DeSoto's Florida Landing
Ships at Port

by Donald E. Sheppard   Superscripts   Introduction  DeSoto Biography  Indian Place Names  States Index

You can read the translated details of DeSoto's Florida Landing
written by DeSoto's Chroniclers: Biedma, Rangel, Elvas  &  Inca

Horse in Ship StrapsHernando de Soto set sail from Havana on May 18, 1539.DeSoto On orders from Spain's King, five deep draft vessels, bound for Mexico, plus four of DeSoto's ships,R were used to transport his 223 horses and 620 menB, their wives, dogs, stores,* arms, servants and pigsR to Florida.E DeSoto's object was to land his horses, his precious cargo, as soon as possible. Lengthy sea passages were known to cause broken legs and death among them (Hoffman in Clayton 1993).

Spanish Ships Page LinkJuan Ponce de Leon, who had sailed with Christopher Columbus, explored Florida's coast in 1513 and discovered Charlotte Harbor, the closest mainland sea port to Havana in the Gulf of Mexico. He died of wounds from hostile natives near there on his return to colonize in 1521 (Morison 1974:510). That port's geography is the same today as described by Juan Ponce, DeSoto and Cabeza de Vaca with PŠnfilo de NarvŠez, who also landed nearby and reported that harbor in 1528. Other Spanish sailors, as well, had strayed into that port.

NarvŠez, with Cabeza de Vaca, 300 men and 42 horses, had aimed to colonize Charlotte Harbor but a storm had kept him from first stopping at Havana for supplies.V His fleet was blown into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving one ship behind. He found Florida several days later but with a critical food shortage was forced to land before finding that port.

The NarvŠez landing site at EnglewoodNarvŠez dispatched his ships to Havana for supplies with orders to meet him up the coast where they all surmised Juan Ponce's harbor was located.V They had been blown further north than they realized, however. The ship captains reported finding Charlotte Harbor just five leagues (13 miles) south of where they left him. Stump Pass, at today's Englewood (right photo and top map), where NarvŠez landed, is exactly that distance from the mouth of Charlotte Harbor.

On their return from Havana they searched for NarvŠez, but to no avail. In 1529 others were sent who found Charlotte Harbor, believing he would have settled there by then. He had been there but had a skirmish with that harbor's chief, Hirrihigua, and led his army away.I The rescuers saw a letter on a stick at the head of the harbor and thought NarvŠez had left it for them.E When several men disembarked to read it they were captured by Hirrihigua,I whose nose had been cut off by NarvŠez.

Mococo CountryOne of those captured, a boy named Juan Ortiz, spent years of captivity and torture by Hirrihigua, who hated the Spaniards.E I Ortiz survived, the others were killed. He would escape, with help from the chief's daughter, to her fiancťe's village.E Ortiz was given safe refuge there by Chief Mococo and adapted that chief's customs, appearance, knowledge and native language.E

DeSoto's scouts, in the luckiest stroke of his campaign, found Ortiz upon landing.B R E I DeSoto He would serve as DeSoto's guide and interpreter for the rest of his life. DeSoto's people would reward Chief Mococo with excess hardware when the port was abandoned. Florida's early pioneers would find some of it and call Chief Mococo's village site "Old Spanish Fields," as we shall see.
Gulf of Mexico

The King's Comptroller, Juan de Anasco, had been dispatched from Cuba to explore Florida's coast during the year before DeSoto sailed from Havana. Anasco found Ponce de Leon's Charlotte Harbor and took some IndiansE from Chief Hirrihigua's village, Ucita, at the head of it. Anasco was licensed by the King to barter with them. They trapped fish in the harbor and traded them with inland Indians. Anasco envisioned developing that trade with Havana, which Cabeza de Vaca reported to lie 100 leagues due south of the harbor. It measures 250 statute miles (map at right), 265 statute miles sailing around the Key West/Dry Tortugas reefs: 100 Spanish legal leagues.

Anasco's captives knew the shoreline and could locate their home port on their return with DeSoto's fleet. Their village, Ucita (which Inca called Hirrihique), would become DeSoto's base of operations. NarvŠez had been through that village, cut off Chief Hirrihigua's nose, then proceeded inland. Juan Ortiz had been there and fled for his life.

