Hernando de Soto
Brief Biography Part 2

Dr. Paul E. Hoffman, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, wrote this biography for UA's The De Soto Chronicles, The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543 Edited by Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight, Jr., and Edward C. Moore, in 1993.

Hernando de Soto
A Brief Biography

[Press Here for Part 1]

by Paul E. Hoffman

Pizarro's instructions to De Soto indicate that his authority was to be quite limited. De Soto was to have no authority in legal cases, although he was to secretly inquire about any gold or silver that the eighty Spanish residents might have found and was to see to the enforcement of Pizarro's decrees concerning the good treatment of the Indians and their instruction in the Catholic religion. Too, he was to guard the city against Indian attacks or disorder. Whether Pizarro really expected De Soto to meekly accept these limitations cannot be known.

Pizarro also turned his attention to the question of who would control Ecuador. As early as October 24, 1533, Sebastian Benalcazar, then at San Miguel preparing to sail for Panama and Spain, had learned that Alvarado was on his way from Guatemala to challenge Pizarro's conquest, on the claim that he was operating south of the area of his (Pizarro's) grant, in an area that Alvarado had been given by the king. This attempted claim jumping had been revealed by events in Nicaragua on the night of July 22.

Alvarado had entered the Port of Posession and seized two large ships, Ponce/DeSoto's La Concepcion (returned from her trip with De Soto in 1531), and Pedro Bravo and Cristobal de Burgos's La Vitoria, along with the ship tackle and anchors for three smaller ships that were being careened. All five were being prepared to carry Captain Gabriel de Rojas and 18o or so men (with a hundred horses) to Peru on behalf of Lic. Castaiieda, now Governor of Nicaragua after Pedrarias's death, and other, unnamed parties. Ponce and Bravo's efforts to get their ships back had failed, as had Luis de Moscoso's efforts on behalf of his cousin Alvarado to buy horses from Castaiieda or, apparently, to bribe him to prevent Rojas from sailing for Peru until after Alvarado had gotten on his own way there. Rojas had left Nicaragua on September i6, sailing directly to San Miguel, although with only a few men. Benalcazar sent him to tell Pizarro. Rojas arrived at Jauja just before Quisquis attacked in mid-February 1534. He conveyed his news upon Pizarro's arrival there in mid-April.

Acting on Rojas's information, Benalcazar set out for Ecuador about mid-February 1534. He had two hundred men and sixty-two horses. Not long after, Almagro, informed of Alvarado's advance by Rojas, set off for the coast, where he learned in early April of Benalcazar's unauthorized departure from San Miguel. This news was in turn reported back to Pizarro. By late May 1534, Pizarro himself was laying plans to take the Spaniards not needed at Cuzco, Jauja, and San Miguel and march to Quito. He soon abandoned these plans, preferring to let Almagro follow Benalcazar while he went to the coast to select a site for the "city of kings," which became Lima.

Alvarado's invasion of Ecuador went badly and was conducted with tactics learned in Central America, including the use of neck chains to keep Indian porters from running away. By the time he reached the highlands, Benalcazar had occupied Quito (June 22) and Almagro had joined him (July?). After a tense confrontation that almost produced a war, the rival camps agreed that Almagro, acting on behalf of the Pizarro-Almagro-Luque partnership, would buy out Alvarado's investment in ships and equipment for one hundred thousand pesos in gold. Alvarado's men, most of whom had probably paid their own ways, as was the custom then, were allowed to stay and join Pizarro's forces, but Alvarado had to return to Guatemala. Not long after signing this agreement on August 26, 1534, Almagro and Alvarado set out for Jauja to collect the money. Benalcazar, still loyal to Pizarro, was left to govern Quito.

Almagdo's bargain with Alvarado affected De Soto's rule at Cuzco in two ways. First, in following Pizarro's instructions, he had persuaded the residents to surrender enough gold and silver to make up the gift to Charles V that the cabildo had agreed to on August 4, 1534 (at Pizarro's request). Apparently the bargain he struck with the Spanish residents, at a meeting held in their church, was that he would not enforce Pizarro's orders against trade with and extortion from the various Indian groups if they would pay their shares. Once paid up, the thirty-four thousand marks of silver and twenty-six to twenty-seven thousand pesos de oro of the gift were sent to Jauja. But this fortune was diverted to buy out Alvarado. De Soto's prestige among the Spaniards at Cuzco probably did not suffer for all of this because he was with them in continuing to loot, extort, and otherwise get all the gold and silver he could from the local population.

