THE SOTO EXPEDITION 

Hernando de Soto, the son of an esquire of Xerez de Badajoz, was eager to rival Cortes and Pizarro. In 1537 he solicited the same grant as Narvaez before him, for the province from Rio de Las Palmas to Florida. Along with the province Valladolid, the King awarded Soto an appointment to govern the island of Cuba.

This accession required him to personally conquer and occupy Florida within a year at his own expense. He was to erect fortresses and carry over at least five hundred men as settlers to hold the country. The division of the gold, pearls, and other valuables of the conquered caciques (chiefs) were to be regulated, and provision made for the maintenance of the Christian religion and of a hospital in the territory. The air of divine mystery that was assumed by Cabeza de Vaca concerning the countries that he had seen inflamed the imagination of men in Spain.

Hernando de Soto, picture and signature, (from Winsor).

This 1536 period map may have been available to Soto prior to his exploration. Note that the interior was still unknown territory. (Taken from Winsor).

Soto found many adventurers ready to give their persons and their means to his expedition. Nobles of Castile, in rich slashed silk dresses, mingled with old warriors in well-tried coats of mail. He sailed from San Lucar, in April 1538, amid the fanfare of trumpets and the roar of cannon. His Florida armada consisted of 10 ships made up of 7 large galleons, 1 highly maneuverable caravel, and 2 brigantines.

The 7 galleons were the San Christobal (800 tons); Magdalena (800 tons); Concepcion (500+ tons); Buena Fortuna (500+ tons); San Juan (under 500 tons?); Santa Barbara (under 500 tons?); and San Anton (under 500 tons?).

Along with him six hundred highborn and well-trained men went forth from Spain to win fame and fortune in the New World. They reached Cuba safely, and Soto was received with all honors. More prudent than Narvaez, Soto twice dispatched Juan de Anasco, in a caravel with two pinnaces (brigantines), to seek a suitable harbor for the fleet, before trusting all the vessels on the coast. De Anasco explored the coast during these two voyages for a total of five months.

The first of Sotos vessels to enter the approaches to Florida were the pair of brigantines (bergantines). A Spanish brigantine of this era could be either sailed or rowed (see picture). They were small, light galleys used for military exploration in shallow coastal waters and rivers, drawing only about three feet of water.

Brigantine (galley type) vessel adapted from R.C. Smiths Early Spanish Shipping in Pensacola, 1559-1561.

They had triangular sails on one or two masts, benches for oarsmen with long sweeps, and open spaces for livestock or soldiers.

Encouraged by the reports of this reconnoitering, Soto left his wife in Cuba and sailed from Havana in May 1539, and made a bay on the Florida coast ten leagues west of the Bay of Juan Ponce.

To this he gave the name of Espiritu Santo, because he reached it on the Feast of Pentecost, which fell that year on the 25th of May. On the 30th he began to land his army near a town ruled by a chief named Ucita. Soto's whole force was composed of five hundred and seventy men; two hundred and twenty-three horses all loaded in five galleons, two caravels, and two brigantines (pinnaces). (For an in-depth overview of ships used in these explorations, refer to the article on Spanish exploration vessels). He took formal possession of the country in the name of the King of Spain on the 3rd of June, and prepared to explore and subject the wealthy realms that he supposed to lie before him.  

When Soto landed, he found the chief friendly but soon discovered that all the surrounding tribes were so hostile that they began to attack the chief who had welcomed him. Soon after their arrival, a Spaniard named Ortiz was rescued by Sotos troops. He had belonged to Narvaez expedition and had spent so many years in captivity that he had become almost completely acculturated into native society.

Soto landing at the Bay of the Holy Spirit (La Bahia del Espiritu Santo). Picture courtesy of the DeSoto National Memorial

Soto joyfully received Ortiz. Although his knowledge of the country was limited, his services were of vital necessity. The Indians secured by Anasco, and on whom Soto relied as guides and interpreters, deserted at the first opportunity making Ortiz invaluable as a native interpreter.

