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De Soto And The Golden Road

April 2024
14min read

Some men see the beginnings. The conquistador who first saw the Mississippi also took the Inca highway to fabulous Cuzco.

Hernando de Soto, so the chronicler said, first came upon Cuzco at sunset.

The great wheel of the sun, sinking with an enormous burst of reddened glory, lighted up the city so that even the poorer buildings took on a burnished golden look. As the retreating rays touched the beaten gold plates that decorated its walls, the pyramided Sun Temple, towering over the lower buildings around it, gleamed as if it were cased in golden metal.

De Soto was one of that minute but magic company to whom it is given to see the marvels of the earth for the first time. Some years later he was to plunge into the wilderness of what is now the southern United States, enduring hardships, meeting barbaric Indian tribes, finally beholding the Mississippi River—never seen before by any European—and at last meeting his death by its shores. In his lifetime he traveled a long road and witnessed many fantastic things; yet never, in all of his wanderings, did he see anything quite like the storied Inca capital.

It lay in a protected hollow at the northern end of the treeless valley. On the northern higher slope of the city stood an enormous stone fortress, a structure so immense that at first sight de Soto and his companion doubted that any army could breach it. Narrow and long “like a puma’s tail,” Cuzco was made up of narrow streets, its smaller buildings painted yellow and red, the larger buildings constructed of enormous stonework. In the center was a great “square, larger than the Plaza of Saint Mark’s in Venice, which, hecause I the luminous atmosphere, seemed so near that a bolt from a crossbow could have been shot into its center.

Captain Hernando de Soto, from his position on the hill of Karmenka, had good reason to study Cuzco intently. For he, along with 200 Spaniards in this fateful year of 1533, was engaged in the conquest of an empire. De Soto was then 35, and, according to his Sixteenth-Century chronicler Oviedo, “a handsome mail, dark in complexion, with full beard and dark restless eyes, of cheerful countenance, an endurer of hardships and very valiant.”

With only one Spanish companion he had come 450 miles south from Cajamarca, where the lnca king was being held lor ransom, with the purpose of speeding the payment of the gold and silver ransom and to make sure of the captured lnca emperor’s promise “that he would (ill an immense room, once with gold, twice with silver.” Knowledge was needed too, of the sixe of this strange kingdom, of its roads and of its defenses, for the Spaniards had come not only to siphon off a winnowing of lnca gold but to make conquest of the source of all of it.

Earlier, three common soldiers had been sent to Cuzco for the purpose of spying out the secrets of the Incas, but—what with being carried about Cuzco in goldencrusted litters and being addressed as gods—they had grown so overbearing that the native officials, hurriedly getting together 234 litter-loads of gold and silver, ended their excuse lor being in Cuzco at all. So that mission ended without their obtaining vital information; next Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniards’ captain-general, chose the Hidalgo de Soto, “a gentleman on all four sides” (which meant that rarity, a man who knew who all four of his grandparents were, and knew further that they included only the purest Spanish blood).

This well-descended young soldier had landed in Yucatan in 1519, and fought for upwards of ten years throughout Central America. He was nursing wounds in Nicaragua in 1532 when the clarion call came from Pizarro and his brothers.

One hundred and eighty men, with 37 horses, equipped with two falconets, twenty crossbows and three ships, had been assembled in 1532 in Tumbes, the most northern coastal city of the Incas, to begin the conquest of seven million. After weeks of the march inland, de Soto had been dispatched ahead into the mountains with twenty soldiers to seek out the whereabouts of the mysterious Inca king. At an altitude of 8,000 feet in the center of the high cordilleras he had come upon the village of Caxas. Here, as the expedition’s official secretary, or scrivener, Francisco de Xerez, recorded it, they saw the first evidence of the grandeur of the golden kingdom: “Fine edifices and a fortress built entirely of cut stones, the larger ones being five or six palms wide and so closely joined that there appears to be no mortar between them.”

Since the natives, unknown to the Spaniards, were under the strictest orders from the Inca not to attack, the 2,000 Indian warriors at Caxas had withdrawn into the mountains leaving de Soto master of the place. A chieftain appeared and through an interpreter said that he was in the service of the Inca and took him out on a “road made by hands and broad enough for six men on horseback to ride abreast.”

Hernando de Soto thus became the first white man to see the royal highways of the Incas, cut through plains and solid mountains for thousands of miles. The chieftain averred that “this same road traverses all the intervening land between Cuzco and Quito, a distance of more than three hundred leagues” (actually 1,230 miles). He described Cuzco “as a league around, and the house of the Lord Inca four crossbow shots in length,” and told him that the Inca Atahualpa was not far distant from this same Caxas and was now taking the hot water baths at Cajamarca.

