Gateway to the Classics: American Leaders and Heroes by Gordy, Wilbur F.
American Leaders and Heroes by  Gordy, Wilbur F.

Hernando De Soto and the Discovery of the Mississippi


After the discovery of the New World by Columbus, the Spaniards, who had no other thought than that he had found a new way to India, dreamed eagerly of its marvellous wealth, and were impatient to be off to the land where they believed fortunes awaited them. So zealous were they, in their mad search for gold and adventure, that many were willing to leave home and friends for years.

The most brilliant of these explorers were Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, and Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru, both of whom carried back to Spain many million dollars' worth of gold and silver. With Pizarro was a young man named Hernando De Soto, whose adventurous life is full of interest, and whose important discovery of the Mississippi River has given him a prominent place in the history of our country.

He was born about 1500, of a poor but noble family. In his youth he excelled in athletic sports, and possessed unusual skill in horsemanship and in fencing. Taking a leading part in all the dangerous exploits in the New World, he not only won fame, but went back to Spain after many years' absence a rich man.

While Cortez and Pizarro had been conquering Mexico and Peru, other Spaniards had been seeking their fortune in Florida. Thus far these men had brought back no gold and silver, but their faith in the mines of the interior was so great that De Soto wished to conquer and explore the country. Having already won great influence by his achievements, he secured the favor of the king, who made him governor of the island of Cuba, and appointed him leader of an expedition to conquer and occupy Florida. He was to take men enough with him to build forts and plant a colony, so as to hold the country for Spain.

De Soto had no difficulty in getting followers to join him in this enterprise. Young men from noble families flocked to his standard from all parts of Spain, and as he knew that dangers and hardships awaited them he was careful to select from the large numbers the strongest men.

De Soto's company included richly dressed nobles and warriors in glittering armor. It was a gala day when they sailed out of port with banners flying and cannon booming, and not a young man of them but felt proud to sail on so grand an expedition. After arriving in Cuba, De Soto spent some time there, and then leaving his wife to govern the island, set out to explore Florida. His expedition was an imposing one, comprising nine vessels, six hundred men, and about two hundred and twenty-five horses. In May, 1539, the whole force landed at Tampa Bay, on the western coast of Florida.

They had not advanced far into the interior when De Soto fell in with a Spaniard named Ortiz, who had accompanied Narvaez in a previous expedition some ten or eleven years before. According to his story, the Indians had captured him, and only forbore to kill him because an Indian girl had begged for his life. Ortiz had lived with the Indians so many years that he had become very much like one himself; but we can imagine his joy at seeing white men once more. The Spaniards were equally rejoiced because they knew how serviceable their countryman would be as a guide and interpreter.

The advantage of this good-fortune was soon counteracted, however, by De Soto's unfriendliness to the Indians. He was not only indifferent to their pleasure and sufferings, but even seemed to enjoy torturing and killing them. It was his custom upon arriving at an Indian settlement to demand food for his men and horses, and upon his departure to carry off with him the head chief as guide and hostage, not releasing him until the next tribe was reached. Indian men and squaws were forced into service as porters for the Spanish baggage; and thus enslaved, often with chains and with iron collars about their necks, they were compelled to do all sorts of menial work. It is not strange that after such treatment the Indians lost all confidence in De Soto. They not only learned to hate him and the Spaniards but longed to be revenged upon them. In return for the cruelties inflicted they purposely led the Spaniards astray, and left untried no treachery which would serve to destroy the pale-faced strangers.

In May, 1540, an Indian princess, rowed by her followers in a canopied canoe, came across a stream to meet De Soto. When she landed, her followers carried her in a litter, from which she alighted and approached him. She gave him presents of shawls and skins, and a string of pearls which she took from around her neck. In return for these acts of courtesy De Soto made her a prisoner, and kept her going about on foot with him until she escaped.

This is but an instance of the cruelty which made enemies of all the Indians with whom the Spaniards came in contact. No doubt Indian runners were sent hundreds of miles in many directions to tell the various tribes of the inhuman deeds of the white men. No doubt these tribes combined in a desperate effort to destroy De Soto and all his men. How nearly they succeeded in their plan can be told in a few lines.

In the autumn of 1540 the Spaniards came to the tribe of a giant chieftain whose slaves held over him, as he sat upon cushions on a raised platform, a buck- skin umbrella stained red and white. He was sullen in the presence of the richly dressed Spaniards on their prancing steeds, but allowed De Soto to carry him a prisoner to the next Indian town, as the other head chiefs had done.

This town was called Mavilla, an Indian word from which we get the name Mobile for the city and river in Alabama. As the Spaniards approached this town Indians came out to meet them, their faces showing signs of displeasure and evil intent. Fearing nothing, however, De Soto, attended by about a dozen of his men, rode boldly inside the town, which was surrounded with a palisade.

The giant chieftain then asked for a release that he might return to his own people, and on being refused went into a house in which many Indian warriors were concealed. When De Soto ordered him to come out he refused. In the excitement that followed, a Spaniard cut down with his sword an Indian warrior standing near by. Then, in wild fury, hundreds of dusky warriors rushed like madmen out of the house to the attack, and soon shot down five of De Soto's body-guard. Of course he had to flee for his life. But before he could reach the main force outside the town he fell to the ground two or three times, struck by Indian arrows.

It was the beginning of a terrible battle, in which the Spaniards, although outnumbered, had the advantage because of their horses, swords, firearms, and superior training. Finally, from the outside, they closed the gates to the town, and set fire to the Indian buildings. The Indians fought with desperation, but they either fell, cut down by Spanish swords, or rushed in mad fury to perish in the flames. When night came, only three Indian warriors remained alive. Two of these fought until they were killed, and the last unfortunate one hanged himself on a tree with his bow-string. The Spaniards said they killed at least 2,500 Indians, but they lost in killed and wounded about a third of their own number. It was a dearly bought victory.

Nor was Indian craftiness the only source of trouble for the Spaniards. De Soto's men had to travel through thick forests with no road except the narrow path made by wild animals or the trail made by the Indian hunter. They spent many laborious days in picking their way through dense underbrush and miry swamps, stopping here and there to make rafts to carry them across the numerous streams. Often without food and on the point of starving, they were obliged to feed upon native dogs, and were sometimes reduced to berries, nuts, bear-oil, and wild honey.

In spite of hunger, disease, death, and many other misfortunes, however, De Soto in his mad search for gold threaded his way through the tangled forests until, in the spring of 1541, about two years after landing at Tampa Bay, he reached the bank of the Mississippi River. After spending months in making boats, he at length crossed the mighty stream, and then continued his march in a northerly and westerly direction, going, it would seem, as far as the site of what is now Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas.

Marching southeast, probably to the banks of the Washita, he spent a winter so severe that many of the party, including Ortiz, died.

About the middle of April, 1542, the Spaniards, travel-spent and sick at heart, reached the mouth of the Red River, where De Soto, discouraged and broken in spirit, was taken ill with fever and soon died. At first his followers buried his body near the town where they were staying, but when the Indians began with some suspicion to examine the ground under which he lay, the Spaniards in the darkness of night took up the body, wrapped it in blankets made heavy with sand, and sadly lowered it into the waters of the mighty river which it was De Soto's chief honor to have discovered. After many more hardships the wretched survivors of this unhappy company, numbering not many more than half of those who landed at Tampa Bay, found their way to a Spanish colony in Mexico. Thus ended in disaster the expedition which sailed with such hope of wealth and renown.

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