On the 15th of July, Soto sent his largest ships back to Cuba and moved to the northeast to make his toilsome way amid the lakes, streams, and everglades of Florida. Before long his soldiers began to suffer from hunger, and were glad to eat watercress, shoots of Indian corn and palmetto in order to sustain life. The native villages were few and scattered, and afforded little corn for the Spanish. The natives they met acted only as foes, harassing his march. At Caliquen the Indians, in an effort to rescue their chief, whom Soto was carrying to the next town, made a furious onslaught on the Spaniards. They were driven into the swamps and nearly all killed or taken captive. Their dauntless spirit was, however, unbroken.

The survivors, though chained as slaves, rose against their masters. They seized any weapon within their reach and fought desperately, one of them endeavoring to throttle Soto himself. Two hundred survived this gallant attempt, only to be slaughtered by the Indian allies of the Spanish commander. Soto fought his way westward, step-by-step, so slowly that at the end of three months, on October 30th, 1539, he had only reached Agile, a town in the province of Apalache.

Anasco was sent out from this point to explore and discovered the port where Narvaez had embarked. There he found the remains of Narvaez forges and the bones of his horses attesting to the fact.* Soto then dispatched him to Espirito Santo Bay, their landing site. Anascos party marched the overland distance in ten days. Upon arrival, he sent two vessels, probably a caravel and a brigantine, back to Cuba, which brought back to Soto, in the remaining vessels,the detachment left at his landing-place.

Soto fighting the Indians from a 16th century Spanish history book by Herrera found in Winsor.

Female chief or wife of a chief, of the Timucua tribe of la Florida (16th c.) from an engraving by DeBry after a drawing by LeMoyne. This type of scene may have greeted Soto when he met the female cacique of Cofitachiqui.

It took six weeks for the ships to make the journey from Espirito Santo to the Bay of Horses.

Before Anasco reached his commander, the Indians had burned the town of Anaica Apalache, of which Soto had taken possession.

A good port, called Filipina*, had been discovered to the west, but Soto declined to go in that direction.

He ordered his naval forces to wait for him at Ochuse* while he went further inland looking for the riches that he believed to be within his reach. Crediting an Indian tale of the rich realm of Yupaha in the northeast, he left his winter quarters on March 3rd, 1540, and advanced in that direction.

A month later he reached the Altamaha people, receiving from them more friendly natives, corn and game. At last Soto, after a march of four hundred and thirty leagues, much of it through uninhabited land, reached the province ruled by the female chieftain of Cofitachiqui.

On the 1st of May, she went forth to meet the Spanish explorer in a palanquin or litter. Crossing the river in a canopied canoe, she approached Soto, and after presenting him the gifts of shawls and skins brought by her retinue, she took approached it, the chief came out on a litter attired in a fur robe and plumed headpiece to off her necklace of pearls and placed it around the neck of the Governor. Yet her courtesy and generosity did not save her from soon being led about on foot as a prisoner.

This chieftains territory tempted some of the followers of Soto, who wished to settle there, because from it Cuba could be readily reached. But the commander refused to attempt a settlement until he had discovered some rich kingdom that would rival Peru. Chagrined at his failure, he refused even to send tidings of his operations to Cuba. At this time traces of an earlier Spanish march was discovered. A dirk and a rosary were brought to him, which were supposed, on good grounds, to have come from the expedition of Aylion (an Atlantic coast expedition in 1520?).

On the 26th of May they crossed a large river and continued on for seven more days march, still in the female chieftains realm. This brought them to Chelaque, a country poor in maize. Then a northerly march over mountain ridges brought them to Xualla, two hundred and fifty leagues from the female chieftains domain. At the close of May they were in Guaxule, where the female chieftain regained her freedom. It was a town of three hundred houses, near the mountains, in a well-watered and pleasant land. The chief gave Soto maize, and also three hundred dogs as food for his men.

Marching onward, Soto next came to Canasagua, located along a river flowing through an attractive land of mulberries, persimmons, and walnuts. Here they found stores of bear oil, walnut oil and honey. They marched down this stream until they met another flowing into it where they came to Chiaha. This was located on an island opposite the mouth of a river that produced pearl-bearing mussels. Soto was received in amity and the cacique had some of the shellfish taken and had pearls extracted in the presence of his guest. The Spaniards encamped under the trees near the town, leaving the inhabitants in quiet possession of their homes. They rested here for a month. A detachment sent to discover a reputed gold-producing province returned with no tidings to encourage the adventurers. On the 28th of June Soto, with his men and steeds refreshed, resumed his march, having obtained men to bear his baggage, though his demand of thirty women as slaves was refused.