It was after this that the soldiers found “a great and strong building in the town of Caxas surrounded by adobe walls in which there were many women spinning and weaving cloth . . . and there were no men with them except the porters who guarded them.” At the entrance three dead Indians were found hanging by their feet because they had entered the house. These Virgins of the Sun were inviolable to ordinary men, but this did not concern the Spaniards. Unable to restrain his men, who had not seen desirable women in months, de Soto ordered the 500 women out into the plaza. “De Soto,” said Oviedo, “was a man of good impulses,” who, had he not been schooled in the questionable methods of the Pizarros, might have left behind an untarnished name, “but poor human beings must be allowed to have maxims not always in accord with their feelings.” While the crossbowmen mounted guard, the Spaniards took their turns with the Virgins of the Sun. Then they made their way back to where the main army waited.

The little Spanish column arrived at Cajamarca on Friday, the fifteenth of November, 1532, at the hour of vespers. It was a city of stone houses, in the center of them a large plaza, “larger than any in Spain,” surrounded by a high wall and entered by only two doorways. In the distance steam could be seen rising from the sulphur baths where the chieftain was surrounded by a pavilion of white tents. Thirty thousand battle-tried soldiers were encamped about him. “It filled us with amazement,” said one of the Spaniards, “to behold the Indians holding so proud a position.”

Why had not the Indians attacked their tiny force of 102 foot and Ga cavalrymen? This question agitated the assembled captains. They knew now that the Inca had been informed by the chasquis , or native couriers, of every detail of their movement; he knew how few of them there were, of the incident of the raped Virgins of the Sun. Atahualpa was curious but he was not in awe of them. He was aware that five years before these same white-bearded men had come to Tumbes, only to sail away in deceptive peace.

The Indians entertained many misconceptions about the conquistadores. They believed that the white man and his horse were one and that, dismounted, the “man-part” was ineffective and therefore incapable of fighting at night; that their “fire-sticks” were animated thunderbolts; and that the Spaniard’s steel swords were no more effective than a woman’s weaving battens.


To the Spaniards the moment called for audacious action. De Soto rode boldly into the Indians’ camp to invite the Inca king into his. Mistaking Atahualpa for d general, writes Oviedo, “he arrived galloping, making his horse curvet for bravery or else to amaze the Indians; he came so close to the chair on which Atahualpa sat, that the horse snorted into his face; yet the Inca moved not.” Then, seeing his error, de Soto, remembering that he was not only a conquistador but also a gentleman on all four sides, quickly dismounted and made a graceful obeisance. Invited to sit on a seat of gold where he was waited upon by two Indian girls “as beautiful as suns,” de Soto spoke. His talk was of the Pope, the Vice-Regent of God, and the King of Spain, of how they had sent Francisco Pizarro and his companions to bring the divine truth and holy law to these realms. All of this was duly translated into Quechua, the native speech, by one of de Soto’s own Indians. The Inca, whose curiosity could not be assuaged, agreed to come to their camp as invited with his warriors “unarmed,” so as not to give offense to Pizarro, the soldier of the Vice-Regent of God.

Toward the evening of November 16, 1532, the retinue of the Inca advanced into the plaza. It was a magical hour; the high priest, consulting a llama’s liver, had read a good augury. Besides, he announced, the belching fire-sticks of the white man were not effective at nighttide. First came a squadron of Indians dressed in livery colored different hues in the design of a chessboard; they advanced by sweeping the road clear of any obstacle. Next came other Indians, beating the drum, blowing the conch horn, dancing and singing. Then came the Inca borne on a litter with plumes of parrot feathers and adorned with plates of gold and silver and carried on the shoulders of eight blue-liveried nobles of the Rucana tribe. To the bleat of the horn and drum they entered the plaza. The rest is history. The Spaniards were hidden in the surrounding buildings and the plaza was vacant of white men. When in annoyance the Inca inquired where his hosts were, a solitary figure approached across the plaza. It was Friar Vicente. He stopped before the Inca.

“I am a priest of God,” he said, “and I teach Christians the things of God. I come to teach you.”

He offered the Bible to the Inca who, after a brief uncomprehending glance, dashed it to the ground in proper royal rage. That was enough. There was a battle cry, “ Santiago! ” and from the houses the armed Spaniards poured down on the trapped Indians.

It was all over in 33 minutes; one of the most fateful half hours the world has ever known. Within the space of time it took for the Spanish bugles to blow and the falconets to explode, the shock of Spanish cavalry charging into the ranks of naked bodies and the slaughter of the bodyguard and the capture of the Inca tumbled an empire. The whole culture of Andean America, which had been thousands of years in the making, fell in the dust and gore in that plaza at Cajamarca. The Indians never fully recovered from the first shock.

