobile Bay, afraid of a mass desertion by his hungry, weary men.
The months after the Battle of Mabila were terrible for the expedition. They were attacked almost daily in a series of ambushes. Their food supplies were exhausted and their clothing had rotted away or were in tatters. De Soto’s best captains were killed or wounded. Morale was low and desertion high.
The attacks continued as the struggling column crossed the Mississippi River and wandered aimlessly north and westward in search of a treasure many of his followers now realized did not exist except in De Soto’s fantasies. Finally the much depleted force returned to the Mississippi River, physically exhausted and mentally broken.
In May, 1542, in a small camp along the banks of the Mississippi River, Hernando De Soto died of fever. He was placed in a wooden coffin and his body sunk in the river to prevent it from being mutilated by the Indians.
For another year the men wandered, lost in uncharted territory, finally returning to the Mississippi yet again, where they built crude boats and floated down river to the Gulf of Mexico The once proud army of over a thousand soldiers and slaves now numbered just over 300 weary souls. After a hard voyage they eventually made it to the Mexican coast and were taken to Mexico City, where they were honored as conquering heroes, not the ragtag remainder of a band of regal cutthroats gone bad.
De Soto never did find the treasure he was looking for. His expedition was a tragedy for all involved. The native people whom he encountered along the way had built up a strong culture, living in cities and towns, growing crops, and developing ties with neighboring tribes. In De Soto’s wake were left only smoking ruins and dead bodies. With their homes destroyed and so many of their people dead or carried off, never to return, the Indians never recovered. The conquistadors left another form of misery behind. With no immunity to European diseases, great numbers of Indians died from measles and small pox in the years after the Spanish incursion.
De Soto’s expedition is remembered at the De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton, Florida. Administered by the National Park Service, the Memorial includes a small reconstruction of Camp Ucita, the fort De Soto established as a base camp. From mid-December to mid-April costumed guides give presentations on the expedition and explain life in the New World in the time before the Europeans arrived.
The Visitor Center has a display of armor and equipment used by the conquistadors and an excellent free 22 minute video on De Soto and his expedition. There is also a small gift shop selling books on Florida history and wildlife. The Memorial also has a few picnic tables where visitors can enjoy lunch as they watch pleasure boats in the bay.
A large stone placed at the Memorial by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America commemorates the expedition and marks the beginning of the De Soto Trail, which traces the expedition’s route through Florida. A nature trail takes visitors though a mangrove swamp to the Manatee River.
Located at 8300 De Soto Memorial Highway, the Memorial is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for major holidays. There is no admission fee, and parking is free. The parking lot is not adequate for large RVs. Visitors would be advised to park at a local RV park and drive their tow vehicle when visiting the memorial. For more information on De Soto National Memorial, call 813-792-0458 or visit the monument’s website at https://www.nps.gov/deso/index.htm
Thought For The Day – It is better to live rich than to die rich.