Hernando de Soto and the Spanish Exploration of the American Southeast, 1539-1542

views updated

Hernando de Soto and the Spanish Exploration of the American Southeast, 1539-1542


By the end of the first third of the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors and explorers had already claimed substantial lands in the New World. These ventures had yielded the "discovery" of new fruits, exotic spices, and whole civilizations. In Spain both the Crown and some individuals had already begun to profit from plundering gold and luxury trade items from newly claimed lands. However, vast tracts of land claimed under the banner of Spain had yet to be fully explored. One such region was Spanish Florida and the American Southeast. Both tactical advantage, namely the conquest of more territory than rival European nations, and the widely spun legend of "cities of gold" pushed Spain to invest in the exploration of its claims in this region. Following the initial voyage of Juan Ponce de León (1460-1521), young, veteran explorer Hernando de Soto (1496-1542) was chosen to return to Florida and solidify Spain's claim and expand the territory. De Soto had accompanied Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475-1541) on earlier voyages to South America and had grown rich from trade with—and exploitation of—the Inca. Hoping to gain the same wealth and renown from his venture to North America, de Soto embarked on an ambitious sea and land venture. The resulting expedition was one of the most devastating episodes in the history of European contact with the New World.


In 1537 de Soto appealed to the King of Spain to be granted control of the New World territorial province that stretched from Rio de Las Palmas in South America to Florida. De Soto won his claim and was also granted the governorship of Cuba. However, his appointment stipulated that, within a year, he had to personally re-conquer and occupy Spanish Florida at his own expense. Previous ventures to South America with Pizarro had earned de Soto tremendous wealth and prestige; as a result, he found several willing financial partners for the venture, some of who accompanied de Soto on the actual voyage. He assembled and armada of 10 ships and 600 men. In April of 1538 his fleet departed from the port of San Lucar, Spain, for the shores of the New World. He landed in Cuba, remaining on the island for a few months to gather supplies, rest his men, and plan his expedition in Florida.

De Soto landed in Florida in May of 1539 and claimed formal possession of the land on June 3 despite ongoing hostility between his men and some of the neighboring Indian tribes. Welcomed by one local Native American chief, de Soto and his crew wintered in the village of Apalache before beginning their expedition. De Soto supposed that great indigenous civilizations, like those he encountered on voyages to South America, lay in the region's interior. Determined to garner further plunder for both his own interests and for the Spanish court, de Soto and his men headed northward through present-day Georgia. Once reaching the Piedmont, or the Appalachian foothills, de Soto turned his forces westward, exploring the Carolinas and Tennessee. Though he located the Tennessee River, de Soto had failed to find the material wealth and plunder after which he sought.

Disappointed and weary, in 1540 de Soto attempted to head south to Mobile Bay in Alabama to rendezvous with his ships. Two hundred miles (322 km) south of the Tennessee River, de Soto and his men encountered a warrior band led by Chief Tuscaloosa. The Native American forces were ill equipped to fight the Spaniards, and the ensuring battle proved disastrous for Tuscaloosa's men. The clash was perhaps the bloodiest single encounter between Native Americans and whites in American history. Crippled by the encounter with Tuscaloosa and running short on supplies, de Soto continued to head south, believing that he would not meet with further resistance. A few miles from the headwaters of Mobile Bay, however, the indigenous peoples at Mauvilia (Mobile) confronted de Soto's men. The local Native Americans were decimated, and the Spanish forces were weakened severely. Losing most of his men, supplies, and plunder, de Soto rashly decided to extend his expedition and recoup his losses instead of immediately returning to Spain.

After regrouping with some of his fleet and resting for a month, de Soto again pushed northward—though this time the decision would prove fatal. His expedition was plagued by Indian attacks as they made their way through western Alabama and Mississippi. On May 21, 1541, de Soto became the first European to sight the Mississippi River. He encountered the river south of Memphis, Tennessee, and instead of following the river and charting its path to the Gulf of Mexico, de Soto crossed the river into Arkansas in search of more wealth. The expedition was fruitless and de Soto lost more of his already diminished crew to fatigue and disease. Resolved to finally reunite with his fleet and return to Spain, de Soto decided to turn back and follow the Mississippi River southward. De Soto fell ill, most likely with Yellow Fever, and died in Louisiana on May 21, 1542, exactly one year after first sighting the Mississippi River.