Chisca, to which he sent two men to explore for gold, proved to be in a rugged mountain land. The buffalo robe which they brought back was more curious than encouraging. Soto therefore left the territory and went toward the direction of Coca, located along another river. The cacique of that place, warned doubtless by the rumors which must have spread through all the land of the danger of

The Coca Cacique approaches Sotos party (1706 Dutch engraving).

thwarting the fierce strangers, furnished supplies at several points on the route to his town.

As Soto approached it, the chief came out on a litter attired in a fur robe and plumed headpiece to make a full surrender. The Spaniards occupied the town and took possession of all the Indian stores of corn and beans, the neighboring woods adding persimmons and grapes. This town was approximately one hundred and ninety leagues west of Xitalla, and lay on the east bank of the river, between the mouths of two other rivers. Soto held the chief of Coca virtually as a prisoner, but when he demanded porters to bear the baggage of his men, most of the Indians fled. The Spanish commander then seized every Indian he could find, and put him in irons.

After remaining at Coca* for twenty-five days, Soto marched to Ullibahali,* a strongly palisaded town, situated on a creek. The natives submitted, giving men as porters and women as slaves. Leaving this town on the 2nd of September, he marched to Tallise, in a land teeming with corn, whose people proved equally docile. This submission was perhaps only to gain time, and draw the invaders into a disadvantageous position.

The giant Cacique of Tascaluza meets the Conquistadores of Soto (from a 16th century engraving).

Tascaluza, the gigantic leader chief of a chiefdom sixty leagues south of Coca, received the Spaniards with a pomp such as they had not yet witnessed. The cacique was seated on cushions with a raised platform. His chiefs formed a circle around him and an umbrella of buckskin, painted red and white, was held over him. The curveting steeds and the armor of the Spaniards raised no look of curiosity on his stern countenance as he calmly awaited Soto's approach.

Not till he found himself detained as a prisoner would he promise to furnish the Spaniards with porters and supplies of provisions at Mabila* to enable Soto to continue his march.

The Spaniards, accompanied by Tascaluza, marched south passing through the strong town of Piache*. The cacique of Mabila* came to meet them with friendly greetings, attended by a number of his subjects playing their native musical instruments, proffering fur robes and service. However, the demeanor of the people was so haughty that Luis de Moscoso urged Soto not to enter the town of Mabila.

The Spanish also noticed that no children or old people were in the town. The adelantado persisted and, riding in with seven or eight of his guard and four horsemen, sat down with the caciques. Tascaluza asked to return to his own town and when Soto refused, the cacique rose and entered a house where some armed Indians were concealed. Tascaluza refused to come out when summoned. A native who was ordered to carry a message to the cacique refused and was cut down with a sword wielded by Gallego. Then the Indians, poured out from the houses and sent volleys of arrows at Soto and his party. Soto ran toward his men, but fell two or three times. Though he reached his main force, five of his men were killed, and he himself, as well as all the rest, was severely wounded.

Palisaded Indian town similar to, but probably larger than, Mabila* (16th century engraving after Le Moyne).

The chained Indian porters, who bore the baggage and treasures of Soto's force, had set down their loads just outside the palisade. When the party of Soto had been driven out, the men of Mabila* sent all these into the town, took off their fetters, and gave them weapons.

Some of the military equipment of the Spaniards fell into the hands of the Indians, and several of Soto's followers, who had,

like him, entered the town, among them a friar and an ecclesiastic, remained barricaded within a house.  The native warriors, sending off their caciques, prepared to defend the town.

