Explorer and conqueror, born at Villanueva de la Serena, Badajoz, Spain, 1496 or 1500; died on the banks of the Mississippi the latter part of June, 1542.
He was given the rank of captain of a troop of horsemen in 1516 by Pedrarias Dávila (also known as Pedro Arias de Avila), governor of Darien, who admired his courage, and he took an active part in the conquest of portions of Central America. In 1523 he accompanied Francisco Fernández de Córdoba who, by order of Pedrarias, set out from Panama with an expedition which explored Nicaragua and Honduras, conquering and colonizing the country as they proceeded. In 1532 he joined the expedition of Francisco Pizzaro starting from Panama for the conquest of Peru. Recognizing his importance, Pizzaro made de Soto second in command, though this caused some opposition from Pizzaro's brothers. In 1533 he was sent at the head of a small party to explore the highlands of Peru, and he discovered the great national road which led to the capital. Soon afterwards he was selected by Pizzaro as ambassador to visit the Inca Atahualpa, lord of Peru, and he was the first Spaniard who spoke with that chief. After the imprisonment of Atahualpa, de Soto became very friendly with him and visited him often in his confinement. De Soto played a prominent part in the engagements which completed the conquest of Peru, including the battle which resulted in the capture of Cuzco, the capital. Upon his return from an expedition, he learned that Pizzaro had treacherously ordered Atahualpa to be put to death in spite of Atahualpa's having paid a large ransom. He was much displeased at the crime, and, becoming disgusted with Pizzaro and his brothers, he returned to Spain in 1536, taking back with him about 18,000 ounces of gold which represented his share of the booty taken from the Incas.
He settled in Seville, and with the gold he had brought home, he was able to set up an elaborate establishment with ushers, pages, equerry, chamberlain, and other servants required for the household of a gentleman. In 1537 he married Inés de Bobadilla (sometimes called Leonor or Isabel), the daughter of his former patron, Pedrarias Dávila. He had settled down in Seville to enjoy life quietly, when the exaggerated accounts of Cabeza de Vaca concerning the vast region then called Florida fired his ambition to undertake the conquest of this land which he considered no less rich than Peru. He therefore sold all his property, and devoted the proceeds to equipping an expedition for this purpose. He readily obtained from Charles V, to whom he had lent some money, the titles of Adelantado of Florida and Governor of Cuba, and in addition, the title of marquis of a certain portion of the territory he might conquer, said portion to be chosen by himself.
The expedition consisted of 950 fighting men, eight secular priests, two Dominicans, a Franciscan and a Trinitarian, all to be transported in ten ships. To this armada was added one of twenty more ships which was on its way to Vera Cruz, but was to be under the orders of de Soto while the courses of the two fleets lay along the same route. The whole squadron set sail from Sanl&úcar, 6 April, 1538. On Easter Sunday morning, fifteen days later, they arrived safely at Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, where they stopped for one week and then continued their way without incident. When near Cuba, the twenty vessels destined for Mexico separated from the others and proceeded on their way. The ten ships of de Soto shortly after arrived in the harbour of Santiago de Cuba where the members of the expedition were well received by the Cubans, whose fêtes in honour of the new-comers lasted several weeks. The new governor visited the towns in the vicinity of Santiago and did every thing in his power to better their condition. At the same time, he gathered as many horses as he could, and, as good ones were plentiful in Cuba, it was not long before he had a fair number of mounts for the men of the Florida expedition.
Just about this time, the city of Havana was sacked and burned by the French, and de Soto, upon learning of it, despatched Captain Aceituno with some men to repair the ruins. As he was contemplating an early departure for his conquest of Florida, he named Gonzalo de Guzmán as lieutenant-governor to administer justice in Santiago and vicinity, while for affairs of state, he gave full powers to his wife. Meanwhile, he continued his preparations for the expedition to Florida. In the latter part of August, 1538, the ships sailed for Havana, while de Soto started by land with 350 horses and the remainder of the expedition. The two parties arrived at Havana within a few days of each other, and de Soto immediately made plans for the rebuilding of the city. He also entrusted to Captain Aceituno the building of a fortress for the protection of the harbour and the city from any possible future attack. At the same time he ordered Juan de Añasco, a skilled and experienced sailor, to set out in advance to explore the coasts and harbours of Florida so that it would facilitate matters when the main expedition sailed. Añasco returned at the end of a few months and made a satisfactory report.
The expedition was finally made ready, and on 18 May, 1539, de Soto set sail with a fleet of nine vessels. He had with him 1000 men exclusive of the sailors, all well armed and making up what was considered to be the best equipped expedition that had ever set out for conquest in the New World. They proceeded with favourable weather until 25 May, when land was seen and they cast anchor in a bay to which they gave the name of Espiritu Santo (now Tampa Bay). The army landed on Friday, 30 May, two leagues from an Indian village. From this point the Spaniards began their explorations of the wild unknown country to the north and west which lasted for nearly three years. They passed through a region already made hostile by the violence of the invader Narvaez, and they were constantly deceived by the Indians, who tried to get them as far away as possible by telling them stories of great wealth which was to be found at remote points. They wandered from place to place, always disappointed in their expectations, but still lured onward by the tales they heard of the vast riches which lay just beyond. They treated the Indians brutally whenever they met them, and they were, as a result, constantly at war with them. Setting out from Espiritu Santo, de Soto, with considerable loss of men, went through the provinces of Acuera, Ocali, Vitachuco, and Osachile (all situated in the western part of the Florida peninsula), with the purpose of finally reaching the territory of Apalache (situated in the northwestern part of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico), as he considered the fertility and maritime conditions of that country well suited to his purposes. He finally reached the province, and after some fighting with the Indians, subjugated it. In October, 1539, de Soto sent Juan Añasco with thirty men to Espiritu Santo Bay where he had left his ships and a portion of his expedition, with orders to start from there with the ships and follow the coast until he reached the bay of Aute (St. Marks on Apalachee Bay) in the province of Apalache. Here he was to be joined by Pedro Calderón, who had orders to proceed by land with the remainder of the expedition and the provisions and camp equipment that had been left on the coast. At the same time, Gómez Arias was to sail to Havana to acquaint de Soto's wife with the progress of the expedition. After many hardships, Añasco reached Espiritu Santo Bay, whence he started with the ships to carry out de Soto's orders. He arrived at Aute in safety, and was there joined by Calderón with the land forces according to arrangement. Meanwhile, Gómez Arias had fulfilled his mission to Havana and the triumphs of the Spaniards in Florida were fitly celebrated in that city.
