De Soto's Route in La Florida
National Park Service
Four significant accounts exist of de Soto's journey, three of them penned by participants. From descriptions of lands and peoples encountered, scholars long ago determined the explorer's general route through the Southeast. In recent years, archaeological evidence has helped to hone the reconstruction by pinpointing places which the expedition definitely, or quite probably, passed by.
De Soto and an army of noblemen and commoners left Spain in April 1538, arrived in Cuba in June, and spent nearly a year gatherIng men and supplies before sailing to La Florida in May. Most scholars agree that their landfall was somewhere in Tampa Bay. During a six-week reconnaissance of the area, a Spanish survivor from an earlier expedition, who had been captured by natives, was liberated and enlisted as an interpreter. Leaving a contingent of men to guard supply ships anchored offshore, de Soto led the remaining parade of people, animals and gear northward to begin his determined quest for gold.
Travelling northeasterly first, then turning west into the Florida panhandle, the expedition arrived In early October in Tallahassee, where it found the capital village of the Apalachee people, called Anhaica. The inhabitants had fled from their townsite to avoid the intruders, and their 250 abandoned structures and abundant foodstuffs offered an ideal site for a winter bivouac. De Soto sent a small party on horseback to collect the men and supplies in the south, and the reassembled forces remained at Anhaica until the following March, unflaggingly harrassed by natives.
The expedition advanced through Georgia in the spring. In late April it reached central South Carolina, near present-day Camden, where the local population was ruled by a female chief, called a cacica, named Cofitachequi. From her, de Soto received the only precious materials he acquired during the entire mission-350 pounds of freshwater pearls. Ironically, these later were destroyed in a fire.
During the summer of 1540, the army pushed through northern South Carolina, western North Carolina, and into the hilly regions of Tennessee, where de Soto hoped to find a native civilization that would rival the wealthy, mountain-dwelling Aztecs and Incas. But none was found; and as the march turned southward into Georgia and Alabama, de Soto's troops became dispirited by disease and hunger.
Disaster struck In October as the expedition was crossing southcentral Alabama, and it was an event of the Spaniards' own making. De Soto had a policy of kidnapping native leaders and holding them hostage until his company had passed safely through their lands. He seized the powerful cacique of the Tascaluza province, who convinced de Soto that provisions would be plentiful in the neighboring province of Mauvila. Ostensibly to carry word of the company's coming, an Indian was dispatched to Mauvila, although in reality, his message was for warriors loyal to the Tascaluzan chief to prepare an ambush at a particular village. Unknowingly, de Soto led his people into the arms of a savage conflagration. Although the day-long battle left the Indian population massacred and their town destroyed by fire, more than 20 Spaniards also died; at least 140 were
wounded, including de Soto; and virtually all of their supplies were lost.
Salvation from their misfortune was closer than de Soto's troops ever knew. Via Indian messengers, de Soto learned that his army was less than a week's travel from the coast, where his supply ships lay at anchor. However, fearing mass desertion and unwilling to abandon his enterprise, the Governor suppressed the news and instead led his battered, ill-equipped company northward into Mississippi, where they endured another cruel winter.
In March 1541, the army was fiercely assaulted again. Resentful of de Soto's demands for food, blankets and furs, a group of Chickasaw Indians attacked his camp at night, successfully setting it ablaze. People, livestock and equipment perished; the expedition was left virtually naked. But despite this second devastation, the Spaniards rallied themselves amazingly and spent two weeks fabricating weapons and gear from local materials and salvaged effects. When the Chickasaw returned, the Spaniards defeated them easily, but it was clear that the mission had to continue westward out of this hostile territory.
In May, de Soto and his men reached the Mississippi River, the first Europeans ever to do so. Stunned by its size but scarcely aware of the importance of their discovery, the Spaniards moved quickly to build barges for crossing - not only to avoid conflict with brooding locals, but also to continue their relentless quest for riches. The expedition wandered through modern-day Arkansas and Louisiana for nearly a year until finally it became clear to everyone, including the Governor, that no fortunes would be found. Resigned, exhausted and ailing, de Soto proposed that his army return to the Mississippi, build boats and float down the river, then send a barge to Cuba for help. However, before he could effect this plan, de Soto died on May 21, 1542. His body deliberately was buried in the Mississippi River to ensure that it would not be desecrated by Indians.
Free to abandon the enterprise and to flee to safety, the survivors tried to reach Mexico by crossing overland through Texas, but they were repelled by the barren desert and the inability to obtain provisions from natives. Tracing their steps back to the Mississippi, they built boats which they launched in July 1543, sailed to the Gulf of Mexico, then followed the coastline to Tampico, one thousand miles away, which they reached in September.