The second effect of the Almagro-Alvarado bargain was Pizarro's decision of late 1534 to reward Almagro with the lieutenancy of Cuzco. De Soto had shown himself disobedient and had not taken kindly to the arrival of Juan and Gonzalo Pizarro, sent to maintain the Pizarro interest in Cuzco.

Almagro was on his way to Cuzco when word was received in early 1535 that his petition for a section of South America south of Pizarro's 270 leagues had been approved. Almagro immediately concluded that Cuzco fell within his area and moved to occupy it (March 1535). De Soto's initial position was to resist this claim, but he apparently was persuaded of its justice (or at least his interest in supporting Almagro) and came to be viewed by Juan Pizarro as pro-Almagro. Francisco Pizarro, who believed that Cuzco was in his grant, sent Melchor Verdugo to Cuzco with a formal revocation of his company agreement with Almagro and a new appointment of De Soto as his lieutenant, with Juan Pizarro as captain of the Spanish militia. Almagro ignored this, forcing Francisco Pizarro to go to Cuzco himself. Throughout these events, De Soto seems to have done nothing to cause the Almagro and Pizarro factions to disarm themselves. Civil strife was averted, but probably not because he exercised the authority of his office to try to prevent it. Rather, what little evidence there is suggests that De Soto was deeply involved in the partisanship of the time, doing nothing to cool passions.

Once in Cuzco in late May, Pizarro got Almagro to agree to occupy Chile under terms of an agreement they signed on June 12. Pizarro pledged to put up one hundred thousand pesos for the venture. Chile was clearly outside of the limits of Pizarro's grant, whose exact boundary was to be determined by the bishop of Panama, Tomas de Verlanga, as the actual royal orders made clear when they arrived.

Pizarro also ordered the smelting of all precious metals, so that the royal f ifth could be deducted. Hernin Ponce, now at Cuzco and acting for De Soto, presented some i8, Soo pesos of gold of various finenesses on May 2o. When smelted, they yielded gold worth 5,456,800 maravedis, from which the king got i,o8o,448. The Pizarros presented even larger amounts for smelting and taxation.

With Almagro agreed to go to Chile, a move also supported by Manco Inca for his own reasons, the question arose as to whether Almagro would appoint an agent to conquer the coast from the Straits of Magellan northward. De Soto volunteered himself and two hundred thousand ducats. He and Ponce had just renewed their partnership (June 27). Almagro got Rodrigo Orgonez, by now a faithful follower, to propose to undertake this task, with one hundred thousand pesos de oro supplied by Almagro.

De Soto's motivation is not hard to discover. He was clearly out of the picture so far as a continued role at Cuzco. Moreover, the lack of Indian fighting since July 1534 had probably caused him to become restless. His ambition did the rest. Orgonez wrote to a cousin that he and De Soto nearly came to blows, so intense were their desires to have a leading role in the new conquest. De Soto claimed Almagro had made certain, undisclosed promises to him, which he demanded be honored. But Almagro, probably with some pressure from Pizarro, refused. Instead, he openly preferred Orgonez. Orgohez immediately wrote to his relatives in Spain to get them to press for a grant of five hundred leagues of coast, various offices for himself (patterned on Pizarro's grant), a habit of the Order of Santiago, confirmation of his encomienda at Pachacama, and the legitimization of his birth, to note but the more important items.

Almagro's support of Orgonez over De Soto was probably the bitterest humiliation De Soto had had to suffer. Although not all of the details may have been known, the fact of Orgoaez's illegitimacy and his shady, if profitable, career in the Italian wars was probably well enough known, along with his lack of distinction in the conquest of Central America. The insult to De Soto was apparent. Whether the shadow of Almagro's mother's converso origins, and arrest by the Inquisition for witchcraft, was also known is less certain, but if it was rumored, the insult would have been all the greater. De Soto was noble, legitimate, and of old Christian stock and had a more distinguished record in the conquests of the Americas. And unlike Orgoiiez, who had little money of his own, De Soto was rich and backed by Ponce's and the partnership's assets in Nicaragua. But Almagro preferred to support a man without De Soto's ability to become independent. On that, he and Pizarro were probably agreed, because both had seen De Soto's behavior in Peru.

