Last Days of De Soto
While many a description has been written of the scenes attendant upon the last hours of Ferdinand de Soto, there is none on record more affecting than that of the Fidalgo of Elvas, who was probably an eye-witness of the most important occurrences, and participated in them all. For this reason, his very words are quoted in this connection, and in order that the reader may be transported directly to the bedside of the dying discoverer as he lay on his rude pallet in a lowly hut belonging to the cacique of Guachoya.
"Conscious that the hour approached in which he should depart this life," says the artless chronicler, "the governor commanded that all his officers should be called before him, the captains and principal personages, to whom he made speech:
"He said that he was about to go into the presence of God, to give account of all his past life; and, since He had been pleased to take him away at such a time—when he could recognize the moment of his death—he, His most unworthy servant, rendered Him hearty thanks. He confessed his deep obligations to them all, whether present or absent, for their good qualities, their love, and their loyalty to his person. He begged that they would pray for him, that, through mercy, he might be pardoned his sins and be received into glory. He then asked that he might be relieved of the charge he held over them, as well as of any indebtedness he was under to them, and to forgive him any wrongs they might have received at his hands.
"Baltazar de Gallegos responded, in behalf of all, consoling him with remarks on the shortness of the life of this world, attended as it was by so many toils and afflictions, saying that whom God earliest called away He showed particular favor to, with many other things appropriate to such an occasion. And finally, since it had pleased the Almighty to take him to Himself, amid the deep sorrow they not unreasonably felt, it was necessary and becoming in him, as in them, to conform to the divine will. That as respected the election of a governor, which he ordered, whomsoever his excellency should name to the command, him would they obey. Thereupon, the governor nominated Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado to be his captain-general, and by all those present he was straightway chosen and sworn.
"The next day, which was May 21, 1542, departed this life the virtuous, the magnanimous, and the intrepid captain Don Hernando de Soto, governor of Cuba and adelantado of the Floridas. He had been advanced by fortune, in the way she is wont to lead others, that he might fall the farther; he died in a land, and at a time, that could afford him little comfort in his illness, when the danger of being no more heard from stared his companions in the face, each one having need of sympathy; which was the reason why they neither gave him of their companionship nor visited him oft, as otherwise they would have done.
"Luis de Moscoso determined to conceal what had happened from the Indians, for De Soto had given them to understand that the Christians were immortal; besides which they held him to be sagacious, vigilant, brave; and, although they were at peace, should they know him to be dead, might venture on an attack. So soon, therefore, as death had taken place, he ordered the body to be placed secretly in a house apart, where it remained three days; and thence it was taken, by his orders, to a gate of the town and buried within the wall. The Indians, who had seen him ill, finding him no longer, suspected the reason, and, passing by where he lay, they observed the ground loose, and, looking about, talked among themselves. This coming to the knowledge of Luis de Moscoso, he ordered the corpse to be taken up at night, and, among the shawls that enshrouded it having cast an abundance of sand, it was taken out in a canoe and sunk in the middle of the stream."
These precautions were taken to prevent the Indians from offering insult to the revered remains, which, had they known the burial-place, they would certainly have torn from the grave, and, according to their barbarous custom, hung up in a lofty tree. By sinking the body of De Soto beneath the waters of the Mississippi, Moscoso effectually precluded the carrying-out of their evil intention; but the manner of his doing it was not, probably, as given by the Fidalgo. According to the Inca Garcilaso, the body was disinterred and placed in a hollowed-out log of live-oak, where it was confined by a plank, nailed over the aperture. Then it was taken in a canoe to the centre of the river, where it was given to its last resting-place, one hundred feet beneath the surface of the stream.
Thus, in the darkness of midnight, in a strange land and surrounded by hostile savages, with the dramatic accessories of a torch-lighted canoe, hooded priests, and armored cavaliers, all that was earthly of Ferdinand de Soto was committed to the keeping of the great river he had discovered. Above his burial-place perpetually roll the waters of the mighty Mississippi, and if the Indians surmised where it was, at least they could not desecrate the remains of the cavalier who, in the language of the Inca Garcilaso, "had crossed a portion of the continent in search of gold, and found nothing so remarkable as his burial-place."
