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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Hernando de Soto
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The activity of the Spanish adventurers in their search for gold was unceasing, and this eager desire for riches led to a far more rapid exploration of the American continent than could have been accomplished under any other incitement. It was this that led Balboa in his perilous journey across the Isthmus, and that was the inciting cause of the remarkable achievements of Cortes and Pizarro. The same wild thirst for wealth led a succession of bold adventurers northward, and gave rise to an extended exploration of the territory of the southern United States. The earliest of these was Juan Ponce de Leon, who in 1512 discovered a country which he named Florida, either because he first saw it on Easter Sunday (Pascua florida), or on account of its beautiful appearance. He made several efforts to land, but was driven off by the warlike natives.

In the words of Robertson, "It was not merely the passion of searching for new countries that prompted Ponce de Leon to undertake this voyage; he was influenced by one of those visionary ideas which at that time often mingled with the spirit of discovery and rendered it more active. A tradition prevailed among the natives of Puerto Rico, that in the isle of Bimini, one of the Lucayos, there was a fountain of such wonderful virtue as to renew the youth and recall the vigor of every person who bathed in its salutary waters. In hopes of finding this grand restorative, Ponce de Leon and his followers ranged through the islands, searching, with fruitless solicitude and labor, for the fountain which was the chief object of their expedition. That a tale so fabulous should gain credit among simple uninstructed Indians is not surprising. That it should make any impression upon an enlightened people appears, in the present age, altogether incredible. The fact, however, is certain; and the most authentic Spanish historians mention this extravagant sally of their credulous countrymen. The Spaniards, at that period, were engaged in a career of activity which gave a romantic turn to their imagination and daily presented to them strange and marvellous objects. A new world was opened to their view. They visited islands and continents of whose existence mankind in former ages had no conception. In those delightful countries nature seemed to assume another form; every tree and plant and animal was different from those of the ancient hemisphere. They seemed to be transported into enchanted ground; and, after the wonders which they had seen, nothing, in the warmth and novelty of their imagination, appeared to them so extraordinary as to be beyond belief. If the rapid succession of new and striking scenes made such impression upon the sound understanding of Columbus that he boasted of having found the seat of Paradise, it will not appear strange that Ponce de Leon should dream of discovering the fountain of youth."

Ponce de Leon was killed by the Indians in a second visit to Florida in 1521. In 1518 Francisco Garay cruised along the whole Gulf coast, passing the mouth of the Mississippi, - the Miche Sepe, or Father of Waters, of the Indians. In 1520, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon sailed from Cuba in quest of a land called Chicora, north of Florida, said to possess a sacred stream whose waters had the miraculous virtue of those of the Fountain of Youth. He carried off some of the Indians, in reprisal for which he was attacked in a second expedition and many of his men killed, perhaps himself among the number. In 1528, Pamphilo de Narvaez made an effort to take possession of this land in the name of Charles V. of Germany. He met, however, with such determined opposition from the Indians that after months of fruitless wandering he reached the shores of the Gulf, bringing with him but a miserable remnant of his six hundred followers. Here five crazy boats were built, and the reckless adventurers sought to follow the line of the coast to the Mexican settlements. Four of the boats were lost in a storm, and the survivors, landing, sought to cross the continent to the province of Sonora, already colonized by Spaniards. Four of the party, after being held for years in captivity by the Indians, succeeded in this enterprise, among them Cabeca de Vaca, treasurer of the expedition. Their appearance at the mining settlement on the shores of the Gulf of California caused the greatest astonishment, and on reaching Europe, nine years after the starting of the original expedition, they were received with the utmost enthusiasm. We give the story of De Soto in an extract from "Heroes of American Discovery," by N. D'Anvers.]

The excitement caused by the wonderful tales of their captivity, told by Cabeca and his comrades, was, as may be imagined, intense. Far from damping the ardor of others for exploration and colonization, the pictures called up by their narrative of hair-breadth escapes, of the magic influence exercised on whole tribes of dusky warriors by a single white man, of the weird growths of the tropical forests, and of the wild beauty of the Indian maidens, created a passion for adventure amongst the youth of Spain. When, therefore, the renowned Hernando De Soto, who had been in close attendance on Pizarro throughout his romantic career in Peru, asked for and obtained permission from Ferdinand of Spain to take possession of Florida in his name, hundreds of volunteers of every rank flocked to his standard. Narvaez had failed for want of knowledge as to how to deal with the natives; doubtless the land of gold could yet be found by those who knew how to wrest the secret of its position from the sons of the soil; and so once more a gallant company set forth from Spain to measure their strength against the craft of the poor Indians of Florida.

