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Hernando de Soto

Written by: Mark Christensen, Assumption College

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain causes of the Columbian Exchanges and its effect on Europe and the Americas during the period after 1492
  • Explain how the growth of the Spanish Empire in North America shaped the development of social and economic structures over time

Suggested Sequencing

This narrative should be assigned to students following the First Contacts Narrative. Connections can be drawn between this Narrative and the Life in the Spanish Colonies Narrative. Students can further explore motivations for colonization in the Columbus’s Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, 1494 Primary Source and the Richard Hakluyt and the Case for Undertaking Sea Voyages Lesson.

Hernando de Soto was born in the late fifteenth century to noble parents in western Extremadura in Spain. The region was home to other famous conquistadors, including Hernando Cortés and the Pizarro brothers. De Soto’s social status allowed him some education, and he became literate. Yet a life in Spain seemed too placid to him, and in his late teens he embarked for the New World for the first time.

De Soto joined other ambitious young men seeking advancement, wealth, and prestige through conquest in the “Indies” after the arrival of Columbus in 1492. He left Spain in 1514 with the expedition of Pedro Arí­as de Ávila, also known as Pedrária Dávila, and landed in Darién (modern Panama) in Central America. He spent most of his career in the region participating in various campaigns of conquest and settlement, and his efforts were awarded with an encomienda, a grant of Native Americans’ tribute and labor given by the crown to Spaniards in Nicaragua. De Soto profited from slave trading, but he lacked the status of other conquistadors, such as Hernando Cortés, whose conquest of the Aztecs was becoming widely known. Soon, however, de Soto would get his chance for greater fame.

In 1530, de Soto invested in the efforts of Francisco Pizarro to scout the Pacific coast for gold. In 1532, he joined Pizarro’s expedition to Peru and contributed enough men and money to become a captain. As the expedition reached the city of Cajamarca in the Peruvian highlands, the men encountered the army of the Inca emperor, Atahualpa. By all accounts, de Soto was a skilled equestrian and fighter. Not surprisingly then, Pizarro chose him and a few other men to invite Atahualpa to a meeting set for the next day. At this fateful encounter, de Soto and the Spanish soldiers attacked the Inca emperor and his retinue without provocation in a slaughter that resulted in Atahualpa’s capture.

Part a shows a portrait of Hernando de Soto. Part b shows a portrait of Francisco Pizzaro. Part c shows a portrait of Atahualpa.

(a) Hernando de Soto accompanied (b) another famous conquistador, Francisco Pizzaro, in his exploits in South America. With superior military weapons such as steel swords, armor, guns, horses, and the element of surprise, Pizzaro and de Soto were able to capture (c) the ruler of the Inca empire, Atahualpa.

Seizing Native American rulers was a common tactic of conquistadors throughout the New World, who needed gold and silver to pay for their incursions and make them profitable. Observing the Spaniards’ interest in precious metals, Atahualpa offered to fill a room once with gold and twice with silver in return for his freedom. De Soto’s lofty position among the conquistadors was confirmed by his share of this ransom- it was the third largest after those of Francisco and Hernando Pizarro. The windfall and his role in the subsequent conquest of the Inca and their capital city of Cuzco plucked de Soto from relative obscurity and firmly established him as a leading conquistador.

Yet de Soto remained unsatisfied. Despite serving as lieutenant governor of Cuzco and living in a palace built by a former Inca emperor, he desired his own command and expedition to a territory in the New World. So in 1536 he left Peru and returned to Spain a wealthy man to lobby the crown for such a command. There he was fortunate enough to marry Isabel de Bobadillo, the well-connected daughter of Pedrárias Dávila, and be admitted into the highly prestigious military-religious order of knights, the Order of Santiago. After petitioning King Charles V for various concessions, de Soto was granted the governorship of Cuba in 1537 and was made adelantado of Florida. He was also rewarded with the title of marquis in anticipation of his efforts in conquering and settling regions in the New World.

After the discovery of the wealth of the Aztec and Inca empires, many Spaniards were hopeful of finding the next Native American kingdom of riches. This enthusiasm inspired many to join de Soto’s 1539 expedition to Florida, including some who had been in Peru with him. The campaign was sizeable; accounts vary, but approximately 650 to 800 men signed on, including Spaniards, Portuguese, enslaved Africans, free blacks, enslaved Native Americans, and free Native Americans.

De Soto’s experience in Florida was a mix of peaceful and violent encounters with Native Americans. The swampy terrain proved difficult for the men and the more than two hundred horses they brought with them. Like most conquest expeditions, de Soto’s relied on Native American captives to serve as translators and even a Spaniard, Juan Ortiz, who had been captured by Native Americans in Florida years before and now knew two native dialects. Those Native Americans with whom he did communicate at times led de Soto to believe that treasures were to be had elsewhere, a useful tactic to ensure the Spanish departure. Thus, de Soto and his men wandered, searching in vain for riches and kingdoms that did not exist.

In 1542, de Soto died of an unknown illness on what is today the Louisiana/Arkansas border. The remainder of his force – now reduced by half, largely due to illness and attacks by Native Americans – gave up the expedition and made a laborious voyage to Mexico City, arriving in 1543.

