Soto, Hernando de

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Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto was a Spanish explorer whose life was shaped by his relentless quest for gold in the New World. Hoping to find treasure, he and his army traveled throughout what is now the southeastern United States, becoming the first Europeans to explore that part of the country.

Goes to the Americas

De Soto was a descendant of a noble family but grew up poor. By the time he was nineteen years old, he had become a soldier and was sent to Spanish-controlled Darien (part of present-day Panama).

In 1532 de Soto was sent to South America to help Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475–1541) lead the conquest of the area ruled by the powerful Inca empire in present-day Peru. Together the two men led their expedition through the Andes Mountains to meet Inca ruler Atahualpa (c. 1497–1533). Although the Inca had an army of 40,000, the Spanish tricked them, capturing and eventually killing Atahualpa, after taking his abundant treasures of gold. They went on to destroy the Inca empire forever.

Longs for adventure

De Soto's share of the Incan treasures made him a rich and famous man. He returned to Spain temporarily, but longed to be back in the New World. The Spanish king made him governor of Cuba and captain-general of Florida, which had been initially explored by Juan Ponce de León in 1513. De Soto's mission was to explore the entire region of the present-day southeastern United States, start settlements, and conquer and convert the native peoples to Christianity. For de Soto, though, the most important thing was to find gold.

De Soto left Spain in 1538 with an army of six hundred men and two hundred horses. They landed on the site of present-day Tampa Bay, Florida , in May 1539. Finding no gold, de Soto and his men headed northward along the western coast through the swamplands, and fighting mosquitoes, insects, alligators, and snakes. They set up winter camp in the area of present-day Tallahassee, Florida, and in the spring of 1540, headed northeast. Their search for gold proved worthless, though in present-day Georgia , they did gather about 350 pounds of freshwater pearls.

Enslaves Native Americans

At first, many of the Native North Americans of the Southeast welcomed and befriended the Spanish visitors. De Soto, on the other hand, conquered, destroyed, and enslaved many of the Native Americans who trusted him. A favorite trick of his was to invite a chief to visit him and then hold him for ransom, demanding payment from the tribe in exchange for their leader's life. After the ransom was paid, the chief was often killed and his people enslaved.

Word spread from one tribe to another that the Spanish were not to be trusted. The Native Americans became hostile and tried to fight the Spanish soldiers, but their weapons and methods usually proved ineffective against the more advanced arms of the Spanish army. To rid themselves of the invaders, the Native Americans began make up stories of vast quantities of gold in distant lands.

Following the leads of Indians who always directed them to faraway places, De Soto's expedition traveled through the present-day states of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina , then crossed the Appalachian Mountains into Tennessee before heading south into Alabama . In the fall of 1540, near Mobile Bay in present-day Alabama, de Soto and his men engaged in a fierce battle with a group of Choctaw Indians led by Chief Tuscaloosa (birth and death dates unknown). The Spanish killed three thousand Native American warriors, and only twenty-two Spanish soldiers lost their lives.

Follows visions of gold

In the spring of 1541, the expedition headed northwest, running low on supplies and horses. In May they came upon the wide Mississippi River just south of present-day Memphis, Tennessee. They camped along its banks for a month, building barges in order to cross it. Still searching for gold, de Soto pushed his men westward through present-day Arkansas. The only treasures they found were buffalo hides. Many soldiers were killed in fighting with Native Americans or died of hunger and illness as they worked their way south along the Mississippi River.

In the spring of 1542 de Soto himself fell ill, probably of malaria (a fever spread by mosquitoes), and died at the age of forty-two. So that the Native Americans would not find de Soto's body, his soldiers weighted it with sand and cast it into the Mississippi River.

The surviving soldiers (about half of de Soto's original army) eventually made their way to Mexico and to Spain. The information they took back about the present-day southeastern United States later proved valuable to Europeans who colonized the area. De Soto's expedition had demonstrated to the Spanish that North America did not have great treasures and that the natives were difficult to conquer. Spanish authorities lost interest in Florida for several decades.

The Native Americans had suffered thousands of deaths in battle and had lost tens of thousands more as a result of the diseases that the Spaniards had brought with them. De Soto's invasion thus left the southeastern Indians unable to withstand the invasions of European settlers that grew steadily during the seventeenth century.