Soto, arranging his military array into four detachments, surrounded the town, and made an assault on the gates, where the natives gathered to withstand them. By feigning flight Soto drew them out, and by a sudden charge, routed them. Thus gaining an entrance for his men, he set fire to the houses. This was not easily accomplished or effected without loss, as the Indians several times repulsed the Spaniards. When they at last fought their way into the town, the Indians endeavored to escape. Finding that impossible, as the gates were held, the men of Mabila* fought desperately, and died by the sword, or plunged into the blazing houses to perish there. 

The battle of Mabila* was one of the bloodiest ever fought on North American soil between European and Native Americans in the early days of European exploration. The Adelantado lost twenty to thirty men killed, and one hundred and fifty seriously wounded.

19th century artist rendition of the battle of Mabila

Most of the army carried wounds from the ferocious battle. Twelve of his horses were killed and seventy wounded.

The Indian loss was estimated by Elvas, the Portuguese chronicler of the expedition, at twenty-five hundred and by Rangel at three thousand.  By nightfall Biedma tells us that only three Indians remained alive, two of whom were killed fighting. The last hung himself from a tree in the palisade with his bowstring. The Gentleman of Elvas states Soto's whole loss up to his leaving Mabila* to have been one hundred and two by disease, accident, and Indian fighting. Mass had been apparently offered in the camp regularly up to this time but all the chalices and vestments of the clergy, as well as the bread-irons and their store of wheat flour and wine, perished in the flames of Mabila* so that Mass ceased from this time.

De Soto ascertained from captured natives that Francisco Maldonado was with vessels at the port of Ochuse* - only six days march from him, awaiting his orders - but concealed from his men the knowledge that had been brought to him by Ortiz, the rescued follower of Narvaez. The search for riches and wealthy kingdoms must continue.

Soto, on the 14th of November, marched northward.

The wily Cacique of Chicaca greets Soto graciously before his surprise attack (after Le Moyne, 16th century.

19th century depiction of the Battle of Chicaza.

He traversed the land of Pafallaya passed the town of Talipacana and reached Cabusto located along a river. Here a series of battles with the natives transpired. Soto fought his way through hostile tribes to the little town of Chicaca*,with its two hundred houses clustered on a hill that he reached in a snowstorm on the 17th of December. The cacique Mienlasa received Soto graciously, and the Spanish commander won him by sending part of his force to attack Sacchuma, a hostile town. Having thus propitiated this powerful chief,

Soto remained there till March. When he was ready to advance on his expedition in search of some wealthy province, he demanded porters of the cacique. The wily chief amused the invader with promises for several days, and then, early one morning, attacked the town from four sidesThe native warriors swarmed into the town and set fire to the houses. The Spaniards, taken by surprise, were assailed as they came out of the houses to put on their armor and mount their horses. Soto and one other succeeded in getting into the saddle. Soto himself, after killing one Indian with his spear, was thrown from his mount as his saddle girths gave way.

The Indians drew off with the loss of just this one man, having killed eleven Spaniards as well as many of their horses and pigs. In the conflagration of the town, Soto's force lost most of their remaining clothing, with many of their weapons and saddles. They at once set to work to re-supply the loss. The woods gave ash to make saddles and lances, forges were set up to temper the swords and make such arms as they could, while the tall grass was woven into mats to serve as blankets or cloaks.

They would soon need their arms, for on the 15th of March the enemy, in three divisions, advanced to attack the camp. Soto met them with as many squadrons, and routed them with loss.

When Soto at last took up his march on the 25th of April, the sturdy Alibamo* barred his way with a palisade manned by the painted warriors of the tribe. Sotos army won the palisade at the cost of the lives of seven or eight of his men, and twenty-five or six wounded. However, he found that the Indians had made the palisade not to protect any stores, but simply to cope with the invaders.

Soto at Quizuiz along the banks of the Mississippi River (a highly romanticized painting by William Henry Powell, which hangs in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.). The Spanish were actually in very poor shape by this time in their journey of exploration.

At Quizquiz* near the banks of a great river, one of the streams of the Mississippi River; one of the streams of the Mississippi River, Soto surprised the inhabitants and captured all of their women. He eventually released them to obtain a promise of canoes to cross the river. When the Indians failed to keep their promise, Soto encamped on a plain and spent nearly a month building four large boats, each capable of carrying sixty or seventy men and five or six horses.

