DeSoto's Florida Trails
DeSoto's Port of Entry Written by Donald E. Sheppard
Drawings by Cheryl Lucente



Hernando de Soto landed near a native village, Ucita, at the head of Charlotte Harbor on June 1, 1539. The landing site became a shore camp for off-loading ships until his horsemen found the village and his men had time to clear the trees around it for pasturing horses and safety from attack.E © 1993, University of Alabama Press

Port Camp Landing at Fishing Enclosure

There's a lime rock appendage hooked southward into the cove next to DeSoto's shore camp site (press photo at left). A deep pit next to the enclosure, shown on the 1849 Florida Township survey, may have been dug by natives to build this fish trap near Ucita. Tippecanoe Bay, with six feet of water at low tide at that time (1774 Harbor Chart), easily accomodated DeSoto's off-loading of ships with smaller boats.

Spanish Possession of Florida
The DeSoto Chronicles

Read the translated details of DeSoto's Landing Site written by
his Chroniclers (example at right): Biedma, Rangel, Elvas and Inca

On Tuesday June 3, 1539, with all the men and dignitaries quartered in Ucita, with the necessary paraphernalia (image above), DeSoto took formal possession of La Florida: all of North America above Mexico.R

Riders and boatmen scouted the area for natives but few were captured. Horsemen and troops were dispatched to explore distant native trails for well provisioned villages. Fourty soldiers were attacked by natives three leagues (8 miles) into the interior - one soldier was killed.R E The natives fled.

Mococo CountryBiedma, the King's Agent, says, "As soon as we disembarked, we found out that there was a Christian in the land who was one of those who had gone with Panfilo de Narvaez, and we went in search of him (Inca says they got lost, off-trail, to a place from which they could see the ships' topsails); a chief (Mococo) who was about eight leagues (21 miles) from port had him. We came upon him on the road; he was coming toward us, for when the chief found out that we were there, he asked him if he wished to come where we were.

"He said yes, and the chief sent nine Indians with him. He was naked like them, with a bow and some arrows, his body decorated like an Indian. As we came upon them, they... fled into a small nearby forest. The horses reached them, and gave a lance-blow to the Christian Indian who might have been killed since he had forgotten our language. He remembered how to call to Our Lady, and by this he was recognized as a Christian..." His name was Juan Ortiz.R E I DeSoto

Old Spanish Fields

He would serve DeSoto as an interpreter for the rest of his life. DeSoto would reward Chief Mococo with excess hardware when the port was abandoned. Florida's pioneers would find it and call Chief Mococo's village site "Old Spanish Fields" on John Lee Williams Map, 1837, at right - press it to enlarge.

Ortiz had been captured at Ucita before escaping to Mococo.I He had been guided to a bridge two leagues from a safe meeting place just west of Ucita Village,I crossed it, then fled six additional leagues to Mococo's Village.I Both Ucita and Mococo were located by our team (mapped below) using those and the following observations:

Biedma would say upon the army's departure from Ucita, "We went west and then turned northwest (mapped below)..."Rangel says, "...they spent that night at the river of Mococo... And they made two bridges on which this army crossed the river..." Inca says, "...they marched toward Mococo's village."

To advance all remaining troops, DeSoto's Thirty Lancers returned to Ucita along the trail he took to north Florida, describing what they encountered along their way. The night before reaching Ucita they camped three leagues short of Mococo's village and eleven leagues short of Ucita. Continuing, just over one league from Ucita they feared for the safety of the men left at port when no horse tracks were found in a clearing (the sandy flats of north Tippecanoe Bay, mapped below), but were pleased to find fresh tracks and ash from clothes being washed at a lake less than half-a-league from the village.

West and Northwest into Florida

Those measures all converged at Ucita: two leagues east of the bridge Ortiz crossed on his way to Mococo, just over a league from the clearing and less than half-a-league from a wash lake (all mapped at left). Mococo's village was eight leagues up and across the Myakka River from Ucita.

Today Ucita is a subdivision with man-made canals running through it. The port's main anchorage is below it on a straight line down the Myakka River, making ships' topsails visible for miles upstream, as reported by the scouts who found Juan Ortiz.I

Conspicuous Indian Mound in 1849 Township survey

Those scouts were probably standing on the "conspicuous Indian Mound" shown upstream of Ucita on the 1849 Township Survey (mapped above left, image above right). Inca tells us that Ucita's dead were kept at one - probably in the "temple" which Juan Ortiz guarded years earlier.

