DeSoto's Kentucky Trails
DeSoto's Kentucky Conquest Trail Map
Written by Donald E. Sheppard
Drawings: Cheryl Lucente

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KENTUCKY

Hernando de Soto entered Kentucky at today's Ft. Campbell. His army would travel (north according to Inca's informants) for 90 miles to the Ohio River over the next two weeks, then spend four weeks prepairing to cross it. They first marched four leagues (10 miles) across the meadows to camp. The next day, according to Rangel, DeSoto's Secretary, "Sunday the eighth of May (1541) they arrived ("at midday," according to Biedma, the King's Agent) at the first town of Quizqui (at today's Hopkinsville, six miles from their meadow camp) and they took the (natives) unexpectedly and captured many people..." mostly women and children. Biedma says, "The Indian men were gone to do their labors at their cornfields." © 1993, University of Alabama Press

Kentucky FieldsYou can read the translated details of Kentucky's Conquest
written by ConquistadorsBiedma,  Rangel,  Elvas  &  Inca

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Elvas says, "Inasmuch as his men were ill and weary for lack of corn, and the horses were also weak, DeSoto determined to (treat these natives kindly - his troops were in no condition for war)... So he ordered the (chief's) mother and all the others released, and sent them with words of kindness... many Indians came with their bows and arrows with intention of attacking the Christians. The governor ordered all the horsemen to be armed and mounted." DeSoto knew these natives had never seen such weapons or horsemen before.

"When the Indians saw that we were on guard they stopped a crossbow flight from the spot where the governor was, near a stream (today's North Fork Little River, under a Full Moon)... and said they came to see what people we were and that they had learned from their ancestors that a white race would inevitably subdue them... and after offering skins and blankets... together with the others who were waiting on the shore, returned."

Kentucky Native VillageInca's informants said, "The Indians moved out of their village and left the food they had in their houses for the Castilians. (Some of the Spaniards) remained in that village called Chisca for six days in order to care for the sick and wounded..."

DeSoto's Chroniclers called Kentucky's tribe by slightly different names, ranging from Quizquiz, the name of the famous tribe which DeSoto had defeated in Peru just prior to entering its city of gold, to Chisca and Quizqui. The French would later call them Casqui (whose chief DeSoto would find in Indiana) and the English called them Kashinampo. They shared a unique language with the Alibamo of Nashville, Tennessee, and Chisca near Knoxville, Tennessee.

Most of the army continued north from Hopkinsville, they "marched for four short daily journeys of three leagues each, since the indispositions of the sick and wounded did not permit longer ones," according to Inca, camping first below then above today's Crofton, then at Nortonville and stopped at Madisonville, 12 leagues, 31 miles, from Hopkinsville. Once all of the army had reassembled they continued north.

Elvas says, "Inasmuch as there was little maize in the town where the governor was, he moved to another town (today's Henderson; Rangel says of that trip, "One league from this town was found another with much corn, and then, after another league, another, likewise with much corn...") located a half-league from the large (Ohio) river, where maize was found in abundance..."

Place where DeSoto saw the Great River

Ohio River sighted by DeSoto Rangel says, "There they saw the Great River."

Inca says, "They came to a passage where they could cross the great (Ohio) river, not that they could ford it, but where there was an open passage for reaching it, for previously all along its banks (according to scouts) there had been extremely large and very dense woodlands, and the banks on either side were very high and steep and one could not go up or down them."

Lynn in Audubon ParkRangel continues, "On Saturday, the twenty-first of May (1541), (two weeks after entering Kentucky) the Army moved on to a savanna between the river and a small town, and they made camp (at Audubon State Park, photo at right, on the Ohio River, which Spain would later claim), and began to make four rafts in order to cross to the other side."

They camped inside the river's giant bend (mapped below right) while building rafts, which should have taken only a week, as they had learned that skill at the Tennessee River, but they had to wait for the river's spring flooding to subside. The river's banks flatten north of Audubon State Park and there is a sandy bank (today's Green River Island) on the opposite, northeastern, shore.

Elvas says, "He went to see the river and found there was an abundance of timber near it from which piraguas could be constructed and an excellently situated land for establishing the camp. We immediately moved there (Audubon State Park), houses were built, and the camp was established on a level place, a crossbow flight from the river. All of the corn of all the towns behind (including Henderson, Sebree and Madisonville) was collected there, and the men set to work immediately to cut timber (east of camp) and square the planks for rafts.

