Hernando de Soto: a Brief
by Dr. Lawrence A. Clayton

De Soto [dih SOH toh], Hernando (1500?-1542), a Spanish explorer, helped to defeat the Inca empire and led the first European expedition to reach the Mississippi River. From 1539 to 1542, he led a large Spanish expedition through what is now the southern United States. His army landed in Florida and crossed about 10 present-day states. De Soto became known as a courageous explorer who helped conquer the New World for Spain. However, the era of exploration was marked by greed, intolerance, and cruelty. In their search for wealth, de Soto and his men tortured and brutally killed many Indians.

Early expeditions. De Soto was born in the province of Extremadura in Spain. As a teen-ager, he sailed to the New World and began his career as an explorer in the tropical rain forests of Panama. De Soto served in expeditions to enslave Indians and to search for wealth.

By the early 1530's, de Soto was known as an excellent soldier and horseman. He joined an expedition led by Francisco Pizarro, another Spanish explorer, against the empire of the Inca Indians in what is now Peru. After a short delay, the men began their journey in 1532 with a small army of 168 men. They reached the city of Cajamarca, where a huge Inca army, commanded by Emperor Atahualpa, was camped.

Pizarro sent de Soto with a small troop of 15 cavalrymen to invite Atahualpa to meet with Pizarro. The Spaniards ambushed the Inca and captured their emperor. Although the Inca paid an enormous ransom for their emperor, the Spaniards executed him. De Soto helped Pizarro capture Cusco, the Inca's capital, in 1533.

In 1536, de Soto returned to Spain a rich man from treasures collected during the Inca conquest. He could have led a noble lifestyle, but he sought his own command in the New World. King Charles I of Spain appointed him governor of Cuba and authorized him to conquer and colonize the region that is now the eastern United States.

Journey to the Mississippi. De Soto arrived below present-day Tampa Bay in 1539. He brought more than 600 men equipped with horses to help him colonize the land and search for gold. De Soto planned to capture Indian chiefs, take hundreds of Indians as ransom, and march through their territories.

The army camped for the winter in what is now northern Florida and headed north during the spring and summer of 1540. They traveled through the present-day states of Georgia and the Carolinas, crossed the Great Smoky Mountains, and headed south through the Georgia and Alabama area. In October 1540, followers of the Choctaw leader Tuscaloosa ambushed de Soto's army at the town of Mabila, Alabama. Despite emerging victorious, de Soto's army retreated northward. The men then traveled through the Midwest area, crossed the Mississippi River, and explored the Arkansas region and other present-day states west of the river.

On May 21, 1542, de Soto died from a fever by the banks of the Mississippi River. The remains of his army, led by Luis de Moscoso, reached New Spain (now Mexico) the next year.

Contributor: Lawrence A. Clayton, Ph.D., Professor of History, Univ. of Alabama and the Discovery Channel School. Provided by World Book Online at the Discovery Channel.


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, 1993, U of Alabama Press

The De Soto expedition was the first major encounter of Europeans with North American Indians in the eastern half of the United States. De Soto and his army of over 600 men, including 200 cavalry, spent four years traveling through what is now Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. For anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians the surviving De Soto chronicles are valued for the unique ethnological information they contain. These documents are the only detailed eyewitness records of the most advanced native civilization in North America - the Mississippian culture - a culture that vanished in the wake of European contact.

A rich, readable contribution to De Soto studies that commemorates the 450th anniversary of the ill-fated explorer's odyssey through the present southeastern U.S. and Texas. These translations of the four primary accounts of the venture, with new notes and introductions, make valuable historical and ethnographical information easily available and accessible both to scholars and to general readers. . . . All academic libraries and larger public libraries should purchase this exceptionally valuable compilation. A compilation of superbly edited translations old and new. A who's who of anthropologists, historians, linguists, archivists, and researchers in the southeastern United States have combined their expertise to produce the most significant analysis of the De Soto entrada since Swanton (Southwestern Historical Quarterly). These handsomely produced volumes contain translations of virtually all known documents from the De Soto expedition, as well as new scholarship. For the first time all these sources are in one place (Florida Historical Quarterly). These books bring together in two volumes all the De Soto chronicles, three in new translations. They also contain many new materials never before published in translation and the latest in De Soto scholarship by experts best equipped to present it. But the work is not only for scholars: the translated chronicles are entertaining reading for anyone looking for a good adventure story and richly textured picture of the Southeast and Mid South during the 16th century. Profusely illustrated with maps and plates, these two volumes make an immensely valuable contribution (The North Carolina Historical Review).

Volume I and Volume II, 608pp. illustrations
each volume, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4, 4 line drawings, 15 photographs, maps
ISBN 0-8173-0824-5 paper $50.00/set

Order from: University of Alabama Press


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