The American Cyclopædia (1879)/De Soto, Fernando

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DE SOTO, Fernando, a Spanish explorer, born at Xeres de los Caballeros, in Estremadura, about 1496, died on the banks of the Mississippi in 1542. Of a noble but reduced family, he was enabled by the favor of Pedrarias Davila to spend several years at one of the universities, and distinguished himself in literary studies, and especially in athletic accomplishments. In 1519 he accompanied his patron on his second expedition to America as governor of Darien, and was the most intrepid opponent of the oppressive administration of that officer. He supported Hernandez in Nicaragua in 1527, who perished by the hand of Davila in consequence of not heeding his advice. Withdrawing from the service of Davila, he explored in 1528 the coast of Guatemala and Yucatan for 700 m., in search of the strait which was supposed to connect the two oceans. In 1532 De Soto joined Pizarro in his enterprise for conquering Peru. Being sent in 1533, with 50 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 which led to the Peruvian capital, and was soon after selected by Pizarro to visit the inca Atahuallpa as ambassador. After the capture of the inca, and when the latter had paid an immense sum for ransom, De Soto in vain expostulated with Pizarro for treacherously refusing to release the Peruvian monarch. He was prominent in the engagements which completed the conquest of Peru, and was the hero of the battle which resulted in the capture of Cuzco, the metropolis. He soon after returned to Spain with a fortune of $500,000, met a flattering reception from the emperor Charles V., made a splendid display at court, and married the daughter of Davila, to whom he had been long attached. In 1536 the belief was entertained that in the vast region then called Florida was a new El Dorado, richer than any that had been discovered. De Soto proposed to the emperor to undertake the conquest of Florida at his own expense; and the privilege being conceded to him, many Spanish and Portuguese cavaliers enrolled themselves among his followers. With 600 men, 24 ecclesiastics, and 20 officers, he sailed from San Lucar early in April, 1538. After stopping at Santiago de Cuba, and then at Havana, where it was decided that the ladies attached to the expedition should remain till after the conquest of Florida, he crossed the gulf of Mexico, and anchored in the bay of Espiritu Santo (Tampa bay), May 25, 1539. His route was through a country already made hostile by the violence of the Spanish invader Narvaez, and he was constantly deluded by the Indians, whose policy it was to send their unwelcome visitors as far away as possible by telling them of gold regions at remote points. A Spaniard, Juan Ortiz, who had been in slavery here from the time of Narvaez, served as his interpreter. In July, 1539, he sent back all his ships to Havana. He passed the first winter in the country of the Appalachians, E. of the Flint river. Directed then to the northeast, he reached in April, 1540, the Ogeechee; thence proceeding S., he reached the Coosa, and on Oct. 18 the village of Mavilla or Mobile, on the Alabama. In an engagement with the natives here the loss of the Spaniards was 80 men and 42 horses; that of the Indians was reported at 2,500 men. He passed the second winter in the country of the Chickasaws, who in the spring burned his camp and their own village, when he attempted to force them to carry his baggage; 40 Spaniards perished in the flames and in the night attack. Soon after beginning his march to the northwest a pestilential fever carried off nearly a score of his men. He reached the Mississippi after journeying seven days through forests and marshes, was nearly a month in constructing eight barges to transport his army, and having crossed the river went N. to Pacaha, where he remained from June 19 to July 29. Thence he marched successively S. W. and N. W. till he reached the highlands of the White river. This was the western limit of his expedition. He then proceeded S. by the hot springs of Arkansas, and made his third winter station at Autiamque on the Washita river. In March and April, 1542, he continued S. along the Washita to the Mississippi, and while attempting to descend the banks of the latter river he was attacked with fever and died, after appointing Luis de Moscoso his successor. The day of his death is variously given as May 21 and June 5 and 25. To conceal his death, his body was wrapped in a mantle and sunk at midnight in the middle of the stream. His followers, reduced more than one half in number, venturing east, were driven backward to the river, where they passed the next winter. In the spring of 1543 they embarked in seven boats, and after nearly three months the survivors reached the Mexican town of Panuco, where they dispersed. De Soto's wife expired at Havana on the third day after learning his fate.