De Soto remained in Cuzco until early July 1535. He thus saw Almagro's army depart on July 3, to be followed by Francisco Pizarro not many days later. In fact, De Soto probably traveled with Pizarro to Lima. In late August he was a witness in Bishop Verlanga's inquiry into how the royal revenues had been handled until that date. He reaffirmed that testimony on October 15 and was still in Lima on October 26, when he appeared in support of Alonso Martin de San Benito.

In December 1535, De Soto sailed to Panama in his and Ponce's San Gervnimo. In March, he, many of his Peruvian followers, and a part of his fortune departed from Nombre de Dios in Damian de Soria's Santi Spiritsts. Another ship in the group carried more of his fortune under the watchful eye of Luis de Moscoso, later De Soto's successor in the La Florida venture. This ship was wrecked in the Jardines de la Reina, off southern Cuba, according to one report, or at the "point of Bime" in the Bahama Channel, according to another. Even with some losses in that wreck, be Soto arrived at Seville with a large fortune, said to be between 1oo,ooo and 18o,ooo pesos. He also carried letters recommending him as a man that the government could question to learn the facts of events in Peru.

De Soto's first order of business upon reaching Seville was to outfit himself and his servants, and probably a number of his followers from Peru, with clothing signifying his wealth and pretensions to status. Elvas recalled that "he employed servants, including a major domo, grand master of ceremonies, pages, equerry, chamberlain, footmen, and all the other servants requisite for an establishment of a gentleman."

Next, De Soto had to negotiate with the House of Trade concerning the "loan" that Charles V was demanding from all who returned with loot from the empire. In undertaking the Tunis campaign, Charles needed all the money he could find and so ordered seizures of remissions from Peru. Juan Ruiz de Arce recalled that sixty of the men from Peru lent the crown some eight hundred thousand ducats, in return for which Charles assigned various revenues to them. This is the origin of the three hundred thousand maravedis in "rents" on the Granada silk monopoly that De Soto acquired at about this time.

With those matters settled, De Soto and others went to court, where they spent lavishly and petitioned for various benefits. De Soto's interest was in acquiring a province to govern and the right to carry out additional discoveries. While in Seville, he had entered his request for a grant south of Pedro de Mendoza's two hundred leagues; that is, for the area granted to Simon de Alcazaba in the summer of 1534. Alcazaba had died trying to reach it. This was the same area that Rodrigo Orgonez was also soliciting. It embraced the southern portion of Chile and the mouth of the Straits of Magellan.

Whether because he learned that the Bishop of Plasencia, Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca, was interested in this area for his brother or some other captain he wished to patronize, or because he thought he saw a better opportunity, De Soto soon changed his petition to the ioo leagues north of San Miguel de Piura, the supposed beginning of Pizarro's 270 leagues. This was, he wrote an agent, "the most sterile and unprofitable [part] of that land," although he noted that "by way of Quito" it offered a good opening to the interior. If that were not available, he wanted Guatemala and the right to explore in the Pacific with the title of adelantado and ten percent of all goods discovered.

He also wanted habits of the Order of Santiago for himself and Hernan Ponce de Leon and royal confirmation of their encomiendas, houses, and lands. Evidently he was worried that Pizarro might deprive him of his Peruvian holdings.

While awaiting the decision of the Council of the Indies on his petition, De Soto entered into marriage with Isabel de Bobadilla, daughter of his old lord, Pedrarias, and of a woman of the same name. Much romantic nonsense has been written about De Soto and his new bride. Wilmer (1858) seems to be the origin of much of it in English, but as recently as 1986 Miguel Albornoz incorporated their supposed love story into his work on De Soto. According to these stories, the young people had become interested in each other during the years 1514-19 when mother and daughter (then a toddler) had been in Castilla del Oro. Their love had been temporarily frustrated by Pedrarias, who is alleged to have disapproved of De Soto and to have sent his daughter back to Spain to separate them.

In fact, De Soto's marriage to Isabel de Bobadilla was probably, like most such alliances, a calculated affair on both sides with the long-term preservation of property at issue. The dowry agreement was signed at Valladolid on November 14, 1536, at a time when De Soto's petition for a governorship in Ecuador or Guatemala was still pending (apparently). The possibility of a Guatemalan governorship would seem to be the point of the agreement. Isabel's sister Maria Arias de Penalosa had married Rodrigo de Contreras y de la Hoz, governor of Nicaragua (1535-41). An alliance with a prospective governor of Guatemala would further solifidy the Pedrarias-Bobadilla interests in Central America. Isabel's relatively modest dowry of a Panamian ranch with a herd of cattle and horses worth seven thousand pesos de oro was only part of what she brought to the marriage. Through her De Soto gained access to the Bobadilla clan, still powerful in Segovia and the royal court, thanks to their services to Isabel the Catholic. De Soto offered not only the prospect of another Central American connection, but also six thousand ducats as a groom's portion (Isabel's if he died before her) and properties in Nicaragua and Peru that might pass to an heir.

