Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto

(c. 1498-1542)

Hernando de Soto participated in Spanish campaigns in the West Indies, Panama and Nicaragua from 1514 to 1530. He joined Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Peru in 1532, and remained there until 1536, returning to Spain as a wealthy man.

In 1537, de Soto was named governor of the Spanish colony in Cuba and captaingeneral of Florida. He went to Cuba in 1538 and a year later set off to explore Florida and its unknown borderlands. Like many of the conquistadors, de Soto was inspired by a love of adventure, as well as a desire to become rich.

De Soto organized the expedition with some 600 men, and in May 1539, he landed on the coast of Florida near modern-day Tampa Bay. For the next three years, de Soto would lead his men on one of the greatest odysseys of North American history.

De Soto moved quickly up the Florida coast into north-central Florida, where his mistreatment of the Apalachee Indians led them to harass his men during the winter

there. In March, 1 540, the Spaniards moved north into Georgia and across the Savannah River into South Carolina. They then marched into the Blue Ridge Mountains and the southwestern corner of North Carolina and the southeastern corner of Tennessee.

Throughout this time, de Soto and his men constantly stole food and other supplies from the local tribes, brutalized the men and women, and generally convinced the Native Americans that the Europeans brought only trouble.

The Spanish then turned south and came down into Alabama, following the Alabama River to a place known as Mabila, near modern-day Mobile. There they fought a major battle with hostile Indians, in which the Spaniards killed more than 2,000 men. De Soto was wounded and 1 8 of his companions were killed.

On May 9, 1541, de Soto and his party became the first Europeans to see the Mississippi River. They constructed barges and went north into Arkansas where they spent the winter of 1541-1542. In March 1542, they set off eastward to make their way back to the Mississippi River. By this time, de Soto had contracted a fever and died on May 2 1.

De Soto’s men buried his body in the Mississippi so that the Native Americans would not discover that the Spanish leader was dead. The surviving Spaniards built boats in which they floated down the Mississippi River and eventually arrived in Mexico in September, 1543.

While De Soto’s expedition failed to achieve its original goals, his journey indicated to other explorers that North America was there for exploration and perhaps colonization.