Within days, discovering that his captors suffered less from religious zeal than from a malady lor which gold was the only remedy, and being a master of perfidy himself, Atahualpa offered to ransom himself with the gold and silver of the empire. He would, he said, standing on tiptoe, “give enough gold to fill this room twenty-two feet long and seventeen wide to the white line which is half way up the wall.” As lor silver, he said he would “fill the whole chamber with it twice over.” That room, the only melancholy remainder of the drama of the 33 minutes, still stands in Cajamarca. The ransom monies were beginning to pour in when Hernando de Soto was sent on his mission to Cuzco . . .

De Soto was carried through the city in a goldplated litter, followed by a curious throng of women and children. He saw the storehouses for wool and cotton, and others filled with arms and such other accoutrements of war as quilted cotton armor, sharpedged swords and star-shaped halberds, while still other rooms were filled with com and shellfish and seaweed; all of this was of tax tribute. He was careful to note—for he was primarily an officer making an estimate of the situation—the fact that out of the great square went “four roads which led to all parts of the empire.”

The people, so de Soto learned, had originated as wanderers and food-gatherers around Lake Tificaca. Eventually they migrated northward. Ry the year iooo, since “blood and cruelty is the foundation of all good things,” they had disposed of the original inhabitants of this valley and taken possession of the treeless plain about Cuxco. Yet as these people were exposed to dearth and hunger and seasonal droughts, they began to oppose the titanic foires of Nature and to alter them for their benefit. They became a disciplined people and a unified empire, expanding at the expense of their neighbors. Whom they could not absorb, they destroyed. About 1200 A.D., the chieftains of the Quechua-spcaking peoples announced their official descent from the Sun God. They called themselves “Incas,” and as such became hereditary rulers.

Under the aggressively active Inca policy of conquest and assimilation, the lnca realm expanded in all of the four directions. Roads were built and the chasqui system organized. A caste of record-keepers, trained so that they could read the story of the past, invented the quipu , a series of colored and knotted strings, by means of which records could be kept of grazing lands, gold mines, numbers of people and tribes, tributes and deposits.

Having grown great, the Incas had come to believe that it must have always been thus, and what did not conform to the established idea of the lnca past was eliminated from human memory and so well that the impression has been left that, before the lnca, there hovered only a void over the Andes.

Their history operated much like the continuously truthful newspaper in George Orwell’s 1984 ; all other “truths” were eliminated and only those official truths remained. Meanwhile those things that it was desired that the people recall were sung by professional “rememberers,” who on festive occasions sang the song of the lnca, the memory of events kept accurate by the use of the quipu .

The Incas ruled their people with an iron hand but a just one. Every detail of their life, from womb to tomb, was prescribed. The state was not for the people, nor was equality the ideal. It was rather a blending of tribal communism and theocracy, a perilously balanced fusion of two antagonistic systems.

The common people were manipulated like figures on a chessboard. They became part of the decimal system of classification with division all along the social line. An elaborate hierarchy of territorial officials was set up. Above all was the argus-eyed lnca who saw every facet of his empire, as watchful as “Hig Rrother.” For every 10,000 in population there were 1,331 ollicials. Everything was regulated in this welfare state. No one moved on the roads without permission; there was work-service for taxes; there were contributions to state and religion; and each man was automatically a member of an agrarian militia. If a section of the realm was underpopulated, a whole tribe was moved into it. Loyal subjects were settled in a newly conquered land, while the recently conquered tribes were moved out and transferred to a “safe” community where they could be absorbed. Under this policy, most of Andean America was conquered. From Chile to Colombia, a distance of 2,320 linear miles, the land was unified, the jungle was invaded, the desert-coast pervaded. No tribe, no force, could resist the pressure of this benevolent despotism.


There was only one way in which this community of people could be held together and that was by the communicating roads. All Indians were obliged to give one-third of their time to work-service. Each tribal unit must build and maintain the highway running through its section. The direction, planning and master plan was laid down by technicians sent out from Cuzco; these master architects charted the direction the roads would take, planned the way-stops, figured out the distances that the couriers would run and where their platforms would be set up. With these communications completed, nothing could occur anywhere in the realm without the officials at Cuzco being made immediately aware of it.

All this and much more did de Soto see and learn during his stay in Cuzco. And the summer of the dry season had come before he quit the city. He gathered much gold, wrote his report and prepared to move out. Cuzco was now gay with arriving Indians, for it was the time of the Sun Festival, the Inti-raymi , celebrating the time when, as the Indians believed, the Sun God came down to live with them. The Spaniard turned on the hill of Karmenka and looked back on Cuzco; the last European to see it in its pagan state.