De Soto, who was in the first place appointed governor of Cuba that he might turn to account the resources of that wealthy island, sailed from Havana with a fleet of nine vessels and a force of some six or seven hundred men on the 18th May, 1539, and cast anchor in Tampa Bay on the 30th of the same month. Landing his forces at once, the leader gave orders that they should start for the interior immediately, by the same route as that taken by his unfortunate predecessor; and the men were eagerly ploughing their way through the sandy, marshy districts immediately beyond the beach, driving the natives who opposed their progress before them, when one of those romantic incidents occurred in which the early history of the New World is so remarkably rich.

A white man on horseback rode forward from amongst the dusky savages, who hailed the approach of the troops with wild gestures of delight, and turned out to be a Spaniard named Juan Ortiz, who had belonged to the Narvaez expedition and had been unable to effect his escape with his comrades. In his captivity amongst the Indians he had acquired a thorough knowledge of their language, and his services alike as a mediator and a guide were soon found to be invaluable.

[The story told by Ortiz of his adventures in captivity may be briefly given. It had been decided by his captors to burn him alive by a slow fire, as a sacrifice to the Evil Spirit. He was accordingly bound hand and foot and laid on a wooden stage, with a fire kindled beneath it. At that moment of frightful peril the daughter of the chieftain begged for his life from her father, and succeeded in winning a change of sentence from death to slavery. Three years later he was again condemned to be burned, and again saved by the chieftain's daughter, who warned him of his danger, and led him to the camp of another chief. Here he remained until the arrival of the Spaniards. As for the maiden, Ortiz says nothing further concerning her.

Led by Ortiz, the exploring army wandered through the unknown land of Florida until the ensuing spring, when the march was resumed under the guidance of a native who said he would take the white men to a distant country, governed by a woman, and abounding in a yellow metal, which the Spaniards naturally took to be gold, but which proved to be copper. After wandering to the southern slope of the Appalachian range, marking their course by pillage and bloodshed, and finding the land of gold ever receding before them, they reached the dominions of an Indian queen, who hastened to welcome them, perhaps with the desire of conciliating her dreaded visitors.]

Very touching is the account given by the old chroniclers of the meeting between the poor cacica and De Soto. Alighting from the litter in which she had travelled, carried by four of her subjects, the dusky princess came forward with gestures expressive of pleasure at the arrival of her guest, and taking from her own neck a heavy double string of pearls, she hung it on that of the Spaniard. Bowing with courtly grace, De Soto accepted the gift, and for a short time he kept up the semblance of friendship; but having obtained from the queen all the information he wanted, he made her his prisoner, and robbed her and her people of all the valuables they possessed, including large numbers of pearls, found chiefly in the graves of natives of distinction. We are glad to be able to add that the poor queen effected her escape from her guards, taking with her a box of pearls which she had managed to regain and on which De Soto had set especial store.

The home of the cacica appears to have been situated close to the Atlantic seaboard, and to have been amongst the villages visited by De Ayllon twenty years previously, the natives having in their possession a dagger and a string of beads, probably a rosary, which they said had belonged to the white men. Unwilling to go over old ground, the Spaniards now determined to alter their course, and, taking a northwesterly direction, they reached, in the course of a few months, the first spurs of the lofty Appalachian range, the formidable aspect of which so damped their courage that they turned back and wandered into the lowlands of what is now Alabama, ignorant that in the very mountains they so much dreaded were hidden large quantities of that yellow metal they had sought so long and so vainly.

The autumn of 1540 found the party, their numbers greatly diminished, at a large village called Mavilla, close to the site of the modern Mobile, where the natives were gathered in considerable force; and it soon became evident that an attempt would be made to exact vengeance for the long course of oppression of which the white intruders had been guilty in their two years' wanderings.

Intending to take possession of Mavilla in his usual high-handed manner, De Soto and a few of his men entered the palisades forming its defences, accompanied by the cacique, who, meek enough until he was within reach of his warriors, then turned upon his guests with some insulting speech and disappeared in a neighboring house. A dispute then ensued between a minor chief and one of the Spaniards. The latter enforced his view of the matter at issue by a blow with his cutlass, and in an instant the town was in a commotion. From every house poured showers of arrows, and in a few minutes nearly all the Christians were slain. De Soto and a few others escaped, and, calling his forces together, the Spanish governor quickly invested the town.

