DeSoto's Illinois Trails
DeSoto's Scouts' Illinois Conquest Trail - Press for Google Map Written by Donald E. Sheppard
Drawings by Cheryl Lucente



The King's Agent with a scouting party for Hernando de Soto's ill fated conquest reported that, " order to travel to the South Sea (the Pacific Ocean) ...we traveled eight days (northwest from Terre Haute, Indiana on July 8th, Full Moon, first to today's Paris, Illinois, then north)In the Illinois Reeds through an uninhabited land of very great swampy lakes (photo below) where we did not even find trees but rather some great plains where the grass was so tall (photo at left) and so strong that even with the horses we could not force our way through it. At the end of this time, we arrived at some Indian houses..." just below today's Chicago. They had traveled up today's Illinois Route 1 from Paris, Illinois, camping near today's Ridge Farm, Danville, Hoopston, Watseka, Kankakee and Beecher. "...the houses were covered with sewn reeds"

Read the translated details of Northern Illinois' Scouts
written by DeSoto's ChroniclersBiedma,  Elvas

Swampy Lakes in Illinois
"When the Indians wish to carry them away they roll up the reeds of the covering and an Indian man carries it and the woman carries the framework of poles over which it is placed, and it is set up and taken down so easily that even if they moved every hour they could carry their houses with them."
© 1993, University of Alabama Press

The Gentleman of Elvas says, "From there on toward the north, the Indians said that the land was very poorly inhabited because it was very cold, and that there were so many cattle (buffalo) that no field could be protected because of them, and that the Indians sustained themselves on their flesh."

Press for More Images Like This for SchoolThe King's Agent goes on to say... "we found out from these Indians that there were (only) some little settlements of that sort across the land, and all they did was set up their house where there were many deer, or on a swamp where there were many fish, and when they had frightened away the game and could not catch fish as easily as at first, they moved from there with their homes and all that they owned and went away to another place where they could find fresh game. This province was called Caluci; they were people that paid little attention to sowing (planting), because they maintained themselves on fish and meat."

On July 15th, 1541, his eighth day on the trail from Terre Haute, the King's Agent arrived at Lake Michigan at Chicago. He reported, "We returned to this town of Pacaha (Terre Haute, Indiana), where the governor remained... having seen that there was no road to traverse to the other sea..." - no open seaway to the Pacific Ocean.

A Spanish GalleonSpanish galleons cruised the World's Oceans on "roads," but no road to those seas could exist across Lake Michigan because it is landlocked. There are no ocean tides or salt in it. The King's Agent perceived that at once. The Conquest of North America, Hernando de Soto's quest to find a route to the South Sea and, thereby, a passage to China for trade, would soon end in Illinois. Spain never returned for a second look. Portugal continued to control European shipping to and from the Orient by sailing around Africa, their half of the New World according to Catholic Agreement in 1494. France and England, oblivious to what the Spaniards had learned at Lake Michigan (then reinforced in Southern Illinois), would continue their search for a northern passage to the Pacific Ocean for the rest of that century. DeSoto, likewise oblivious to Biedma's discovery for the next week, continued to celebrate with natives BACK IN INDIANA.

Southern Illinois Trails   TRAILS TO THIS POINT     ALL TRAILS MAP

You can read the translated details of Southern Illinois Conquest
written by DeSoto's ChroniclersBiedma,  Rangel,  Elvas  &  Inca


DeSoto's Southern Illinois Conquest Trail MapHernando de Soto entered Illinois on Tuesday, the second day of August, 1541, by crossing the Wabash River into Mount Carmel.

Rangel, DeSoto's Secretary, says, "They spent the night on Wednesday at a burned town (today's Grayville, possibly raided by Chief Casqui of Vincennes during his absence from DeSoto at Terre Haute, then bringing back its spoils to appease an angered DeSoto) and the following (day), Thursday, at another town (Carmi) next to a river (the Little Wabash River), where there were many squash and much corn and beans. And the next day, Friday, they (DeSoto's horsemen) went to Quiguate..."© 1993, U. of Alabama Press The troops would spend that night ten miles out at Bear Creek.

Elvas says, "...he (DeSoto) reached the town (ElDorado/Harrisburg, ahead of the army) where the chief was living. On the way (at Carmi, the northern provincial boundary), the latter (had) sent him blankets and skins, but not daring to remain in the town, went away."