Although it was considered a failure that damaged de Soto’s reputation, the expedition journeyed through what are today eleven states in the American southeast and crossed the Mississippi River. Moreover, the Spanish presence in the region had many unintended consequences. The exposure to European disease (and violence) often resulted in high population loss among the Native Americans and the abandonment of villages, and it set a precedent for future Native American and European interactions. Deserters of de Soto’s expedition included free and enslaved Africans. In one example, after the Spaniards had captured a native cacica, or female ruler, an African slave named Gómez helped her escape to present-day Camden, South Carolina, and became her companion. Scholars argue that the Native American nations in the Spanish-claimed territory of La Florida provided a potential haven for runaway slaves over the next three centuries.

Finally, de Soto’s failed expedition dampened enthusiasm for future forays into the region, resulting in Florida’s sparse settlement by the Spanish and its eventual cession to the United States in 1821. After all, Spaniards preferred to settle on or near sedentary Native American settlements that provided easy access to Native American tribute and labor. Thus, they concentrated mainly on central Mexico (held by the Aztecs) and Peru (the Inca) throughout the colonial period. Regions such as the American Southeast held little appeal to exploring conquistadors, who were always looking for the next “Mexico” or “Peru” instead.

Review Questions

1. Hernando de Soto saw exploration of the New World as an opportunity to

  1. improve his social and economic standing within the Spanish empire
  2. bring the technological improvements of Europe to Native Americans
  3. unite Native American tribes such as the Inca and Aztecs
  4. spread Renaissance ideas of humanism to the New World

2. In which region was de Soto granted an encomienda?

  1. Gran Colombia
  2. Nicaragua
  3. Texas
  4. Brazil

3. De Soto fought under the command of which conquistador to defeat the Inca?

  1. Cortez
  2. Columbus
  3. Las Casas
  4. Pizarro

4. How were conquistadores like de Soto and Pizarro able to defeat and conquer the Inca?

  1. Conquistadors had superior numbers of soldiers compared with the Inca.
  2. Conquistadors had more advanced weapons than the Inca.
  3. Conquistadors used the wealth gained from the Aztecs to defeat the Inca.
  4. Conquistadors enslaved tribes that were rivals of the Inca to use as soldiers and defeat the Inca.

5. The long-term effects of de Soto’s expedition to the American Southeast included all the following except

  1. the introduction of European diseases
  2. limited Spanish settlement in Florida throughout the colonial period
  3. a precedent for Native American and European interactions
  4. increased enthusiasm among future conquistadores to explore the region further

6. What difficulties did de Soto and his men face while exploring Florida?

  1. Freezing temperatures and large snow storms killed half the men.
  2. Swamps made travel difficult for men and horses.
  3. Desert conditions contributed to the death of 75 percent of de Soto’s men.
  4. Attacks by French and English explorers forced de Soto to abandon the expedition.

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain the methods used by Spanish conquistadors to accumulate wealth, land, and social status in the New World.
  2. Explain the extent to which de Soto’s expedition to the American Southwest was successful in leading to Spanish control of the region.

AP Practice Questions

“[A] loss of time. . . . obliged me to send Vasco Parcallo de Figueroa, my lieutenant general, with the brigantines to take possession of a village at the foot of the bay, and I ordered him to land all the troops and horses there. . . .

As soon as I landed I was informed that a Christian was in the power of a cacique [chief] of the country. I accordingly dispatched . . . forty horsemen and as many foot soldiers, to bring him into camp. After marching a day’s journey he overtook the Christian in company with eight or ten Indians . . . I was much pleased with this good fortune, for this man knew the language of the country, although he had almost forgotten his own. His name is Juan Ortiz, a gentleman of Seville. I afterwards went in person to the cacique of this province, and learned from him that his intentions were entirely pacific. I then dispatched Baltasar de Gallegos with eighty lancers and one hundred foot soldiers, to reconnoitre the country. He found it cultivated with fields of Indian corn, beans, pumpkins, and other vegetables, sufficient for the supply of a large army. Having arrived at a cacique’s called Hurripacuxi, who is the chief of several provinces, I negotiated with him a treaty of peace, which he broke very soon after. I had him immediately arrested, with seventeen others, among whom were several old men, who were influential with the Indians, and acquainted with the interior of the country. They told me that after three days’ journey I would come to a country well peopled and cultivated, and to a large city called Aquerra; and after two more days’ we should reach another city called Ocale, where it would be pleasant for us to spend the winter.”

A Translation of Hernando de Soto’s Letter to the Municipal Authorities of St. Jago de Cuba, about his arrival in Florida, 1539

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. According to the excerpt, what was de Soto’s initial interaction with the Native Americans of Florida?

  1. De Soto sought to move the Native American village to land better suited to agriculture.
  2. He and his men began to trade with the Native Americans.
  3. De Soto executed his lead general for attacking Native Americans without his permission.
  4. He ordered his men to gain control of a Native American village.

2. Upon exploring the area, de Soto discovered the Native Americans were primarily engaged in which industry for survival?

  1. Agriculture
  2. Herding
  3. Hunting
  4. Slave trade

3. According to his letter, how did de Soto view the Native Americans he came across?

  1. As a good source of information for his army and of food supplies
  2. As people with equal rights
  3. As a civilization not to be disturbed by Europeans
  4. As a potential ally in conquering neighboring lands

Primary Sources

Hernando de Soto’s Letter to Cuban Magistrates:

Suggested Resources

Hudson, Charles. Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms .Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Galloway, Patricia, ed. The Hernando de Soto Expedition: History, Historiography, and “Discovery” in the Southeast. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Restall, Matthew, and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. The Conquistadors: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Schwartz, Stuart B. Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Bedford, 2000.

Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

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