April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
In Florida the great conquistador hoped to find a Golconda. Instead, he found a Golgotha.
An American Heritage Book Selection
Before the days of the explorers, the Mississippi was an Indian river. Spreading in a vast belt from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico was a multitude of tribes—Fox, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Iowa, Illinois, Winnebago, Miami, Masouten, Chickasaw, Oto, Quapaw, and others. These Indians were in a constant state of turmoil, fighting one another and moving up and clown the river. Even the Sioux, now associated with the Great Plains, were once a river tribe and paddled fleets of war canoes on the upper Mississippi. The aborigines used a variety of names to describe the river, but it was the Algonquian name, “Mississippi,” which finally won out. French traders heard it from the Chippewa and the other northern tribes and carried it downstream with them, until this word, variously translated as “Big Water” or “Father of Waters,” became the accepted name from Montreal to Louisiana.
The fact that the Indians were often friendly and peaceable toward the white man, and that there were no difficult cataracts or rapids for most of the river’s course, made the Mississippi easy to explore. Despite this there was a gap of three centuries between the date when white men first saw the river and the time of the final discovery of its source, small lakes in upper Minnesota, about 175 miles from the Canadian border. One reason for this lag is the nature of the Mississippi delta, which is awkward to find from the sea and dangerous to navigate. Only when the Spaniards probed inland did they find the continent’s largest river.
In the north, climate was a great obstacle. French explorers, approaching the river from their colonies on the St. Lawrence, had to face winters in which temperatures of thirty degrees below zero were not uncommon, the land was covered with deep snow, and the river was icebound. The rigorous winters limited travelling time, increased costs, and deterred all but the brave or the ignorant from winter journeys. In summer, however, the French had an advantage over the Spanish explorers of the lower Mississippi: the birchbark canoe. This lightweight, tough, maneuverable vessel was known only to the northern tribes for the very good reason that the paper birch (Betula papyrifera) from which it is made grows no farther south than Wisconsin.
But the most important reasons for the delay in exploring the Mississippi were political. The river was controlled at various periods by the Spanish, French, British, and Americans. Each nation was usually more concerned with protecting its sovereignty than with exploring the stream to its source. The first major French expedition turned back when it was halfway down the river because of fear of the Spaniards. Neither the Spanish, the French, nor the British held the Mississippi long enough to invest in costly expeditions of discovery. The Americans, the eventual owners, were the first to spend substantial amounts of money on pure exploration.
As if international rivalries were not enough, many of the explorers were embroiled in quarrels with their own countrymen. The French, the most successful travellers along the river, were the worst culprits in this respect. Their explorers were constantly hampered by lawsuits of one sort or another, usually brought against them by vindictive rivals who were jealous of any commercial advantage that might accrue to the successful pioneer.
Hernando de Soto was probably the first discoverer of the river, although earlier explorers under the banner of Spain undoubtedly approached it. In 1497, Amerigo Vespucci is believed to have entered the Gulf of Mexico. Then, in 1519, a fleet under one Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda searched along the Gulf coast for the mythical sea route to the Indies. In the course of this voyage he entered the mouth of a river which he said was “very large and very full.” But from his descriptions of the area, which disagree with all later Spanish reports of the Mississippi delta, it would appear that he sailed into Mobile Bay. Spanish cartographers called this coast Amichel, and declared it to be “too far from the Tropics” to contain gold. It was nine years before another Spaniard, Pánfilo de Narváez, explored the coast. Narváez and nearly all his men were lost, but a few shipwrecked survivors told of a huge fresh-water current that had pushed their boat out to sea as they sailed westward; the current had been too strong for them to investigate closer inshore. But the interest of the Spanish authorities was aroused, not so much by the big river as by the survivors’ report that there was gold in the interior of North America. The time had come for a full-scale invasion of Amichel by a competent commander; the man who led this invasion and who was the first to confirm the existence of the Mississippi was Hernando de Soto.
Hernando de Soto was one of the most successful men of his day and also one of its worst failures. He has been awarded a niche in American history as the first white man to set eyes on the Mississippi, but at the time he saw the river he had no idea of the importance of his discovery. The course of his extraordinary career, from humble beginnings to a life of luxury, then to a lonely, broken-hearted death on the banks of the river he discovered, unfolds like the plot in a Spanish book of chivalry.
