DeSoto's Army's Escape down the
    Mississippi River and across the Gulf
DeSoto's Conquest Army Escapes down the Mississippi River - Map Written by Donald E. Sheppard
Drawings by Cheryl Lucente


Vicksburg, Mississippi, into
the Gulf of Mexico

Floating down the Mississippi River
in the Summer of 1543, having spent four years plundering America, 320 Spaniards in seven brigantines were making their 666 mile "Great River" escape to the Gulf of Mexico, averaging 50 miles per day (river flow rate is 65 miles per day), some longer, some shorter. They stopped to rest for five or six hours most nights at favorable river landings and bends along their way.

Details of DeSoto's Army's Escape written
by DeSoto's Chroniclers: Biedma, Elvas & Inca

Elvas says "...when they reached a town near a bluff (Vicksburg, on map above, 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. © 1993, University of Alabama Press

"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 Quigaltam and that the Indians would leave them..." but they did not. Within a day the Indians of Natchez joined in the attacks.


Press for More Real Native Images for School Upon entering lower Louisiana, Elvas says, "Those (Indians) of Quigaltam (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 (rested most of that day then) 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 (above Baton Rouge), they continued to shoot at them without any pity and followed us that afternoon and night until 10 o'clock the next morning, and then went back upstream. Soon seven canoes came out from a small town 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 (at today's Triumph, the river's forking-point in 1543, mapped below), each of which was about a league and a half (4 miles) wide."

The Mississippi River's mouths below Triumph have changed dramatically in the five centuries since DeSoto's Army was there. Millions of tons of sand, clay and silt have been eroded down that river, extending its mouths over Belize Delta ("new" on map at right) into the sea.

Elvas says, "A half a league (just over a mile) before they came to the sea (down the river's westward branch to the Gulf of Mexico on full moon), they anchored for a day (he says two days below) 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 they had brought downstream) and go against the Indians and put them to flight...
French drawing of an Early Native American

"The Indians also came to attack us by land through a thicket and a swamp. They had clubs set with very sharp fish bones." Inca says, " Indian the size of a Philistine (had a) dart, or long arrow, with three barbs in the place of one... The barb in the center was a handbreadth longer than the two on the sides... (like) harpoons and not smooth (but jagged) points."

This observation, the last of a very hostile Indian in North America, coupled with the Terrible Tuscalusa's behavior, may well have inspired today's "Devil" image which was born in Europe sortly after news of the Great Hernando de Soto's defeat arrived there. That image - a tall, slender, plumed red man with a three pronged spear - survives to this day.  (PAGE SEARCH Rangel - 1557 for "Indian" to realize his published views of Native Americans.)

Elvas continues, "They stayed there for two days (during full moon of July 16th, 1543, probably to patch their ships' hulls and to gather shellfish during spring tide). From thence they went to the place where the branch of the river flowed into the sea... They took soundings in the river near the sea (mapped above) and found a depth of forty fathoms (250 feet)...


Sources of this information, from simple to detailed,
Louisiana Coastal Chronicles, by:  Biedma,  Elvas,  Inca

At the mouth of the Mississippi River bound for a Spanish coastal town Elvas called "Panico", today's Panuco, Mexico, they left, "On July 18th they put out to sea (headed due west at 35 miles per day) and undertook their voyage amid calm and fair weather..." sounding the bottom to navigate, they sailed for two days (Biedma says 3) in fresh water: the Mississippi River's strong westward current. "That night they saw some keys on the right, whither they went..." They stopped at Timbalier Island just before reaching Last Island (mapped above), which Cabeza de Vaca had called home for years before escaping westward nine years earlier.

From there they sailed for four days off-shore out of sight of land below Atchafalaya Bay. By dint of rowing before a storm, they reached Pecan Island where they dug for fresh water. They sailed for two more days in bad weather then entered an estuary, the Calcasieu River at Lake Charles, to ride out the worsening storm for four days. They left against the wind by rowing but were separated two leagues (5 miles) before reaching the Sabine River in New Moon darkness.


Sources of this information, from simple to detailed,
Coastal Texas Chronicles, by:  Biedma,  Elvas,  Inca

The DeSoto Expedition Along the Texas Coast The next morning, July 31st, they found the others in the Sabine River below Port Arthur. They would spend one month in Texas waters. Elvas says, "There a scum was found called "copee" which the sea cast up..." which they used to pitch their brigantines for two days.

