The Hernando de Soto expedition forms an integral part of the great age of discovery and conquest in the Americas triggered by the Columbian voyages. In the wake of Columbus there came other explorers and conquistadors who pushed through the islands of the Caribbean and into the American mainlands during the first half of the sixteenth century. They came as explorers and discoverers, as conquerors and settlers, spreading the best and the worst of European civilization through the Americas.
A great part of the Western world's interest in commemorating the Columbian voyages has been in how to assess the long-range impact of Europe on America. In this clash, new peoples and new cultures were born, and ancient peoples and indigenous cultures were destroyed. The De Soto expedition was the first major encounter of Europeans with North American Indians in the eastern half of the United States and, as such, is of monumental importance in the study and analysis of the origins of North American history after the arrival of the Europeans.
As leader of the first European penetration into the interior of the area, then called La Florida, De Soto saw American Indians in their native towns and with their native customs, untouched, as yet, by foreign people. Accordingly, scholars have found the accounts of the De Soto expedition to be of major importance in understanding the Native Americans and their way of life. De Soto's army spent six months in Alabama. They traveled over five hundred miles of Indian trails in the process and had their greatest battle in Alabama. For these reasons especially, Alabama has always had a great interest in De Soto.
For anthropologists and archaeologists, the surviving De Soto chronicles are uniquely valued for the ethnological information they contain. These documents are the only detailed eyewitness record of the most advanced native cultural achievement in North America - the Mississippian culture - a culture that vanished in the wake of European contact. Scholars are now engaged in the exciting prospect of uniting the ethnological record displayed in the De Soto chronicles with modern archaeological, historical, and linguistic findings in order to yield the first comprehensive picture of southeastern Mississippian Indian chiefdoms at the time of European contact.
For the historical record, the De Soto entrada initiated a long period of intermittent contact between Europeans and Native Americans during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. De Soto's failures did not deter the Spanish from planting frontier outposts to protect their growing empire in Mexico and the Caribbean. St. Augustine, 1565, was perhaps the most famous, but it was followed by small missions and presidios that dotted the Southeast in the seventeenth century.
The Spanish, and their European rivals for colonial empire, vied for the control and loyalty of Native Americans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Englishmen jockeyed for empire.
The Amerindian peoples, caught in this tangle of European rivalry, were but a ghostly specter of the densely populated, well-organized Indian chiefdoms encountered by De Soto and his men in 1539-43. With De Soto marched the sickle of diseases that cut down Amerindians with no immunities. Part of the Columbian legacy was not only the conquest and assimilation of native peoples, not only the creation of new races through miscegenation, not only the bringing of Christianity, but a terrible destruction brought on by disease and by the demoralizing defeats at the hands of the Europeans.
De Soto's expedition was one of those primary events in the transformation of North American life initiated by the Columbian voyages, and it is within this context that we view the accounts included in these volumes as being of extraordinary importance.