When de Soto set out on the ill-fated Florida expedition, he was in his late thirties. He had served with Pizarro in Peru, bringing back enough booty to make him one of the richest men in Spain. But he sought power, and that meant he wanted the ultimate crown of glory for the conquistador—an independent government for himself somewhere in the New World. After marrying a rich wife with good connections, he applied for the governorship of virgin territory in what is now Ecuador and Colombia. But the King had other plans for this region and made him the counteroffer of the governorship of “Florida,” the geographically vague term for the little known and as yet unconquered lands in North America bordering the Gulf of Mexico. De Soto accepted, and a formal agreement between him and the King was drawn up on April 20, 1537.
The terms of the charter were precise: de Soto was obliged to furnish at least five hundred men, and to equip and supply them for a minimum of eighteen months; the Spanish government specifically absolved itself from any financial responsibility in the venture. As his reward, de Soto was immediately made governor of Cuba, which was to be the base for his conquest of North America, and once he had conquered Florida he would also become governor, captain general, and adelantado of any two hundred leagues of the coast he might care to select. If successful, he would receive a lifetime annuity of two thousand ducats; and this, of course, was to be paid out of income from the colony, so that the King did not have to reach into his own pocket. In return the governor of Florida promised to support any priests the Crown sent out to him. In short, he would meet every expense of the adventure and make no financial claim on the court of Spain. He would “conquer and populate,” and the settlers would not have to pay taxes for the first ten years.
In exchange for the royal license, the King’s treasury would receive one fifth of all gold, other precious minerals, and gems which the expedition plundered, bartered, or mined, and one half of all buried treasure. Finally, if de Soto deliberately failed to comply with any of the conditions in his license, he would be punished under the charge of high treason. The Crown could not go wrong. If de Soto was successful, the King would gain a new colony, new subjects, and a fresh supply of bullion for the royal coffers. If de Soto failed, the court would merely sympathize with his widow, comment on the sad loss of so brave and loyal a subject, and promptly issue the Florida license to somebody else.
De Soto, in fact, was not the first to hold it. Panfilo de Narváez, Juan Ponce de León, and Lucas Vázquez de Ayllon had all tried their hand in Florida, and all had failed. But this did not stop the ambitious de Soto. First there had been great riches discovered in Mexico, then in Peru to the south; now surely, somewhere in the heart of the unknown North America a bold conquistador would find immense wealth. De Soto must certainly have heard some firm news of a Golconda, perhaps from Cabeza de Vaca, treasurer of Narváez’s unsuccessful venture, who had returned from the interior tantalizingly close-mouthed about his experiences (see “The Ordeal of Cabeza de Vaca” in the December, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). It was reported that but for a squabble over his contract, Cabeza de Vaca would have joined up with de Soto; as it was, he advised several of his cousins to go along on the new venture. This combination of rumor, experience, optimism, and the spirit of adventure conjured up a giant mirage of certain success. Hidalgo and peasant flocked to de Solo’s recruiting officers.
Eventually 622 volunteers joined him. Among them were experienced Spanish soldiers, artisans, and priests, as well as such varied foreigners as a Greek engineer, two Genoese, four “dark men” from Africa, and even an English longbowman. The army of Florida was the youngest, the best equipped, and the most professional ever to sail from Spain to “conquer and populate” lands in the New World.
In seven vessels they put to sea on Sunday morning, April 7, 1538, joining a fleet of twenty sail bound tor Mexico. The transatlantic voyage was a gay holiday. The weather held clear and the fleet stayed close together; captains and hidalgos were able to pay courtesy calls from one vessel to another and give graceful luncheons and dinners. They reached Cuba by early June, and de Soto spent a year there, establishing his governorship and planning the expedition. He had scoured Spain for supplies, sparing no expense, and now he scoured Cuba in the same manner. He even took aboard a herd of swine, a stroke of genius that gave the army a mobile larder all the way to the Mississippi and beyond. Finally he said good-bye to his wife. She did not see her husband again.
On May 30, 1539, the army began going ashore at Tampa Bay on the Florida coast. There was no sign of Indians, and the venture still had the air of a holiday. The young cavaliers were enchanted by the beauty of the scene—the dazzling blue of sea and sky, the white curve of the sand leading up to the woods of cypress, live oak, and ash. Tents and pennons rippled in the breeze, horses were exercised on the beach to shake off the effects of the voyage. The first patrols, probing inland, also succumbed to the festive mood. Small groups of lancers rode off, the sand spurting beneath the hoofs of the chargers, to hunt in the woods for Indians or deer; it did not matter which.