A terrible conflict, lasting nine hours, ensued, in which, as was almost inevitable, the white men were finally victorious, though not until they had lost many valuable lives and nearly all their property. Mavilla was burnt to ashes; and when the battle was over, the Spaniards found themselves in an awful situations, - at a distance from their ships, without food or medicines, and surrounded on all sides by enemies rendered desperate by defeat. The common soldiers, too, had by this time had enough of exploration, and were eager to return to the coast, there to await the return of the vessels which had been sent to Cuba for supplies. Evading the poor fellows' questions as to his plans, however, De Soto, who had received secret intelligence that his fleet was even now awaiting him in' the Bay of Pensacola, but six days' journey from Mavilla, determined to make one more effort to redeem his honor by a discovery of importance. With this end in view he led his disheartened forces northward, and in December reached a small village, belonging to Chickasaw Indians, in the State of Mississippi, supposed to have been situated about N. lat. 32 deg 53', W. long 90 deg 23'.

In spite of constant petty hostilities with the Indians, the winter, which was severe enough for snow to fall, passed over peaceably; but with the beginning of spring the usual arbitrary proceedings were resorted to by De Soto for procuring porters to carry his baggage in his next trip, and this led to a second terrible fight, in which the Spaniards were worsted and narrowly escaped extermination. Had the Indians followed up their victory, not a white man would have escaped to tell the tale; but they seem to have been frightened at their own success, and to have drawn back just as they had their persecutors at their feet.

Rallying the remnant of his forces, and supplying the place of the uniforms which had been carried off by the enemy with skins and mats of ivy leaves, De Soto now led his strangely-transformed followers in a north-westerly direction, and, completely crossing the modern State of Mississippi, arrived in May on the banks of the mighty river from which it takes its name, in about N. lat. 35 deg.

Thus took place the discovery of the great Father of Waters, rolling by in unconscious majesty on its way from its distanct birthplace in Minnesota to its final home in the Gulf of Mexico. To De Soto, however, it was no geographical phenomenon, inviting him to trace its course and solve the secret of its origin, but a sheet of water, "half a league over," impeding his progress, and his first care was to obtain boats to get to the other side.

[His succeeding movements may be epitomized. Building barges capable of carrying their horses, the Spaniards crossed the stream, and immediately opened hostilities with the Indians on the other side. They proceeded northward, constantly harassed by the natives, until they reached the region of the present State of Missouri, whose inhabitants took them for children of the Sun and brought out their blind to be restored to sight. After some missionary labors with these Indians, De Soto proceeded westward, and encamped for the winter about the site of Little Rock, in Arkansas, after having reached the highlands of southwest Missouri, near the White River.]

But on resuming his researches in the ensuing spring, though worn out by continual wanderings and warfare, and deprived by death of his chief helper, Juan Ortiz, the indomitable explorer now endeavored to win over the Indians by claiming supernatural powers and declaring himself immortal; but it was too late to inaugurate a new policy. The spot chosen for encampment turned out to be unhealthy; the white men began to succumb to disease; scouts sent out to explore the neighborhood for a more favorable situation brought back rumors of howling wildernesses, impenetrable woods, and, worst of all, of stealthy bands of Indians creeping up from every side to hem in and destroy the little knot of white men.

Thus driven to bay, De Soto, who was now himself either attacked by disease or broken down by all he had undergone, determined at least to die like a man, and, calling the survivors of his once gallant company about him, he asked pardon for the evils he had brought upon those who had trusted in him, and named Luis Moscoso de Alvaredo as his successor.

On the following day, May 21, 1542, the unfortunate hero breathed his last, and was almost immediately buried secretly without the gates of the camp, Alvaredo fearing an immediate onslaught from the natives should the death of the hero who had claimed immortality be discovered. The newly-made grave, however, excited suspicion, and, finding it impossible to prevent it from being rifled by the inquisitive savages, Alvaredo had the corpse of his predecessor removed from it in the night, wrapped in cloths made heavy with sand, and dropped from a boat into the Mississippi.

The midnight funeral over, all further queries from the natives, as to what had become of the Child of the Sun, were answered by an assurance that he had gone to heaven for a time, but would soon return. Then, whilst the expected return was still waited for, the camp was broken up as quietly as possible, and Alvaredo led his people westward, hoping, as Cabeca had done before him, to reach the Pacific coast.

But, long months of wandering in pathless prairies bringing him apparently no nearer to the sea, and dreading to be overtaken in the wilderness by the winter, he turned back and retraced his steps to the Mississippi, where he once more pitched his camp, and spent six months in building boats, in which he hoped to go down the river to its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico. In this bold scheme he was successful. The embarkation into seven roughly-constructed brigantines took place on the 2d July, 1543, and a voyage of seventeen days between banks lined with hostile Indians, who plied them unceasingly with their poisoned arrows, brought a few haggard, half-naked survivors to the longed-for gulf. Fifty days later, after a weary cruise along the rugged coasts of what is now Louisiana and Texas, a party, still further reduced, landed at the Spanish settlement of Panuco, in Mexico, where they were received as men risen from the dead.

N. D'anvers

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