The name of Hernando de Soto is remembered both as the leader of the first extensive Spanish exploration of the continental interior of eastern North America and as an exemplar of the most brutal aspects of the Spanish conquest era. Born in the province of Extremadura in Spain not long after Columbus’ voyages to the New World, Hernando de Soto first traveled to Panama as a teenager in 1514 under Pedro Arias de Avila, earning a reputation as a skilled soldier and horseman during the exploration and conquest of Central America. In 1532, Soto joined Francisco Pizarro in the conquest and
plunder of the Inca empire, returning to Spain in 1536 as a wealthy man. There, Soto was granted the governorship of Cuba, as well as a royal contract to explore and settle Florida, including the regions of previous settlement attempts by Juan Ponce de León and Lúcas Vázquez de Ayllón on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Soto also gathered intelligence about Florida from Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of the four surviving members of the doomed Pánfilo de Narváez expedition along the Gulf coast.
Sailing from Spain in 1538, Soto’s expedition passed through Cuba before his ships entered modern Tampa Bay in May of 1539. Unloading an army of some 600 soldiers, hundreds of horses for transport, and hogs for food, Soto’s expedition befriended some indigenous groups and fought others, quickly pushing inland and northward in search of the same kind of wealthy and populous civilizations Soto had experienced in South America. Traversing the Withlacoochee River and the lake district around modern Gainesville, Soto’s army interacted with a number of Timucua-speaking chiefdoms across northern Florida, crossing the Santa Fe and Suwannee Rivers on its way to the renowned province of Apalachee at present-day Tallahassee. There Soto’s army spent the winter months at what is now known as the Governor Martin archaeological site , fending off repeated attacks from Apalachee Indians, who had withdrawn as the Spanish army approached. Soto also dispatched ships which discovered a port called Ochuse at Pensacola Bay, where he planned to rendezvous during his exploration of the interior.
Pushing northward into Georgia in the spring of 1540, Soto’s army moved as far as central South Carolina before crossing the Appalachian mountains and wandering westward all the way to the Mississippi River, failing to return to Pensacola despite repeated visits by Spanish ships over the next few years. Hernando de Soto himself eventually succumbed to illness on May 21, 1542, his body being cast into the Mississippi River. Failing in their attempt to traverse the deserts of Texas on their way to New Spain, the remnants of his army under Luís de Moscoso finally made their way down the Mississippi River on makeshift vessels and along the Gulf coast to Pánuco in Mexico by September of 1543. Though his expedition failed to establish Spanish dominion or settlement in Florida, Soto’s legacy would ultimately lie in the information gathered about Native American societies that would never again be witnessed in a pristine state, providing future generations with an irreplaceable record of that experience.
Map from the website "Old Florida Maps" showing De Soto's route of exploration in 1539. The map, drawn by Captain Eastman, was published in Schoolcraft's Historical and Statistical Information etc (6 volumes) in Philadelphia in 1851-1853 and again in 1854-1857. It shows De Soto's route of exploration in 1539.
A portion of the "Early Visions of Florida" website, created by a professor at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. The site in its entirety focuses on literature from the exploration and colonial period. This section explores contemporary writings about the De Soto journey.
American Conquest: The Oldest Written Record of Inland America
An extensive website about Hernando de Soto's journey through the U.S. Utilizing tools like Google Earth, journals, and other historic documents, the site reconstructs DeSoto's journey. There is some scholarly debate as to some of the assumptions made on the site, but with thorough discussion about the process of writing history this site could be invaluable in the classroom.