De Soto now ordered Diego Maldonado, a captain of infantry who had served him well, to give up his command, and take two ships with which he was to explore the coast of Florida for a distance of one hundred leagues to the west of Aute, and map out its bays and inlets. Maldonado did his work successfully and upon his return, in February, 1540, was sent to Havana, with orders to inform the Governor's wife and announce to the Cubans as well all that they had seen and done. De Soto gave him further orders to return in October and meet him in the Bay of Achusi which Maldonado had discovered during his exploration. He was to bring back with him as many ships as he could procure, and also munitions of war, provisions, and clothing for the soldiers. But de Soto was destined never to see Maldonado again, nor was he to have the benefit of the supplies for which he was sending him, for, though Maldonado was able to carry out his orders to the letter, when he arrived at Achusi in the fall he found neither trace nor tidings of de Soto. He waited for some time and explored the country quite a distance, but without finding him, and was forced to return to Havana. He tried again the next year and againa the following, but always with the same result.
Meanwhile, de Soto had started in March, 1540, from the province of Apalache with the intention of exploring the country to the north. He explored the provinces of Altapaha (or Altamaha), Achalaque, Cofa, and Cofaque, all situated in eastern and northern Georgia, meeting with fair success. He then worked his way in a southwesterly direction, intending to reach the coast at Achusi where he had agreed to meet Maldonado with the supply ships. But when he reached the province of Tuscaluza in southern Alabama, where he had been told there were immense riches, the Indians in large numbers offered a more stubborn resistance and gave him the worst battle he had yet had. The battle lasted nine hours and was finally won by the Spaniards, though nearly all the officers and men, including de Soto himself, were wounded. According to Barcilasso, there were 70 Spaniards and 11,000 Indians killed in the battle, and in addition the town of Mauvila (now Mobile ) was destroyed by a fire which also consumed the provisions of the Spaniards. While in Tuscaluza, de Soto heard of some Spanish ships which were on the coast at Achusi. These were the ships which Maldonado had brought back from Havana with the supplies. De Soto thought he would be able to reach them in a short time for he had been informed that he was then but thirty leagues from the coast. But his troops were so exhausted that he was forced to rest for a few days. Worn out by the long marches and the hardships they had undergone, and disappointed at not finding any treasure, some of de Soto's followers secretly plotted to abandon him, make their way to Achusi, and sail to Mexico or Peru. Learning of this, de Soto changed his plans, and, instead of marching toward the coast to join Maldonado, he led his men toward the interior in a westerly direction, knowing that they would not dare to desert him with the ships so far away. He hoped to reach New Spain ( Mexico ) by land. In a night battle (December, 1540), he lost forty men and fifty horses besides having many wounded, and during the next four months he was attacked almost nightly. In April, 1541, he came upon a fort surrounded with a stockade, and in storming it nearly all his men were wounded and many were killed. It is said that over 2000 Indians were killed in this battle, but so many of the Spaniards were wounded that de Soto was compelled to stop for a few days in order to care for them. Notwithstanding his repeated losses de Soto continued toward the interior, traversing several provinces constituting the present Gulf States, until he reached the Mississippi at a point in the northern part of the present state of Mississippi.
He crossed the river and pushed on to the northwest until he reached the province of Autiamque in the northwestern corner of Arkansas, where he passed the winter of 1541-42 on the Dayas River, now the Washita. In the spring of 1542, retracing his steps, he reached the Mississippi in May or June. Here, on 20 June, 1542 (according to some authorities on 21 May), he was stricken with a fever, and prepared for death. He made his will, named Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado as his successor in command of the expedition, and took leave of all. On the fifth day de Soto succumbed without having reached New Spain by land. His companions buried the body in a large hole which the natives had dug near one of their villages to get materials to build their houses. However, as de Soto had given the Indians to understand that the Christians were immortal, they afterwards disinterred the body, fearing the hostile savages might possibly discover it, and, finding him dead, make an attack. They then hollowed out the trunk of a large tree and, placing the body in it, sank it in the Mississippi which they called the Grande. The shattered remnant of the expedition under Moscoso then attempted to work their way eastward, but, driven back by the Indians, they floated down the Mississippi and, after many hardships, finally reached Pánuco in Mexico. This expedition of de Soto, though it ended so disastrously, was one of the most elaborate and persistent efforts made by the Spaniards to explore the interior of North America. It was the first extensive exploration of at least six of the Southern states: South Carolina , Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, and their written history often begins with narratives which tell the story of de Soto's expedition. From these same narratives we also get our first description of the Cherokees, Seminoles, Creeks, Appalachians, Choctaws, and other famous tribes of southern Indians. The story of this expedition also records the discovery of the Mississippi and the first voyage of Europeans upon it. It must be noted that Alonso de Pineda discovered the mouth of the Mississippi in 1519, and that Cabeza de Vaca crossed it near its mouth in 1528.
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