The Passion Of Hernando De Soto

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As the Spaniards pushed northward, de Soto found himself more and more isolated. His line of communication with Tampa became too tenuous and had to be abandoned; the forests seemed interminable; and, to make matters worse, as they drew farther away from Mucozo’s tribe, Juan Ortiz had to work through a long chain of translators, each of whom spoke only one dialect besides his own. By the time information had been passed along the line to Ortiz, the result was scarcely intelligible. De Soto was increasingly forced to rely on guesswork to determine his route.

Near the Suwannee River in northern Florida, de Soto finally got the stand-up fight he had been hoping for. A band of some four hundred Indian warriors tried to rescue their chief, who was a hostage in the Spanish camp. After asking for a parley on open ground, they planted an ambush, concealing their weapons in the long swamp grass. De Soto was too experienced a campaigner to be taken in by their offer and decided to spring the trap. Stationing his cavalry in the cover of the surrounding woods, he and several attendants walked out toward the waiting Indians. It was a characteristically brave maneuver, and it paid off. One of de Soto’s chief lieutenants, Luis de Moscoso, waited until he saw the savages closing in, then ordered the attack, and the Spanish lancers poured out of the wood, screaming their battle cry. The Indians were caught in their own ambush and could not withstand the horsemen. De Soto swung into the saddle of a spare charger and led the slaughter. Most of the halfnaked savages escaped, but some were cut down and a few took refuge by throwing themselves into two small lakes nearby. There they swam out of crossbow range and hurled insults at the white men. De Soto saw his opportunity to teach the enemy a lesson and stationed pickets around the shores. All night long the sentries picked off the Indians as they tried to swim to the bank, using lily pads for camouflage. Next morning twelve exhausted Indians were still treading water defiantly. De Soto ordered his best swimmers to fish them out and had them put in chains. De Soto had proved his point—his troops were infinitely superior in open battle. Unfortunately for the Spanish, this was the only occasion on which de Soto was able to show his flair and courage as a field commander.

The army spent the winter in an open area near modern Tallahassee. The local inhabitants had fled, leaving behind their well-filled grain bins and fields of standing crops. The Spanish soldiers harvested beans, pumpkins, walnuts, and plums, and built a fortified camp. A cavalry patrol reported that the Gulf coast was only eight leagues away. On the beach they had found the last traces of Narváez’s expedition—crosses carved on trees, mangers hollowed from tree trunks, and the skulls of horses. De Soto ordered up the men from the base camp at Tampa, and his supply fleet arrived with fresh provisions. When these had been landed, the general sent his ships back to Cuba, except for one caravel, which he dispatched westward along the coast to find a good harbor. The caravel returned in February, having located an excellent harbor in Pensacola Bay; and it was arranged that her captain would return there with the supply fleet the following autumn to greet the expeditionary force after its second summer in the field.

The Spaniards had spent a miserable winter under daily harassment from the natives, but now they were cheered by news of a queen, in a land far to the east, who received tribute of furs and gold from all the surrounding tribes. A native prisoner who claimed to be one of her subjects even demonstrated how the yellow metal was dug from the ground, melted, and refined. The Spanish soldiers could hardly wait to invade this promised land, and on March 3, 1540, the army of Florida began marching into the pinelands of what is now Georgia.

It was a terrible journey. They were hacking their way through trackless forests which even the Indians shunned. Food ran out, porters starved to death or were sent back to lessen the number of mouths to feed, men-at-arms threw away much of their armor, horses died. The usual food ration was a handful of parched grain each day. De Soto ordered some of the hogs to be killed, but the issue of half a pound of meat per man scarcely eased the situation.

Near the northern border of Georgia, the army found its tribute-collecting queen, the princess of Cofitachequi. But she was a sad disappointment. Her gold turned out to be burnished copper, and her slabs of silver were sheets of mica. The only booty was a heap of river pearls extracted from fresh-water mussels, but most of these were ruined by boring or discolored by fire. The Spaniards collected 350 pounds of the pearls and left in disgust. According to legend, one of the “dark men” stayed behind to marry the princess and rule as lord of Cofitachequi.

Through the southern part of present-day South Carolina, into North Carolina, Tennessee, and northern Alabama, de Soto led his army, as the summer of 1540 wore on. One mountain ridge after another had to be climbed; each river looked the same as the previous one they had forded. The maps that the sixteenth-century geographers afterward pieced together from the expedition’s diaries show a random scattering of Indian villages, mountains, and rivers that reveals the lack of topographic variety.