Biedma says, "The town was the largest which had been seen in Florida, it was on a branch of the great river..." the Middle Fork of Saline River, a branch of the Great Ohio River.

Elvas continues, "The governor and his men were lodged in half of it (at Harrisburg); and a few days afterward, seeing that the Indians were going about deceitfully (on Full Moon), he ordered the other half burned, so that it might not afford them protection if they came to attack at night..."

DeSoto typically chose to camp on open plains for the advantage they offered his mounted army. Trees on campsites, like Harrisburg near the river, obstructed his view and offered Indians opportunity to fence his horses by placing logs between trees to stop the horsemen from chasing them. Natives usually attacked at night with fire on arrows directed toward the army and its livestock. DeSoto simply burned the trees of eastern Harrisburg.

ElDorado/Harrisburg lies near the center of a huge fertile plain, tens of thousands of acres, drained by the Saline River's branches into the nearby Ohio River. America's greatest rivers converge near there - as on the map at right of Indian mounds built along those trade rivers. The dot is Quiguate, at the center of native trade. DeSoto would spend three weeks near the west bank of the Middle Fork of Saline River in, according to Rangel, "...the largest town they saw in the land, next to the river of Casqui (the Wabash, Quiguate's eastern provincial boundary); and they found out afterwards (in Arkansas the following year) that the river was well peopled below (along today's Mississippi River, which all of those rivers flow into), although they did not manage to find it out then, and for that reason they (eventually) took the road to Coligua (today's Kaskaskia) passing through an uninhabited region..." of wetlands, mountains and river beds. They would, in time, make their departure from Quiguate westward through Marion, Crainville and Murphysboro on their way to Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River.

At Harrisburg, Inca relates a recurring problem DeSoto had, "On one of the nights the Spaniards spent in this camp it happened that... Juan Gaytan, having been summoned to make the rounds on horseback in the second night watch, had refused to do so... The governor was very angry because this gentleman was one of those who had complained about the conquest (of the Spaniards) in Mabila and had planned to leave the country as soon as they should arrive where there were ships, and return to Spain or go to Mexico. This, as we have said already, was the cause of obstructing and disarranging the purposes and well-laid plans that the governor had in mind for conquering and settling the country."

Inca then quotes the Governor's anger at Juan Gaytan, "Why do you want to return to Spain? Did you leave some inheritances there to go back and enjoy? Why do you wish to go to Mexico? To show the weakness and cowardice of your spirits, when you could be lords of such a great kingdom where you have discovered and traversed so many and such beautiful provinces, you have thought it better to go and lodge in a strange house and eat at another's table, when you could have your own in which to entertain and do good to many others? How much honor do you think they will do you when this becomes known? Be ashamed of yourselves, and understand that, officials of the real hacienda or not, we all have to serve his Majesty, and that no one shall presume to absent himself, whatever privileges he may have, or I shall behead him, whoever he may be. Understand further that while I live no one shall leave this country, but that we must conquer and settle it, or all die in the attempt."

Inca concludes, "The governor showed with these words, spoken in great anger and heaviness of heart, the reason for the perpetual discontent that he had felt all the way from Mabila (where he had fled away from his waiting ships to keep the bad news from reaching Spain, by marching his army due north to Indiana and then into Illinois) and that he felt continuously until his death. Those to whom they were addressed did as they were ordered from there on without raising any questions, because they understood that the governor was not a man to be trifled with, particularly when he had declared himself as decisively as he had done."

An Illinois FighterMeanwhile, Elvas says, "An Indian well attended by many Indians came saying that he was the chief. The governor delivered him to his guard that they might look after him. Many Indians went off and came bringing blankets and skins. Seeing poor opportunity for carrying out his evil thought, the pretended chief, going out of the house one day with the governor, started to run away so swiftly that there was no Christian who could overtake him; and plunged into the river (Pankey Branch wraps east and south around Harrisburg) which was a crossbow shot's distance from the town. As soon as he had crossed to the other side, many Indians who were walking about there, uttering loud cries, began to shoot arrows. The governor crossed over to them immediately with men of horse and of foot, but they did not dare await him. On going in pursuit of them, he arrived at a town which had been abandoned (Pankeyville), and beyond it a swamp where the horses could not cross (it's still there, just south of Pankeyville). On the other side were many women. Some men of foot crossed over and captured many of the women and a quantity of clothing. The governor returned to the camp (only a few miles north); and soon after on that night a spy of the Indians was captured by those who were on watch. The governor asked him whether he would take them to the place where the (real) chief was (or get fed to the dogs). He said yes, and the governor went immediately to look for the chief with 20 men of horse and 50 of foot (toward the east this time).