When the government finally acted, it offered De Soto not a governorship in one of the established colonies but the opportunity to conquer La Florida, roughly the southeastern quarter of what is now the United States. Coupled with this was the position of governor of Cuba, which would serve as a supply base. Apparently Guatemala was denied to him because Bartolome de las Casas, who held a low opinion of all Indian fighters and De Soto in particular, was trying to show that peaceful preaching would convert the Indians, even in the infamous "land of war" that had resisted the usual martial form of subjugation. Too, Pedro de Alvarado was already governor of Guatemala. Ecuador and any part of South America were also denied to be Soto because other men were favored by court interests and, probably, because he was known to have bad relationships with Pizarro and Almagro. North America, on the other hand, was not claimed by anyone and the unpromising reputation of its coasts probably seemed analogous to the northern coast of Peru, which De Soto had said he wanted.

After negotiations not recorded in surviving documents, the government issued his contract with a date of April 20, 1537. It is notable for being long on economic privileges and short, compared to Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon's, for example, on any emphasis on the Dominican theory of a peaceful approach to the native polities that might be found in La Florida. The contract did contain a copy of Charles V's decree of November 17, 1526, enjoining pacific treatment of the Indians, reading of the Requirement of 1514 to them until they understood it, peaceful and honest trade, no forced labor or enslaving of Indians, and no recruitment of Spaniards from the Antilles for the expeditionary force. On the other hand, the contract permitted the establishment of encomiendas, the very device that had produced all the abuses that the decree wished to avoid! To help guarantee that Indian rights were respected, at least two friars were to go on every expedition. These religious commisars were to be consulted about all matters relating to the Indians.

To sweeten the agreement, the crown ordered an investigation to determine whether De Soto qualified for the Order of Santiago. That inquiry, conducted at Badajoz in 1537, is an important source for his background and place of birth.

By early August 1537, De Soto was in Seville, beginning to purchase ships and to make other preparations for the journey. He fixed rendevous for his expedition as Seville and January 1538. He then settled into the business of raising men, aided by the arrival of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, one of three men to survive from Panfilo de Narvaez's ill-starred expedition of 1528 to Amichel. Asked to join the De Soto expedition, he eventually declined, but he did tell relatives that they might be well advised to join the venture. In other contexts he spoke of things that were only for Charles V's ear, which his hearers took to mean that he knew of great riches. Men began to gather money to pay for their outfitting and journey. Some, like Garcia Osorio, sold real estate to support themselves and their relatives (a brother in this case), horses, foot soldiers, and servants.

The Elvas narrative provides a graphic description of the gathering of the army. The list of men and when they enrolled has been published, although it is not certain that all went on the expedition. Three or four women also joined the expedition over and above Isabel de Bobadilla, De Soto's wife, and her ladies. Four men of possible Moorish origins have been noted. In all, about seven hundred persons sailed with the expedition, of whom eighteen had known civilian occupations (the majority tailors) and four were clergy. John R. Swanton has published a list and prepared a numerical analysis of some 698 names... It is clear that, except for the very large percentage of Extremenos in the De Soto force (48.9 percent compared to 15.9 percent overall and 21 .4 percent of the men at Cajamarca) and a correspondingly small number of Andalucians, De Soto's force had a composition not unlike that of Pizarro's at Cajamarca, while both differed by having fewer New Castilians and more Old Castilian and Leonese than the general pattern of immigration in that period.

Although most of the men provided their own weapons and supplies and probably contributed to their transportation costs, De Soto still had large expenses. At present little is known of them aside from the fact that he pawned (or sold) the royal grant of income from the Granada silk monopoly in order to raise money. The purchasers may have been Genoese. One of their own, Cristobal Spinola, sold his goods and joined De Soto. Too, Elvas says that when he left Spain, De Soto was in debt, having arrived with a fortune!