To DeSoto's Paracoxi from UcitaDeSoto's boatmen found a large number of Indians on an island two leagues from campR (on Hog Island, mapped above). Troops were sent to from Ucita to round them up,I but most had fled. Some were captured, among them women and children, others were killed.

The scouts who went to explore distant trails sent DeSoto good news. They had found food at Paracoxi,DeSoto the next village beyond Mococo, "seventeen leagues to its northeastI ...twenty leagues from the coastB ...and only twenty-five leagues (60 miles, mapped at right) from Ucita.I

Elvas reported to DeSoto that, "...beyond Paracoxi was a place (a province) called Ocale where there is a great plenty of all things; fowls, turkeys and herds of tame deer... and an abundance of gold and silver, and many pearls..." DeSoto added, "where we may pass the winter."

At Ucita, "Among the soldiers there were diverse opinions about whether it would be good to settle (at Ucita) or not, because the land seemed sterile..." but "all fell into conformity and unanimously asked for entrance into the interior, which was what the Governor was scheming."

Narvaez had led his army northeast from Ucita, given that he missed Mococo and Paracoxi, to a place with food twelve leagues ahead (today's Arcadia). Aiming next for "Apalachen gold, very far from there,"V he turned north and went inland of the Peace River. Starvation would lead him to the Great Swamp,V where DeSoto would find traces of him I along his way to Ocale.

DeSoto stayed at Ucita for six weeks. He wrote a letter to Cuba, the transport vessels were sent on their way and his ships were secured at anchor. French Corsairs plied the new world waters, so DeSoto left 26 horsemen, 60 foot soldiers and heavily armed sailors to guard them.R E I He led his army toward Ocale via Mococo's village and Paracoxi. Horsemen would drive the pigs.

To Mococo


Sources of this information, from simple to detailed, by Conquistadors:
DeSoto's Florida Entry Chronicled by:  Biedma,  Rangel,  Elvas,  Inca

DeSoto's army left Ucita on (the New Moon of) July 15th, 1539. The King's Agent says, "We went west and then turned northwest..." first passing above the fishing enclosure and DeSoto's shore camp then across the clearing, both on Tippecanoe Bay. The army turned northwest, beyond the indian mound and the Myakka River swamps which the horsemen had slogged their first day ashore, passing the bridge which Ortiz had used while escaping to Mococo Village years before. "And that day they spent the night at the river of Mococo (Myakka River, camping "six leagues - 16 miles - above Ucita"), bringing behind them many pigs..."

Myakka River Bridge Point

The army camped beside the river,R six leagues from Ucita, their first night out. That trail was the only one from Charlotte Harbor on the John Lee Williams Map of 1837. The next day they crossed a bridge they builtR over Myakka River's bend seven leagues from Ucita and one league from Mococo.I

Mococo's Village Site and Lake of the Rabbit Campsite Today
They stopped to visit Chief Mococo,I two leagues from where they had camped (mapped below). He shed tears at the army's departure, knowing that other natives would retaliate for his kindness to the invaders once they departed. The army turned northeast,I passed by Lower Myakka Lake, bridged Howard Creek two leagues Mococo Bridges beyond Mococo, then camped on Upper Lake Myakka's north shore, one league beyond the bridge. They had marched five leagues their second day on the trail. DeSoto's Thirty Lancers would also camp there on their last night down that trail; three leagues from Mococo's village, eleven leagues from Ucita.I

The next morning the army's horses were spooked by a rabbit and ran back for more than a league before terrified troops could reassert control over them.R The horses had fled southwest, turned at Howard Creek to avoid the bridge, then stopped, as horses do when they pass fresh scents. DeSoto's people called Upper Lake Myakka, accordingly, "The Lake of the Rabbit" and had built and crossed two bridges just after leaving Ucita, all as Rangel reported.

DeSoto's Conquest Trail Map - Up Florida's West Coast

With Paracoxi Village (Urribarracuxi according to Inca) their destination (mapped at left), DeSoto's army continued northeastI for three days, marching eleven more leagues. They spent their first night at what they called the lake of St. John, east of Sarasota Bay. The next day they crossed a desert plain where DeSoto's servant died of thirst. Horses drank what could be carried and, as one can see, there are no lakes, springs, sink holes or creeks along that trail in July, an unusual place in Florida. The third day they came to the plain of Guacoco,R Florida's largest field of pebble phosphate deposit, 130,000 acres of nature's fertilizer (aerial photo below), then stopped.

