Written by Donald E. Sheppard|
Drawings: Cheryl Lucente
TRAILS TO THIS POINT
Floating down the Mississippi River in the Summer of 1543, having spent 4 years plundering America, 320 Spaniards in 7 brigantines were making their way toward a Spanish outpost on the Gulf of Mexico. "...when they reached a town near a bluff (Vicksburg, the center of Quigaltam Province), they (the Indians) all united, as if to show that they were a mind to wait there (to attack the Spaniards). Each brigantine had a canoe fastened astern, for its use. Men immediately entered them all and put the Indians to flight. He (the governor) burned the town. Then on that day they landed at a large open field where the Indians did not dare await them. Next day, the Indians got together one hundred canoes, some of which held sixty or seventy Indians, and the principal men with their awnings with white and colored plumes of feathers... came down upon the Spaniards..." who were also in canoes ahead of the brigantines. Eleven Spaniards in canoes were surrounded and killed.
You can read the details of DeSoto's Army's Escape written
by three DeSoto Chroniclers: Biedma, Elvas & Inca
"The Indians, on seeing that they had gained the victory, were so greatly encouraged that they went out to engage the brigantines which they had not dared to do before... twenty-five men were wounded... they circulated from one (brigantine) to another of them all... The Christians had brought (woven) mats... and the brigantines were hung with them (to block the arrows)... they resolved to travel all that night, thinking that they would pass by the land of Quigualtam and that the Indians would leave them..." but they did not. Within a day the Indians of Natchez joined in the attacks.
Upon entering Louisiana, "Those (Indians) of Quigualtam (Mississippi) returned to their own lands, and the others in fifty canoes continued to fight for a whole day and night... but, because of the slowness with which we sailed (with horses in tow on barges), the governor made up his mind to land and kill the horses. We loaded the meat into the brigantines after salting it but left five of the horses alive on the shore... the Indians went up to them after we had embarked. The horses were unused to them and began to neigh and run about in various directions, whereat the Indians jumped into the water for fear of them. Entering their canoes behind the brigantines (somewhere above Baton Rouge), they continued to shoot at them without any pity and followed us that afternoon (past Baton Rouge) and night until 10 o'clock the next morning, and then went back upstream. Soon seven canoes came out from a small town (possibly Donaldsonville) located near the river and followed them for a short distance down the river shooting at them... But seeing that because of their small number they were doing them (the Christians) little injury, they went back to their town. After that they had no trouble (passing through today's New Orleans), until they came almost to the sea... (where the river) divided into two branches, each of which was about a league and a half (4 miles) wide."
The Mississippi River Delta below New Orleans has changed dramatically in the five centuries since DeSoto's Army was there - more so than any other shoreline in North America. Millions of tons of America's soil have been erroded down the Great River enlarging the Mississippi River's Delta due to interior deforestation and intense agricultural activity along the river's feeders.
The Louisiana Coast
Sources of this information, from simple to detailed,
Louisiana Coastal Chronicles, by: Biedma, Elvas, Inca
Elvas says, "A half a league (just over a mile) before they came to the sea (the Gulf of Mexico at Belize on the Full Moon), they anchored for a day to rest because they were very tired from rowing (for steerage down the river) and greatly disheartened because of the many days during which they had eaten nothing but parched and boiled corn, which was doled out in a ration of a leveled-off helmet to each mess (group) of three (men). While we were there, seven canoes of Indians came to attack the Christians... The governor ordered armed men to enter the canoes (which had made it downriver) and go against the Indians and put them to flight. The Indians also came to attack us by land through a thicket and a swamp (as they had done against Cabeza de Vaca, near the same place, a decade earlier). The Indians had clubs set with very sharp fish bones." Inca says, "...an Indian the size of a Philistine (had a) dart, or long arrow, with three barbs in the place of one (at the tip)... The barb in the center was a handbreadth longer than the two on the sides... (like) harpoons and not smooth points."
This observation, the last of a very hostile Indian in North America, may well have inspired today's "Devil" image which was born in Europe in the 1540's just after news of DeSoto's defeat arrived there. That image - a tall, slender, body hairless red man, with a three pronged spear in hand - survives to this day. According to the Spaniards, North America was the Devil's domain, given its defeat of the Great Conquistador Hernando de Soto.
The officer continues, "They stayed there for two days (during full moon, probably to inspect and patch their ships hulls on the spring tides). From thence they went to the place where the branch of the river flowed into the sea." They would spend the next fifty-five days making their way to a Spanish outpost in New Spain (Mexico). "They took soundings in the river near the sea and found a depth of forty fathoms (over 200 feet)... On July 18th, 1543, they put out to sea (along the coast) and undertook their voyage amid calm and fair weather."
