The Passion Of Hernando De Soto

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The army was truly a remarkable sight, but not for its pomp and splendor: de Soto, lean and unkempt, sitting loose in the short stirrups of his high wooden saddle, his horse scrawny and jaded; the gaunt soldiers hollow-cheeked and unshaven. Most of the men were dressed in ponchos and kilts of dried grass, though a few luckier ones could boast padded cotton surcoats or rough breeches made from animal skins bald with wear. The priests had lost all their clerical garments and now were dressed like the other men; only a crude cross daubed on their buckskins with ocher set them apart. There were hungry, exhausted Indian porters stooped under ungainly wicker panniers filled with corn and nuts; here and there were war dogs, fierce and lean after months of ill treatment and semistarvation, and scarred from battles. There was not a single piece of shining armor to be seen anywhere: cuirasses, helms, morions, arquebuses, and swords were dented or rusted; homemade lance shafts were crooked; saddle frames were crude and ugly. Yet this was a unique army. Hounded by bad luck, it had lived and fought for thirty-five months across thousands of miles of hostile territory. It had survived two major disasters that by rights should have sent it packing for civilization. This lone Spanish expedition had ranged more widely than the fiercest war party had dreamed of, farther even than the Spanish authorities in Madrid had imagined possible—all this without reinforcements or extra supplies from its base in Cuba. By the time the Florida expedition reached the bank of the Mississippi it was a hardened, self-reliant band.

Near present-day Sunflower Landing in the state of Mississippi the Spaniards spent the next month building ferry barges. For once, food was a minor problem, for the “Rio Grande” swarmed with fish, but there was real danger from the Indians. Not long after the Spanish arrived, Indians came from the far bank in an armada of about two hundred war canoes, each moving in time to the commands of a captain in the stern. Archers stood in the bow of each canoe, and the whole fleet was controlled by a chief who sat on cushions under an awning in the lead vessel. De Soto ordered his crossbowmen to warn them off. The Indians received the salvo with dignified composure and put about in an orderly maneuver: no paddlers broke rhythm but those struck down by crossbow bolts. Every afternoon thereafter the Indian armada put in an appearance at long range and fired arrows at the boatbuilders. No one was hurt, but the construction of the barges was delayed and everyone in the army worried about the crossing.

De Soto knew that if the disciplined Indian war fleet caught his boats in midstream, the Spanish would be annihilated. The men-at-arms rowing the unwieldy barges would be hampered by their cargo of horsemen; all would be at the mercy of the faster Indian dugouts. When the barges were finished, therefore, de Soto had them towed about a mile upstream under cover of night. Catching the Indians completely off guard, he managed to get an advance party across the river without opposition. Once a beachhead was established, the ferries shuttled back and forth with the remainder of the men. By noon the entire army of Florida was safely on the far side of the Mississippi and ready to advance.

As soon as his forces had regrouped, de Soto decided to move strongly against the Indians, whose highly organized war fleet indicated that they might be a rich and sophisticated tribe. This was to be done by land; but first the barges had to be dismantled and every precious iron spike and nail salvaged. When they started upstream, the Spaniards found the terrain along the river the worst imaginable. After a few days of pushing through a water-logged maze of swamps, ponds, oxbow lakes, and mudflats, de Soto led his force away from the river to firmer ground on the inland bluffs. The drier uplands were thickly settled by Casqui Indians, who were enemies of the riparian tribes and welcomed the Spanish as allies against their traditional foes. Too weak to rebuff the Casqui offer of friendship, de Soto for once treated the natives civilly, and they clamored to be baptized so that they too would enjoy the magical properties of the cross, which they believed would deflect the arrows of any enemy. At the same time, they regarded the white-skinned commander as a child of their sun god and insisted on bringing forth their maimed and crippled for de Soto to heal. They even suggested that the Spanish leader invoke his Father to put an end to the drought that was parching their crops. Luckily for de Soto, a heavy thundershower soon afterward enhanced his reputation.

On June 26, 1541, the Spanish and Casqui combined forces for an attack on the neighboring Quapaw tribe, which had its capital at a strongly fortified village on a backwater of the Mississippi. But when it became clear to de Soto that the Quapaw chief was no more than a local ruler and had no gold in his village, he decided not to risk lives needlessly and concluded a peace treaty without delay, sealing it by accepting two Quapaw princesses as concubines. One of the girls, according to an eyewitness, was “well proportioned, tall of body and well fleshed, in her shape and face she looked a lady of high rank,” but her sister was merely “strongly made.”