"After a march of a day and a half he found the chief in a dense wood, and a soldier, not knowing the chief, gave him a cutlass stroke on the head. The chief cried out not to kill him saying that he was the chief. He was taken captive and with him 140 of his people. The governor went back to Quigate (Harrisburg) and told him that he should make his Indians come to serve the Christians; and after waiting for several days hoping for them to come, but they were not coming, he (DeSoto) sent two Captains, each one on his side of the river (the Saline River east-southeastward thru today's Shawnee National Forest below Harrisburg toward the Ohio River), with horse and foot. They captured many Indians, both men and women (from villages along the river's banks). Upon seeing the hurt they received, because of the rebellion, they came to see what the governor might order them. Thus they came and went frequently and brought gifts of clothing and fish.

Press for More Real Native Images for School "The chief and two of his wives were left unshackled in the governor's house, being guarded by the halberdiers of the governor's guard. The governor asked them in what direction the land was more densely populated. They said that on the lower part of the (Ohio) river toward the south were large settlements and chiefs who were lords of wide lands and of many people (Kincaid Mounds and others on the "mound" map, above), and that there was a province called Coligoa (today's Kaskaskia) toward the northwest, situated near some mountain ridges (the St. Francis Mountains). It seemed advisable to the governor and to all the rest to go first to Coligoa, saying that perhaps the mountains would make a difference in the land and that gold or silver might exist on the other side of them. Both Quaguate (Harrisburg) and Casqui and Pacaha (Vincennes and Terre Haute, Indiana) were flat and fertile lands, with excellent meadow lands along the rivers where the Indians made large fields."

Most Interior Indian tribes had heard about DeSoto's treachery, from neighbors and traders, before he arrived. They also knew that his army was obsessed with finding gold. It didn't take long for them to realize that even the slightest mention of gold in a nearby area would rid them of the army's menacing presence. The lure of easy riches drove DeSoto's army: the Indians knew that and used that ploy to move the army away from themselves. Buffalo Hunters

Biedma says, "Here (at Harrisburg) we tarried eight or nine (more) days to look for interpreters and guides, still with the intention, if we were able, to traverse to the other sea (the Pacific Ocean), because the Indians told us that eleven days from there was a province where they killed cows (buffalo, 175 miles west of Harrisburg beyond the St. Francis Mountains of Missouri, their next layover destination), and there we would learn of interpreters in order to cross (this "Island of Florida") to the other sea."

Elvas says, "The governor left the chief of Quigate in his town (three weeks after arriving there); and an Indian who guided him through large pathless forests conducted him for seven days through an uninhabited region (the natives had fled) where they lodged each night amid marshes and streamlets of very shallow water (due west from Harrisburg along today's Highway 13 to Marion in the first two days, then down Crab Orchard Creek to Crainville and Murphysboro during the following two days). So plentiful were the fish that they killed them by striking them with clubs; and the Indians whom they took along in chains roiled the water with mud, and the fish, as if stupefied, would come to the surface and they caught as many as they wished..." in the massive swamps between Harrisburg and Murphysboro. There are levees (earthen dams) there today to protect citizens from flooding (photo at left) in that very low-lying area.

To Coligua at KaskaskiaRangel says of that same journey, "On Friday, the 26th of August, they departed from Quiquate (Harrisburg) in search of Coligua (Kaskaskia, mapped at right), and they spent the night at a swamp; and from swamp to swamp they made their journey of four swamps and four days (to Murphysboro) in which swamps were large numbers of fish, because the great river floods all that area when it overflows its banks. And on Tuesday (the fifth day on the trail) they went (through what Biedma called "a land of rugged mountains") to the river that they call Coligua (the Mississippi River - photo below), and on Wednesday likewise along (up) the same river, and the following day, Thursday, which was the 4th (actually the 1st) of September, to Coligua (today's Kaskaskia) and they found the town populated." Elvas says, "From Quiguate to Coligoa, the distance was about forty leagues..." 104 miles (actual distance 85 miles) in 7 days.

