The Passion Of Hernando De Soto


Before the days of the explorers, the Mississippi was an Indian river. Spreading in a vast belt from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico was a multitude of tribes—Fox, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Iowa, Illinois, Winnebago, Miami, Masouten, Chickasaw, Oto, Quapaw, and others. These Indians were in a constant state of turmoil, fighting one another and moving up and clown the river. Even the Sioux, now associated with the Great Plains, were once a river tribe and paddled fleets of war canoes on the upper Mississippi. The aborigines used a variety of names to describe the river, but it was the Algonquian name, “Mississippi,” which finally won out. French traders heard it from the Chippewa and the other northern tribes and carried it downstream with them, until this word, variously translated as “Big Water” or “Father of Waters,” became the accepted name from Montreal to Louisiana.

The fact that the Indians were often friendly and peaceable toward the white man, and that there were no difficult cataracts or rapids for most of the river’s course, made the Mississippi easy to explore. Despite this there was a gap of three centuries between the date when white men first saw the river and the time of the final discovery of its source, small lakes in upper Minnesota, about 175 miles from the Canadian border. One reason for this lag is the nature of the Mississippi delta, which is awkward to find from the sea and dangerous to navigate. Only when the Spaniards probed inland did they find the continent’s largest river.

In the north, climate was a great obstacle. French explorers, approaching the river from their colonies on the St. Lawrence, had to face winters in which temperatures of thirty degrees below zero were not uncommon, the land was covered with deep snow, and the river was icebound. The rigorous winters limited travelling time, increased costs, and deterred all but the brave or the ignorant from winter journeys. In summer, however, the French had an advantage over the Spanish explorers of the lower Mississippi: the birchbark canoe. This lightweight, tough, maneuverable vessel was known only to the northern tribes for the very good reason that the paper birch (Betula papyrifera) from which it is made grows no farther south than Wisconsin.

But the most important reasons for the delay in exploring the Mississippi were political. The river was controlled at various periods by the Spanish, French, British, and Americans. Each nation was usually more concerned with protecting its sovereignty than with exploring the stream to its source. The first major French expedition turned back when it was halfway down the river because of fear of the Spaniards. Neither the Spanish, the French, nor the British held the Mississippi long enough to invest in costly expeditions of discovery. The Americans, the eventual owners, were the first to spend substantial amounts of money on pure exploration.

As if international rivalries were not enough, many of the explorers were embroiled in quarrels with their own countrymen. The French, the most successful travellers along the river, were the worst culprits in this respect. Their explorers were constantly hampered by lawsuits of one sort or another, usually brought against them by vindictive rivals who were jealous of any commercial advantage that might accrue to the successful pioneer.

The early exploration of the Father of Waters, unlike that of the Nile or the Niger, was not carried out under the aegis of geographical societies or learned committees, but, for the greater part, by private persons who anticipated some sort of gain for themselves—gold, furs, or glory. In consequence, the river’s exploration took place in fits and starts, depending upon the activities of these opportunists. Otherwise, the river was little used, because, in the words of Mark Twain, “nobody happened to want such a river; nobody needed it, nobody was curious about it; so … the Mississippi remained out of the market and undisturbed. When de Soto found it, he was not hunting for a river, and had no present occasion for one; consequently he did not value it or even take any particular notice of it.”

Hernando de Soto was probably the first discoverer of the river, although earlier explorers under the banner of Spain undoubtedly approached it. In 1497, Amerigo Vespucci is believed to have entered the Gulf of Mexico. Then, in 1519, a fleet under one Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda searched along the Gulf coast for the mythical sea route to the Indies. In the course of this voyage he entered the mouth of a river which he said was “very large and very full.” But from his descriptions of the area, which disagree with all later Spanish reports of the Mississippi delta, it would appear that he sailed into Mobile Bay. Spanish cartographers called this coast Amichel, and declared it to be “too far from the Tropics” to contain gold. It was nine years before another Spaniard, Pánfilo de Narváez, explored the coast. Narváez and nearly all his men were lost, but a few shipwrecked survivors told of a huge fresh-water current that had pushed their boat out to sea as they sailed westward; the current had been too strong for them to investigate closer inshore. But the interest of the Spanish authorities was aroused, not so much by the big river as by the survivors’ report that there was gold in the interior of North America. The time had come for a full-scale invasion of Amichel by a competent commander; the man who led this invasion and who was the first to confirm the existence of the Mississippi was Hernando de Soto.