Soon columns of smoke rising up over the dense green of the forest showed that contact had been made with the Indians and that the natives were passing the alert from village to village. Then a patrol returned to report that the beautiful woodland was in fact hopeless country for cavalry maneuvers. The forest was a maze of ponds and marshes, separated by impassable undergrowth. The horses became entangled in thickets, or sank up to their haunches in quagmires, cutting their legs on hidden snags. Luckily, there were occasional Indian trails which followed dry ground, and on these footpaths the cavalry could improve its pace. But the trails were too narrow for more than two lancers to ride abreast, and this crippled their effectiveness; the massed charge, the favorite conquistador attack, would be out of the question in Florida. And that was not all. The patrol had surprised a small party of natives. Two of the Indians had been spitted on lances, but the others had fled into the woods, whence they began shooting arrows at their attackers from the shelter of the trees. By the time the patrol regained the safety of the open beach, two horses had been killed and several wounded. This was serious, for horses were irreplaceable and the Spanish depended on their cavalry to outmaneuver and frighten the natives. The optimistic conquistadors did not know it then, but the next four years would provide an almost daily repetition of this rough punishment, as ambush followed ambush and the invading army was raked from end to end by the stinging hit-and-run attacks of the Indians. Half the carefree cavaliers would leave their bones to whiten in Tierra Florida, “the land of flowers.”
Not long after the landing, de Soto had a tremendous stroke of luck, possibly the only one of the whole Florida expedition. An advance patrol of cavalry came across a band of Indians in a clearing. Without pausing to consider why the Indians were exposing themselves in the open, the horsemen levelled their lances and charged. The Indians fled into the trees, leaving one man wounded on the ground and another standing there apparently in a state of shock. A trooper was just poised to run the savage through when the Indian fell to his knees, made the sign of the cross, and with difficulty cried out in halting Spanish “Sevilla! Sevilla!” The effect of his words was electrifying. The lancers dropped their weapons and clustered round the naked man, who explained that he was Juan Ortiz, a native of Seville who had come to Florida with Narváez’s expedition, had been captured by the Indians, and had survived by going native. He had been on his way to the Spanish camp with a party of friendly Indians when the lancers had attacked them.
Juan Ortiz was a godsend for de Soto—a reliable, intelligent guide who spoke the local dialect fluently, knew the Indian customs, and could provide information on the politics and geography of the land. Ortiz was at once appointed to de Solo’s staff, fed, and given communion by the priests. Uncomfortable in the closefitting Spanish clothes after eleven years of nakedness, he went around camp dressed in a long, loose linen wrap.
The army now marched forward with more confidence. Through Ortiz, de Soto managed to establish contact with Mucozo, the friendly Indian chief who had looked after the marooned Spaniard. A peace treaty was arranged, and the Indians agreed to supply the invaders with maize and guides. But Mucozo did not possess any gold, and before long the Spaniards wore his hospitality thin. He realized that the sooner the Spanish army left, the better it would be for him and his tribe. He therefore employed a simple ruse which de Soto was to encounter again and again: he informed the Spanish general that although he himself did not have any gold, another tribe some distance away possessed legendary stores of bullion and gems. Naturally, it would take several weeks’ marching to reach this glittering prize, but he, Mucozo, would gladly provide guides for the first part of the journey. These guides could lead de Soto to the limits of their tribal territory and then hand him on to Indians of the neighboring tribe.
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.
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.
The Indians who struck back at the Spanish were the Choctaw of south-central Alabama. De Soto entered their territory early in October, and was greeted by their chief, Tuscaloosa, the Black Warrior. It was an impressive meeting: the Spanish general clad in armor on his charger and the Indian chief seated on a pile of cushions, wearing a full-length mantle of feathers. Tuscaloosa greeted de Soto warily, but seemed willing to let the Spaniards cross his lands. De Soto responded in his usual high-handed style. He accepted the offer and then ordered his halberdiers to seize Tuscaloosa and take him with the column. It was a fatal mistake; Tuscaloosa managed to send runners to his war chiefs, summoning them to his capital at Mobila, where they set an ambush for de Soto and his soldiers. (This Indian town, probably located near the juncture of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers in present-day Alabama, has been variously spelled Mavila, Mauvila, Mabila, etc.)