The Mississippi River near Kaskaskia

Biedma says of that trip, "We traveled over much flat land and other land of rugged mountains, and we struck pointblank at the town of Coligua, as if they led us by royal road..." up the Mississippi River's giant gorge to Kaskaskia, aside Missouri's St. Francois Mountains. "We found much food in this land and a great quantity of tanned cow (buffalo) tails and others for tanning.."

DeSoto's delight at finding this magnificent valley in America's interior must have been tempered by his perception of the river running through it. The Mississippi River (in photo above with the St. Francis Mountains beyond) had to drain a country much larger than he had previously conceived. DeSoto's search for the South Sea ended the day he sighted the Mississippi River from Illinois!

The irony of DeSoto's discovering the Mississippi River, for which he is famous today, is that the discovery itself ended his dream of finding a passage to China. He would die of anguish within eight months of his now famous discovery.

Kaskaskia village lies on what in DeSoto's time was a southward pointing peninsula between the Mississippi and Kaskaskia Rivers (see 1863 Civil War map at left). Since then the Mississippi River has changed course.

Elvas says, "The Indians of Coligoa had not heard of Christians (perhaps due to their extreme northern isolation), and when we arrived they took flight up a river (probably the Kaskaskia River) which flowed near the town (Kaskaskia on map)... some plunged into the river, but Christians who went (northward) along both banks captured them..."

Kaskaskian Mound on the Mississippi River TodayRangel says of Coligoa, " it they took many people and clothes and a great deal of food and much salt (gathered from Saline Creek west of Kaskaskia). It is a pleasant town among some mountains (the St. Francis Mountains), on a gorge of a river, and from there they went at midday to kill cows (buffalo), since there were many wild ones..." in the fertile flats of the gigantic Mississippi River gorge. That setting is the same today, minus the buffalo, of course. DeSoto saw them for the first and only time in his life somewhere toward today's St. Louis where the Cahokia Mounds once stood (rendition in photo below).

Cahokia Mounds are just north of Kaskaskia

Biedma says, "We inquired about a road in the direction we were heading and whether there was any village in that district, far or near. They were never able to tell us anything except that if we wished to travel where there might be a village, we had to turn west-southwest."

Elvas says, "They said that five or six leagues beyond (about 15 miles), toward the north, were many cattle (buffalo), but because the land was cold, it was poorly populated; that the best land they knew of, as being more plentifully supplied with food and better inhabited, was a province toward the south called Cayas..." in today's Missouri.

DeSoto would alter course, for his fourth and final time, in North America. He had altered course at Marianna, Florida, due to an Indian boy's report that gold could be found toward the sun's rising; then at Mabila, Alabama, due to battle losses which he needed to shield from Spain by marching due north; then again at Terre Haute, Indiana, when he learned that Lake Michigan was not the Pacific Ocean, and reversed course there. This would be his last: he would lead his army ever southward.

Elvas continues, "That town of Coligoa (Kaskaskia) was situated at the foot of a mountain (the St. Francis Mountains) in a field of a river the size of the Caya River which flows through Estremadura (photo below). It was a fertile land (once hosting a giant native village, Cahokia, just upriver, photo above) and so abundant in corn that the old was thrown out in order to store the new. There was also a great quantity of beans and pumpkins, the beans being larger and better than those of Spain; and the pumpkins likewise... The chief of Coliqoa gave a guide to Cayas and remained in his town."

Rangel says, "On Tuesday, the sixth of September (there had been a total eclipse of the moon the morning before during Harvest Moon), they departed from Coligua and crossed the river another time..." most in Indian canoes, in search of Cayas. The Mississippi River's width and shallows around its islands west of Kaskaskia allowed for an easy crossing. The Caya River of Spain

DeSoto had used another famous place name, Quizquiz, to motivate his troops to cross America's Great (Ohio) River from Kentucky. He dramatized the name "Cayas" to encourage his men to cross this river and ascend into high mountains. The men knew that name. The Caya River (photo at right) runs from high mountains into Estremadura, Spain, where most of his troops were born.

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