"They sailed another two days (in fair weather) and anchored at a bay or arm of the sea (today's Galveston Bay, mapped at right) where they stayed two days... six men went north up the bay in a canoe but did not come to its head..." (30 miles up that bay, east of today's Houston).

The next day they sailed southwest inside West Bay to San Luis Pass (still flushed with currents from Highland, Basford, Carancabua, Halls, Persimmon and Chocolate Bayous at that time). "They left there with a south wind which was against them, but since it was light and their desire to shorten their voyage great, they went out(side) by rowing (out San Luis Pass) into the sea, and journeyed for two days... with great toil, a very little distance (40 miles), and entered behind an islet (Matagorda Island) by means of a branch of the sea (the Colorado River) which surrounded it. There was an abundance of fish there."

Press for More Images like this for SchoolThey spent two weeks (probably avoiding stiff southerly winds offshore) fishing and gathering eggs from that abundant area, their journey's midway point. Inca described that unique waterway. The bays are huge (mapped above), with ten rivers feeding them. They sailed four days through them, probably spanning the August 14th full moon to Corpus Christi Bay via Matagorda, San Antonio and Aransas Bays, all inside the breaker island.

There, Elvas relays, "Juan de Anasco said that they would do well to put out to sea (verses sailing the bays), for he had seen the sailing chart and remembered that the coast ran north and south from the River of Palmas (Mexico, mapped below - the Soto La Marina River) on, 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... they embarked, and always keeping within sight of land, sailed for six days..." with good winds and currents, averaging over 40 miles per day, stopping half-way at the Rio Grande's outlet for water.


Sources of this information, from simple to detailed,
Coastal Texas Chronicles, by:  Biedma,  Elvas,  Inca

Sierra Madre Mountains

Three sailing days beyond the Rio Grande they stopped in Mexico (for food and water) at Punta de Piedra Pass (mapped below). Elvas says, "That night 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 (for 60 leagues - 156 miles); and from noon on great mountains (the Sierra Madre - standing 9,000 feet above sea level - photo above) which they had not seen thitherto; for from that point to the port of Espiritu Santo where they had entered Florida, it (the terrain) was a very level and low land, and for that reason it could not be seen except when they were very close to it." Now they could sail even faster, at 46 miles per day, while farther off-shore.

Coast of Mexico

"From what they saw, they believed that that night they had passed the river of Palmas (Mexico's Soto La Marina River), which is sixty leagues (156 miles along all of that north-south coastline, mapped at right) from that of Panico, which is in New Spain (Mexico). All gathered together (during the next day, just above their destination). Some said that they would do well not to sail by night in order not to pass the river of Panico; and others, that it was not advisable to lose time during favoring weather, and that it could not be so near that they would pass it that night. They agreed to set the sails half reefed and sail in that way (at half speed)."

"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.

"From the time they went out from the great (Mississippi) river of Florida into the sea until they reached the river of Panico, they took fifty-two days..." arriving on September 7th, having left the Mississippi River on July 18th. But Elvas accounted for only 47 of those 52 days, 24 of them at sea and 23 in harbors, leaving 5 days. Odds are those 5 days were spent day-sailing the bays (marked as such on the Texas map above: 1 day inside Galveston Island then 4 days inside Matagorda Island running downstream during full moon; each averaging about 25 miles per day). The distance they traveled between the Mississippi and Panico Rivers was 925 miles in 29 navigation days, (Inca says 30 - by adding Biedma's extra day) averaging 32 miles per day.

Back Home in Mexico"They entered Panico (Village, white dot on map above) on the tenth of September of the year 1543. They went upstream with their brigantines for four days (having left port the day they arrived); and as the wind was light and frequently useless to them because of the many windings of the river; and in towing them up because of the powerful current in many places they could for this reason make but little headway, and with heavy toil and seeing that the accomplishment of their desire - namely to see themselves among Christians and to see the divine offices celebrated which they had not seen for so long - was delayed: they left the brigantines to the sailors and went overland to Panico." All were there by Harvest Moon, Sept. 13th, 1543.

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