As the fleet made up, it was assigned the task of accompanying a group of merchantmen. Spain was still at war with France, although her diplomats were close to arranging the Truce of Nice (July 14-16, 1538). Lacking the means to provide an escort as far as the Canary Islands, the crown took advantage of De Soto's force. Swanton has provided a table listing the ships, approximate size, and commanders in the De Soto fleet.

De Soto sailed from San Lucar de Barrameda on April 7, 1538. The trip was uneventful. Gomera, in the Canary Islands, was reached on Easter Sunday, April 21. After a week there gathering water and supplies, the convoy was off again, keeping company until well into the Caribbean, when the Mexican ships went their separate way, leaving De Soto's fleet to work its way to Santiago de Cuba. They arrived there on June 9.

After a round of welcoming ceremonies, De Soto made provision for additional fortifications at Santiago, which had been raided some months before his coming, and attended to other governmental matters. That done, he divided his expedition, sending his family and the foot soldiers by ship to Havana while he took the horsemen, divided into several squadrons, overland to Havana. Although the men were supposed to pay for the provisions they obtained, a trail of complaints followed them. De Soto, who went ahead, reached Havana about November 1. The rest of the cavalry did not arrive until March 15 39, having spent the winter living off the land and its inhabitants.

Over that winter, De Soto sent Juan de Anasco to seek out a port on the west coast of Florida and attended to the fortification of Havana and other governmental chores. With Anasco's report and the cavalry at hand, De Soto pushed final preparations. By then he had acquired four agricultural properties that could supply maize, sweet potatoes, cacabi biscuit (a bread made from bitter manioc), beef, pork, mutton, turkeys, and chickens, in addition to any of those supplies that he bought from other Cuban producers.

One of his properties, which also had fifty resident Indians held in encomienda, was used to raise horses as well as other livestock, maize, and manioc. Almost on the eve of sailing, Hernan Ponce arrived aboard the Santa Ana, a ship in which he had bought a half-interest at Nombre de Dios. He was on his way back to Spain with the proceeds of De Soto's Cuzco properties (including slaves), sold to Almagro for four thousand pesos de oro, probably in early 1538 during Almagro's rebellion against Pizarro. Ponce had also given Almagro De Soto's encomienda at Cuzco because Almagro had purchased the other properties. According to Elvas (repeated with elaboration in Garcilaso), Ponce had not intended to put in at Havana because he did not want to meet De Soto and only did so when adverse weather caused the ship's master to seek port..

This story seems wrong on its face; ships from Tierra Firme almost never avoided a final food, water, and firewood stop at Havana, and a ship in as poor a condition as the Santa Ana supposedly was would surely have been brought to port before the long Atlantic crossing. On the other hand, Ponce might not have been particularly anxious to discuss their affairs with De Soto, because if he knew of the expedition he could have anticipated demands for money.

Whatever the truth of Ponce's motivations and feelings upon landing at Havana, he soon found cause for offense. On May 13, 1539, De Soto dictated his will. This made elaborate provision for charitable works and for De Soto's monument in the Church of San Miguel in Jerez de los Caballeros, but left nothing to Ponce. De Soto also induced Ponce to sign an agreement in which each accepted the other's actions in the nearly four years since they had renewed the company at Cuzco and waived all future claims for compensation under the partnership for any action taken to May 13, 1539. De Soto was particularly insistent that his expenses at court and in fitting the expedition be accepted and that he be released from any claim of extravagant spending. He did recognize that Ponce had a right to half of the income (150,000 maravedis) from the royal grant against the Granada silk monopoly, and a provision was made for Ponce to purchase for himself alone an equivalent income, using the partnerships' funds. This document so angered Ponce that he went to another notary and declared that he had signed it under duress and against his will and so would not be bound by it. Subsequently confronted about this by Isabel de Bobadilla, Ponce renounced his renunciation, but then they became involved in a lawsuit about the company.

Ponce's anger is understandable. Not only had De Soto squandered the more than one hundred thousand pesos de oro he had taken to Spain, he had apparently run up large debts that the partnership - meaning Ponce - was obliged to pay. On top of that, De Soto was probably treating his former friend and one-time benefactor with a hauteur that had to have been offensive. And he was about to embark on a plunge into an area that had a reputation as a wasteland, one from which little profit might be expected.

Part 1 of Dr. Hoffman's Biography

DeSoto's Expedition - Detailed from Florida thru Texas

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