DeSoto's Florida Landing
Ships at Port

by Donald E. Sheppard   Introduction   Superscripts   Front Page   Indian Place Names    States Index


You can read the translated details of DeSoto's Florida Landing
written by DeSoto's Chroniclers: Biedma, Rangel, Elvas  &  Inca
Horse in Ship Straps

Hernando de Soto set sail from Havana on May 18, 1539.DeSoto On orders from Spain's King, five deep draft vessels, bound for Mexico, plus four of DeSoto's ships,R were used to transport his 223 horses and 620 menB, their wives, dogs, stores,* arms, servants and pigsR to Florida.E © 1993, U. of Alabama Press DeSoto's object was to land his horses, his precious cargo, as soon as possible. Lengthy sea passages were known to cause broken legs and death among them.

Spanish Ships Page LinkJuan Ponce de Leon, who had sailed with Christopher Columbus, explored Florida's Gulf Coast in 1513 and discovered Charlotte Harbor, the closest mainland sea port to Spain's Havana, Cuba (mapped above). He died from wounds received there on his return to colonize in 1521 (Morison 1974:510). That port's geography is the same today as described by Ponce de Leon, DeSoto and Cabeza de Vaca with Panfilo de Narvaez, who landed nearby in 1528 (mapped above at Englewood). Vaca reported finding recent native entombed Spanish sailors along the big harbor's shoreline.

Narvaez, with 300 men and 42 horses, had aimed to colonize Charlotte Harbor but a storm had kept him from first stopping at Havana for supplies.V His fleet was blown into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving one ship behind. He found Florida several days later but with a critical food shortage was forced to land before finding that port.

The Narvaez landing site at EnglewoodNarvaez sent his ships to find that port else to Havana for supplies to meet him up the coast where they all thought Charlotte Harbor was located.V They had been blown further north than they realized, however. The ship captains later reported finding the harbor's narrow entrance just five leagues (13 miles) south of where they left Narvaez. Stump Pass, at today's Englewood (photo at right), where Narvaez landed, is exactly that distance from the mouth of Charlotte Harbor.

Inca reported that on their return from Havana they searched for Narvaez, but to no avail. The next year others were sent who found and explored Charlotte Harbor, believing he would have settled there by then. He had been there but had a skirmish with that harbor's chief, (who Inca called Hirrihigua, others called him Ucita or Ocita), and led his army away. The rescuers saw a letter on a stick at the head of the harbor and thought Narvaez had left it for them.E When several men disembarked to read it they were captured by Hirrihigua,I whose nose had been cut off by Narvaez just before he advanced inland.

Mococo CountryOne of those captured, a boy named Juan Ortiz, spent years of captivity and torture by Hirrihigua, who hated the Spaniards.E I Ortiz survived, the others were killed. He would escape, with help from the chief's daughter, to her fiancée's village.E Ortiz was given safe refuge there by Chief Mococo and adapted that chief's customs, appearance, knowledge and native language.E

DeSoto's scouts, in the luckiest stroke of his campaign, found Ortiz upon landing.B R E I DeSoto He would serve as DeSoto's guide and interpreter for the rest of his life. DeSoto's people would reward Chief Mococo with excess hardware when the port was abandoned. Florida's early pioneers would find some of it and call Chief Mococo's village site "Old Spanish Fields."

Gulf of Mexico The King's Comptroller, Juan de Anasco, had been dispatched from Cuba to explore Florida's coast during the year before DeSoto sailed from Havana. Anasco found Ponce de Leon's Charlotte Harbor and took some IndiansE from Chief Hirrihigua's village, Ucita, at the head of it. Anasco was licensed by the King to barter with them. They trapped fish in the harbor and traded them with inland Indians. Anasco envisioned developing that trade with Havana, which Cabeza de Vaca reported to lie 100 leagues due south of the harbor. It measures 250 statute miles (map at right).

Anasco's captives knew the shoreline and could locate their home port on their return with DeSoto's fleet. Their village, Ucita (map at right - Inca called it Hirrihique), would become DeSoto's base of operations. Narvaez had passed through that village, cut off Chief Hirrihigua's nose, then proceeded inland. Juan Ortiz had been there and fled for his life.