When Tuscaloosa told him that Mobila held ample supplies of food, de Soto decided to march on the capital. He moved straight into the trap; to make matters worse, he allowed his troops to disperse and forage. When the main column reached the town, de Soto was accompanied by fifteen troopers and a huge, surly mob of slaves, hostages, and prisoners. Despite the warnings of a Spanish spy who told de Soto that Mobila was swarming with Choctaw warriors, the stiff-necked general decided to enter the town with Tuscaloosa at his side. As the handful of Spaniards passed through the gates, their attention was diverted by a team of dancing girls stationed there as decoys. Then Tuscaloosa signalled his braves to attack, and they rushed out from the houses. De Soto and his companions backed toward the gate with blows ringing off their armor. Five of the white men were hacked to pieces protecting their general, and de Soto himself narrowly escaped.
De Soto’s life was saved, but his negligence was still to prove the ruin of his expedition. The Indians in the baggage train had seized their opportunity to escape. They had streamed into Mobila, taking with them all the Spanish supplies, spare weapons, and gunpowder. By the time the main body of the Spanish army arrived, the situation was desperate. On the other side of Mobila’s palisades lay all the equipment needed to survive the march down to the coast. Already the ramparts were lined with self-liberated slaves, jeering and holding up their booty to mock the white men.
For de Soto there was no alternative: he had to capture Mobila and regain his equipment. The siege lasted all day, and it was a blood bath. The Spanish infantry hurled themselves against the palisades, hacking at the logs with axes, but were beaten back by the crazed Choctaw. Finally de Soto had to fire the town and risk his equipment in the conflagration. Mobila was built of wood and straw, and it burned like tinder. But with the flames behind them and the halberdiers in front, the Choctaw warriors refused to surrender. They stubbornly resisted and inflicted heavy casualties. De Soto himself received an arrow in the rump and spent the rest of the battle standing in his stirrups. The siege became a massacre of the Choctaw, but not until their last warrior had hanged himself from the ramparts with his own bowstring did the fighting stop, and by then it was clear that the Spanish equipment had burned with the town.
The battle was a victory for the Spanish, but a victory they could not afford. In addition to losing their matériel, they had 22 dead and 148 wounded, some with multiple arrow wounds. Scarcely any soldiers had come through unscathed; they were burned, hungry, and exhausted. De Soto had put himself in an impossible tactical position and had paid the price for his stupidity. By rights, his Florida expedition was finished; they should all have limped to the coast to rendezvous with the ships. But that was not de Solo’s style. He was stubbornly convinced that somewhere in Tierra Florida he would build his empire, and he was too proud to return to Spain a failure. When a messenger arrived to report that the supply fleet was waiting, he suppressed the news, fearing that the men would desert and make for the coast. By sheer force of character, de Soto led his men away from their salvation and took them, ill equipped and battered, into the interior for three more years of fighting. The fleet waited in vain to provide them with fresh supplies. Then it sailed back to Cuba, not knowing what had become of the Florida expedition.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
De Soto’s death posed an immediate and macabre problem for the new commander. The Indians had believed that the white general was a demigod: the aborigine chiefs often claimed to be divine, and the invincible de Soto had fitted neatly into the same pattern. Moscoso was worried that if the Indians discovered that de Soto had died an ordinary death, they would lose their awe of the Spanish and launch an attack on the camp. To avoid this danger, de Soto’s corpse was stealthily buried in the loose soil at the main entrance to the Spanish camp, where his grave would be obliterated by the constant trampling of men and horses. However, this stratagem did not deceive the Indians, who quickly noticed the freshly turned earth and began asking pointed questions about the absence of the general. Fearing that the natives might dig up and perhaps mutilate the corpse, Moscoso had de Soto’s body disinterred by night and carried down to the river. There it was wrapped in a shroud, weighted with sand, and dumped from a dugout canoe into the middle of the Mississippi. It was a strange burial ground for a Knight of Santiago who had set aside ample funds for a marble tomb in the church vault at Jerez de los Caballeros.
At first thought, Moscoso, the man responsible for the success of the disastrous Chickasaw fire attack, seemed an odd choice for the position of leader. But Moscoso had an even temper and was popular with both men and officers. He had joined the expedition in order to recoup his squandered Peruvian fortune, and when he saw that the new venture would not make a profit he had consistently advocated returning home. Furthermore, he had shown an uncanny instinct for survival, having weathered shipwreck, disgrace, defeat, and illness. By choosing Moscoso as his successor, de Soto made sure that the Florida expedition would eventually head for home.
