The Passion Of Hernando De Soto

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The story of the army’s wanderings west of the Mississippi from July, 1541, to March, 1542, repeats the history of the previous two years. The Spaniards sent cavalry patrols in all directions, hoping to find the elusive treasure troves; they refused to admit that Florida was barren. It was a brave but useless effort. The Spanish saw bison and met tepee-dwelling nomads who were always poor and usually hostile. They marched countless miles over broken terrain, fought their way out of ambushes, and struggled to survive in the harsh countryside. Physical strain, poor food, disease, and warfare gradually whittled away the army. Once again soldiers began to desert, including some of the nobly born officers, but this time de Soto was too tired and dispirited to do anything about it.

They spent the winter of 1541-42 at a village near the junction of two rivers, probably the Canadian and the Arkansas, in what is now Oklahoma. Somehow the men made themselves comfortable enough, using buffalo robes for blankets and snaring rabbits for food. De Soto, taking no chances, built an impregnable stockade and cleared away the surrounding underbrush so that the natives could not launch any more sneak attacks. It was here that Juan Ortiz, the Florida castaway, finally died, leaving de Soto without a reliable interpreter of any kind.

Ortiz’s death brought home to de Soto his terrible isolation. For month after month the general had been leading his men on a wild-goose chase, searching for mythical cities of gold. His army had proved that it could still travel, but it was desperately short of equipment. There was not a trained geographer, map maker, or navigator in the entire group. If they continued west they might reach Spanish Mexico; on the other hand, they might perish in the Texas deserts which the Indians had told them about. There was still a chance that if they marched to the Gulf coast they could build boats or follow the shore line until they came to a Spanish settlement.

After weeks of brooding and black depression, de Soto made up his mind. They would strike for the Gulf coast and try to get a small barge through to Cuba to bring back the supply fleet. The expedition broke camp and set out to the southeast, heading back toward the Mississippi, which they hoped to reach near its mouth. But de Soto had lost his bearings. When they came within sight of the river and learned that the local Indians had never heard of the Gulf, they were cruelly disappointed. Though they did not know it, they were three hundred miles in a straight line from the Gulf and even farther by the winding river route.

One suspects that at this moment de Solo’s stubborn nature finally collapsed. He had invested his fortune and his own life in the Florida expedition. For three years he had not spared himself; he had carried the entire burden of command and shared the hardships of the most humble men-at-arms. Now his force was reduced to about three hundred effective men and only forty horses, many of which were lame after going unshod for a whole year because of the shortage of metal. De Soto lashed out in anger: When the Indians of the area, Guachoya of the river, sensed the Spanish despair, they sent messengers to taunt the invaders; whereupon de Soto ordered his troops to teach the Indians a lesson. His officers, harassed and nervous, exceeded their instructions, and a massacre ensued. It was the worst blot on de Soto’s record, one which in later years his enemies in Spain would use to discredit his memory. At the time, it hardly seemed to matter; de Soto was sick with fever and, after reprimanding the officers, he withdrew into his tent.

The army knew that its general was dying. The fetid air of the Mississippi was conducive to fevers, and de Soto may well have caught malaria. Whatever the reason for his illness, the conquistador scarcely resisted its ravages. He seems almost to have welcomed it. His secretary was called to draw up his will, using a compressed cipher because of a shortage of paper. On the third day of the fever, the priests were summoned, and de Soto reconciled himself to death. His last act was to assemble his officers by his bedside and ask them to choose a new leader, but so great was their respect for the dying man that they asked de Soto to appoint his own successor. To their surprise he selected his disgraced lieutenant, the easygoing Luis de Moscoso. The next day, according to the chronicler, “departed from this life the magnanimous, the intrepid, the virtuous Captain, Don Hernando de Soto.”