They sailed for three days in fresh water, thanks to the Great River's estuaries. "That night they saw some (Indian fires on the) keys on the right (East Island, where Cabeza de Vaca had lived for six years before escaping across Texas the decade before), whither they went..." for food, water and firewood.
They sailed for the next four days off-shore, out of sight of land, over the shoals of Maringouin. A storm blew them onto Pecan Island where they had to dig near the shoreline for fresh water. When the storm ceased, they sailed westward for two more days and entered a small creek (Calcasieu Pass). When they departed, they were caught in a storm which washed five of the seven brigantines ashore just east of Sabine Pass (below Port Arthor). When the sea calmed the next day, all reassembled in Sabine Lake, where they stayed for two days during the New Moon of July 31st, 1543, to careen their vessels on the spring tides and to gather food and water.
Coastal Texas to New Spain
"They sailed another two days (from Port Arthor and into Texas) and anchored at a bay or arm of the sea (Gilchrist) where they stayed two days. They sailed another two days and anchored at a bay or arm of the sea (Galveston Bay) where they stayed (behind the island) for two days... six men went up the bay in a canoe but did not come to its head. They left there with a south wind which was against them (through San Louis Pass), but since it was light and their desire to shorten their voyage great, they went out by going into the sea, and journeyed for two days... with great toil, a very little distance, and entered behind and islet (San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge) by means of a branch of the sea (Matagorda Bay) which surrounded it. There was an abundance of fish there." The Colorado River empties into that bay - a natural spawning ground for hundreds of species.
The men say that on their 23rd day at sea, the day they reached Matagorda Bay, they entered behind a series of four or five islets close to the mainland. Those islets, East and West Matagorda, San Jose, Mustang and Padre Islands, exten 250 miles from there to Mexico. Before they left they pitched their boats for eight days spaning the August Full Moon. Friendly Indians, probably from up the Colorado River, visited them several times. When the Spaniards departed they sailed for thirteen days, resting for three days along their intercoastal journey, averaging 25 miles per day.
They drifted out Brazos Santiago Pass at the south end of Padre Island on August 31th. "Juan de Anasco said that they would do well to put out to sea, for he had seen the sailing chart and remembered that the coast ran north and south from the river of Palmas on (south from the Rio Grande to the river of Panico, Spain's nearist outpost), and that so far it had run east and west. According to his opinion, judging by his reckonings, the river of Palmas ought not to be far from where they were." That night, during the darkness of New Moon, they sailed past the mouth of the Rio Grande and into Mexican waters, stopping every three days along that way for drinking water.
On September 9th, 1543, "...they put out to sea and in the morning, over the rim of the water, beheld palm trees and the coast running north and south; and from noon on great mountains which they had not seen thitherto; for from that point to the port of Espiritu Santo where they had entered Florida, it was a very level and low land, and for that reason (mountains) could not be seen except when they were very close.
"Two brigantines which sailed that night with all sails set passed the river of Panico at dawn without seeing it. The first to arrive of the five which were behind was that of which Calderon was captain. For a quarter of a league before they reached it, and before they saw it, they saw the water was muddy and perceived that it was fresh. Coming opposite the river, they saw that water was breaking over a shoal where it flowed into the sea. Because there was no one there who knew it, they were in doubt as to whether they should enter or pass by at a distance.
"They made up their minds to enter, and they put in to land before reaching the current, and entered the port. As soon as they were inside, they saw Indians, both men and women, on the shore, clad according to the Spanish custom, whom they asked in what land they were.
"They replied in the Spanish language that that was the river of Panico and that the town of the Christians (today's Panuco) was fifteen leagues inland. The joy received by all at this news could not be wholly told. For it seemed to them that then they had received birth. Many leaped ashore and kissed the ground and kneeling down with hands and eyes raised to heaven, one and all ceased not to give thanks to God. As soon as those who were coming behind saw Calderon with his brigantine anchored in the river, they immediately set out thither and entered the port.
"The two other brigantines which had passed beyond, put out to sea (under the Harvest Moon) in order to turn back to look for the others, but they could not because the wind was against them and the sea was choppy. Fearing lest they be lost, they ran toward the land and anchored. While there, a storm came up, and seeing that they could not hold themselves there, nor less in the sea, they determined to run up on the land. And as the brigantines were small, they drew but little water, and as there was a sandy beach there, the force of their sails drove them to dry land without harm coming to the men in them.
"At that time, if those in the port were very joyful, these (on the beach) felt a double sadness in their hearts, for they knew nothing of the others, nor in what land they were, and feared lest it be one of hostile Indians. They came out two leagues below the port, and as soon as they found themselves free of the sea, each one took as much of his clothing as he could carry on his back. They went inland and found Indians who told them where they were, whereat their sorrow was turned into joy. They gave many thanks to God for having delivered them from so many dangers."