Since the Indians were still curious about de Solo’s whereabouts, they were told that the great general had ascended into the sky to consult his Father, and would be returning shortly. This was a lame excuse, and it was obvious that if the Spanish lingered they would be attacked once more. Moscoso knew that he had three alternatives: he could cross the Mississippi and return eastward the way the army had come, risking the vengeance of the tribes de Soto had antagonized; he could build boats, descend the river to the Gulf, and then sail westward along the Gulf coast to New Spain; or he could try to reach Mexico overland. Typically, he asked for the opinions of his officers. None of them wanted to try the long, hard march back to Tampa. They were equally frightened of the river trip, remembering that the Narvâez expedition had drowned while attempting to flee the country in homemade boats. Therefore, they chose to try to march overland to Mexico. To forestall recriminations, Moscoso drew up an agreement and had all his officers sign it.
But the overland trek soon proved futile As soon as the Spaniards passed out of fertile, well-populated regions into the desert country, they found themselves facing starvation. The army of Florida turned about and retraced its steps. In early December, the Spanish arrived on the banks of the Mississippi for the third and last time—no longer so much the army of Florida as the army of the Mississippi. They found two small, prosperous riverside towns, well stocked with provisions, and settled down in them to spend the winter building boats. The ingenuity of the Spanish troops was remarkable. Moscoso and his hidalgos knew that their lives depended on building these boats, and even the most aristocratic officers lent a hand.
The annual March rise of the Mississippi took them all by surprise and nearly ruined their painstaking efforts. And no sooner had they cleared away the debris than they had to deal with yet another Indian attack. (It was to be preceded, as in the Chickasaw country, by incendiaries, but this time the wary Moscoso took pains to learn the Indians’ plans, and thwarted them completely.) At last, on July 2, 1543, the voyagers set out. There were 322 Spaniards, 100 of the healthiest Indian slaves, seven leaky pinnaces, 22 horses on rafts, and a flotilla of dugouts. They left behind about five hundred Indian prisoners, servants, and porters whom they had acquired on their travels. Most of these unlucky natives were far from their tribal homes, and the majority undoubtedly perished.
The first part of the journey was a nightmare of Indian harassment and foundering boats and rafts. The horses proved too difficult to transport and had to be killed or abandoned. But after a few days the pursuing natives finally gave up the chase and retired upstream. Then Moscoso and his men travelled alone down the Father of Waters for seventeen more days under a blazing sun. At last, on July 16, after seven hundred miles of river travel, they came within sight of the sea. Moscoso ordered the army ashore, and the soldiers repaired the boats for a sea voyage, filled the water kegs, and recouped their strength. But they dared not linger, because the delta Indians had learned of their presence.
On Wednesday, July 18, the expedition got under way for Mexico. For two days they rowed in the fresh water that the Mississippi poured into the Gulf, and then the flotilla stood out to sea and hoisted sails. The Spanish were lucky; the weather remained calm and the little boats, gunwales barely above the water, crept westward from headland to headland, their occupants suffering miserably from thirst and mosquitoes.
Finally, on September 10, fifty-two days after leaving the mouth of the Mississippi, they reached the Spanish settlement at the mouth of the Panuco River. Of the original 622 members of the Florida army, exactly half had returned to civilization. Like living scarecrows the survivors limped ashore and sank to the ground to kiss the sand and give thanks to God for their unforeseen salvation. But the credit for their survival belonged to their own incredible resilience and to Moscoso. The easygoing man of pleasure had extricated his force almost without loss from the heart of the continent. Using excellent judgment, he had succeeded where the more dashing de Soto had failed. It was his reward that he was the only man to make a profit from the venture—he wooed and married a rich Mexican widow and took her back to Spain, where, presumably, he lived the life of ease he had always craved.
Of the other survivors there is little record. A few stayed in the Americas to farm or join other conquistador armies; some made their way back to Spain; and one or two took holy orders in thanks for their deliverance. Nothing was ever heard of the Spanish deserters who had chosen to go native; the North American continent swallowed them without trace.
In the years that followed, Spain’s colonial ambitions paid little attention to the “Rio Grande.” There may have been some passing thoughts of an expedition tracing the river to its source in the interior, but de Soto’s experiences had convinced the Spaniards that their efforts would be wasted. The Mississippi was not a highway to Golconda. A few trading posts were established near the delta but they did not prosper; the Spaniards turned increasingly to the problem of linking their older colonies rather than striking out into unknown territory, and it was not for another 150 years that white men sailed the Mississippi again. When they did, Spain was declining as a colonial power and the newcomers were Frenchmen arriving from the opposite end of the continent, the far northeast.