The Passion Of Hernando De Soto


On May 30, 1539, the army began going ashore at Tampa Bay on the Florida coast. There was no sign of Indians, and the venture still had the air of a holiday. The young cavaliers were enchanted by the beauty of the scene—the dazzling blue of sea and sky, the white curve of the sand leading up to the woods of cypress, live oak, and ash. Tents and pennons rippled in the breeze, horses were exercised on the beach to shake off the effects of the voyage. The first patrols, probing inland, also succumbed to the festive mood. Small groups of lancers rode off, the sand spurting beneath the hoofs of the chargers, to hunt in the woods for Indians or deer; it did not matter which.

Soon columns of smoke rising up over the dense green of the forest showed that contact had been made with the Indians and that the natives were passing the alert from village to village. Then a patrol returned to report that the beautiful woodland was in fact hopeless country for cavalry maneuvers. The forest was a maze of ponds and marshes, separated by impassable undergrowth. The horses became entangled in thickets, or sank up to their haunches in quagmires, cutting their legs on hidden snags. Luckily, there were occasional Indian trails which followed dry ground, and on these footpaths the cavalry could improve its pace. But the trails were too narrow for more than two lancers to ride abreast, and this crippled their effectiveness; the massed charge, the favorite conquistador attack, would be out of the question in Florida. And that was not all. The patrol had surprised a small party of natives. Two of the Indians had been spitted on lances, but the others had fled into the woods, whence they began shooting arrows at their attackers from the shelter of the trees. By the time the patrol regained the safety of the open beach, two horses had been killed and several wounded. This was serious, for horses were irreplaceable and the Spanish depended on their cavalry to outmaneuver and frighten the natives. The optimistic conquistadors did not know it then, but the next four years would provide an almost daily repetition of this rough punishment, as ambush followed ambush and the invading army was raked from end to end by the stinging hit-and-run attacks of the Indians. Half the carefree cavaliers would leave their bones to whiten in Tierra Florida, “the land of flowers.”

Not long after the landing, de Soto had a tremendous stroke of luck, possibly the only one of the whole Florida expedition. An advance patrol of cavalry came across a band of Indians in a clearing. Without pausing to consider why the Indians were exposing themselves in the open, the horsemen levelled their lances and charged. The Indians fled into the trees, leaving one man wounded on the ground and another standing there apparently in a state of shock. A trooper was just poised to run the savage through when the Indian fell to his knees, made the sign of the cross, and with difficulty cried out in halting Spanish “Sevilla! Sevilla!” The effect of his words was electrifying. The lancers dropped their weapons and clustered round the naked man, who explained that he was Juan Ortiz, a native of Seville who had come to Florida with Narváez’s expedition, had been captured by the Indians, and had survived by going native. He had been on his way to the Spanish camp with a party of friendly Indians when the lancers had attacked them.

Juan Ortiz was a godsend for de Soto—a reliable, intelligent guide who spoke the local dialect fluently, knew the Indian customs, and could provide information on the politics and geography of the land. Ortiz was at once appointed to de Solo’s staff, fed, and given communion by the priests. Uncomfortable in the closefitting Spanish clothes after eleven years of nakedness, he went around camp dressed in a long, loose linen wrap.

The army now marched forward with more confidence. Through Ortiz, de Soto managed to establish contact with Mucozo, the friendly Indian chief who had looked after the marooned Spaniard. A peace treaty was arranged, and the Indians agreed to supply the invaders with maize and guides. But Mucozo did not possess any gold, and before long the Spaniards wore his hospitality thin. He realized that the sooner the Spanish army left, the better it would be for him and his tribe. He therefore employed a simple ruse which de Soto was to encounter again and again: he informed the Spanish general that although he himself did not have any gold, another tribe some distance away possessed legendary stores of bullion and gems. Naturally, it would take several weeks’ marching to reach this glittering prize, but he, Mucozo, would gladly provide guides for the first part of the journey. These guides could lead de Soto to the limits of their tribal territory and then hand him on to Indians of the neighboring tribe.