De Soto, FERNANDO, discoverer; born in Xeres, Estremadura, Spain, about 1496, of a noble but impoverished family. Davila, governor of Darien, was his kind patron, through whose generosity he received a good education, and who took him to Central America, where he engaged in exploring the coast of the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles in search of a supposed strait connecting the two oceans. When Pizarro went to Peru, De Soto accompanied him, and was his chief lieutenant in achieving the conquest of that country. Brave and judicious, De Soto was the chief hero in the battle that resulted in the capture of Cuzco, the capital of the Incas, and the destruction of their empire. Soon after that event he returned to Spain with large wealth, and was received by King Charles V. with great consideration. He married Isabella Bobadilla, a scion of one of the most renowned of the Castilian families, and his influence at Court was thereby strengthened. Longing to rival Cortez and Pizarro in the brilliancy of his deeds, and believing Florida to be richer in the precious metals than Mexico or Peru, De Soto offered to conquer it at his own expense. Permission was readily given him by his King, who commissioned him governor of Cuba, from which island he would set out on his conquering expedition. Elegant in deportment, winning in all his ways, an expert horseman, rich and influential, and then thirty-seven years of age, hundreds of young men, the flower of the Spanish and Portuguese nobility, flocked to his standard, the wealthier ones dressed in suits of gorgeous armor and followed by trains of servants. With these and his beautiful young wife and other noble ladies De Soto sailed from Spain early in April, 1538, with seven large and three small vessels, the San Christoval, of 800 tons, being his flagship.
Amply supplied and full of joy in the anticipation of entering an earthly paradise, gayety and feasting, music and dancing prevailed on board the flagship during that sunny voyage, in which richly dressed ladies, with handsome pages to do their bidding, were conspicuous, especially on warm moonlit nights within the tropic of Cancer. At near the close of May the fleet entered Cuban waters. De Soto occupied a whole year preparing for the expedition, and at the middle of May, 1539, he sailed from Cuba with nine vessels, bearing 1,000 followers, and cattle, horses, mules, and swine, the first of the latter seen on the American continent. He left public affairs in Cuba in the hands of his wife and the lieutenant-governor. The voyage to Florida was pleasant, and the armament landed on the shores of Tampa Bay on May 25, near where Narvaez had first anchored. Instead of treating the natives kindly and winning their friendship, De Soto unwisely sent armed men to capture some of them, in order to learn something about the country he was to conquer. The natives, cruelly treated by Narvaez, and fearing the same usage by De Soto, were cautious. They were also wily, expert with the bow, revengeful, and fiercely hostile. With cavaliers clad in steel and riding 113 horses, with many footmen armed with arquebuses, cross-bows, swords, shields, and lances, and a single cannon, and supplied with savage bloodhounds from Cuba, and handcuffs, iron neck-collars, and chains for the captives, De Soto began his march in June, 1539. He was accompanied by mechanics, priests, inferior clergy, and monks in sacerdotal robes bearing images of the Virgin, holy relics, and sacramental bread and wine, wherewith to make Christians of the captured pagans.
At the very outset the expedition met with determined opposition from the dusky inhabitants, but De Soto pressed forward towards the interior of the fancied land of gold. He wintered east of the Flint River, near Tallahassee, on the borders of Georgia, and in March, 1540, broke up his encampment and marched northward, having been told that gold would be found in that direction. He reached the Savannah River, at Silver Bluff. On the opposite side of the stream, in (present) Barnwell county, lived an Indian queen, young, beautiful, and a maiden, who ruled over a large extent of country. In a richly wrought canoe, filled with shawls and skins and other things for presents, the dusky cacica glided across the river, and with kind words welcomed the Spaniards and offered them her services. Presents were exchanged. A magnificent string of pearls was hung upon her neck. This she drew over her head and hung it around the neck of De Soto as a token of her regard. Then she invited him and his followers to cross over to her village. In canoes and on log-rafts they passed the stream, and, encamping in the shadows of mulberry-trees, they soon received a bountiful supply of venison and wild turkeys. There they enjoyed the young queen’s hospitality until May, and when they departed De Soto requited the kindness of the royal maiden with foul treachery. He carried her away a prisoner, and kept her near his person as a hostage for the good behavior of her people towards the Spaniards. She finally escaped, and returned home a bitter enemy of the perfidious white people.
De Soto crossed the beautiful country of the Cherokees (see CHEROKEE INDIANS), and penetrated the fertile Coosa region, where the Spaniards practiced the most cruel treachery towards the friendly natives. De Soto was rewarded in kind not long afterwards, and in a terrible battle with the Mobilians, on the site of Mobile, the expedition was nearly ruined. Turning northward with the remnant of his forces, he fought his way through the Chickasaw country (CHICKASAW INDIANS), and reached the upper waters of the Yazoo River late in December, where he wintered, in great distress. Moving westward in the spring, he discovered the Mississippi River, in all its grandeur, in May, 1541. It was near the Lower Chicasaw Bluff, in Tunica county, Miss. Crossing the mighty stream, De Soto went westward in his yet fruitless search for gold, and spent a year in the country towards the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Returning to the Mississippi in May, 1542, he died of a fever on its banks on the 21st.
As he had declared to the Indians, who were sun-worshippers, that he was a son of the sun, and that Christians could not die, it was thought wise to conceal his death from the pagans. He was secretly buried in the gateway of the Spanish camp. The Indians knew he was sick. He was not to be seen, and they saw a new-made grave. They looked upon it and pondered. Moscoso ordered the body to be taken up at the dead of night. He was wrapped in mantles in which sand had been sewed up, taken in a boat to the middle of the great river, and there dropped to the bottom in 19 fathoms of water. Herrera says it was sunk in a hollow live-oak log. When the Indian chief asked Moscoso for De Soto, that leader replied, “He has ascended to heaven, but will return soon.”
Before his death De Soto had conferred the leadership of the expedition upon Moscoso, his lieutenant, who, with the wretched remnant of the expedition, wandered another year in the region west of the Mississippi; and returning to that river in May, 1543, they built rude vessels, and, with a number of beautiful Alabama girls whom they had carried away captive after the battle at Maubila, they made their way to Mexico, where the elegant Castilian ladies at the court of the viceroy were enraptured by the beauty of the dusky Mobilian girls. The news of De Soto’s death cast a gloom over Havana, and poor Dona Isabella, wife of the great leader, who had so long waited for his return, died of a broken heart.