Hostile Indians held the opposite shore and bands of finely formed warriors harassed them by constantly crossing the river in canoes, as if ready to engage them, but always drawing off.

The Spaniards finally crossed the river at the lowest bluff, all wondering at the mighty turbid stream with its strange fish. Huge trees, having fallen into the river from the high banks, often floated by the barges. After the river crossing, Soto marched northward in quest of Pacaha and Chisca, provinces reported to abound in gold. After planting a cross on St. John's Day at Casqui, where the bisons heads above the entrances to the huts reminded them of Spain, he entered Pacaha on June 29th. These towns were the best they had seen since they left Cofitachiqui. Pacaha furnished them with a booty which they prized highly, a fine store of animal hides and native blankets. These enabled the men to make clothing which they sorely needed. The people of Pacaha gradually returned having fled at the approach of the strangers. The cacique received Soto in friendly guise, giving him his two sisters as wives. 

While the army rested here nearly a month, expeditions were sent in various directions. One marched eight days to the northwest through a land of swamps and ponds. It reached the prairie land of the Caluca where Indians lived in portable houses of mats, with frames so light that a man could easily carry them. The description sounds much like tipis of later historic times. 

Hernando de Sotos troops struggling to reach their goal of conquest (compliments of the United States Department of the Interior, De Soto National Memorial).

Despairing of finding his long-sought El Dorado in that direction, Soto marched south and then southwest, in all a hundred and ten leagues, to Quiguate, a town on a branch of the great river. It was the largest they had yet seen.

The Indians had abandoned it but one half of the houses were sufficient to shelter the whole of Soto's force.

On the first of September the expedition reached Coligua, a populous town in a valley among the mountains, near which vast herds of bison roamed. Crossing the river again, Soto's army marched onward to Cayas, with its salt river and fertile maize-lands, then to Tula, where the Indians attacked them, fighting to the last from their housetops. The cacique at last yielded, and came weeping with great sobs to make his submission.

Marching southeast, Soto reached Quipana then crossed the mountains eastward and wintered in the province of Viranque on a branch of the great river. The sufferings of the Spaniards during a long and severe winter were terrible, and Ortiz, their interpreter, succumbed to his hardships and died. Even the proud spirit of Soto yielded to his disappointments and toil. Two hundred and fifty of his splendid force had left their bones to whiten along the path that he had followed. He determined at last to push to the shores of the Gulf and there build two brigantines, in order to send to Cuba and New Spain for aid.

Passing through Ayays and the well-peopled land of Nilco, Soto went with the cacique of Guachoyanque to his well-palisaded town at the junction of the great river and a smaller tributary. Here Soto fell ill with a fever. Appointing Luis de Moscoso as his successor in command, he died on May 21st. The Adelantado of Cuba and Florida, who had hoped to gather the wealth of nations, left as his property five Indian slaves, three horses, and a herd of swine. His body, kept for some days in a house, was interred in the town. However, because fearing that the Indians might dig up the corpse, it was exhumed, wrapped in blankets, weighted with sand, and sunk in the great river.

Moscoso's first plan was to march westward to Mexico. But after advancing to the province of Xacatin, the survivors of the expedition lost all hope of marching overland to Mexico and returned to the Mississippi to winter on its banks. In the spring of 1543, the survivors built two large boats and used them and native canoes to embark for Mexico. Hostile Indians pursued them, and twelve men were drowned, their

Soto is buried in the great river (from a painting entitled Midnight Mass of the Mississippi Over the Body of Ferdinand DeSoto by Edward Moran, 1898

canoes being run down by huge native canoes. Finally the survivors reached the Gulf and coasted along to Panuco.

Diego Maldonado and Gomez Arias, seeking Soto, explored the coast from the vicinity of the Mississippi nearly to Newfoundland, but their reports are unknown.

The expedition led by Hernando de Soto was, without doubt, one of epic proportions. For over four years the army marched through a region of pristine widerness, of virgin forests and prairies, never before seen by European eyes. The hundreds of pages of journals and letters that they left are invaluable clues and observations to studies of precolumbian lifeways of native aboriginal peoples.

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