Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/De Soto, Fernando

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DE SOTO, Fernando, Spanish discoverer, b. in Jerez de los Caballeros, Estremadura, Spain, about 1496; d. on the banks of the Mississippi, 20 June, 1542. He was the descendant of a noble but impoverished family, and was indebted to Pedrarias Davila for the means of pursuing a course at the university, where he distinguished himself in literary studies and in athletic performances. In 1519 he accompanied Davila, who had been made governor of Darien, on his second expedition to America, during which he showed great ability and determination of character, especially as an opponent of the oppressive measures of his superior officers. He served on the expedition to Nicaragua in 1527 under Hernandez, who afterward perished by the hand of Davila in consequence of not heeding his advice. In 1528 he withdrew from the service of his patron and explored the coasts of Guatemala and Yucatan for upward of 700 miles in search of a strait, which was supposed to connect the two oceans. Later he joined Pizarro in his expedition to Peru, with the promise of being made second in command. In 1533 he was sent with fifty horsemen and a few targeteers to explore the highlands of Peru. He penetrated through a pass in the mountains, and discovered the great national road that led to the Peruvian capital. De Soto was sent by Pizarro as ambassador to visit the Inca Atahualpa, after whose capture he expostulated with his chief for treacherously refusing to release the Peruvian monarch, but in vain, although an immense sum had been paid for his ransom. He was prominent in the engagements that completed the conquest of Peru, and was the hero of the battle that resulted in the capture of Cuzco. Subsequently De Soto, who had landed in America with nothing of his own save his sword and target, returned to Spain with a fortune of $500,000, which enabled him to marry the daughter of his old patron Davila, to whom he had long been attached, and to maintain “all the state that the house of a nobleman requireth.” The tales of returned adventurers fostered a belief in Spain that the treasures of the northern hemisphere would be found to rival in value the riches of Peru; and De Soto, in his desire to excel Cortes in glory and surpass Pizarro in wealth, sought permission from Charles V. to conquer Florida at his own expense. This privilege was readily conceded, and De Soto was made governor of Cuba. Volunteers for the expedition assembled in great numbers, both from Spain and Portugal, and De Soto selected from the “flower of the peninsula” only those who were in the “bloom of life,” and, with a force of 600 men, 24 ecclesiastics, and 20 officers, sailed early in April from San Lucar. The fleet soon reached Santiago de Cuba, and then stopped at Havana, where the women were to remain until after the conquest. Leaving his wife in command, he crossed the gulf of Mexico and anchored in the bay of Espiritu Santo (now Tampa bay) on 25 May, 1539. When the soldiers were landed, De Soto, confident of success, sent his ships back to Cuba, and at the head of his followers began the long search for gold. His forces were greater in numbers and more perfect in equipment than those that had triumphed over the empires of Mexico and Peru. Everything was provided that former experience could suggest; chains for captives, the implements of a forge, weapons of all kinds then in use, bloodhounds as auxiliaries against the natives, ample stores of food, and finally a drove of hogs, which would soon swarm in the favoring climate, where the forests furnished them with abundant sustenance. To the greed for wealth religious zeal was added, priests with their assistants accompanying the expedition. Ornaments for the service of the mass were provided, and every festival was to be kept, every religious practice observed. The route was through a country already made hostile by the violence of the Spanish invader, Narvaez, and the Indians, in their efforts to rid themselves of the Spaniards, continually lured them onward by stories of wealth in regions still remote, which receded as the expedition advanced. They marched northward at first, and then passed into the country of the Appalachians, where they spent the winter. Juan Ortiz, who had been captured by the Indians from Narvaez, and enslaved by them, could give no account of any land where gold or silver was to be found. An exploring party discovered Ochus, the harbor of Pensacola, and a message was sent to Cuba, desiring that in the following year supplies might be sent to that place. Meanwhile, discontent had arisen among the Spaniards, and when they appealed to De Soto to return, he refused, saying: “I will not turn back till I have seen the poverty of the country with my own eyes.” In March, 1540, they resumed their march, proceeding in a northeasterly direction, and on 18 Oct. reached the village of Marilla or Mobile, on Alabama river, where, in an engagement with the natives, the Spaniards lost more than 80 men and 42 horses, and it was claimed that 2,500 Indians were killed. Ships had meanwhile arrived at Ochus, but De Soto proudly refused to send back any message of his fortunes. He then went to the northwest, and passed his second winter in the country of the Chickasaws. In the spring of 1541 he made a demand on the chief of these Indians for 200 men to carry the burdens of the company. The chief hesitated, and in the night fired the village where the Spaniards were encamped. Forty of De Soto's followers perished in the names, and all the baggage was destroyed. A delay of some weeks ensued, during which forges were erected, swords newly tempered, and ashen lances made. In April, De Soto resumed his march in a northwesterly direction, and, after journeying for seven days through a wilderness of forest and marshes, reached the Mississippi river. A month was spent on the banks, constructing barges large enough to hold three horsemen each, and then the army passed over to the western side; thence northward to Pacaha, where he remained ten days, and then marched successively southwest and northwest till he reached the highlands of White river, which was the western limit of the expedition. Turning south, he proceeded on his journey, passing by the hot springs of Arkansas, which his companions at first supposed to be the fabled fountain of youth, and spent his third winter in Antiamque, on Washita river. In the following spring De Soto determined to descend this river to its junction. He finally reached the Mississippi again, and while descending its banks was stricken with malignant fever. Worn out by long disappointments, and his pride changed to a wasting melancholy, he realized that death was near at hand. He gathered his followers around him, and, after appointing Luis de Moscoso his successor, succumbed to the disease on the following day. The news of his death was carefully kept from the Indians, by whom he was regarded as possessing supernatural powers, and at midnight, wrapped in his mantle, the body of the great discoverer was lowered into the waters of the river he had discovered. His followers, reduced to half their original numbers, passed the ensuing winter in the country of the Natchitoches, and in the spring returned to the Mississippi, where they built seven frail boats, in which they drifted down to the gulf of Mexico, and then followed the shore to the Mexican town of Panuco, where they dispersed. De Soto's wife expired in Havana three days after hearing of his fate. See “Life, Travels, and Adventures of Ferdinand de Soto,” by Lambert A. Wilmer (Philadelphia, 1858); “Narratives of the Career of Hernando de Soto in the Conquest of Florida, as told by a Knight of Elvas, and in a Relation by Liuys Hernandez de Biedura, factor of the Expedition,” translated by Buckingham Smith (New York, 1866), being number five of the Bradford club series; and Bancroft's “History of the United States” (vol. i., New York, 1885).