DeSoto's ambition, to march his army rapidly, six leagues the first day and five the second, proved to be more than they could handle. They averaged about four leagues each of their last three days on the trail. That pace, about four-and-a-half (6+5+11=22 over 5 equal 4.4) leagues (about 11.4 miles) per day, MEASURED ALONG PACED STRAIGHT LINES, would HOLD FOR YEARS, even with captives acquired to lighten their loads. That weekly schedule, five days on the road then several at rest, would also hold for most of his expedition.

Phosphate Fields on the Plain of GuacocoThey called that entire province, from Ucita north, by its richest village's name: ParacoxiB E DeSoto (mapped above). The Spaniards found maize (corn) growing there for the first time in FloridaR and spent the next three days leisurely harvesting it across three leagues of cultivated fields; first to Luca then to Paracoxi Village,R (aerial photo at right) for a total of seventeen leagues, 44 miles, traveled from Mococo's Village to Paracoxi Village.I

Inca says that village was located twenty-five leaguesI, 65 miles, north-north-eastI of Ucita, which is the total distance they had marched and in that direction (see large map above). Biedma says that Paracoxi Village was up to twenty leagues, 52 miles, from the coastB - the Gulf of Mexico's Coast off St. Petersburg.

Phosphate FieldsSurrounded by surface mines today (photo at right), Paracoxi Village was located at Brewster, an abandoned city today in a moonscape of mines. Scouts sent inland reported "a wide body of water three leagues beyond..."I Paracoxi, drained eastward to the Peace River. "It had such deep mud on either side that it was impassable for the army to cross (in the northeastward direction they had been heading for the last week), but they had found a better crossing just two days away..."I at the spillway at Lake Hancock (north and east of there, on map above, near today's Bartow, flowing into the Peace River). The army headed north from Paracoxi Village, then turned northeast beyond Bradley Junction (where the Thirty Lancers would camp on their ninth day out), around the swamps and toward the spillway, camping beyond Vicela,R E Mulberry phosphate plant's location today.

Lake Hancock SpillwayThe next day they hiked three leagues, crossed the spillway (photo at left), then camped on a plain half-a-league beyond at a place called TocasteTocaste Village on Lake Hancock near a large lake:R today's Lake Hancock (photo at right). The plain is near a hugh hill overlooking Lake Hancock from the south. The view from its summit is spectacular.

Since leaving Mococo Village DeSoto had led his army northeast, away from Florida's sandy, unfertile coast,R but was again thwarted by swampland while scouting northeast of Tocaste.I Called the Green Swamp today, it covers 870 square miles. Without a guide, DeSoto with eleven riders and 100 foot soldiers went in search of a road to Ocale.

To Ocale - Dade City On their third day out DeSoto's group, and was led by, a guide to a broad roadR leading away from the swamp to a passage through another which was free of mud at its entrance and exit.I Rangel called it the swamp of Cale, others called it a river or The Great Swamp. All described today's Green Swamp outlet at the Hillsborough River. With flat sand approaches, trails from points south once converged at that site. The Fort Foster/Alabama Bridge was built there by the U.S. Army in 1828. Trails across it led into hostile Seminole Indian Country (Laumer 1968; Mahon 1967:104). The Thirty Lancers would also cross there on their eigth day out.

Ft. Foster (or Ft. Alabama) and its Bridge over the Hillsborough River

The Great Swamp Crossing Place at Ft. FosterDeSoto dispatched several ridersR I on a nearly Full Moon with orders to advance the army. They first had to back-track, unseen for safety, through an inhabited region where they reported natives performing pagan ceremony around giant fires.I When they reached the spillway they were helped by the cavalry to ward-off morning attackers.I Once at Tocaste, riders were dispatched with more food for DeSoto.I They rode twelve leagues to the Great Swamp, where he said he would wait for them.I

The next day the army advanced over the spillway and for the next two they headed for the Great Swamp,R E I camping at today's Lakeland then ten miles west of there then at the swamp. DeSoto had already crossed it and ridden six leaguesI into Ocale Province, a place reported by Elvas to lie west of Paracoxi Province (see map above).E Biedma says 15 or 20 leagues from Paracoxi Village. Inca calls it Acuera and says it was "about twenty leagues from Paracoxi Village on a line running more or less north and south." All described today's Dade City, as bountiful today as reported then.

