DeSoto's Indiana Trails

DeSoto's Trail into Indiana Written by Donald E. Sheppard
Drawings by Cheryl Lucente



The Gentleman of Elvas with Hernando de Soto's army wrote "Having got across the Great River (the Ohio River near today's Evansville on June 18th, 1541), the governor marched a league and a half (four miles, eastward) and reached a large town of Aquixo (at today's Angel Mounds State Park), which was abandoned before his arrival."
© 1993, University of Alabama Press

You can read all of the translated details of Indiana's Conquest
written by ConquistadorsBiedma,  Rangel,  Elvas,  Inca

Elvas continues, "Over a plain they saw thirty Indians coming whom the Chief had sent to learn what the Christians were intending to do, but as soon as the latter had sight of them they fled. Those of horse pursued them killing ten and capturing fifteen. And since the town whither the governor was marching was near the river, he sent a captain with the men he deemed sufficient to take the rafts (filled with men and equipment) up stream (east, to Angel Mounds)...

"And because by land they (with DeSoto and his horsemen) frequently turned away from the (Ohio) river in order to get around inlets which came out of the river (beyond Green Island), the Indians had opportunity to attack those in the rafts and put them in great danger. For because of the strong current of the river, we did not dare to go any distance from land and the Indians shot arrows at us from the bluff (which dramatically rises east of the river's flats). As soon as the governor reached the town (with the rafts which were then unloaded), he immediately sent some crossbowmen downstream (in the rafts) who were to come as rear guard... (for the others who needed help crossing the Ohio River's Green Island streams).

"When the (last) rafts reached the town the governor ordered them taken apart and the nails kept for other rafts when they might be needed. He slept there one night and the next day marched in search of a province called Pacaha, which, he was informed, lie near Chisca where the Indians said there was gold." The army first heard the place name Chisca in North Carolina the year before, which was reported to lie north of the Great Smoky Mountains where they were at the time.

Rangel, DeSoto's Personal Secretary, says, "On Tuesday, the twenty-first of June, they left from there (Angel Mounds east of Evansville, maps below).

Biedma, the King's Agent, reported, "We went up the river, because in order to go to that province of Pacaha we had to TURN upriver..." they turned north (according to Inca's informants), up the Wabash River basin, along the path of today's Interstate 164 instead of following the Ohio River eastward, as they had done in getting to Angel Mounds "...and passed through the province of Aquixo, which is very beautiful and nicely situated..." east of today's Evansville.

Elvas says, "We marched through large towns in Aquixo (Province, north of Angel Mounds) which had been abandoned for fear of the Christians. From some captured Indians we learned that a great chief lived three days journey thence, called Casqui..." at today's Vincennes.

A Watermarked Pole on the White River FlatsRangel continues, "The next day, Wednesday (starting where today's Interstate 164 becomes I-69 north), they passed through the worst road of swamps and water that they had seen in all Florida (North America), and in this day's journey the people suffered much hardship..." crossing the center of Highland-Pigeon Creek Watershed above Interstate 69's northeastward turn, to today's Douglas. Power poles in that wetland have waist high watermarks on them. There are very few homes. DeSoto Crossed The White River Flats

Elvas says of that journey, "...they walked continually through water until sunset, which in places reached to the waist and in places to the knee (man-made canals drain most of it today). When they came to dry land (at Douglas) they were very glad for it seemed to them that they would be walking about lost through the water all night...

"At noon (the next day, having traveled 4 miles from Douglas) they arrived at the first town of Casqui (at today's Princeton, where they spent the remainder of that day gathering food). They found the Indians off guard for they had not heard of them. Many Indians, both men and women, were seized, besides a quantity of clothing, blankets and skins - both in the first town and in another which was within sight of it in an open field a half league (westward) from it, whither the horsemen had galloped..."

"That land is more high (by 100 feet), dry, and level than the land of the river behind which they had thus far seen (which drained south into the Ohio River). In the open field were many walnut trees with soft nuts shaped like acorns (pecans); and in the houses were found many which the Indians had stored away... For two days the governor marched through the land of Casqui (the White River basin, which drains west into the Wabash River) before arriving at the town where the chief was, and most of the way continually through land of open field, very well peopled with large towns, two or three (i.e. today's Hazleton and Decker) of which were to be seen from one town."

An Indiana Longhouse VillageRangel says, "Friday, the day of St. John (June 24th, 1541, using the darkness of New Moon to secure that large native complex), they went to the town of the lord of Casqui (Vincennes), and he gave food and clothes to this army, and on Saturday they entered in his town; and he had very good huts (probably as good as the ones used by Lewis and Clark three centuries later), and on the biggest hut, over the door, were many heads of very fierce bulls (buffalo)..."

