Hernando de Soto (1500?-1542)
Ruthless Ambition. Perhaps no one better exemplified the savage nature of the sixteenth-century Europeans who invaded North America than Hernando de Soto. A captain in the Spanish army at the age of twenty, de Soto had served as Francisco Pizarro's chief military advisor during Spain's ruthless conquest of Peru in the early 1530s. While de Soto had become a wealthy man as a result of that venture, he remained restless and desired to increase his fortune. Evidence of gold in the southeastern part of North America consequently spurred him to organize an expedition in hopes of finding another New World empire to plunder.
Followers. De Soto organized his expedition in the port city of Havana on the island of Cuba. His force consisted of 330 infantrymen equipped with swords, harquebuses, and crossbows, and 270 cavalrymen armed with swords and lances. Primarily veterans of earlier New World expeditions, his men opted for the lighter and more effective Aztec armor over the heavy and ineffective European variety. His force also included about 100 slaves, servants, camp followers, and pig herders. Finally, the expedition took with it mules to carry baggage, a herd of hogs—the ancestors of today's southern razor-backs—to provide a source of food, and a pack of brutal Irish hounds to hunt and kill Indians in the swamps of the Deep South.
Methods. By using the approach pioneered by Hernando Cortés and Pizarro, de Soto hoped to avoid the fate that had befallen the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition a decade earlier. Like his predecessors, de Soto planned to use advanced weapons, armored cavalry, and better tactics to dominate the numerically superior Indians. More important, he aimed to gain information, secure concubines for his men, ensure against attack, and extort the food on which his expedition depended by taking a tribe's leader hostage upon entering its territory. When Indians did attack, moreover, he planned to retaliate savagely Page 279 | Top of Articleby slaughtering any he could find and by burning their settlements.
Early Campaign. Conflict with the Indians began as soon as de Soto's men landed at Tampa Bay in May 1539. Timucuan hit-and-run attacks increased in frequency because de Soto's men ruthlessly torched settlements and mercilessly killed peaceful Indians who approached them. When the Spanish passed into Apalachee territory they stumbled into a large, skillfully laid ambush at a difficult swamp crossing. The Apalachee thereafter constantly harassed de Soto's men—who wintered in their territory—by attacking suddenly and by ambushing small, isolated detachments. De Soto retaliated by killing any Apalachees that his men caught.
Ocute and Cofitachequi. While de Soto's relations with Native Americans were almost universally hostile, he did not war with every tribe he encountered. The Ocute of southern Georgia, in fact, allied with his expedition for an attack on their rivals, the Cofitachequi. The alliance with the Ocute was short-lived, however, and reflected the difference between European and Indian military objectives. The Ocute took vengeance on their traditional foe by killing and taking scalps in the first few Cofitachequi villages they entered. They then returned to their homeland satisfied that they had evened the score with their rivals. The Spanish, in contrast, sought wealth to plunder and food to fuel their expedition; de Soto's men consequently looted pearls and other valuables from the Cofitachequis’ temples and forced the Indians to supply them with corn.
Battle of Mabila. De Soto's only major pitched battle occurred later in 1540 in the large trading center of Mabila, located in present-day Alabama. As was their custom, the Spanish seized the Mabilan chief, Tazcaluza, upon meeting him on the outskirts of his chiefdom. Tazcaluza was ingratiating and compliant; he gladly escorted de Soto's men to Mabila, where, he promised, they would find great stores of food and many women. Unbeknownst to de Soto, though, the Mabilan chief had laid an elaborate trap designed to destroy the unsuspecting Spaniards. Shortly after de Soto's men entered the town, Tazcaluza sprang the trap by escaping from his Spanish guards. Suddenly, Indian warriors leapt from hiding, rained arrows on the invaders, and forced them out of the town with heavy casualties. Believing that they had routed de Soto, the Indians pursued the fleeing Spanish into the open fields outside Mabila's fifteen-foot palisades. The Spanish, however, were preparing a trap of their own. After luring the Native Americans away from the protection of Mabila's walls by feigning a disorderly retreat, de Soto's elite, armored cavalry suddenly spun about and launched a devastating counterattack that crushed the Indians’ charge. Soon thereafter, the Spanish infantry reentered the town and set it to the torch while de Soto's powerful cavalry prevented any Indians from escaping the conflagration.
Consequences. Native American losses at Mabila were staggering. Between twenty-five hundred and five thousand had died in the battle, most burning to death in the inferno that consumed the town. The Spanish likewise suffered heavily even though they wore Aztec armor and enjoyed the overwhelming advantage of cavalry: hundreds had been injured; more than forty had died; and they had lost some three dozen horses. More important, the battle had eroded seriously the expedition's morale and had led de Soto and his lieutenants to doubt whether they could conquer and control the Indians of North America as they had the Aztec and Incan empires.
Death. Increasingly desperate because he had discovered no gold and because his men were becoming mutinous, de Soto moved northward into Chicaza territory in hopes of finding treasure. That proved to be a poor decision, however, because the Chicaza had developed a new tactic for dealing with the Spanish invaders: night attacks. In one especially effective night assault on de Soto's winter camp, the Chicaza greatly weakened the expedition by killing a dozen Spaniards and slaughtering more than fifty horses. Continued night raids eventually drove the Spanish force westward across the Mississippi, where they destroyed many Indian villages and seized large quantities of corn. Then, while moving south along the Mississippi in the spring of 1542, de Soto suddenly took ill. He died in May and was replaced as commander by one of his lieutenants, Luis de Moscoso y Alvarado.
The End. Having heard rumors of Coronado's expedition in the southwestern part of North America, Moscoso decided to move west through the plains of Texas in hopes of joining his countrymen. His men soon ran low on provisions and began to suffer grievous losses from the Tonkawa Indians’ skillfully laid ambushes. Desperate for food and weary from the Native Americans’ constant harassing attacks, the Spanish returned to the Mississippi, where they spent the winter of 1542–1543. Deciding to abandon the expedition that spring, Moscoso's men constructed seven barges on which they planned to escape to Mexico. Their conflict with the Indians had not yet ended, however. A coalition of Mississippi valley tribes temporarily put aside their differences and joined together to pursue the Spanish down the river in a flotilla of canoes. Later, javelin-throwing Indians warred with the Spanish as they passed westward along the Gulf Coast. In the end, only about three hundred survivors—half the number that landed with de Soto at Tampa Bay—returned to Spanish Mexico.
Impact. De Soto's expedition had profound ramifications for all the parties involved. It demonstrated that North America lacked easily plundered treasure and that the Indians were still too powerful to conquer. Consequently Spanish authorities lost interest in La Florida for several decades. As for the Native Americans, they were able to drive the Spanish out of North America despite the invaders’ superior weapons, better tactics, and irresistible armored cavalry. On the other hand, they had suffered Page 280 | Top of Articlethousands of deaths in battle and had lost tens of thousands more as a result of the diseases that the Spaniards had brought with them. De Soto's invasion thus weakened the southeastern Indians greatly and left them increasingly unable to withstand the European incursions that grew steadily during the seventeenth century.
Miguel Albornoz, Hernando de Soto: Knight of the Americas (New York: Watts, 1986);
Charles M. Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997);
Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasion of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2536600198