"Immediately the Indians came down river (from today's Indiana), landed, and told the governor that they were vassals of a great lord called Aquixo, who was lord of many towns and people on the other side of the river..." he lived at today's Angel Mounds State Park; a large scattering of farms and villages at the time.

Biedma says, "Here we found the first little walnuts (pecans) of the land, which are much better than those from Spain..." They're still the pride of Kentucky - the pecan breeding stock of America - the best in the world. "...This town was near the Great River. They told us that this and other towns there pay tribute to a lord of Pacaha, who was well known in all the land." He would be found at Terre Haute, Indiana. Bridge Over the Danube

Rangel continues, "Many of the Conquistadors said that the river was larger than the Danube (left photo). On the other bank of the river (the west bank in this case) up to seven thousand Indians gathered to defend the crossing with up to two-thousand canoes, all with shields which were made of canes joined together, so strong and so tightly sewn that a crossbow would scarcely pierce them."

Natives assembled on the west bank of the Ohio River directly opposite today's Audubon State Park, near where the Spaniards were building their rafts. Biedma continues, "During this time the Indians each day at the hour of three in the afternoon (with the sun at their backs to blind the Spaniards) placed themselves in two hundred and fifty canoes that they had there, very large and well shielded, and drew near the shore where we were with a great yell. They shot all the arrows that they could and returned to the other bank."

Rangel says, "Arrows came raining and the air was filled with them, and with such a yell, so that it seemed a matter of great dread; but when they saw that the work on the rafts did not let up for them, they said that Pacaha, whose men they were, commanded them to remove themselves from there, and thus they left the crossing undefended."

Elvas says: "...they made four rafts, in three of which, one early morning three hours before it became light, DeSoto ordered a dozen horse to enter, four to each one - men whom he was most confident would succeed in gaining the land in spite of the Indians and assure the crossing or die in doing it - and with them some of foot - crossbowmen and rowers - to place them on the other side. In the other raft, he ordered Juan de Guzman to cross with men of foot... And because the current was strong, they went up stream along the shore for a quarter of a league (almost three-quarters of a mile) and in crossing they were carried down with the current of the river and went to land opposite the place where the camp was."

DeSoto had moved his rafts northeast from his Audubon Park boat works to avoid crossing into the natives on the west bank who had watched the rafts being built. He had used a similar tactic two times in Alabama to surprise natives with displaced crossing points. The Ohio River's big bend around Audubon Park, and the flooded trenches across the bend's savannah, afforded him perfect opportunity to do so.

Elvas continues, "At a distance of two stones' throw before reaching shore the men of horse went from the rafts on horseback to a sandy place of hard sand and clear ground (on Green River Island near today's bridge point) where all the men landed without any accident. As soon as those who crossed first were on the other side, the rafts returned immediately to where the governor was and in two hours after the sun was up all the men finished crossing. The crossing was nearly a half league (over a mile) wide, and if a man stood on the other side (in daylight), one could not tell whether he were a man or something else."

Rangel says of that crossing, "On Saturday, the eighth of June, all the army crossed the Great River in four rafts, and they gave thanks to God, because in their opinion, nothing so difficult could ever be offered them again." But the eighth of June was a Wednesday in 1541. June 18th, which was a Saturday, was probably the actual date of the crossing based upon his reports of activity dates beyond the river. The moon would have been rising 15 degrees north of east exactly three hours before dawn there on June 18th, 1541. The rising crescent moon would have been large enough to steer toward but too small to light the rafts for the natives to see.

By pointing their rafts at the moon and rowing vigorously they could offset the river's northwestward flow at that point. When the rafts returned for more men, horses and equipment, they could keep the moon on their left shoulders to counter the current's lesser effect on the lighter rafts - all invisible to the natives. Had they crossed on June 8th the moon would have been Full; the natives could have seen them approaching and attacked.


Historians have also pointed out that DeSoto's Secretary, from whom was gained our knowledge of the timing of DeSoto's activity in America, erred in reporting either the day or date of the Great River's crossing. They also deduced that June 18th, which was a Saturday, was the actual date of his crossing. If that be so, the moon would have been rising directly in front of DeSoto's raft to light his way across the Ohio River three hours before dawn, precisely when he started crossing it. No one else has ever pointed that out. He crossed the Ohio River northeastward, not the Mississippi River westward, as all previous DeSoto trackers have mistakenly surmised.

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