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Frederick A. Ober

Battles with the Indians


All the narratives of this expedition agree that up to this point De Soto had treated the Indians with great consideration. Three of the four caciques whose territory he had passed through had held aloof and refused to have aught to do with him. They had refrained from attacking the Spaniards, probably, on account of their weakness; but the fifth cacique, Acuera, the same who had sent his defiance to De Soto, enforced his remarks by frequent assaults upon the invaders. His warriors lurked in ambuscade about the camps, and not only shot all stragglers with their arrows, but dragged away and beheaded their victims before they could be recovered by their comrades.

Their vindictiveness was such that they even dug up their bodies, marking the graves in the daytime and returning to perform their ghoulish work at night. These remains of gallant soldiers were then cut up and hung on the highest trees, while their heads were borne upon poles, as gory tokens of their triumph. The Spaniards retaliated, of course, and most cruelly; but, with their utmost efforts, they did not succeed in killing more than fifty Indians of Acuera's band. They scurried through his province with such expedition that little injury was done to fields of growing grain or to villages; so that Acuera might truly boast that he had accomplished something by his aggressiveness.

He was a type of the Indians generally encountered by De Soto in Florida, which were vastly different from those he had assisted in harrying in Darien and Peru. Except for their lower grade of civilization, they more resembled the Aztecs of Mexico than any other natives the Spaniards had met and subjugated. They opposed the foreigners from the first, encountering Ponce de Leon at the coast, resisting the aggressions of Panfilo de Narvaez, and have left behind them a prestige fully sustained by the fierce Yemassees and Seminoles, who, three hundred years later, fought our armies in the Everglades.

De Soto's scouts had brought him welcome information respecting the adjoining province of Ocali: that it was filled with fields of maize and dotted with prosperous farmsteads, while its forests were abundantly supplied with game, such as bear, deer, and wild turkeys. It was called Ocali, after the principal chief, whose town contained at least six hundred dwellings. When De Soto arrived, however, these dwellings were all found deserted, for the people had seized their portable effects and fled with them to the forests. But there was much that they could not carry away, and for a while the Spaniards revelled in an abundance of green corn fresh from the stalk, wild fruits, and cultivated vegetables.

Their supplies had been by this time entirely exhausted, excepting those they had taken along "on the hoof"—the three hundred swine—which, with infinite labor, they had saved for the colony that the governor still hoped to found in the wilderness. The thoughts of the soldiers were fixed on other things than colonizing, it is true, and the more they saw of Florida the less their desire to settle there. They would fain have turned about and made the best of their way out of this dreadful peninsula, half water and half sand; but the governor's pride forbade such a step. Nothing more promising had as yet been found than Ocali, which in itself was but a miserable village, with no architectural pretensions, and without even the glamour of gold about it.

From motives of policy, De Soto endeavored to establish communication with the fugitive chieftain, Ocali, but was unable for a long time to draw him out of his retreat in the depths of the swamps. At last, one day, four young warriors appeared. They were nearly naked, but their heads were adorned with heron plumes, and in their hands the ever-present bows and arrows. Received by the governor with great cordiality, they sat down to a bountiful collation, of which they partook with avidity. Suddenly, without a word or motion of warning, all four rose to their feet and set off so fleetly that in a moment they were nearly out of sight.

Taken completely by surprise, the Spaniards would undoubtedly have allowed them to escape; but they were pursued and overtaken by a blood-hound, which pulled them to the ground, one after the other, and then stood over them, barking furiously, so that they were absolutely terrified into submission. After having been secured by the Spaniards and taken to camp, they were questioned as to their mysterious behavior, but would only admit that they had acted without any other intention than to show their agility and fleetness of foot. They had wonderingly admired the costumes, arms, armor, and horses of the strangers, and in their artless simplicity had thought to exhibit some accomplishment of their own.