They were, doubtless, aware of what had occurred, and the cacique of Guachoya asked for De Soto, saying: "What has been done with my brother and lord, the governor?"
"Luis de Moscoso replied that he had ascended into the skies, as he had done on many other occasions; but as he would have to be detained there some time, he had left him in his stead. The chief, thinking within himself that he was dead, ordered two well-proportioned young men to be brought, saying that it was the usage of his country, when any lord died, to kill some persons of inferior rank, who should accompany and serve him on the way; and he told him to command their heads to be struck off, that they might go accordingly to attend his friend and master.
"Then Moscoso rejoined, that the governor was not dead, but only gone into the heavens, having taken with him of his soldiers sufficient number for his needs; and he besought him to let those Indians go, and from that time forward not to follow so evil a practice. So they were presently ordered to be let loose, that they might return to their homes; but one of them refused to leave, alleging that he did not wish to remain in the power of one who, without cause, had condemned him to die, and that he desired to serve the one who had saved his life, so long as he should live."
The departed commander's pitiful state was shown when, Moscoso having ordered a sale of his property by public outcry, it was found to consist solely of two male and three female slaves, three horses with their trappings, and seven hundred swine. These last had wonderfully increased, from the survivors of the many vicissitudes to which they had been exposed, and had been jealously safeguarded by De Soto, who knew their value as affording sustenance in the extremity of famine. Bought by the soldiers at two hundred crowns apiece (to be paid for when they should have the money), henceforth, says one of their number, they lived on pork so long as it lasted, having previously passed two or three months at a time without tasting meat of any sort.
While the life-story of Ferdinand de Soto ends with his burial beneath the waters of the Mississippi, yet it may be naturally assumed that the reader, having followed his fortunes so long, will be interested in the fate of those with whom he was intimately associated on the terrible journey. Many had looked forward to the death of their commander as likely to afford them opportunity to depart for Cuba, but at a council of war called by Moscoso it was decided to press on westward in search of Mexico. Moscoso proved himself a very incapable commander, and during the year that followed led his men on a wearisome and aimless journey, that finally terminated at or near the place where De Soto died.
They had marched over many hundred miles of new territory, and left behind them ghastly traces of their wanderings, in the corpses of soldiers who had fallen or been slain by the way in conflicts with the savages. Wheresoever the Spaniards had passed, the country lay devastated, and it was but a haggard, wretched, and famine-stricken remnant of the original company that finally arrived at Guachoya and viewed there, with many a sad foreboding, the place where the governor, De Soto, had died.
One by one the cavaliers with whom we became acquainted on the march through Florida had dropped from the ranks, among the most prominent being Nuno de Tobar, who (as doubtless the reader will recall) had incurred his commander's displeasure by his betrayal of the lovely Leonora. He had done everything in his power to placate the incensed governor, and during the long period of their journeyings together had borne himself like a hero in every battle and skirmish; but De Soto passed away without showing any signs of relenting towards the unfortunate Nuno de Tobar.
The winter of 1542–1543 was passed in comparative comfort, for the caciques of the country had become aware of the intention of the Spaniards to depart, and, overjoyed at the prospect, hastened to supply provisions of every sort. But the building of the brigantines was a long and tedious process, for there was only one ship-carpenter in the army, and material for their construction was scarce. Nails and bolts were made from every scrap of iron obtainable: from the manacles of the Indian captives, then perforce set free; from the troopers' bits and stirrups, disused musket-barrels rendered inefficient by the lack of ammunition, and sword-blades that had been injured beyond repair. The Indians gave their services for the cutting of timber and bearing it from the forests to the river-bank; but it was not until July 2, 1543, that the wretched remains of De Soto's once-noble army, then reduced to less than three hundred and fifty men, embarked upon the bosom of the great river which, as the Spaniards supposed, would take them to the sea, upon whose shores they might find a haven of safety.
