Written by Donald E. Sheppard
Drawings by Cheryl Lucente
Front Page Tracking DeSoto's Army
1540's Lunar Tables
"We had news that we were going in search of a land that an Indian boy had told us was on another sea... He said that he was from another land... and that a woman ruled it. Her town was of wonderful size... and she collected gold in abundance from her Chiefs..." Elvas in The DeSoto Chronicles
The King of Spain gave "Governor" Hernando DeSoto four years to colonize America from the Port of Havana. DeSoto's long journey through America, searching for riches in order to entice more settlers to his new colony, was well documented in candid, personal journals by members of his all volunteer "army."
DESOTO'S TRAIL ON GOOGLE EARTH
These first-hand accounts of Native America (as in the above quotation) were written by people caught up in something they had little understanding of and no control over. Their works, misunderstood for centuries, are the only spoils of Spain's "Conquest of North America." Our land and Indians would never be the same again. Theirs
is the only record we have of what it was like when Europeans first sighted America's Indians. What follows is their story, sketchy in places, incredible in others.
DeSoto's people sighted this continent in May, 1539, at a port first discovered by Ponce de Leon, one of Columbus' captains. He had named North America "La Florida." Panfilo de Narvaez, another Spanish Captain, had aimed for that port but missed it twelve years before DeSoto. His ships were blown further up Florida's Gulf Coast where he would die after being misled by Indians. DeSoto would massacre them shortly after his arrival.
620 hand-picked volunteers landed with DeSoto. 200 of them brought their horses; many brought their dogs; all brought their own equipment for camping and fighting. DeSoto brought tons of supplies - cannon, gun powder, cross bows, shields, lances, armor, helmets, blood hounds, seeds, nails, axes, saws and pigs - to start a Spanish colony somewhere near the Great River, preferably at a place much like Mexico City, with plenty of gold and silver to plunder. Other Europeans had made similar attempts. None this big. All had failed.
Along for the riches of conquest were: carpenters, priests, navigators, lords, engineers, ship builders, blacksmiths, farmers, herdsmen, merchants and prospectors. Some had sold their houses and farms to be with the famous conquistador but most had never been trained as soldiers. Many had never been outside their own villages, much less in a land so vast that even the worldly DeSoto misjudged its size. Spain and Portugal could be walked from one end to the other in less than one month. This "army" would walk North America for four years without seeing an ocean, not one of them ever knowing what they were up against. Their long-lasting effect on America, on the world for that matter, would be profound.
DeSoto believed that this continent was an island. He planned to control it by controlling its central river, the Mississippi, from its mouth northward to what he believed was the Pacific Ocean. Balboa had discovered that ocean beyond Panama, DeSoto's boyhood home. Magellan had sailed that ocean to the Orient when DeSoto was twenty-one years old.
The Orient, the greatest market in the world at that time, was waiting for Spain's New World riches. The prospects of opening a trade route through his new colony to the Orient lured DeSoto into America. DeSoto had observed that a Great Circle of Earth drawn from Havana, Spain's world shipping port in the New World, to the Orient went up America's Great River and crossed the Indians' legendary northern sea. Spanish immigrants, first attracted by riches, would surely settle the banks of America's Great River and its tributaries once the Indians were removed to the mines of Mexico and Peru. DeSoto could direct his settlers to build a port on America's northern sea, then sail that sea to China to open an East-West "Northern Passage" trade route through his new colony.
The after-effects of DeSoto's invasion are obvious once his history is placed into perspective. DeSoto accounts were published throughout Europe and served to entice others to America. Those accounts were the only source of written intelligence of America until French and English explorations much later. The DeSoto accounts of the splendor of America were celebrated in Europe for centuries. Most significant, however, is that DeSoto's peoples' accounts established the precedent for all European relations with America's Indians. That is, DeSoto's people interacted with Native Americans in such a manner as to place them in a role subordinate to humanity. European doctrine would, thereafter, place America's Indians in the same category that DeSoto's people had: as pagan Devil's; non-humans incapable of ownership.
Beginning with news of Hernando DeSoto's death in the 1540's, today's image of the Devil arose throughout Europe: our tall, red-skinned, body-hairless, dark-eyed, headdressed, spear-carrying American Indians with animal tails were immortalized. Indians were even called "Red Devils" by European settlers. That image, born in Spanish Conquest, survives to this day. It varies so much from all previous "Devil" concepts in Europe that its widespread use, immediately following DeSoto's death, seems indisputable.
Why has it taken so long for us to realize the profound effect DeSoto had on us? The answer is simple. Most could not believe the stories about DeSoto, even shortly after the fact, because things had changed so much and so quickly just after DeSoto's arrival in America. Indians became itinerants to avoid diseases in population centers. Their great nations, their cities and giant farms, all described by DeSoto's people, no longer existed. Indian cities were abandoned: the people had fled them for refuge.
DeSoto's accounts were dismissed by French and English pioneers, given the tremendous short-term changes in the North America he visited. His landing place in Florida was not even correctly identified until 1995, and his trail could be located only by using the precise directions his people wrote starting at his landing place, the best seaport he could have used to perserve his horses from the ravages of a long sea passage from Cuba. He was a military genius, not the wandering fool portrayed by many historians. He had honed his skills in Peru, where he had fought his way straight to a City of Gold with a much smaller army.
Tracking DeSoto's Army Fast Facts