De Soto, Hernando c. 1500–1542

Hernando de Soto has been characterized alternately as a vicious murderer and a noble adventurer. He was born around 1500, the son of Francisco Mendez de Soto, a nobleman of Jerez de los Caballeros, and Do±a Leonor Arias Tinoco, a noblewoman from the city of Bajadoz. Little is known of his life in Spain. De Soto gained fame as a result of his participation in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. At the age of 14, de Soto joined the expedition of Pedro Arias de vila, then engaged in the conquest of Panama. He spent the next nine years raiding villages for food, gold, and slaves. In 1523, de Soto, along with his partner Juan Ponce de Le³n, assisted in Cordoba’s conquest of Nicaragua. For his services, de Soto received land in Nicaragua, interest in mines, and Native American laborers and slaves. By 1530, de Soto was one of the wealthier men in Le³n, Nicaragua, making a small fortune in the shipping and slave trading industry there. In 1530, de Soto further increased his fortune by joining in the conquest of Peru. He served as lieutenant governor of Cuzco from 1534 to 1535. Returning to Spain, he tried, unsuccessfully, to be appointed head of government for various territories in Central and South America. De Soto did succeed in marrying into a family with extensive Central American connections, when he wed Isabel de Bobadilla, under whose father de Soto had fought in Panama. De Soto finally received a royal contract to explore the interior of La Florida, which included most of the southeastern United States. Rumors abounded that precious gold and gems could be found in inland mountains, and, in May 1539, de Soto, at the head of a column of 600 men and 240 horses, landed at Tampa Bay. De Soto’s party spent the next few years exploring the American Southeast and exploiting its Native American inhabitants. The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto is credited with discovering the Mississippi River in May 1541, somewhere south of present-day Memphis. His party had landed in Florida two years earlier and plundered native settlements on its way north. (Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library) Though scholars continue to debate de Soto’s precise route, the general outline is as follows. De Soto’s party wound up the Gulf Coast of Florida, through Georgia and South Carolina, across the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, southeast through Georgia and Alabama, and then west through Mississippi and Arkansas. After de Soto’s death, his party continued to explore in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. De Soto’s tactics were harsh and effective. No matter what kind of welcome he received, he would capture several prominent Native Americans and hold them hostage to ensure adequate provisions for his men and horses, as well as to guarantee safe passage through hostile territory. The 1530s and 1540s were a time of rapid change for Native Americans in the Southeast, as larger polities (Mississippian chiefdoms) declined and modern tribal identities were formed. De Soto sought to capitalize on the shifting political landscape, and his march through the Southeast brought Native American cultures face-toface with the horrors of conquest. De Soto apparently was given to hunting Native Americans for sport, feeding them to dogs, and severing the noses and hands of those who were uncooperative. Native Americans in the Southeast resisted de Soto in a number of ways. The most common form of resistance was to abandon a town and employ guerrilla tactics to harass the expedition. Native American resistance slowed de Soto down and weakened his force but did not stop him. De Soto’s firepower and willingness to subdue native peoples propelled the party along a winding trail thousands of miles in length. As historian David Weber put it, de Soto and his men left a trail of shattered lives, broken bodies, ravaged fields, empty storehouses, and charred villages. De Soto did experience setbacks, however. At Mabila, in central Alabama, de Soto came under attack by Tuscaloosas, and the casualties on both sides were heavy. De Soto had an opportunity to head for the Gulf of Mexico and safety. Not having found the massive fortune he sought, he instead chose to press on with the remnants of his army. De Soto’s army was further weakened by a surprise attack in Chickasaw country. De Soto took ill and died in May 1542. His body was allegedly sunk in the Mississippi River in an effort to convince local natives that he was not human. De Soto’s journey through the American Southeast from 1539 to 1542 paved the way for future Spanish exploration and settlement. At the same time, it demonstrated the horrors of European civilization to the region’s native peoples. Matthew Jennings See also: Exploration; Mississippi River; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology). Bibliography Hoffman, Paul E. “Hernando de Soto: A Short Biography.” In The De Soto Chronicles, edited by Lawrence Clayton, et al. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993. Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992. Wright, J. Leitch. The Only Land They Knew: American Indians in the Old South. 1981. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Hernando de Soto – Ages of Exploration Mapq8HERNANDO DE SOTO (c1500-1542). Spanish explorer in America Prints … Mapq8Part I. Hernando De Soto (c.1500-1542) Born in 1500, at the age of … Mapq8

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