- 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
It was a childishly naïve stratagem, but it always worked. One chief after another used the same trick to rid himself of the Spanish army, preferably diverting the unwelcome invaders into the lands of a tribal enemy. Of course, de Soto knew exactly what the Indian chiefs were plotting. Yet he had no choice but to move on. He could not afford to exhaust his men in fruitless holding operations, and he was equally worried by shortages of food. Any tribal economy could support his invading army for a limited time only. As soon as the local stocks of maize were eaten, the Spanish were compelled to move on. They assembled a marching supply of food, packed up their belongings, and forced the local cacique, or chief, to provide a small army of porters. Then the expedition snaked oft through the woods, a long file of cavalry, halberdiers, crossbowmen, arquebusiers, retainers, camp followers (including one or two white women), natives, porters, and livestock. The expedition—an enormous questing centipede, groping forward, feeling a path around obstacles—headed up the Florida peninsula, thence toward what is now the state of Georgia.
The cavalry was always busy. Besides scouting ahead the lancers galloped up and down the long line of march, trying to control the unwieldy mass of porters and footmen. The horsemen had to be everywhere at once. They provided the mobile reserve in case of attack; they acted as couriers, carrying messages between the various captains; and they were allotted the undignified role of swineherds. The pigs thrived, and there were now more than three hundred of them, happily grubbing for roots and nuts on the forest floor. De Soto refused to allow his soldiers to eat the pigs. They were to be preserved against hard times, and the cursing troopers were ordered to chevy the grunting herd along the line of march, taking care not to lose a single animal.
Most of the heavy labor and transport was handled by the press-ganged Indian porters, and a steady trickle of fugitives vanished into the bush each night. As the army moved forward, however, the Spaniards noticed that they had less and less trouble from their slave labor; it was evident that once a captive Indian was outside his tribal territory he was reluctant to escape, preferring to stay with the Spanish army rather than run the risk of falling into the hands of a hostile tribe, or of being recaptured by the Spaniards, who might then throw him to their packs of vicious war dogs.
These Indians were unlike any enemy that the conquistadors had met in the New World. In Mexico and South America, campaigns had always culminated in a major battle. The native armies, no matter how vast, would be thrown into confusion by the Spaniards’ horses—completely unknown to the aborigines and often believed to be flesh-eating monsters. A shrewd cavalry charge delivered with tremendous punch could turn this confusion into utter panic. But the Florida Indians would neither be forced into an open fight nor conclude a lasting peace treaty. And the Spaniards never quite grasped the extent of their bravery and tribal loyalty. One guide after another coolly led the army into swamps or ambushes, even though it was suicide for the man concerned. Even the smallest tribes put up a fight. They burned their crops and villages in a scorched-earth policy, cut off and killed isolated Spanish dispatch riders, set ambushes, and hid their food supplies from the invaders. Any solitary Spaniard wandering too near the trees was liable to get an arrow in his back, and at night the bushes around the bivouac rustled with hidden snipers. In the morning it was not uncommon to find the headless body of a Spanish soldier dangling from a tree in full view of the camp.
The steel-clad might of the Spanish veterans had run into the one obstacle it could not crush—guerrilla warfare conducted by skilled archers. The Indians used a stiff bow that discharged arrows with terrific force and considerable accuracy. In one experiment, de Soto watched a warrior put an arrow clean through a plate of Milan steel hung up in a tree eighty feet away. When a second plate was put up behind the first, the Indian put his next arrow through both pieces of armor. It was not surprising that after a skirmish the Spanish dead were sometimes found transfixed from front to back by a three-foot arrow tipped with bone, flint, or the needle-sharp claw of a crab. The most deadly arrow of all was a sharpened shaft of cane, its tip hardened over a fire. When one of these scored a direct hit on chain mail, the first six inches shattered into splinters that penetrated the interstices of the mail and left an ugly, festering wound that healed far more slowly than any sword cut. To protect themselves against these projectiles, the Spanish adopted the native armor of loose quilted jackets stuffed with cotton padding.
Even worse than the Indians were the swamps, marshes, and rivers. They delayed and exhausted the army, which often spent whole days wading chest-deep through water. Fortunately, one of the Genoese volunteers and two Cuban half-breeds were engineers and knew how to make bridges and causeways. With ropes brought specially for the purpose, they lashed logs together to make roads across the worst obstacles. At the shallower rivers the horsemen would ride their mounts into the stream and form a long line from bank to bank. Then the footmen would scramble across, clinging to stirrups, girth bands, and manes. Once or twice crude rafts were improvised, or a block-and-tackle arrangement was used to reel the less willing animals in to the opposite bank.