Hernando De Soto Expedition Background
In the early 1500’s, the growing nation of Spain had few industries and resources to rely on, and yet was the wealthiest nation in Europe and the most powerful nation abroad. The Spanish domain extended from the West Indies through Central and South America. These new territories had tremendous natural resources of gold, silver, emeralds, and dyestuffs. A class of professional soldiers that is now referred to as Conquistadors emerged with the conquest of these New World territories.
With the choice of being poor in Spain or possibly gaining riches in the New World, men were eager to enlist with the armies of conquest bound for the New World with the promise of fame and fortune. These were men like Hernan Cortes conqueror of the Aztec Empire (1519- 1523), Francisco Pizarro conqueror of the Inca Empire (1526-1535), Juan Ponce de Leon, discoverer of La Florida (1513), and of course, Hernando de Soto. (The name de Soto is literally translated as “of Soto” and there are many spelling variations: deSoto, de Soto, DeSoto).
It is believed that Hernando de Soto was probably born in the year 1500 in a region of Spain known as Extremadura. Soto was only about 14 years old when he first set sail from Spain, about 1514. His time spent fighting off both Spanish poachers and native peoples of Panama and Nicaragua left the young conquistador with riches and a thirst for gold. This was soon quenched when he joined Francisco Pizarro in his famous conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru. In 1537, now rich but growing bored, de Soto pressured the King to allow him to lead his own expedition into the heart of what is now the Southeastern United States. In exchange for De Soto personally financing the trip, Kin Charles V granted him both the governor-ship of Cuba, as well as ruler over the lands and peoples of La Florida, which included all of North America!
In June 1538, de Soto arrived in Cuba with 622 soldiers. There he purchased slaves (the expedition needed porters) and recruited camp followers (including a handful of women), artisans, priests, an engineer, 200 horses, a herd of pigs, and fierce war dogs.
On May 30, 1539, de Soto and his army arrived in Tampa Bay. In July 1539 de Soto left a temporary base of 100 men and supplies at Camp Ucita, and began his expedition to the interior of la Florida. Soon after, Juan Ortiz presented himself to de Soto. Juan Ortiz was a survivor from an earlier Spanish expedition and had been living among the Indians in the area for twelve years. Glad to be back among his own countrymen, he offered his services to de Soto and became invaluable as the expedition’s interpreter.
Early on in the march, Soto’s army became dependent on the Native Americans for food. When chiefdoms he encountered had little to give, de Soto’s army took it by force, often enslaving the natives to help carry supplies to their next destination. Hungry and impatient for gold, they took any native guides that they thought were misleading them and threw them to the war dogs.
Although they passed through many areas that would have been suitable for a colony, de Soto insisted they continue searching for gold. At Cofitachequi, Hernando de Soto records meeting a female chief who welcomed his army and gave him fresh water pearls. But de Soto was convinced there were even wealthier chiefdoms to be found, and he pushed his army on. After the battle of Mabila in 1540, where 22 of his men were killed and many of his supplies were lost, Hernando de Soto refused to meet a supply fleet anchored at present-day Pensacola Bay, afraid his soldiers would desert him and return to Spain.
Native Americans inflicted even greater damage at Chicasa, where de Soto lost more soldiers, as well as horses, pigs, clothing, weapons, and food. In May of 1542, de Soto died of fever and was buried in the Mississippi River. The expedition died with him. His successor, Luis de Moscoso, made an attempt to reach Mexico by land, but turned back. In the summer of 1543,