De Soto: Fearless trailblazer or failed treasure hunter?

The man who studied the art of conquest under famed Spanish explorers was both, historians say


Published: Monday, July 9, 2012 at 8:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 9, 2012 at 8:10 p.m.

Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto was an accomplished horseman and lancer and a fearless adventurer. His passion for conquest and his desire for gold fueled his 16th century expeditions in Central and South America and, ultimately, what is now the southeastern United States.

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A drawing of Hernando de Soto, his crest, and signature. (Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Facts

Four-day De Soto series

Sunday
- The discovery
- The artifacts

Monday
- Authenticating the finds
- Discouraging looters

TUESDAY
- De Soto, the man
- The Spanish mission trail

Wednesday
- Exhibit at the Appleton Museum

De Soto was the first European to pass this way. He spent three years and his own money battling the aboriginal people as he trekked 4,000 miles through what is today Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas.



"He was ambitious. He wanted social standing. He had been very successful in his life up to the point of this expedition, and he was trying to become more," said Charles Hudson, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia. "That was his flaw, and that's what did him in."

For years, De Soto's expedition through Florida and the American Southeast remained a mystery to historians. But in the 1990s, Hudson and Jerald Milanich, curator emeritus in archaeology at the University of Florida and the Florida Museum of Natural History, reconstructed the route.

Based on their earlier work, and a recent archaeological find of coins, beads, pig bones and chain mail from that era, a site in north Marion County near Orange Lake has been identified as a De Soto camp and places the conquistador at that location on Aug. 12, 1539.

Professional archaeologist and pathologist Dr. Ashley White, who sits on the governing board of the Archaeological Institute of America, and a team of other archaeologists and scholars have confirmed that finding.

De Soto is believed by many historians to have been born around 1500 to parents who were minor nobles of modest means in Extremadura, an impoverished area in southwest Spain.

"He was poor," Hudson said. "A lot of conquistadors came from there. It was a very poor, hard-scrabble land he came from, so he was highly motivated and was used to a rough life."

Little is known about his early years or his family, although it is believed his family fought the Moors during the reconquista, a period in the eighth century when Christian states tried to recapture the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims. According to Hudson's book, "Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun," on Feb. 25, 1514, at roughly the age of 14, De Soto joined an expedition to Panama led by Pedro Arias de Avila, commonly referred to as Pedrarias. De Soto reportedly brought with him only his sword and shield.

The young De Soto became skilled at attacking and taking food and gold from Indians, often using brutal tactics. He also amassed wealth from slave trading. Under Pedrarias, De Soto made a fortune during the conquest of Panama and Nicaragua and, by about 1530, he was one of the six wealthiest men in Nicaragua.

Then in 1531, while the Incas were embroiled in a civil war, he joined Francisco Pizarro's conquest of Peru. When the riches from that conquest were divided, De Soto received the third-largest share. Even so, he added to his wealth by looting all of the gold and silver he could find.

"He was in the business of conquering New World people from the time he was a teenager," Hudson said. "It's kind of astounding he was not killed."

Hudson said no one really knows what De Soto looked like in appearance, although there are speculative drawings. He said De Soto was literate and certainly was educated in warfare.

"He was not afraid of anything," Hudson said. "There was no formal military. They were really entrepreneurs and adventurers."

Hudson said De Soto could be cruel and was known to torture and kill Indians who deceived him.

"That was not unusual in Europe," Hudson said.

***

De Soto's ambitions grew with his riches. He wanted to achieve the status of Pizarro and explorer Hernan Cortes, who had conquered the Aztecs and portions of Mexico.

He returned to Spain in 1536, where he married Pedrarias' daughter, Isabel de Bobadilla.

A year later, Emperor Charles V named De Soto governor of Cuba and gave him permission to conquer La Florida, now the Southeast United States. He left Spain in April 1538 and arrived the following month in Cuba, where he began making his final arrangements for the expedition. Because he had found gold on his earlier expeditions, he believed he would find more during this expedition.

