- Historic Sites
De Soto And The Golden Road
Some men see the beginnings. The conquistador who first saw the Mississippi also took the Inca highway to fabulous Cuzco.
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
Perhaps de Soto wearied of the calmness of Spain and certainly he had in his mind, as had all the Spanish explorer-conquerors, to find a practical passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific; despite the personal audacity of the conquistadores, which had doubled the world’s landscape, geographical knowledge was still vague and confused and there remained hope that the great river of the Holy Spirit, the Mississippi, which was talked about by the Indians, might flow into the Pacific. It was the return of Alvar N’fcnez de Vaca to Spain, one of the survivors of the disastrous Spanish expedition into the Rio Grande, and his talk of the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, that set de Soto off to Florida. “It was his object to find other treasures, like that of Atahualpa, Lord of Peru.” But from the time he landed in Florida in May, 1539, crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and moved into the delta of Mobile Bay, there was nothing but disaster. In April, 1541, they were crossing the Mississippi somewhere south of where Memphis now stands and de Soto was still dreaming of the passage to the Pacific and the mythical cities of Cibola. A year later, after exploring Arkansas and becoming one of the first white men to see the buffalo, Hernando de Soto reached the end of the golden trail; fever stricken and despondent, he took to his pallet and died.
The section of the Inca road between Caxas and Guancabamba in Peru which set Hernando de Solo’s brain afire is still there. If historical events were observed then, in 1532, as they are now, with faces, profiles and signatures embedded in cement, we would have the hoof marks of his war horse and the rubric of Hernando de Soto, Gent., the first white man to see the great Royal Road of the Incas. He found then that there was indeed “nothing in Christendom” to compare with these thousands of miles of all-weather roads which knit the Inca people together as empire.
Four hundred years after the advent of Hernando de Soto, the members of the Inca Highway Expedition, in association with the American Geographical Society, followed that remarkable and ancient road. For two years we moved across the fragments of the Royal Road, finding the ruined cities mentioned by the conquistadores and confirming the courier stations, which allowed the Incas to perfect a system of runners as fast as the pony express. We found the remains of suspension bridges, and followed the Inca road through the Andes, down the hot desert coast and into the jungles. By an intense investigation which will occupy us in its various forms for five years, we have proven what the first conquistadores said of the road which built an empire, which led the Spaniards to the Inca and which sealed its doom: “I believe since the history of man, there has been no other account of such grandeur as to be seen in this road . . .”
And it was this road which that man of “good impulses,” Hernando de Soto, first discovered in the springtime of the New World.