The surviving members of de Soto's crew endured perhaps the most trying part of their travels after de Soto's demise. Continuing their way southward, they were unable to return to the remnants of de Soto's fleet. They made their way to Mexico via handmade rafts and eventually caught passage back to Spain. De Soto's second in command, Luis de Moscoso, arrived at the Spanish court over a year and half after de Soto's death.


De Soto's exploration of the Southeast was monumental in scope. He covered territory from the Gulf of Mexico coast north to the Appalachian Mountains, from the Florida shores of the Atlantic to slightly west of the Mississippi River. He discovered major coastal inlets and inland waterways, such as the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers, which paved the way not only for future exploration of the American eastern interior but its eventual settlement as well.

The records that de Soto kept of his expedition through the interior of the American Southeast are renowned for their detailed descriptions of landmarks, geographic locations, and the various indigenous peoples that he and his crew encountered. The work is thought to have been entrusted to one of the expedition officers after de Soto's death. From the chronicles, the first charts of the interior of the Southeast were devised. Future expedition not only relied on the geographic information provided in the work, but also utilized information on de Soto's dealings with different Indian groups.

In the 1930s de Soto's detailed records of his travels in the Southeast became the subject of not only historical, but also scientific, study. The chronicles were studied, with careful attention paid to the distances and landmarks they described, in conjunction with old maps, other records, and reports from several known archaeological sites in order to determine de Soto's precise path thorough North America. Surveyors charted positions using old Spanish units of measure. Archaeologists attempted to locate artifact assemblages that reflected Spanish contact with local tribes. The result was the unveiling of the de Soto Trail—a detailed and mostly accurate retracing of the de Soto expedition. Active archaeological survey continues along the trail today.

As de Soto pushed his way through the Southeast in search of gold, he abducted Native guides to lead his expedition. However, the Native peoples of the Southeast did not possess the gold wealth of the highly advanced Incan civilizations de Soto had encountered on his earlier ventures in Peru. Reports from the de Soto expedition, when the surviving members finally returned to Spain, changed the nature of European involvement in America. The failure of the de Soto expedition to locate gold and other precious metals in the Southeast made evident that the value of Spanish Florida was not in plunder, but in the actual land itself. Future expeditions to Spanish Florida largely focused on the establishment of various settlements, missions, and ports of trade. Furthermore, de Soto's expedition shaped the geographical boundaries of Spanish territories in the American Southeast. Violent encounters with indigenous tribes in Alabama convinced de Soto to abandon plans to establish Mobile as the chief city of the Spanish territories in the region. Future Spanish expeditions paid little attention to the area, which was eventually claimed and settled by the French.

The de Soto expedition left a legacy of decimation and destruction. The expedition proved disastrous and costly, its redeeming and ultimate value not recognized until years later. The few surviving men from de Soto's crew, who made their way first to Mexico and then to Spain, returned to a Spanish Crown leery of their accomplishments in the New World and angry about the loss of money and human lives. In the New World the inadvertent consequence of exploration was the introduction of European disease that swept through Native populations that were not able to fend off foreign contagions. The grand sweep of de Soto's venture, as well as travel among the Indians themselves, drastically increased the number of people who were exposed to bubonic plague, smallpox, and various fevers. The onset of foreign diseases aided in the fragmentation of large Indian towns as people fled to escape illness, and in several decades, the great mound-building chiefdoms of the American Southeast all but vanished. In the two centuries after de Soto's travels, an estimated 90% of the Indian population that existed before European contact was decimated.


Further Reading

Clayton, Lawrence, Vernon James Knight, Jr., and Edward C. Moore. The de Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America, 1519-1543. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Worth, John. The Timucuan Chiefdoms of Spanish Florida. Vols. 1-2. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1998.

Wright, Ronald. Stolen Continents: The New World through Indian Eyes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

About this article

Hernando de Soto and the Spanish Exploration of the American Southeast, 1539-1542

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article