When he returned to Cajamarca over the Royal Road, the gold was still pouring into Cajamarca filling up the room designated by the imprisoned Inca. Indians carried litters filled “in greater part of goldplates . . . taken from the walls, for holes showed where they had been secured.” An account was taken and it came to 326,539 pesos of gold, the equivalent of $20,000,000. All this gold and a larger amount of silver plate was ordered to be melted down in order to make it easier to divide among the conquerors. But while this gold was being reduced in the crucibles of the Indian goldsmiths, Atahualpa found that the gold, instead of buying his freedom, was only purchasing his demise. Before the gold was distributed the captains about Pizarro began to press for Atahualpa’s death. Rumors of the mobilization of the Inca’s army were brought in, as Xerez tells us, and in a feigned rage Pizarro, who had the Inca chained, remonstrated with him.

“What treasons is that you have prepared for me, Lord Inca? For me, who have treated you with honor like a brother and have trusted your words.”

“Do not make nonsense with me,” protested the Inca.

Hernando de Soto objected vigorously at the turn of events and with twelve other soldiers he opposed the Inca’s death; he had honorably proposed to ransom himself and had done so. Only the King of Spain should judge the Indian monarch and de Soto demanded that he be allowed to go to the city of Huaraachuco, two days distance, to see if native warriors were really in fact gathering. He was allowed this, not to learn the facts but so that he would be out of the way.

The Inca, as soon as de Soto was gone, was tried for his “crimes.” Atahualpa had twelve accusations leveled against him; that he was a bastard, had many wives, was an idolater, waged unjust wars, that he had spent tribute which rightfully belonged to the Spaniards! Naturally he was guilty, and condemned to be burned alive. In great distress, Atahualpa asked if there was not some way he could escape and he was offered some hope.

“If you would become a Christian, I can promise that not a drop of your blood shall be shed.” Pizarro kept his promise on that twenty-ninth day of August, J533. when the Inca was led out to the square “without showing any feeling.” Not a drop of his blood was shed; he was strangled by the garrote.

De Soto’s protests, on his return, were drowned out by the distribution of the ransom of Atahualpa. As fourth on the list after God, king and the captaingeneral, he received 724 marks of gold—17,740 pesos—a tidy sum for a year’s work amounting to about 300,000 gold ducats. The conquest had, however, just begun and de Soto, head of the cavalry, spent yet two more years in Peru up to formal entrance into Cuzco and the final conquest of the surrounding country. After that he quit Peru, returned to Spain with his golden loot, where he became a great figure at the Spanish court “with a large enough fortune to make it worth the Emperor’s while to borrow it from him.”

Perhaps de Soto wearied of the calmness of Spain and certainly he had in his mind, as had all the Spanish explorer-conquerors, to find a practical passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific; despite the personal audacity of the conquistadores, which had doubled the world’s landscape, geographical knowledge was still vague and confused and there remained hope that the great river of the Holy Spirit, the Mississippi, which was talked about by the Indians, might flow into the Pacific. It was the return of Alvar N’fcnez de Vaca to Spain, one of the survivors of the disastrous Spanish expedition into the Rio Grande, and his talk of the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, that set de Soto off to Florida. “It was his object to find other treasures, like that of Atahualpa, Lord of Peru.” But from the time he landed in Florida in May, 1539, crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and moved into the delta of Mobile Bay, there was nothing but disaster. In April, 1541, they were crossing the Mississippi somewhere south of where Memphis now stands and de Soto was still dreaming of the passage to the Pacific and the mythical cities of Cibola. A year later, after exploring Arkansas and becoming one of the first white men to see the buffalo, Hernando de Soto reached the end of the golden trail; fever stricken and despondent, he took to his pallet and died.


The section of the Inca road between Caxas and Guancabamba in Peru which set Hernando de Solo’s brain afire is still there. If historical events were observed then, in 1532, as they are now, with faces, profiles and signatures embedded in cement, we would have the hoof marks of his war horse and the rubric of Hernando de Soto, Gent., the first white man to see the great Royal Road of the Incas. He found then that there was indeed “nothing in Christendom” to compare with these thousands of miles of all-weather roads which knit the Inca people together as empire.

Four hundred years after the advent of Hernando de Soto, the members of the Inca Highway Expedition, in association with the American Geographical Society, followed that remarkable and ancient road. For two years we moved across the fragments of the Royal Road, finding the ruined cities mentioned by the conquistadores and confirming the courier stations, which allowed the Incas to perfect a system of runners as fast as the pony express. We found the remains of suspension bridges, and followed the Inca road through the Andes, down the hot desert coast and into the jungles. By an intense investigation which will occupy us in its various forms for five years, we have proven what the first conquistadores said of the road which built an empire, which led the Spaniards to the Inca and which sealed its doom: “I believe since the history of man, there has been no other account of such grandeur as to be seen in this road . . .”

And it was this road which that man of “good impulses,” Hernando de Soto, first discovered in the springtime of the New World.

Another View of the Great Roads

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