Before his return to Cuba, Anasco carefully sounded the harbor, noted the tide's effect on it, then measured the distance from Ucita to Havana; 75 or 80 (nautical) leagues (275 or 293 statute miles) as reported to the officers in Havana. He advised DeSoto to sail on May 25th to catch the Full Moon and Spring Tides at arrival, but DeSoto chose to sail on a favourable wind instead,DeSoto one week earlier than Anasco had advised. The fleet sailed the Gulf for seven days with poor winds.

             LANDFALL AND LANDING  NOT at TAMPA BAY Boca Grand Pass at Charlotte Harbor, Florida

Map: DeSoto's Route into Port CharlotteOn Sunday, May 25th, 1539, DeSoto's seamen sighted Florida on a northern landfall R 10 leagues west of the Bay of Juan Ponce.R DeSoto's captains would go no closer than 1 or 2 leagues to landE R until confirming the harbor's entrance. They dropped anchor four or five leagues below portDeSoto in four brazas,R (23 feet) of water.

That northern landfall, in that depth of water that distance from land, four or five leagues below a port on Florida's Gulf Coast, ten leagues west of the Bay of Juan Ponce, occurs at only one place in Florida: Sanibel Island. (Schell 1966:16; Wilkinson 1960)

DeSoto, his guard, Anasco and the principal pilot were transferred into DeSoto's smaller brigs to find the harbor that evening,DeSoto R leaving the cumbersome transport ships at anchor. If the fleet over-shot the harbor they could not tack back to it against strong southwesterly winds R to enter the harbor.

DeSoto's Charlotte Harbor Entrance

DeSoto coasted downwind in his maneuverable brigs, advancing to where he thought the harbor's entrance was located, but sailed out of sight of the fleet.R

That evening DeSoto found Charlotte Harbor's entrance at Boca Grande Pass, but was kept from returning to the fleet by darkness and wind. He spent the night at a deserted Indian village, much to the chagrin of his people.R

The next morning, DeSoto struggled to sail back out the pass against high winds to summon the fleet. Once spotted, the fleet advanced toward him. DeSoto anchored his vessels on the sides of the harbor's narrow entrance pass to guide them in; two of the big ships scraped sandy bottomR (Johnson Shoals) as they passed.

They entered the port with bottom sounders in hand but were detained by its shallow passage waters.DeSoto R They anchored 4 leagues (10 miles) back from Ucita,R at today's Cape Haze.

Bernard Romans Charlotte Harbor Map, 1774Since they left Havana a week earlier than advised,DeSoto the fleet could not cross the harbor's shallows beyond Cape Haze, despite their efforts to do so.R They had to wait for Spring Tides. Those tides, and strong currents associated with them, were 4 days away as Full Moon neared. Few horses were put ashore so the men comforted the others with fresh foliage and berries.I Twenty horses died.R

DeSoto dispatched his shallow draft brigantines, the ones used by Anasco to explore the harbor, to take control of a town he had found at the end of the bay:DeSoto UCITA.
As the Moon filled, the harbor's tide rose more each day, allowing the ships to move closer to the beach. On the sixth day, June first, DeSoto, his livestock (pigs), horses and horsemenDeSoto E R were off-loaded onto Cape Haze. With lighter loads, stronger currents and Spring Tides, the ships began to move over the harbor's sandy shallows.

Charlotte Harbor LandingsOnce free of the shallows, the fleet sailed up as close as possible to the head of the bay where the men disembarked.E They trudged north, around Ucita's deep marshes, to a shore camp near the bay which went up to Ucita, two leagues from where they landed.E I

The horsemen (Rangel says DeSoto went by ship), misled by the captives, made their way toward Ucita, a twelve league trip.R DeSoto would report that measure as the bay's length. That moonlit ride would be the army's longest in Florida. Very late that night they arrived near Ucita, exhausted from crossing the Myakka River's marshes - which Spring Tides shallow about midnight on Full Moon.

They found themselves on the opposite side of Tippecanoe Bay from DeSoto's shore camp. They slept where they were, just above El Jobean, as DeSoto's men watched their campfires; seperated by only a few miles of trail.

"During that week the ships arrived near the town, unloading them little by little with small boats, and thus they unloaded all the clothing and supplies that they carried."R

Part 2 - Into Florida

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