The army spent three days crossing the Great SwampI "the waters of which could be forded about breast-deep for the distance of a league except in the middle of the channel for a space of a hundred paces, could not be forded because of its great depth. Here the Indians had made a poor sort of bridge of two large trees that had fallen into the water, and the space they did not cover was bridged over with large timbers... the governor, because his people were suffering from hunger, sent them a great deal of Indian corn (from Ocale)."

Once across the swamp the army hiked six leagues up the trail DeSoto took into Ocale.R E DeSoto had planned for them to spend the winter there. Inca called it Acuera Province, but Acuera was just a village located near Zephyrhills (see photo and map above left).

Cabeza de Vaca to TampaNarvaez had crossed the Great Swamp, at the same place and for the same reasons eight years before DeSoto.I He encountered several hundred Indians while crossing it "with great difficulty," but was led to their village half-a-league away,V where Narvaez found large amounts of maize (approaching Zephyrhills). When Cabeza de Vaca was dispatched to find a harbor reported to be nearby (Tampa Bay), he rode down the north bank of the Hillsborough River to wetlands filled with oysters and a river he could not cross.V

The Hillsborough River re-broadens below the Great Swamp crossing place (image above); raccoons eat the oysters there today. Much of that extensive swamp, around today's Rock Hammock, would be drained by Tampa's Bypass Canal into McKay and Hillsborough Bays. Vaca returned to camp.

Hillsborough and Tampa BaysWhen others re-crossed the swampV and went down the river's south bank toward Tampa (Fort Brook) they found McKay Bay on May 22, 1528, four days after New Moon. Low tides occured when they examined it - they could wade across most of it.V The deep water of Tampa Bay looked to them like the 30 mile distant Gulf of Mexico. They returned to camp with news that the harbor was too shallow for ships. Narvaez led his army up the Gulf Coast, looking for them.V


Ocale Province

Sources of this information, from simple to detailed by:  Biedma,  Rangel,  Elvas,  Inca

At Dade City, Inca says they "encamped in some very beautiful valleys having large maize fields, so productive that each stalk had three or four ears..." Those valleys were and are between the very large ridges of Dade City, the first you come to when hiking up Florida's west side. It's chief, "had much information from other Castilians who had come to that country years before... and he knew very well about their lives and customs, which consisted in occupying themselves like vagabonds in going from one land to another, living from robbing, pillaging and murdering those who had not offended them in any way."

Elvas says, "The governor ordered all the maize which was ripe in the fields to be taken, which was enough for three months." To their good fortune, two captured Indians reported that "seven days' journey farther on was a very large province with maize in abundance, called Apalache." Months later when DeSoto's Thirty Lancers returned hundred-leagues down his trail from Apalache, it took them exactly seven days to get back to to this point.

DeSoto immediately set out with a division of 50 horsemen and 60 foot soldiers to confirm that much-needed-winter-food-supply was at Apalache. Biedma says, "...traveling ever toward New Spain, at a distance of ten to twelve leagues from the coast."

Florida's Shallow Gulfcoast WatersBiedma's New Spain was Mexico; his "coast" was the Gulf's "shipping lane," about four brazas (23 feet) deep, as shown by the transport captains at landfall. On average, that depth of water occures about thirteen miles (5 leagues) offshore from mid-Florida's Gulf of Mexico shoreline, placing DeSoto's trail about five to seven leagues (13 to 18 miles) inland of the shoreline... not northeastward into Florida, away from Mexico, as claimed in The Final Report of the United States De Soto Trail Commission of 1939, the one we learned in school.

DeSoto, his division, Juan Ortiz and his Chroniclers, excepting Inca's informants (Inca makes no mention of this division) proceeded north from Dade City (mapped below). They followed the Withlacoochee River through its State Forest, a game preserve today, described then as being abundant in "fallow deer... red deer like large bulls... very large bears and panthers."I They crossed Florida's rock phosphate ridge; "as it had maize in abundance, they gave it the name Villafarta," E meaning "fertile place" in Spanish. Then they bridged the Withlacoochee River and entered another province with "many forests and streams that flowed through it, and very level." I The Thirty Lancers would pass west of there on their seventh day returning from North Florida to avoid hostile areas.