Author at Vincennes MoundAuthor's Wife, Lynn - View from the Top of Vincennes MoundBiedma says, the chief "...came in the afternoon with all his people. We went in procession up to the town, and they came after us. Having arrived at the town... we found that the chiefs there were accustomed to have, next to the houses where they lived, some very high mounds (one such Vincennes mound pictured above, and view from the mound's top at right), made by hand, and that others have their houses on the mounds themselves. On the summit of that mound we drove in the cross, and we went with much devotion, kneeling to kiss the foot of the cross. The Indians did as they saw us do, neither more nor less..."

Fields from Sullivan to Terre HauteRangel says, "On Sunday, the twenty-sixth of June, we left from there (headed "upriver," the Wabash River) for Pacaha, enemy of (Chief) Casqui (who was left behind to keep the peace), and we spent the night at one town (today's Oaktown) and passed others. And the following day (Monday) we crossed a swamp (Busseron Creek south of today's Sullivan), in which the Indians had a well-made bridge, broad and of ingenious construction..." spanning trees which lined that swampy, deep creek precisely where U.S. Highway 41 crosses it today.

Over the Indian BridgeInca relates, "...a swamp that was very difficult to cross, having deep miry places at the entrance and exit and clear water in the middle, but so deep that for the space of twenty paces it was necessary to swim... The men crossed over some poor wooden bridges that were there, and the horses swam across with much trouble because of the mud on either side of the swamp... and half a league (just over a mile) beyond Indians and Spaniards camped in some most beautiful pasture grounds in a very fine country..." below Sullivan.

On Tuesday they pillaged the rich fields to and around Farmersburg (map at left), then, Rangel says, "...on Wednesday they arrived at the town of Pacaha, a town and lord of great renown and very esteemed in those parts..." at today's Terre Haute beside the Wabash River. Most of the army would spend 40 days there while others explored the country.

Survivors later told Inca, "...from Mabila (in Alabama) to that point (Terre Haute, Indiana) they had always marched toward the north"

Biedma says, "We saw the town on a plain, well palisaded and with a moat of water around it, dug by hand...

Rangel reports, "The chief of Casqui caught up with the Christians at the time that they entered the town saying that it had rained, thanks to the cross the Spaniards planted (at Vincennes, their home), and that he wanted to personally thank them for it..." DeSoto sent word to Chief Pacaha that he was coming with Chief Casqui and expected him to be there when they arrived, but not doing so the Casqui's "...looted it ferociously."

Rangel says, "In Aquixo, Casqui and this Pacaha (all in today's Indiana) we saw the best towns that we had seen up to then, and better palisaded and fortified, and the people of more beauty, except for those of Cofitachequi." Chief Pacaha was so powerful that most local natives called the Great (Ohio) River by his name. Likewise, many called the Wabash River by Chief Casqui's name.


Elvas says, "He (DeSoto) lodged in the town where the chief lived, which was very large, enclosed, and furnished with towers... An abundance of old and new corn was found in the town and fields... large towns (spaced) at a league and half a league (2.6 to 1.3 miles apart) were found, all enclosed (across that plain)... Where the governor lodged there was a large marsh which came near to the enclosure and entered through a ditch round about the town so that but little of the town remained to enclose. A channel had been made from the marsh to the large river through which fish entered the former..."

Inca says, "The village had 500 large and good houses and was on a site somewhat higher and more elevated than its surroundings (the French name "Terre Haute" means "high ground"). The Indians had made almost an island of it with a ditch... It was full of water from the river... which flowed 3 leagues (7 miles) above the village...Chippewa Lodge The moat surrounded three sides of the village, the work not yet being complete. The fourth side was enclosed by a very strong wall made of thick logs set in the ground... This great moat and canal were filled with fish..."

Rangel says, "The town was very good and very esteemed in those parts... well palisaded with towers on the walls and with a ditch around most if it, filled with water which enters through an irrigation ditch that flows from the river."

Terre Haute's east side is drained today by Thompson Ditch which the state opened in 1886. It drains into Honey Creek which drains Terre Haute's enormous south side basin, probably the source of Pacaha's fish. It flows into the Wabash River 7 miles downstream. The state may have simply opened the native-made moat at Pacaha's village site while making the ditch at that creek, which Elvas called a canal. The large adjoining marsh which Inca reported is a huge retention pond today.

Elvas says Chief Pacaha fled, "...with all his people out the other side of town..." through its gated wall, allowing his people to escape northward when the Spaniards came in from the south. "The governor... together with the men of horse charged ahead where the Indians were fleeing; and at another town situated a quarter of a league from that place (also on high ground) captured many Indians...

"Indians where the Chief of Pacaha was - on an islet between two arms of the river (image below right)... there were 5,000 souls on that islet..." but when detected they "...fled in great haste to the other side of the river... Pacaha's Island Refugeswimming, where many people were drowned, principally women and children... we captured many Indians - men and women - and a quantity of clothing which the Indians had on wooden rafts... (several of those rafts) went floating downstream and the Indians of Casqui (Vincennes) filled their canoes (then headed for Vincennes without Desoto's consent)... On that account the governor was indignant at Casqui and immediately returned to Pacaha..." village (continued below).

