The Passion Of Hernando De Soto

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Hernando de Soto was one of the most successful men of his day and also one of its worst failures. He has been awarded a niche in American history as the first white man to set eyes on the Mississippi, but at the time he saw the river he had no idea of the importance of his discovery. The course of his extraordinary career, from humble beginnings to a life of luxury, then to a lonely, broken-hearted death on the banks of the river he discovered, unfolds like the plot in a Spanish book of chivalry.

When de Soto set out on the ill-fated Florida expedition, he was in his late thirties. He had served with Pizarro in Peru, bringing back enough booty to make him one of the richest men in Spain. But he sought power, and that meant he wanted the ultimate crown of glory for the conquistador—an independent government for himself somewhere in the New World. After marrying a rich wife with good connections, he applied for the governorship of virgin territory in what is now Ecuador and Colombia. But the King had other plans for this region and made him the counteroffer of the governorship of “Florida,” the geographically vague term for the little known and as yet unconquered lands in North America bordering the Gulf of Mexico. De Soto accepted, and a formal agreement between him and the King was drawn up on April 20, 1537.

The terms of the charter were precise: de Soto was obliged to furnish at least five hundred men, and to equip and supply them for a minimum of eighteen months; the Spanish government specifically absolved itself from any financial responsibility in the venture. As his reward, de Soto was immediately made governor of Cuba, which was to be the base for his conquest of North America, and once he had conquered Florida he would also become governor, captain general, and adelantado of any two hundred leagues of the coast he might care to select. If successful, he would receive a lifetime annuity of two thousand ducats; and this, of course, was to be paid out of income from the colony, so that the King did not have to reach into his own pocket. In return the governor of Florida promised to support any priests the Crown sent out to him. In short, he would meet every expense of the adventure and make no financial claim on the court of Spain. He would “conquer and populate,” and the settlers would not have to pay taxes for the first ten years.

In exchange for the royal license, the King’s treasury would receive one fifth of all gold, other precious minerals, and gems which the expedition plundered, bartered, or mined, and one half of all buried treasure. Finally, if de Soto deliberately failed to comply with any of the conditions in his license, he would be punished under the charge of high treason. The Crown could not go wrong. If de Soto was successful, the King would gain a new colony, new subjects, and a fresh supply of bullion for the royal coffers. If de Soto failed, the court would merely sympathize with his widow, comment on the sad loss of so brave and loyal a subject, and promptly issue the Florida license to somebody else.

De Soto, in fact, was not the first to hold it. Panfilo de Narváez, Juan Ponce de León, and Lucas Vázquez de Ayllon had all tried their hand in Florida, and all had failed. But this did not stop the ambitious de Soto. First there had been great riches discovered in Mexico, then in Peru to the south; now surely, somewhere in the heart of the unknown North America a bold conquistador would find immense wealth. De Soto must certainly have heard some firm news of a Golconda, perhaps from Cabeza de Vaca, treasurer of Narváez’s unsuccessful venture, who had returned from the interior tantalizingly close-mouthed about his experiences (see “The Ordeal of Cabeza de Vaca” in the December, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). It was reported that but for a squabble over his contract, Cabeza de Vaca would have joined up with de Soto; as it was, he advised several of his cousins to go along on the new venture. This combination of rumor, experience, optimism, and the spirit of adventure conjured up a giant mirage of certain success. Hidalgo and peasant flocked to de Solo’s recruiting officers.

Eventually 622 volunteers joined him. Among them were experienced Spanish soldiers, artisans, and priests, as well as such varied foreigners as a Greek engineer, two Genoese, four “dark men” from Africa, and even an English longbowman. The army of Florida was the youngest, the best equipped, and the most professional ever to sail from Spain to “conquer and populate” lands in the New World.

In seven vessels they put to sea on Sunday morning, April 7, 1538, joining a fleet of twenty sail bound tor Mexico. The transatlantic voyage was a gay holiday. The weather held clear and the fleet stayed close together; captains and hidalgos were able to pay courtesy calls from one vessel to another and give graceful luncheons and dinners. They reached Cuba by early June, and de Soto spent a year there, establishing his governorship and planning the expedition. He had scoured Spain for supplies, sparing no expense, and now he scoured Cuba in the same manner. He even took aboard a herd of swine, a stroke of genius that gave the army a mobile larder all the way to the Mississippi and beyond. Finally he said good-bye to his wife. She did not see her husband again.