One Reason the Story of the Explorer Hernando de Soto Is Memorable

tags: Hernando de Soto

Kevin H. Siepel is the author of Rebel: The Life and Times of John Singleton Mosby (University of Nebraska Press, 2008). His latest book is Conquistador Voices (Spruce Tree Press, 2015).

Attend to the deeds of this ill-governed governor, Hernando de Soto, instructed in the school of Pedrarias de Ávila, in the debauchery and destruction of the Indians of Castilla del Oro, graduate in the murder of the natives of Nicaragua, and canonized in Peru according to the order of the Pizarros.  Shaking himself free of those hellish paths, he went to Spain loaded down with gold, but neither as a bachelor nor a married man could he rest, nor did he know how to, without returning to the Indies to spill human blood—not content with the blood he had already spilled—and to exit this life in the manner to be related, and causing so many sinners, deceived by his empty promises, to be lost with him. – Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés


Partway through finalizing my two-volume work on the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, a book entitled Conquistador Voices and written for the lay reader, I sent a brief extract to a well-respected publisher with an offer to send a fuller sample should the material prove attractive.  The work relies heavily upon original accounts related to the expeditions and actions of five explorers or conquistadors, namely, Columbus, Cortés, Pizarro, Cabeza de Vaca, and Soto.  It is copiously footnoted, with plenty of caveats regarding source material and potential interpretations.  I myself supplied fresh translations of much of the source material.

The editor to whom I sent the rather bare-bones extract said he liked what I’d sent, but editorial policy dictated that he in turn send it out for expert review before making a decision.  He and I were both taken aback by the reviewers’ negative response, which—based as it was on an incomplete text—left us somewhat open-mouthed, but that of course dashed my hopes for a relationship with this publisher.  Among the items causing reviewer heartburn had been my characterization of Hernando de Soto as “perhaps the most tragic” figure of the five men covered in the book.

While one could probably make a case for the self-pitying Columbus as the Hamlet of the Conquest, I nonetheless felt that Soto was more deserving of such characterization.

I still feel that way.

Soto had started out well in the New World.  Although no more high-minded than the average European opportunist of the day (he was “very given to hunting and killing Indians,” according to contemporary historian Oviedo y Valdés, who knew him), he was certainly astute, quickly seizing whatever opportunity came his way—mining, shipping, the capture and sale of Indians into slavery.  He amassed wealth and power quickly and easily; by 1530, still in his early thirties, he was one of the wealthiest men of León, Nicaragua.  Ever alert to new possibilities, he at this time sought acceptance as a partner in Pizarro’s third and final voyage to Peru.  Unsuccessful in this endeavor, he subsequently sailed to Peru at his own expense, presented himself to Pizarro as a competent lieutenant, and soon took a leading role in the conquest of the Inca empire.

Being a talented and ambitious man, however, he was a poor subordinate, and by mid-1535 he’d seen that his future lay not in Pizarran Peru, but elsewhere.  So he gathered up the enormous Indian wealth that had fallen to his lot—several shiploads of gold, silver, and precious stones—and sailed for Spain.  His intention was to seek a New World governorship, either in lands north of those already granted to Pizarro or possibly in southern Chile, south of what had been granted to Pizarro’s associate Diego de Almagro.  Since wealth was respected in Spain, and great wealth respected greatly, he felt that flaunting the baubles of his Peruvian success in Spain might encourage the young Emperor Charles to award him a position of responsibility in the lands across the sea.  So he flaunted them.

He was soon granted an important commission, albeit not one of those he’d originally sought.  He was awarded the military governorship of a land that had confounded others before him, namely, La Florida, which in the Spanish mind extended from the southeast coast of today’s United States into northern Mexico.  He was also given the governorship of Cuba.  He was pleased for the opportunity to succeed where others had failed.

He proceeded to spend his fortune outfitting the largest and best-equipped army that had ever been raised for service in the New World.  Men whose imaginations had been fired by the tales of the lately arrived Cabeza de Vaca—men who were certain that Cabeza de Vaca had even been concealing the truth of the vast wealth he had encountered in his eight-year-long odyssey on the American continent—flocked to him.  He had absolutely no difficulty raising a force of 600 men.  To book passage with Soto, estates were sold.  Lucrative sinecures were given up by men who considered them a pittance in comparison to what might be gained in this new land of plenty and promise.

In May 1539, following a year of preparation in Cuba, Soto placed others, including his new wife, in charge of Cuban affairs in his absence, embarked his army (along with a few women) and a hundred seamen—with attack dogs, pigs, and some 240 horses—aboard five topsail ships, two caravels, and two brigantines, and headed for peninsular Florida’s west coast.  The Soto expedition, unlike that of the unlucky Pánfilo de Narváez a decade or so before, was well provisioned and competently led.  Its commander soon came to develop a clear-cut plan:  he would establish a settlement on the coast, likely along today’s Florida panhandle or in present-day Alabama, and send out expeditions from there into the interior, retaining dependable seaborne communications and supply lines with Cuba.  But in early 1540, while awaiting the results of a maritime coastal probe, he received intelligence of a source of great wealth to the north, and the plan was abruptly adjusted.  The army, initially to the men’s great joy, would undertake a long detour north to today’s South Carolina to investigate these reports. 

It was the beginning of what would become a deep and chronic disappointment.  Having nearly starved in this land’s tangled, marshy wilderness interior, the army ultimately found nothing of the promised wealth.  The tired Spaniards then moved north and west through today’s North Carolina, crossed the Great Smokies into Tennessee and down into Georgia, then headed westward into Alabama, still finding nothing resembling wealth—certainly no new Peru or Mexico—at any point along this route.  Some began to regret this deviation from the plan.  Others had in fact become disillusioned with the entire operation.  But all pushed doggedly on, reluctantly conforming themselves to the will of their commander. 

