Hernando de Soto Arrives and Explores Florida


"What we have committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind and this trade (Indian slavery) as one of the most unjust, evil and cruel among them."
-- Bartolome de las Casas, "History of the Indies"






The FCAT exercise for this article.


Before de Soto came to La Florida he plied his art in South America. Here is the story of de Soto and the Incas.
















































The Teacher Resource Link for Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto Arrives and Explores Florida
Hernando de Soto
(pictured at left) was born in Extremadura, a desperately poor region of Spain. He became incredibly rich brutally enslaving the natives of Nicaragua. He trained with a sadistic leader named Pedrarias, who entertained himself with the sport of using elite war-dogs to hunt and devour "infidel" natives. In 1530, he accepted the role of second commander in a fateful venture, commanded by Hernando Pizzaro. Together they set out and conquered the mighty Incas of Peru. They brought down a great native American empire with only 168 men and twenty-five horses. The effects of the conquest are felt to this day.

For his efforts Hernando de Soto was given the title Governor of Cuba by the king of Spain, Carlos V, in 1536. He was also given "La Florida," the area previously given to PŠnfilo de NarvŠez. De Soto wanted to rule on his own. He got a concession from the Spanish king to conquer new land. He would be the governor of any territories he subjugated. He set sail from Havana Harbour on Sunday, May 18th, 1539.

De Soto chose to use Cuba as a home base for his supplies and for planning his expeditions into what is today the United States. He spent his fortune recruiting, arming, and transporting his own army. When he left Spain in 1538, he was heavily in debt. He believed, however, that he would regain his fortune by finding gold in "La Florida."

The Expedition to La Florida
De Soto sent guides ahead to locate and chart a course for his army. The expedition set sail for Florida on the 18th of May 1539, with five large vessels and four smaller ones. On these vessels were de Soto's army as well as priests, women, horses, mules, war dogs, and pigs. On May 25th, they made landfall in the Tampa Bay area. De Soto's expedition initially landed at Piney Point. They made camp at Uzita, which was a native village on the northern shore of the Little Manatee River.

Amazingly, a cavalry patrol found a Spanish survivor from an earlier expedition. He had been searching for gold along with NarvŠez eleven years earlier. The Spanish survivor's name was Juan Ortiz and he had been living as an Indian. Ortiz's rescue was a great find for de Soto since Ortiz could communicate in Spanish and many of the native languages. He could also function as a guide for the area. As de Soto's expedition moved inland, however, they met different native groups whose languages were unfamiliar to Ortiz.

The March Inland
The march inland began July 15, 1539, and entered previously unexplored areas of Florida's forests, rivers, bogs, and sand hills. In the vicinity of Zephyrhills and Lumberton, they found no water and several people on the journey almost died of thirst. When they finally came to the Alafia River, they constructed a bridge and crossed successfully.

Hernando de Soto and his men trudged through the wetland areas at the Cove of the Withlacoochee River. One of de Soto's challenges was crossing the Withlacoochee River because it had such strong currents. The army stretched a rope from one side to the other and managed to cross successfully.

On July 29th, de Soto occupied the Timucuan Indian province of Ocali (near present-day Ocala). There, de Soto left the main part of his army and led a smaller group through present-day Levy and Alachua counties. When they reached the Santa Fe River, they crossed it and camped at a village named Aguacaleyquen. Hernando de Soto then sent a small group of men back to lead his main group northward to be reunited with them.

The map at left chronicles de Soto's trek east of the Mississippi River.

At War with the Natives
De Soto violated the king's ordinance to treat the natives well and convert them to Catholicism. He let it be known that he would not let anyone stand in his way. De Soto enslaved, mutilated, and executed the natives, often without provocation.

De Soto had one open-field battle at Napituca near Live Oak. De Soto and his men were positioned in the surrounding woods in anticipation of an ambush. When the natives arrived, they charged. Some of the Indians were captured as slaves. Others were shot. De Soto held some chiefs as prisoners for a short time.

After this encounter, the Spaniards traveled west and came to the River of Deer (now known as the Suwannee River). In the beginning of October, de Soto and his men crossed the Aucilla River with difficulty. Upon crossing it, they entered the Apalachee's main area. The natives destroyed their crops and burned their villages as they drew back, so that de Soto and his men could not use them.

The Spaniards were now under constant attack by the natives, who would kill the Spanish dispatch riders. In addition, brave native hostages used as guides often led army troops directly into ambushes, even though it most certainly meant death for them as well as the Spaniards.

As de Soto continued to head west, he came upon Anhaica, the main town of the Apalachee. It was here that he made camp for the winter. He also sent a small group of men southward to Tampa Bay to lead his ships and remaining supplies to him at Anhaica. The remains of iron crossbows, iron nails, and dated copper coins have been found at this site.

De Soto Heads North
De Soto and his army decided to head north out of Florida into Georgia. Later, he explored areas of North and South Carolina, as well as Tennessee and Alabama. By the early 1540s, he headed across the Mississippi River to look for gold and silver in what is now Arkansas.

Illustration at left by Theodore de Bry for a German edition of
Brevisima Relacion de la destruycion de las Indias ("A Brief Relation of the destruction of the Indies") By Bartolome de las Casas, 1552.

Note: Spanish savagery: cutting off of hands and noses, dogs hunting natives, and mass slaughter and murder.

For the next four years, De Soto butchered his way up the Mississippi Valley. He took armored trained-to-kill war-dogs, horses and even cannon. He traveled on well-used roads and paths and enslaved the locals, forcing them to act as guides and translators. De Soto was disappointed because the natives didn't have great collections of gold or European luxuries, but seemed overly concerned with other forms of wealth, such as food, necessities and art.

He burnt and outright destroyed many of the great cultural centers in the American mid-west. The historical documents from the period are extensive and excellent. His chroniclers painted a portrait of a collection of wandering butchers and a savage mercenary army, merciless, greedy, remorseless, bent on pillage and plunder.

Modern European-colonist textbooks call him an "explorer", but he was really nothing of the kind. Little more than a pirate and in fact many times worse, De Soto's actions temporarily united nations of the region in an active hatred of the "Christians". However, over the course of several years he managed to thoroughly destabilize regional political relations and diplomatic systems. In 1542, he became ill and died of a fever. He died on the Mississippi at a town called Anilco. Only a few of his soldiers made their way back to Spanish-occupied Mexico, by fleeing downriver and attempting a desperate overland journey.

Hernando de Soto's barbarians laid waste an entire civilization.
When the French ventured down the Mississippi Valley only sixty years later, they found a few tiny villages. All around them they saw the remains of some great culture they couldn't identify. The obliteration seemed complete. Vast, now wild cornfields and orchards stretched as far as the French adventurers could see. Forest was slowly reclaiming what had once been a fertile, accomplished civilization.

Soon, there was little left of these great nations but overgrown earthen mounds and ruins, rotting remains of cities, graves for archaeologists to find and a few struggling bands of survivors. Showing the resilience and power of life and the natural world, forest reclaimed the land almost immediately. When the Dutch, French and English arrived on the scene a hundred years later, they had no idea of the historical extent of the slowly recovering native civilizations.

Moundville and Cahokia and countless other sites are reminders of the effects that invasion, war and disease can have on societies. This is an excellent warning for other states and peoples. We are social animals, and rely on delicate social structures for our survival. What may at first seem like minor disturbances can escalate into tragic catastrophes. The historic marker above only tells a tiny part of the story...