- Historic Sites
The Passion Of Hernando De Soto
In Florida the great conquistador hoped to find a Golconda. Instead, he found a Golgotha. An American Heritage Book Selection
April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
De Soto’s death posed an immediate and macabre problem for the new commander. The Indians had believed that the white general was a demigod: the aborigine chiefs often claimed to be divine, and the invincible de Soto had fitted neatly into the same pattern. Moscoso was worried that if the Indians discovered that de Soto had died an ordinary death, they would lose their awe of the Spanish and launch an attack on the camp. To avoid this danger, de Soto’s corpse was stealthily buried in the loose soil at the main entrance to the Spanish camp, where his grave would be obliterated by the constant trampling of men and horses. However, this stratagem did not deceive the Indians, who quickly noticed the freshly turned earth and began asking pointed questions about the absence of the general. Fearing that the natives might dig up and perhaps mutilate the corpse, Moscoso had de Soto’s body disinterred by night and carried down to the river. There it was wrapped in a shroud, weighted with sand, and dumped from a dugout canoe into the middle of the Mississippi. It was a strange burial ground for a Knight of Santiago who had set aside ample funds for a marble tomb in the church vault at Jerez de los Caballeros.
At first thought, Moscoso, the man responsible for the success of the disastrous Chickasaw fire attack, seemed an odd choice for the position of leader. But Moscoso had an even temper and was popular with both men and officers. He had joined the expedition in order to recoup his squandered Peruvian fortune, and when he saw that the new venture would not make a profit he had consistently advocated returning home. Furthermore, he had shown an uncanny instinct for survival, having weathered shipwreck, disgrace, defeat, and illness. By choosing Moscoso as his successor, de Soto made sure that the Florida expedition would eventually head for home.
Since the Indians were still curious about de Solo’s whereabouts, they were told that the great general had ascended into the sky to consult his Father, and would be returning shortly. This was a lame excuse, and it was obvious that if the Spanish lingered they would be attacked once more. Moscoso knew that he had three alternatives: he could cross the Mississippi and return eastward the way the army had come, risking the vengeance of the tribes de Soto had antagonized; he could build boats, descend the river to the Gulf, and then sail westward along the Gulf coast to New Spain; or he could try to reach Mexico overland. Typically, he asked for the opinions of his officers. None of them wanted to try the long, hard march back to Tampa. They were equally frightened of the river trip, remembering that the Narvâez expedition had drowned while attempting to flee the country in homemade boats. Therefore, they chose to try to march overland to Mexico. To forestall recriminations, Moscoso drew up an agreement and had all his officers sign it.
But the overland trek soon proved futile As soon as the Spaniards passed out of fertile, well-populated regions into the desert country, they found themselves facing starvation. The army of Florida turned about and retraced its steps. In early December, the Spanish arrived on the banks of the Mississippi for the third and last time—no longer so much the army of Florida as the army of the Mississippi. They found two small, prosperous riverside towns, well stocked with provisions, and settled down in them to spend the winter building boats. The ingenuity of the Spanish troops was remarkable. Moscoso and his hidalgos knew that their lives depended on building these boats, and even the most aristocratic officers lent a hand.
The annual March rise of the Mississippi took them all by surprise and nearly ruined their painstaking efforts. And no sooner had they cleared away the debris than they had to deal with yet another Indian attack. (It was to be preceded, as in the Chickasaw country, by incendiaries, but this time the wary Moscoso took pains to learn the Indians’ plans, and thwarted them completely.) At last, on July 2, 1543, the voyagers set out. There were 322 Spaniards, 100 of the healthiest Indian slaves, seven leaky pinnaces, 22 horses on rafts, and a flotilla of dugouts. They left behind about five hundred Indian prisoners, servants, and porters whom they had acquired on their travels. Most of these unlucky natives were far from their tribal homes, and the majority undoubtedly perished.
The first part of the journey was a nightmare of Indian harassment and foundering boats and rafts. The horses proved too difficult to transport and had to be killed or abandoned. But after a few days the pursuing natives finally gave up the chase and retired upstream. Then Moscoso and his men travelled alone down the Father of Waters for seventeen more days under a blazing sun. At last, on July 16, after seven hundred miles of river travel, they came within sight of the sea. Moscoso ordered the army ashore, and the soldiers repaired the boats for a sea voyage, filled the water kegs, and recouped their strength. But they dared not linger, because the delta Indians had learned of their presence.
On Wednesday, July 18, the expedition got under way for Mexico. For two days they rowed in the fresh water that the Mississippi poured into the Gulf, and then the flotilla stood out to sea and hoisted sails. The Spanish were lucky; the weather remained calm and the little boats, gunwales barely above the water, crept westward from headland to headland, their occupants suffering miserably from thirst and mosquitoes.