They had to.  In the words of a Portuguese chronicler who was present, the so-called Gentleman of Elvas, “As [Soto] was a man, hard and dry of word, and although he was glad to listen to and learn the opinion of all, after he had voiced his own opinion he did not like to be contradicted and always did what seemed best to him.  Accordingly, all conformed to his will, and . . . no one had anything to say to him after his determination was learned.” 

Many men, however, even wealthy men who had given up large incomes in Spain to accompany him, allowed themselves to be led almost blindly.  “I knew Soto quite well,’ said Oviedo y Valdés, “and . . . I didn’t believe he had the sweet talk or cunning required to delude such persons.”

By early October 1540 the army had arrived at a point close to the Alabama coastline, where the commander hesitated, the dissatisfied cohort of his army showing rising displeasure at his seeming loss of purpose.  He still failed to move toward the coast, however, reportedly fearing that if he marched to the coastal bay where Spanish ships were known to lie at anchor, the disillusioned portion of his army—the army’s better men, in fact—would insist upon a return to Cuba, and he would be left with a much weakened force.  Once word of this land’s apparent sterility leaked out, no one would come here, and he would ultimately have no population to govern.  He had also by this time taken into custody a legendary Indian chief, Tascaluza, and he wished to visit one of this vaunted chief’s villages, Mabila, just a few miles away.  Reportedly feeling betrayed by the dissatisfied contingent of his army, he took the decision to march not to the coast, but westward to Mabila.

A deadly trap awaited the Spaniards at Mabila, where, in exchange for victory over thousands of fearless Indian warriors, they suffered devastating losses in men, horses, weapons, and supplies.  The agitation for a quick exit from this land reached near-mutinous levels, yet still Soto refused to turn toward the coast, instead ordering the army even further inland.

“This,” said the later chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, “was the first beginning and the chief cause of this gentleman and all his army being lost.  From that day, as a disillusioned man whose own people have betrayed his hopes and cut off the road to his ambition and destroyed the plan that he had made for settling and holding the land, he never again succeeded in doing anything profitable to him, nor was it thought that he attempted to do so. On the contrary, actuated only by indifference, he went about thereafter wasting his time and his life without any gain, always traveling from one place to another without order or purpose, like a man tired of life and desirous of ending it.”

The following spring a second disaster was suffered at Chicaza in northern Mississippi, to be followed by yet another Pyrrhic victory at a place called Alibamo.  By now the once-proud and confident Soto had lost more than 200 men and over a hundred horses, with absolutely nothing to show for it.  The crippled army, its men dressed in rags, some hobbling on crutches, riding or leading bone-thin horses, protecting themselves with makeshift weapons, was a shadow of its former self.  

Crossing the Mississippi River just south of today’s Tennessee state line, the once-mighty but still dangerous force pushed on into northwest Arkansas, finding no more riches there than anywhere else they’d been.  Given signs that he was losing control, the distraught governor one night roused his army from sleep for an angry nighttime harangue, threatening a swift beheading for future disobedience.  “Those to whom [these remarks] were addressed,” noted Garcilaso, “did as they were ordered from there on without raising any questions, because they understood that the governor was not a man to be trifled with.”

Finally realizing that his dwindling army—he had lost nearly half of it by now, and more than half his horses—could neither defend itself well nor even sustain itself in this land, and despairing of finding anything of lasting value here, Soto in October 1541 ordered a return to the Mississippi River.  His intention was to winter along the way, establish a temporary settlement on the great river’s banks, and build two brigantines to send downriver for help from Cuba or New Spain (Mexico).  With assistance from the outside, he calculated, he might yet be able to retain his tenuous foothold in this land.

Before this design could be put into effect, however, Soto contracted an illness and died, his body weighted with sandbags and dumped into the swirling Mississippi.

The army’s new leadership, determining that the Soto plan of hanging on till relief arrived from Cuba or New Spain was unrealistic, attempted now to escape this land by journeying overland to New Spain, a dimly perceived destination known to lie somewhere south or westward of their present location.  Moving deeper into the oven-like summer heat of today’s east Texas, the confused men, in their desperation to outrace hunger, finally turned around and made their way by forced marches back to the Mississippi.  Building rafts now throughout the winter of 1542-43, uneasily dependent on seemingly friendly Indians for food and other supplies, the army’s remnant in July embarked on a desperate escape downriver, pursued much of the way by canoes bearing hundreds of vengeful Indians.  Not without further casualties, they succeeded in reaching the Gulf of Mexico, navigating for weeks along the coast to arrive finally in New Spain at the end of summer.

The bodies of nearly 300 men, all 240 horses, and Soto himself had been left to rot in La Florida, where no Peru or Mexico had been found. 

“This tragedy,” wrote Garcilaso, “lamentable because of the loss of the many and excessive efforts made by the Spanish nation without profit or benefit to the country, was the end and outcome of the discovery of La Florida, which the adelantado Hernando de Soto made at such expense to his own fortune, and with so much equipment of arms and horses and so many noble gentlemen and valiant soldiers . . . . All of this was consumed and lost without any gain.”

Spain mounted no further such expeditions to La Florida, and eventually lost most of this land to France and England.

For Hernando de Soto, for the men of his army, for Spain itself, the expedition had indeed been a tragedy of enormous proportion. 


copyright © 2016 by Kevin H. Siepel


comments powered by Disqus