The blood-hound that had effected their capture was a beast of uncommon sagacity. Only a short time before he had torn to pieces an Indian who had merely struck a Spaniard with his bow. Having done this, the Indian had leaped into a river, on the bank of which he stood, followed by several companions. The hound leaped in after them, and, passing by all the others, seized the culprit by the shoulder and destroyed him before their eyes.

Not long after the episode first related, as De Soto and his bodyguard were walking along the bank of a wide river near the camp, a number of Indians suddenly appeared on the opposite bank and discharged a flight of arrows into their midst. It chanced that the blood-hound spoken of was a short distance behind the company, held in leash by a keeper, with whom he struggled so desperately that he finally broke loose. Plunging into the river, the ferocious brute sought to swim across and reach the Indians, who greeted his approach with loud yells and a volley of arrows. So many of these missiles struck him in the head and shoulders that he looked, it is said, like a veritable porcupine; but he valiantly kept on until the opposite bank was reached, when he fell dead from loss of blood. The savages were overjoyed at the destruction of this most formidable enemy, and, after a parting volley of arrows at the governor and his party, dragged its carcass away as a trophy of their valor. This event greatly depressed the army, for the hound was considered equal to a score of sentinels for night duty, being always alert when savages were prowling about the camp, and able to discover an Indian by his sense of smell.

The cacique Ocali finally emerged from his retreat and held a conference with the governor; but he was found to be without any influence whatever, so was allowed to depart, which he did with alacrity, promising to return and assist the Spaniards in building a bridge across the river. Needless to say, perhaps, he did not honor them with his presence thereafter, and the bridge was built without his aid. The country beyond was open pine-woods, through which the army passed rapidly, with De Soto, as usual, in the lead. After a three-days' march, he took with him two hundred horse and foot, and, pushing ahead in the night, at daybreak entered an Indian town known as Ochile, in the province of Vitachuco, which was under the dominion of three brothers.

De Soto always aimed to get possession of the cacique, or chief, of whatever tribe he encountered, to hold as a hostage for the good behavior of his people. Fearing that the cacique of Ochile might take alarm and escape, he approached the village by stealth, and at dawn clattered into it with clamor of trumpet and drum, so alarming the natives that they poured forth from their huts like bees from a hive. They found themselves prisoners, being surrounded by the strange warriors, who had descended upon them as if from the skies, and offered no resistance.

The house of the cacique was the largest of any mansion yet seen in Florida, being nearly three hundred feet in length by more than one hundred in breadth, though constructed of logs and thatched with leaves and grass. Within it was the chief, as well as his principal warriors, who at first offered resistance, but were finally prevailed upon to surrender when the Spaniards threatened to set fire to the thatch. Received most graciously by De Soto, who explained the necessity, which he deprecated, for retaining him a nominal prisoner, the cacique of Ochile was won over at once. He seemed disposed to regard his captors as celestial visitors, and sent for a younger brother, who, like himself, governed a portion of Vitachuco province. Between them they controlled one-half the province, but the other half was ruled by an elder brother, who was made of sterner stuff than they, and vastly more sagacious. These two kissed the governor's hands, and their subjects remained passive, while De Soto sent back couriers with orders for the main army to come up. They were so friendly that the Spaniards greatly rejoiced; for hitherto, says the Portuguese chronicler, "No one had been able to get servants who could make his bread; and the method being to beat out the maize in log mortars with a one-handed pestle of wood (some also sifting the flour afterwards through their shirts of mail), the process was found so laborious that many, rather than crush the grain, chose to eat it parched and sodden."

From this it will be readily understood that the Spaniards gladly accepted the cacique's offer to supply them with cooks and porters, so long as they should remain in his country. He became alarmed, however, when they settled down around his village and in his fields, like a host of devouring locusts, and one day he broke loose from his guard in an attempt to escape. Some others were with him, who hastily formed a sort of body-guard, and all together started for the woods. Then "the governor ordered a bloodhound, already fleshed upon him, to be let loose, which, passing by many, seized upon the faithless cacique, and held him until the Christians came up."