Before his return to Cuba, Anasco carefully sounded the harbor, noted the tide's effect on it, then measured the distance from Ucita to Havana; 75 or 80 (nautical) leagues (195 or 208 statute miles) as reported to the officers in Havana. He advised DeSoto to sail on May 25th to catch the Full Moon and Spring Tides at arrival, but DeSoto chose to sail on a favourable wind instead,DeSoto one week earlier than Anasco had advised. The fleet sailed the Gulf for seven days with poor winds.


Map: DeSoto's Route into Port CharlotteOn Sunday, May 25th, 1539, DeSoto's seamen sighted Florida on a northern landfall R 10 leagues west of the Bay of Juan PonceR (chart at left). DeSoto's captains would go no closer than 1 or 2 leagues to land E R until confirming the harbor's entrance. They dropped anchor four or five leagues below portDeSoto in four brazas R (23 feet) of water (press chart below for detail).

That northern landfall, in that depth of water that distance from land, four or five leagues below a port on Florida's Gulf Coast, ten leagues west of the Bay of Juan Ponce and 80 leagues from Havana (mapped at left) occurs at only one place in Florida: Sanibel Island. (Schell 1966:16; Wilkinson 1960)

DeSoto, his guard, Anasco and the principal pilot were transferred into DeSoto's smaller brigs to find the harbor that evening,DeSoto R leaving the cumbersome transport ships at anchor. If the fleet over-shot Charlotte Harbor (which they called the Bay of Espiritu Santo) they could not tack back to it against the strong southwesterly winds reported there.R

DeSoto's Charlotte Harbor Entrance

DeSoto coasted downwind in his maneuverable brigs, advancing to where he thought the harbor's entrance was located, but sailed out of sight of the fleet.R

That evening DeSoto found Charlotte Harbor's entrance at Boca Grande Pass, but was kept from returning to the fleet by darkness and wind. He spent the night at a deserted Indian village, much to the chagrin of his people.R

The next morning, DeSoto struggled to sail back out the pass against high winds to summon the fleet. Once spotted, the fleet advanced toward him. DeSoto anchored his vessels on the sides of the harbor's narrow entrance pass (photo below) to guide them in; two of the big ships scraped sandy bottomR (Johnson Shoals) as they passed.

They entered the port with bottom sounders in hand but were detained by its shallow passage waters.DeSoto R They anchored 4 leagues (10 miles) back from Ucita,R at today's Cape Haze.

Boca Grand Pass at Charlotte Harbor, Florida

Bernard Romans Charlotte Harbor Map, 1774Since they left Havana a week earlier than advised,DeSoto the fleet could not cross the harbor's shallows beyond Cape Haze (on 1774 Harbor Map by Bernard Romans, at left), despite their efforts to do so.R They had to wait for Spring Tides. Those tides were 4 days away as Full Moon neared. Few horses were put ashore so the men comforted the others with fresh foliage and berries.I Twenty horses died.R

DeSoto dispatched his shallow draft brigantines, the ones used by Anasco to explore the harbor, to take control of a town he had found at the end of the bay:DeSoto UCITA.
As the Moon filled, the harbor's tide rose more each day, allowing the ships to move closer to the beach. On the sixth day, June first, DeSoto, his livestock (pigs), horses and horsemenDeSoto E R were off-loaded onto Cape Haze. With lighter loads, stronger currents and Spring Tides, the ships began to move over the harbor's sandy shallows.

Charlotte Harbor LandingsOnce free of the shallows, the fleet sailed up as close as possible to the head of the bay where the men disembarked.E They trudged north, around Ucita's deep marshes (adjoining today's Port Charlotte), to Ucita Village two leagues from where they landed.E I

The horsemen, misled by the captives, made their way toward Ucita (mapped at right), a twelve league trip.R That moonlit ride would be the army's longest in Florida. Very late that night they arrived near Ucita, exhausted from crossing the Myakka River's marshes - which Spring Tides shallow about midnight on Full Moon.

They found themselves on the opposite side of Tippecanoe Bay from DeSoto's shore camp. They slept where they were, just above El Jobean, as DeSoto's men watched their campfires; seperated by only a few miles of trail.

"During that week the ships arrived near the town, unloading them little by little with small boats, and thus they unloaded all the clothing and supplies that they carried."R

Part 2 - Into Florida

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