Terre Haute lies between the Wabash River and Thompson Ditch - Plans show Terre Haute's possible connection to the Erie Canal
The islet where Pacaha sought refuge in the Wabash River was mapped during the Indiana Township Survey of 1848, shown above. Other canals (mapped at left) were dug or cleared over the years to drain Terre Haute.

Rangel says, "Governor DeSoto and his people, being some days in Pacaha, made some excursions into the interior..."

Salt Mine at French Lick Today

Inca says, "...they told him that in some mountains (at today's French Lick, image above) forty leagues away (about 100 miles) there was a great deal of very good salt, and to the repeated questions they asked them, they replied that there was also in that country much of the yellow metal (gold) they asked for. The Castilians rejoiced greatly at this news, and two soldiers offered to go with the Indians to confirm it... they were directed to note the nature of the country through which they passed (so the army could find it later) and bring a report as to whether it were fertile and well populated (so the Spaniards could settle that land). To barter for the purchase of salt and the gold, they took pearls and deerskins and some vegetables..."

"They also took Indians to accompany them and two of the merchants (from Vincennes, who knew the trails west of Vincennes to French Lick) to act as guides. Thus prepared, the Spaniards set out (on the Full Moon of July 8th, 1541), and at the end of eleven days that they spent on their journey (to and from) they returned (to Terre Haute) with six loads of rock-salt crystals, not made artificially, but found in this state. They also brought back a load of very fine and resplendent brass, and concerning the quality of the lands they had seen, they said that they were not good, for they were sterile and thinly populated (as it is today). Because they needed it so badly, the Spaniards consoled themselves with the salt for their disappointment and misunderstanding regarding the gold."

Old Fort Harrison SiteDuring that same time the King's Agent with DeSoto says, "We were in this town (Terre Haute) 27 or 28 days (30 days according to Rangel) to see if we could find a road north in order to travel to the South Sea (the Pacific Ocean)... some expeditions were made to capture Indians who might inform us (of trails to the sea DeSoto thought was north of there). One expedition in particular was made to the northwest because they told us that there were Indian villages through which we could go..." during the same Full Moon of July 8th. Biedma went with DeSoto's scouts (probably the Thirty Lancers) into Illinois along the Indian trail which crossed the Wabash River's narrows at the Old Fort Harrison site (in photo below). Indian merchants guided them to the next village along their way..."

DeSoto's Scouts Crossed The Wabash River Here

DeSoto's Scouts in Illinois during this time...

Rangel reports that since "...the chief of Casqui (Vincennes) had stolen away (with Pacaha's goods)... without asking for permission... Governor DeSoto tried to make peace with Pacaha (of Terre Haute), and he came in to retrieve a brother of his whom the Christians had captured... and DeSoto struck an agreement with Pacaha that he should go make war on Casqui (at Vincennes), which was very gratifying to Pacaha. But Casqui had warning of that intent, and he came with fifty of his Indians in very fine array (probably acquired, during his absence, from a raided village located down the Wabash River from Vincennes); and he brought a jester in front of himself for grandeur, who, saying and doing witty things, gave occasion for much laughter to those who saw him. The Governor displayed anger and harshness in order to please Pacaha.

"Pacaha asked the Governor for permission to give a slash to Casqui's face with a knife which the Christians had given him, and the Governor said to Pacaha that he should not do such a thing... the Governor asked Casqui why he had gone without permission. Casqui replied, "You gave me the cross to defend myself from my enemies, and with that same cross you wish to destroy me (given that Pacaha's people now wore crosses high on their heads so the Spaniards could recognize them as allies). My Lord, now that God heard us, by means of the cross (which the Christians had placed on the Indian mound at Vincennes)... all those of my land knelt down to it to ask for rain from the God who you said suffered on it, and he heard us and gave it to us in great abundance and saved our cornfields and seed beds; now that we have more faith in it and in your friendship, you wish to destroy those children and women who love you and your God so much..."

Elvas says, "Casqui gave DeSoto one of his daughters, saying that his greatest desire was to unite his blood with that of so great a lord as he was..." The Governor replied... "Look Casqui, we did not come to destroy you, but rather to make you know and understand the cross and our God... But since you went away without my permission, I thought that you held little regard for the doctrine that we had given you; and for the contempt that you had for it, I wished to destroy you... Now that you come humbly, you may be certain that I wish you more good than you think; and if you are in need of something from me, tell me and you will see it... because you and your people are our brothers, and thus our God tells us."