Convinced that resistance was useless and that the Spaniards were invincible, this cacique of Ochile united with his younger brother in a petition to the eldest and most powerful of the three, begging him not to resist the advance of the strangers through his territory, but to submit as they had done.

This cacique was known as Vitachuco, or Uitachuco, his name, as the most powerful lord, being also that of the province. At first he treated their envoys with silent contempt, but finally, goaded to wrath by their urgency, he retorted (in the language of Garcilaso de la Vega): "It is evident that you are young, and have neither judgment nor experience, or you would never speak as you have done of these hated white men. The chains which they have hung upon you, and the mean and dastardly spirit which you have acquired during the short period you have been their slaves, have caused you to speak like women. Do you not remember that these strangers can be no better than those who formerly committed so many cruelties in our country? Do not their manner of life and actions prove them to be children of the Spirit of Evil, and not of the sun and the moon, our gods?

"Go they not from land to land, plundering and destroying, and, like the vagabonds they are, maintaining themselves by the sweat and blood of others? Warn them, then, not to enter my dominions; for I vow that, valiant and powerful as they may be, if they dare do so they shall never go out alive. Yea, the whole race will I exterminate!"

This vainglorious message was accepted by De Soto as mere bravado; but, whether the cacique could enforce his threats or not, he surely meant them, as the sequel proved. He pretended, however, to be won over by his brothers, who in person went to him and entreated his submission. They returned in triumph, assuring the governor that their brother would receive him as a distinguished guest, provision his army, and entertain them all to the best of his ability. He was convinced, they said, that he had misjudged their character, and desired to make amends. As the most powerful chieftain south of the Apalachee country, he felt piqued that the Spaniards should not have perceived his greatness, and, in order to impress them properly, had arranged for a review of his army, which was the largest and best-appointed in the peninsula.

Setting out from Ochile in the morning, before night the Spaniards arrived at Vitachuco's town, which consisted of more than two hundred houses, some of them fortified with palisados. The settlement was seated in the centre of a vast and fertile prairie, supposed to be that which is now known as Wacahauta, to the west of Micanopy, locally famous in the annals of Florida. Five hundred warriors accompanied Vitachuco when he went out to meet De Soto, and the latter could not but remark that they were the finest he had met, being tall and stalwart, painted, plumed, and armed in a superior manner.

A week of feasting and rejoicing followed, during which the Spaniards became convinced of the cacique's amicable intentions, and grew careless. This refers to the rank and file; for their commander never relaxed his vigilance when in an enemy's country, and still insisted upon patrols and sentinels, as usual. Neither was he surprised when, one evening, Juan Ortiz came to him with information of a plot which Vitachuco had formed to bring about the destruction of the army. Ten thousand warriors were to be assembled on the plain, weaponless but in battle array, in order that the Spaniards might be convinced of the formidable forces which the cacique could put in the field when occasion demanded. Their weapons, however, were to be concealed in the grass and thickets, and at a signal they were to close in upon the strangers and commence the massacre. Being ten to one, the cacique reasoned, they could easily overpower and destroy the Spaniards, who would probably be wandering about in careless security. De Soto was to be taken in hand by the cacique himself, who, with twelve of his stoutest warriors, was to accompany the leader of the Spaniards as he went out to view the spectacle. When the signal should be given, these warriors were to rush upon and overpower the governor, and the ten thousand were to grasp their arms and fall upon the army, with all the fury of savages inspired by confidence in their numbers.

"It is a very pretty plot," declared De Soto, admiringly, at a council of his captains that evening. "And, my sons, I think we cannot do better than adopt the enemy's tactics. I will take with me twelve stout soldiers, to offset the cacique's dozen; and as to the rest—why, I never knew my men to fail me yet."