On Sunday, May 18, 1539, De Soto left Havana Harbor with nine ships, about 600 people, more than 200 horses and a supply of dogs and pigs. He reached Tampa Bay on May 26.

When the explorers unloaded in the Bradenton area, there was a confrontation with Indians. Historians believe De Soto established his first camp at the Village of Uzita, where he captured Indians as guides.

"Each and every day the arrows rained down on these guys," White said.

During June and July, De Soto made his way north. Along the way, he battled Indians and took many captive as guides to locate food and riches and to work as slaves to carry the Spaniards' gear.

By July 24, the expedition reached what is now Floral City in Citrus County. The explorers didn't linger long, however. They pushed on in search of riches, which their Indian guides told them lay ahead in Ocale.

"They initially thought they would get to Ocale and find plenty of food, and they didn't," Hudson said. "The problem was getting reliable information. These Indians were not widely traveled."

Hudson said De Soto used torture to extract information.

The Indians in Ocale used brutal tactics of their own. After several of De Soto's men were killed and buried, the Indians dug the bodies up at night, cut them into little pieces and hung them from the trees. When De Soto's men awoke in the morning, the birds were eating the Spaniards' body parts in the trees.

On July 26, De Soto entered the Swamp of Ocale, a cove of the Withlacoochee River, in an area that was extremely difficult to cross.

"They were up to their necks in water with Indians shooting at them from canoes," Hudson said.

Suspecting the Indians had tricked them into taking this treacherous route, De Soto threw four Indians to the dogs, which tore them apart.

The principal villages of Ocale were on the east side of the Withlacoochee River.

According to Hudson's studies, De Soto reached Itarholata, believed to be present-day Ocala, on Aug. 11. The next day, he was in Potano, near Orange Lake.

On Aug. 13, De Soto reached Utinamocharra in present-day Gainesville, but much of his army remained in Potano until Aug. 22,

***

From October 1539 to March 1540, De Soto stayed at his winter camp in Anhayca, in present-day Tallahassee, where the Apalachee Indians had larger stores of food than other tribes.

Daniel Seinfeld, archaeologist with the Florida Department of State Bureau of Archaeological Research, said it was a dangerous time for De Soto to be in Tallahassee. He said the Apalachee Indians were great archers and waged guerilla warfare against the Spaniards.

"He lost a number of men here," Seinfeld said. "Even gathering firewood, he would be attacked."

In the spring, De Soto headed for what is now Georgia and beyond.

In Mabila near current-day Mobile, Ala., De Soto's men were embroiled in a fierce battle with the Indians. Hundreds of Indians were killed.

"The Indians got together and decided we are going to do these guys in," Hudson said. "They found they were unequal to the Spanish military techniques."

As the expedition wore on, the explorers failed to find treasure, and some of them died. Morale began to flag.

Hudson said the people on the expedition had invested their money in hopes of finding more riches and were becoming frustrated.

Then De Soto took ill with a fever. Sensing he was nearing death, he appointed Luis de Moscoso as captain general. De Soto died May 21, 1542, in modern-day Arkansas, and his body was submerged in the Mississippi River.

Moscoso led the failed expedition through Texas and Louisiana to its completion in Mexico in 1543, with about 311 survivors.

"It would have been considered a failure in every definition," Hudson said about De Soto's expedition. "They didn't even end up with a sense of how big North America was. They couldn't find portable wealth."

Ultimately, it was De Soto's failure to find riches for Spain and his failure to settle colonies along the way that separated him from Pizarro, Cortes and Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who founded St. Augustine in 1565.

But De Soto's expedition did pay some dividends long-term, historians say.

"Only in that it let them know they were not going to find a big, rich society up there that they could plunder," Hudson said. "Spain really didn't attempt to go up that way again."

The English and French did, though, because they were interested in land and natural resources.

"On the other hand," said Milanich, "the expedition, through word of mouth and through the written accounts of a few of the participants, resulted in a lot of information about the Southeast, including Florida. Later, Spanish and other Europeans profited from that intelligence."

Contact Susan Latham Carr at 867-4156 or susan.carr@starbanner.com.

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