The 16th-century Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto (c. 1496-1542) arrived in the West Indies as a young man and went on to make a fortune in the Central American slave trade. He supplied ships for Francisco Pizarro's southward expedition and ended up accompanying Pizarro in his conquest of Peru in 1532. Seeking greater glory and riches, de Soto embarked on a major expedition in 1538 to conquer Florida for the Spanish crown. He and his men traveled nearly 4,000 miles throughout the region that would become the southeastern United States in search of riches, fighting off Native American attacks along the way. In 1541, de Soto and his men became the first Europeans to encounter the great Mississippi River and cross it; de Soto died early the next year.
More to Explore
Spanish soldier and explorer Juan Ponce de León founded the first settlement in Puerto Rico and discovered Florida during his search for the mythical fountain of youth.
The explorer Christopher Columbus made four trips across the Atlantic in search of a water route from Europe to Asia. He never found it, but he did accidentally "discover" the Americas along the way.
While searching for mythic treasure-filled cities, Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado blazed a trail through much of the southwestern region of North America.
Years after the earliest Viking expeditions, European nations began a centuries long quest of exploration and conquest in the Americas.
Did You Know?
Hernando de Soto and his fellow Spaniards initially referred to the Mississippi River as the Rio Grande for its immense size. That habit was gradually replaced with the use of the river's Indian name, Meaot Massipi (or "Father of the Waters").
Hernando de Soto's Early Life and Career
Like many of the era's conquistadors, Hernando de Soto was a native of the impoverished Extremadura region of southwestern Spain; he was born circa 1496 in Jerez de los Caballeros, Bajadoz province. De Soto's family was of minor nobility and modest means, and at a very young age he developed dreams of making his fortune in the New World. Around the age of 14, de Soto left for Seville, where he got himself included on an expedition to the West Indies led by Pedro Arias Dávila in 1514.
De Soto earned a fortune from Dávila's conquest of Panama and Nicaragua, and by 1530 he was the leading slave trader and one of the richest men in Nicaragua. In 1531, he joined Francisco Pizarro on an expedition in pursuit of rumors of gold located in the region that is now northwestern Colombia, on the Pacific coast.
De Soto's Role in Conquest of Peru & Return to Spain
In 1532, De Soto acted as Pizarro's chief lieutenant in the former's conquest of Peru Before Spanish forces defeated the Incas at Cajamarca that November, de Soto became the first European to make contact with the Inca emperor Atahualpa. When Pizarro's men subsequently captured Atahualpa, de Soto was among the emperor's closest contacts among the Spaniards. Pizarro's men executed Atahualpa in 1533, though the Incas had assembled a huge ransom in gold for his release; de Soto gained a fortune when the ransom was divided. He was later named lieutenant governor of the city of Cuzco and participated in Pizarro's founding of the new capital at Lima in 1535.
In 1536, de Soto returned to Spain as one of the wealthiest conquistadors of the era. During a brief stay in his home country, he married Dávila's daughter, Isabel de Bobadilla, and obtained a royal commission to conquer and settle the region known as La Florida (now the southeastern United States), which had been the site of earlier explorations by Juan Ponce de León and others. He also received the governorship of Cuba.
De Soto's Expedition to North America
De Soto set out from Spain in April 1538, set with 10 ships and 700 men. After a stop in Cuba, the expedition landed at Tampa Bay in May 1539. They moved inland and eventually set up camp for the winter at a small Indian village near present-day Tallahassee. In the spring, De Soto led his men north, through Georgia, and west, through the Carolinas and Tennessee, guided by Indians whom they took captive along the way. With no success finding the gold they sought, the Spaniards headed back south into Alabama towards Mobile Bay, seeking to rendezvous with their ships, when they were attacked by an Indian contingent near present-day Mobile in October 1540. In the bloody battle that followed, the Spaniards killed hundreds of Indians and suffered severe casualties themselves.
After a month's rest, the ever-ambitious De Soto made the fateful decision to turn northward again and head inland in search of more treasure. In mid-1541, the Spaniards sighted the Mississippi River. They crossed it and headed into Arkansas and Louisiana, but early in 1542 turned back to the Mississippi. Soon after, De Soto took ill with a fever. After his death that May, his comrades buried his body in the great river. His successor, Luis de Moscoso, led the remnants of the expedition (which was eventually decimated by half) on rafts down the Mississippi, finally reaching Mexico in 1543.
Fact Check We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!
This Day in History
At 2:10 p.m., five U.S. Navy Avenger torpedo-bombers comprising Flight 19 take off from the Ft. Lauderdale Naval Air Station in Florida on a routine…
Following in the path of the legendary explorer, an archeological team searches for a ship lost nearly 500 years ago.
Keep up with the latest History shows, online features, special offers and more.Sign up