The cumbersome craft were difficult to manage, for the currents of the Mississippi were swift and dangerous; but they encountered yet another peril, in vast fleets of canoes manned with Indian warriors by the hostile cacique Quigaltanqui—the same who had sent the defiant message to De Soto when on his bed of death. Instead of endeavoring to placate this chieftain, Moscoso had further exasperated him by cutting off the hands of thirty spies, whom he had captured in his camp, and sent home thus horribly mutilated. Wrought to the highest pitch of fury, the cacique vowed revenge, and soon after the Spanish fleet put down the river it was assailed by thousands of savages, whose naked skins were hideously painted, and who proved fatally expert with bow and arrow, as well as with spear and war-club. It was not long before all but eight of the horses were killed and nearly every Spaniard wounded, while on the fourth day of the voyage four boats were cut off from the little fleet and forty-eight soldiers met death by drowning or by Indian arrows. A few days later the hapless Spaniards were compelled to witness the extermination of their beloved horses, which they had landed for the purpose of foraging on shore. Left to their cruel fate—for their owners barely escaped with their lives—the poor beasts were felled by savages with war-clubs and transfixed with arrows, while the troopers looked on and wept, in futile rage and grief. As all their powder had been consumed in the fire at Mauvila, the few arquebuses remaining were useless, and the harried Spaniards could only defend themselves with their cross-bows, for once in their experience enduring greater losses than they inflicted upon the enemy. This unequal combat went on during sixteen days, until at last, their vengeance sated, the savages gave over the pursuit and departed up the river, amid howls and songs of victory.
Shortly after, the unfortunate voyagers sighted the sea; but their troubles were then by no means ended, for they were without chart, compass, pilot, or skilled navigator, and knew not whether to push out boldly into the Gulf of Mexico or follow the windings of the coast. The former course was adopted, but a gale of twenty-six hours' duration separated and nearly wrecked the frail brigantines, which after that were kept in near to shore. They voyaged so slowly that nearly two months were consumed in reaching a Mexican port now known as Tampico, the inhabitants of which received the starving survivors with generous hospitality. Clad in the skins of wild beasts, with hair and beards untrimmed, the once-vaunted soldiers of Florida were objects of wonder and commiseration. After having been supplied with food and clothing by the Mexicans, they were sent overland to the city of Mexico, where the viceroy and the commonalty vied in showing them kindness and attention.
Few of these Floridian soldiers ever returned to Spain or to Cuba, but ended their days in Mexico or Peru, where they enlisted for military service. The viceroy of Mexico offered to equip another expedition and send them back to colonize the country which at a distance and in retrospection, appeared to them fruitful and promising; but when put to the test they shrank from the fatigues and dangers to which they might be exposed.
They had reached Mexico about the middle of September, 1543. A month later one of several expeditions, sent out by Dona Isabel from Havana, arrived at Vera Cruz and learned for the first time of the disasters that had overtaken De Soto. It was commanded by those loyal cavaliers Diego Maldonado and Gomez Arias, who (as the reader will remember) had been despatched by De Soto to Cuba for reinforcements and supplies. They faithfully fulfilled their respective missions, and returned to Pensacola, where they waited long and anxiously in the harbor, daily expecting their commander to appear. When finally convinced that further waiting was in vain, they searched the harbors east and west for many leagues, then returned to Cuba, whence, the next summer, they were again sent to Florida by the anxious and loyal wife of De Soto.
A second time they returned, after an equally fruitless quest, and the next season sailed again, cruising around the Gulf of Mexico as far as Vera Cruz, where at last they learned of what had happened. The sorrowful tidings which they carried back to Dona Isabel, still waiting and hoping in Havana, overwhelmed her so completely that she soon after sank broken-hearted to her grave.