Nor did they fail. On the beautiful morn of the morrow, when Cacique Vitachuco came to inform his guest that the entertainment was ready and invite him to view it, he was much surprised and taken aback to be informed that, in order not to seem remiss, the Spaniards themselves had decided to have a mock battle, for the diversion of their Indian allies.

Though deeply chagrined, the cacique dared make no remonstrance, and was compelled to witness the marshalling of his opponents in full force and in battle array on the opposite side of the plain:

Civilization and barbarism were fairly and squarely opposed. The latter was superior in point of numbers, but the former in discipline and armament. Between the two bodies of soldiers strode the chiefs, accompanied by their body-guards. As they were about to ascend the knoll from which the sham contests were to be viewed, a war-whoop and a bugle-blast rang out at the same instant. The attendants of each commander were immediately locked in a death-struggle; the warriors sprang to arms; the Spanish soldiers came thundering down the plain, the cavalry in advance, and shouting the old battle-cry, "Santiago!"

De Soto's war-horse was led up to him by a page, and mounting it he placed himself at the head of his troops. Four Indian arrows pierced the noble beast, and he fell dead in his tracks. Another was instantly brought, and, in the saddle again, the gallant leader bore down upon the Indians like an avalanche. Before the onset of those three hundred chargers encased in armor the naked Indians went down like sheep on a mountain-side before a loosened bowlder. They were fierce and valorous; but, though ten thousand in number, they could not withstand the cavalry and the arquebuses.

On one side the plain was a large lake, on the other a dense forest, where the Indians had concealed their weapons. Such as did not reach the forest, in their wild struggle to escape, cast themselves into the lake, to the number of several hundred. They swam out into deep water, and in groups of five or six, with the best archer mounted on the backs of his companions, kept up the unequal struggle all day long. Their arrows, though sent with good will, were impotent against the mailed soldiers, and when they attempted to regain the shore the cavalry would rush into the water' and drive them back again. Daylight waned, and found them fighting yet, but by midnight some came in and surrendered, though the most intrepid remained till next day at dawn.

"At four o'clock in the morning," says an eye-witness of this affair, "they had all surrendered, save twelve of the principal men, who, as of more distinction and valiant than the rest, preferred to die rather than yield. Then the Indians of Paracoxi, who were going about unshackled, went in after them, swimming, and pulled them out by the hair. They were all put in chains, and, on the day following, were divided among the Christians for their service."

The cacique Vitachuco was caught in his own trap. At the beginning of the battle he had been overpowered and borne off to the Spanish camp, where, after having been put in chains, he was allowed unusual liberties. He was given a seat at the governor's table, and, except for his chains, was treated with the deference to which his rank entitled him. But he was implacable, and, though De Soto did all in his power to gain the friendship of his ferocious captive, he was bent upon revenge. He concerted another conspiracy, and one day, while seated at dinner, gave De Soto such a blow in the face that several teeth were broken and the blood gushed from his nose and mouth. As he sank to the floor insensible, the cacique leaped upon and was about to finish him, when a dozen swords and lances were thrust through his body, and he fell dead. The story of what followed, after the signal was thus given for the uprising, seems so improbable that we prefer the old chronicler should tell it.

"The Indians all rose together," he says. "He who could only catch up a pestle from a mortar, as well as he who could grasp a weapon, equally exerted himself to kill his master or the first one he met; and he whose fortune it was to light upon a lance or a sword, handled it in a manner as though he had been accustomed to use it all his days.

"One Indian, in the public yard of the town, with blade in hand, fought like a bull in the arena, until the halberdiers of the governor, arriving, put an end to him. Another got up, with a lance, into a maize-crib, made of cane (called by Indians barbacoa), and defended the entrance with the uproar of ten men, until he was stricken down with a battle-axe. They who were subdued may have been in all two hundred men. Some of the youngest the governor gave to those who had good chains; all the rest were ordered to execution, and, being bound to a post in the middle of the town yard, they were shot to death with arrows by the people of Paracoxi."