The 16th-century Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto arrived in the West Indies as a young man and went on to make a fortune in the Central American slavery 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.
Early Life and Career
Like many of the era’s explorers and conquistadors, Hernando de Soto was a native of the impoverished Extremadura region of southwestern Spain. He was born c. 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 small fortune from Dávila’s conquest of Panama and Nicaragua, and by 1530 he was the leading slavery 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.
Conquest of Peru
In 1532, De Soto acted as Pizarro’s chief lieutenant in the former’s conquest of Peru. Before Spanish forces defeated the Inca 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, the last Inca emperor, in 1533, though the Incas had assembled a huge ransom in gold for his release; de Soto gained another 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.
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. Following his death on May 21, 1542, 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.
Hernando de Soto. The Mariner’s Museum and Park.
Hernando de Soto. National Park Service.