Logging Florida's Flatwoods and Hauling Trees to RailroadsThese forests and streams on level land were Florida's "flatwoods," as pioneers would call them, from the Withlacoochee State Forest north to Tallahassee. Giant pine trees (pictured at left) would be "harvested" there by "naval stores" companies who would first drain the trees of sap to distill for turpentine and caulk residues, then build railroads through that flat sandy country to haul the massive felled timbers to market.

Cove of the Withlacoochee RiverMost of DeSoto's trail from Dade City was a railroad until recently. It went through Rital, Istachatta, Inverness, Hernando and Dunnellon. DeSoto's secretary would call them, respectively, Ytara, Potano, Utinama, Mala Paz (Bad Peace) and Cholupaha,E each at just over ten mile interval. They traveled 20 leagues in doing so.I The rock phosphate ridge that DeSoto came to thirteen leagues north of Dade City became well known to the U. S. Army. On it was fought the biggest battle of The Seminole War (Mahon 1967: 135; Sprague 1964 [written in 1848]).

DeSoto's division called today's Hernando "Bad Peace" for New Moon misbehavior by the natives. Although theyE R only alluded to it, Desoto probably slaughtered a number of these natives. Evidence of that has been found nearby at both Ruth Smith and Tatham Mounds. The Seminole Indians called that area Char-lo-pop-ka (Sprague 1964:279). DeSoto's captives called it Cho-lu-pa-ha. Today it is called Tsala Apopka, probably derived from the ancient name. Only Inca called it Ocale, the name the others assigned to the entire province.


River of Discords at DunnellonDeSoto's division built a wooden bridge near CholupahaE to cross the River of DiscordsR between "precipices on either side as high as the length of two pikes and as perpendicular as two walls..." I a "pike" is ten feet long. That bridge was built on the Withlacoochee River at Dunnellon, with the only banks that high on the river (shown on the Township Survey, 1845, made before the river was damaged by phosphate dredging and mining). Those banks allowed spanning an otherwise swampy river. The Spaniards called it the River of Discords because DeSoto's favorite greyhound, Bruto, was killed chasing Indians in it.I The Thirty Lancers would cross that river well west of there then camp.

DeSoto's Conquest along Florida's Northcentral Coast - Press for DetailDeSoto left Dunnellon bound for Caliquen Village,E sixteen leagues up the way, according to native captives.I His division marched the first eight leagues in two days, but half way through their third day, probably while struggling to ford the Waccasassa River and Otter Creek, DeSoto and his guard proceeded to Caliquen Village on the Suwannee River (which Inca would call Ochile when the Thirty Lancers crossed it their fifth day down that trail from North Florida back to port at Ucita, camping at Caliquen Village).

That village was located just west of today's Chiefland at yesteryear's Janney, once an outpost for the Caliquen Village at Lower Clay Landing Peninsular Naval Stores Company which harvested its flatwoods. Its a ghost town today, one league south of the Suwannee River. Chief Caliquen lived on one of the high hills located two miles below Lower Clay Landing, overlooking his village.I

Elvas called this place Caliquen, Biedma and Rangel called it Aqua-calecuen. Cabeza de Vaca with Narvaez, whose trail DeSoto's would merge with there, had called its chief Dul-chanchellin.V Only Inca called it Ochile, which would confuse him and later DeSoto trail seakers for centuries.

DeSoto captured the chief in a dawn raid then returned down the trail to his division, three leagues back.I They had advanced in his day-long absence, probably another four leagues or so, making the distance between the Withlacoochee River at Dunnellon and Caliquen Village on the Suwannee about sixteen leagues. Because the village was large, its chief held hostage, and Apalache's riches further confirmed by natives there, DeSoto sent for his army in Ocale.E R Riders were dispatched on July 31, 1539, Full Moon, for security reasons.

Meanwhile, in Caliquen, DeSoto learned about Chief Caliquen's warring brother, Napituca,I whose village was on the road to Apalache. DeSoto was told, in detail, of the plight of the Narvaez Expedition, by natives, for the first time in La Florida.E Narvaez had been defeated at Napituca.

Caliquen's Pastures

Over the next several weeks, while the army advanced from Ocale, DeSoto rested in Caliquen. His troops buried DeSoto's heavy implements before advancing from Ocale, believing in their imminent return to Ocale.E Once the army was reassembled and more captives taken, DeSoto led his army north to the Suwannee River's widest, low banked, crossing place, then across it and deeper into Florida's flatwoods, headed for Napituca.E

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