The Passion Of Hernando De Soto


The siege of Mobila changed de Soto and changed his army. After the disaster the general became morose and spent more time alone, brooding over his plans. With the loss of the baggage, the army took on the appearance of a gang of buccaneers. At first the natives stayed clear of this wild-eyed rabble of men; they had been shaken by the ferocity at Mobila and did not wish to tackle the Spanish again. But as de Soto moved across the country, his route took him into the territory of the Chickasaw Indians, who had never yet seen a white man and were famous for their valor. The Chickasaw resented de Solo’s constant demands for food, blankets, and furs. They planned an attack and waited their opportunity. De Soto, however, was a chastened leader; he was more cautious and more watchful. It was Luis de Moscoso, master of the camp and thus the one responsible for posting the sentries, who gave the Chickasaw their chance.

Moscoso was one of de Solo’s favorites. He had been with him in Peru, and even though one of de Solo’s homeward-bound treasure ships had been wrecked through Moscoso’s negligence, de Soto had forgiven him and had made him chief lieutenant of the Florida expedition. On the night of March 3, 1541, he failed to set a trustworthy guard around the Spanish bivouac.

Several hundred armed Chickasaw warriors succeeded in creeping wilhin range of the camp, each carrying a firebrand concealed in an earthenware pot. It is said that each Indian also carried three ropes--one for a Christian, one for a horse, and one for a pig. The fire attack was a complete surprise. The camp was in flames while the dazed soldiers still fumbled with breastplates and helmets. The sparks set alight the pigsty, and almost three hundred squealing pigs roasted to death. Only the piglets managed to wriggle through the bars; the air smelled of roast pork, while, according to one account, the bacon grease flowed out over the ground. De Soto buckled on his armor and rallied his men. The horses broke loose, and the thunder of their stampede terrified the Chickasaw, who fled, leaving the Spanish battling the flames.

When the fire was extinguished, de Soto saw the smouldering debris of his expedition. It was a worse disaster than Mobila. A dozen Spaniards had been killed or had burned to death, and fifty or sixty horses had been lost. The last surviving white woman was dead. Almost every shred of their blankets and garments had been burned; the men were almost naked, and there was nothing to protect them from the cold nights. Nearly all the metal weapons had been ruined, having lost their temper in the inferno, and all the saddlery was wrecked. Everything wooden was now a charred mass—saddles, lance shafts, axe and pike handles. The Chickasaw had not lost a single warrior.

Under these appalling conditions, the Spaniards were at their best. Their resilience was extraordinary. Working furiously for the next two weeks, they rigged up a crude forge and, using rough bellows made from bear skins and musket barrels, retempered sword blades, crossbows, pike heads, and armor. They salvaged every scrap of metal from the cinders and cut lance shafts from the nearest grove of trees. The runaway horses were rounded up and equipped with rope harnesses made from twisted grass. The men scavenged for skins and grass mats to make sleeping bags and kilts. By the time the Chickasaw returned to the attack, the Spaniards were in fighting trim and easily defeated their enemy.

Moscoso was demoted for his negligence, but there was little time for recriminations. De Soto realized that it was essential to leave Chickasaw territory before his command was wiped out by this warrior tribe. Accordingly the army of Florida gathered together the homemade gear and moved westward as fast as their wounds and burns would allow.

In early May, de Soto’s westward path brought him through forest and swamplands to the bank of a huge river, bigger by far than any river they had ever seen in Europe or Mexico. The date was Sunday, May 8, 1541, and the army had been in the field for two years. The river was the Mississippi.

The arrival of the exploring Europeans on the banks of the Mississippi was indeed a historic moment, but the actual scene was vastly different from the romantic version shown in the famous William Henry Powell painting that hangs in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington. The river, in fact, was hidden by a thick, dank forest, probably of cypress and oak. Straggling in untidy groups through the willow thickets, the Spaniards found themselves looking across a huge expanse of water flowing from right to left across their line of march. Later the Father of Waters was to be the lifeline that saved the bulk of the army, but at first glimpse its only real distinction was its immense size. The army’s chroniclers immediately called the river the “Rio Grande.” The sheer width of so large a body of flowing water has always staggered the European observer; and it must have been all the more huge to de Soto’s men, most of whom came from the arid Iberian Peninsula, where such monstrous rivers are geographical impossibilities.

Gazing across at the far bank, a low line of green forest two miles away, de Soto and his men felt sure that this must be the giant river they had heard rumors of in Spain and Cuba, rumors added to by tales from their guides. They hoped it might lead them to some tribe of valley Indians rich in precious metals and gems; but for the time being the Mississippi was, first and foremost, a tiresome obstacle to their march. Ferry boats had to be built, and that would delay the army.