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Hernando de Soto

leader of the first European expedition to see the Mississippi River

Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto was born at Villanueva de la Serena, Badajoz, Spain. In 1516 he was made Captain of a troop of horsemen by the Governor of Darien. He subsequently took an active part in the Spanish conquest of parts of Central America. By the time he returned to Spain in 1536, Soto had amassed about 18,000 ounces of gold as his share of the conquest booty. Settling in Seville, he used part of his bounty to establish a lavish estate. In 1537, he married the daughter of the Governor.

Like many other Spaniards of the day, Soto was enchanted by the exaggerated tales of a land the Spanish called Florida being told by Cabeza de Vaca, who had sailed the Gulf Coast. Ever the adventurer, Soto subsequently sold all of his property and used the money to outfit an expedition to conquer the lands seen by Vaca. Thanks to King Charles V, to whom he had loaned money, he was named Adelantado of Florida, Governor of Cuba, and Marquis of any portion of Florida he desired.

In April of 1538, Soto sailed from Spain at the head of an expedition consisting of about 950 soldiers, 8 priests, and a fleet of 10 ships. The expedition reached the Canary Islands on Easter Sunday, and Cuba a few weeks later. Once in Cuba, Soto did what he could to improve the living conditions of his "subjects." He also took time to gather as many good horses as possible for his planned expedition to Florida. On May 18, 1539, Soto set sail from Cuba with 9 ships and about 1,000 men.

On May 30, 1539, the Soto expedition dropped anchor at Espiritu Santo, present-day Tampa Bay. Leaving the ships at anchor, the majority of the expedition moved inland and began what would eventually be a 3-year trek. As the expedition moved north, it was constantly under threat from Indians who had already come to hate the Spaniards based on previous experiences. Those Indians who chose to talk rather than fight regaled the Spaniards with tales of vast wealth to be found at various locations, and each time Soto followed their directions only to discover no wealth. In reality the Indians were simply trying to keep the Spaniards as far away as possible.

Soto eventually made it to a village known as Apalache, where he established temporary headquarters. From there he sent an exploratory party to the west, which returned with reports of an excellent harbor now known as Pensacola Bay. Another group of men was sent back to Espiritu Santo with orders to bring the ships and supplies to what is now St. Marks on Apalachee Bay. In February 1540, he sent two ships back to Havana with orders to return in October with as many additional ships as possible, as well as munitions, provisions, and other supplies.

In March 1540, Soto left Apalache with the intention of exploring the country to the north. The expedition crossed into Georgia and proceeded on to the Savannah River, which it followed to the Blue Ridge Mountains. After crossing the mountains it descended the Alabama River to Mabila, site of a large Indian village. At Mabila, Soto and his men came under heavy attack. Although the Spaniards eventually won the battle, a great number of them were killed and wounded. Soto was forced to delay further explorations for several days in order to allow his men to recuperate and regroup. By this time many of Soto's men had grown tired of the constant Indian attacks and consistent lack of reward for their efforts. Knowing that his men were on the verge of mutiny, Soto decided not to rendezvous with his supply fleet and to instead march into the interior. He reasoned that his men would not dare attempt to desert so long as they were too far inland to safely make it to the sea and await rescue by ship, and it was his intention to march his men all the way to New Spain (Mexico).

In May 1541, the Soto expedition became the first Europeans to sight the Mississippi River, which it crossed in the northeastern part of present-day Mississippi. From there it went west and south, eventually reaching what is now the Washita River, where it went into winter quarters. Soon after returning to the Mississippi River in May or June of 1542, Soto contracted a fever and died; his men weighted down his body and threw it into the river to keep the Indians from finding and desecrating it. What was left of Soto's expedition came under the command of Luis de Moscoso. After an ill-fated attempt to reach New Spain by land, the survivors returned to the river. They then built crude boats in order to float down the river and into the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually made it to Tampico, a Spanish village on the coast of Mexico.

De Soto sees the Mississippi River

map of the De Soto expedition

Despite the many disastrous aspects of Soto's expedition, it was the first extensive European exploration of portions of what are now the states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. The expedition also provided the first descriptions of the Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Appalachia, Choctaw, and other southeastern tribes.

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The Robinson Library >> Discovery of America and Early Explorations

This page was last updated on 08/28/2018.