Press for More Real Native Images for SchoolRangel says, "The Indians were as amazed at this as the Christians were at what Casqui had said..." given that DeSoto seldom changed his mind and had little patience with Indians. It's likely that he wanted to keep the peace in that neighborhood with two very strong allies. If he was to establish a port on America's northern sea to trade Spain's New World fortunes with China, he would need both Casqui and Pacaha to aid and defend him.

"At that point it was time to eat, and the governor seated himself and commanded both chiefs to sit, and between them there was great contention about which of them would seat himself at the right hand of the Governor. Pacaha told Casqui: "You know well that I am a greater lord than you and of more honored parents and grandparents, and that to me belongs a better place than to you." Casqui responded thus: "It is true that you are a greater lord than I, and your ancestors were greater than mine. And since this great lord who is here says that we must not lie, I will not deny the truth; notwithstanding, you know well that I am older and more than a match for you, and I confine you in your palisade whenever I want, and you have never seen my land. In effect, this remained to be decided by the Governor, and he commanded that Pacaha should seat himself at his right hand, because he was a greater lord and more ancient in Estate...

"The governor rested in Pacaha for forty days. During that time the two chiefs gave him service of abundance of fish, blankets, and skins, and they tried to see which of them could perform the greater services."

"The Governor made them (the two chiefs) friends and made them embrace and commanded that they should deal from one land to the other with their commodities and business, and so they agreed to do it."

DeSoto's Scouts return from Illinois...
DeSoto's Scouts found Swampy Lakes in Illinois
The King's Agent reported that, "...we traveled eight days (northward from Terre Haute) through an uninhabited land of very swampy lakes (photo above), where we did not even find trees, but rather some great plains, where was grass so tall and so strong that even with the horses we could not force our way through it. At the end of this time, we arrived at some Indian settlements (just below Chicago) that were covered with sewn reeds. When they wish to carry their houses away, they roll up the reeds of the covering and an Indian man carries it, and the woman carries the framework of poles over which it is placed, and it is set up and taken down so easily that even if they moved every hour they could carry their houses with them."

At the end of his journey he reported, at Lake Michigan at Chicago, "We returned to this town of Pacaha... having seen that there was no road to traverse to the other sea..." - no open seaway to the Pacific Ocean.

Press for More Real Native American ImagesElvas says, "The governor, seeing that in that (northward) direction the land was so poor in corn that they could not sustain themselves (and that Lake Michigan was NOT the South Sea, the Pacific Ocean, which he supposed it to be), asked the Indians where the most populous district lay. They said that they had heard of a large province of very well provided land called Quiguate (in Southern Illinois) toward the south..."

DeSoto ordered his army to retreat southward. They were never told the real reason why, only that food was not to be found to the north. The foot soldiers were sent back to Vincennes. Biedma says, "...we turned south and returned to where we had placed the cross (Vincennes, where DeSoto and his riders joined the foot soldiers on July 30th), and from there we (the entire army) headed southwest to another province which is called Quiguate."

Beautiful Native American WomanElvas summarizes the Terre Haute visit, "The governor (had) rested in Pacaha for forty days (30 days according to Rangel's Calendar). During that time the two chiefs gave him service of abundance of fish, blankets, and skins, and they tried to see which of them could perform the greater services. At the time of his departure, the chief of Pacaha gave two of his sisters to him saying that if he would remember him he should take them as wives as a testimonial of love. The name of one was Macanoche and the other Mochila. They were very well disposed, tall of body and plump of figure. Machanoche was of good appearance and in her address and face appeared to be a lady; the other was robust." DeSoto would give them to several officers "...commanding that the women should deal from one land to the other with other tribes' commodities and business, and so they agreed to do it..." One of them would see Spain in her lifetime.

Indiana Southbound

Departing Terre Haute, Elvas says, "The chief of Casqui ordered the bridge (over Sullivan's Busseron Creek) repaired and the governor (with his horsemen) gave a turn through his land and lodged in the open field near his town (Vincennes; DeSoto having explored 20 leagues below Terre Haute for two days), whither the chief came (once the army arrived) with a quantity of fish and two Indian women whom he exchanged with two Christians for two shirts. He gave a guide and couriers. The governor (and the army) went to sleep at one of his towns (backtracking southwest to west of Decker) and the next day at another near a river (at the junction of the White and Wabash Rivers, photo below, at today's Illinois border), where chief Casqui ordered canoes brought for him in which to cross..." the Wabash River into Mount Carmel, Illinois.

DeSoto crossed the Wabash River to Mount Carmel
Rangel says, "...alongside the river of Casqui (the Wabash River), which is a branch that comes forth from the great river of Pacaha (the Ohio River)... this branch is as large as the Guadalquivir (River of Spain, which the Wabash is at that point). There Casqui came and helped them cross the (Wabash) river by canoe on Tuesday the second of August..." into Illinois. Please e-mail the Editor with comments

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