North American Journey
Hernando de Soto’s expedition of La Florida lasted four years, from 1539-1543. He and his men explored over 4,000 miles of territory within ten modern U.S. states searching for riches and an ideal location to create a Spanish settlement. Even though the conquistador died in the process, survivors of his entrada returned without wealth, and a settlement was never established, the expedition succeeded as an intelligence mission. The information gathered by its members ultimately provided the monarchy with a better understanding of La Florida that they utilized in future, successful colonization efforts.
In April of 1537, just over one year after returning to Spain, Hernando de Soto signed a contract with the Spanish monarchy that gave him the rights to lead the conquest of La Florida. One month later, the King of Spain also appointed him Adelantado of La Florida, which granted him the right to govern whatever territory he conquered, and Governor of Cuba. This agreement outlined that de Soto himself would be responsible for funding and organizing the expedition. He immediately began recruiting the men, supplies, and intelligence that would be necessary to establish a successful settlement in the mysterious land.
De Soto’s reputation as an accomplished leader and conquistador made it relatively easy for him to recruit men as volunteers. He believed, from the little information he had available, that La Florida would be similar in nature to Peru, which was extremely profitable for members of the expedition due to the riches of the Inca Empire. Numerous men throughout Spain and Portugal readily volunteered to accompany him, seeking to gain riches similar to those they witnessed de Soto and his fellow conquistadors amass throughout their prior journeys.
De Soto also assumed that the natives of La Florida would be as willing to help he and his party find their way after they arrived as the Incans were, which eased his concerns about not having much detailed information. At the time, only a few maps of La Florida (and North America in general) existed, and none contained information about what lied within its interior. Only a handful of Spanish explorers had ever visited the province. Unfortunately, none of the ones historians believe de Soto referenced survive today.
Hernando de Soto left Spain in April of 1538 to embark on his expedition of La Florida. He was accompanied by nine ships filled with approximately 600 men and a generous amount of resources (such as pigs, horses, and armor). He and his crew arrived in Cuba nearly two months later, at the end of June. De Soto then attended to matters in Cuba relating to his new governorship while continuing to make preparations for his journey to the nearby continent.
He and his men spent nearly a year on the island before they finally set sail for La Florida. De Soto sent scouts to La Florida to scope out the best landing place for his entrada. While there, the men captured four Native Americans and brought them back to Cuba to use them as guides on their journey. De Soto also picked up additional men and supplies during this final period of preparation.
Disputed Path through La Florida
De Soto’s path through La Florida according to multiple scholars. Courtesy of John R. Swanton.
An active debate among historians about exactly what path Hernando de Soto took on his journey through La Florida remains. Although there are four surviving, documented accounts of the expedition written by various participants, none of them describe distances or locations in uniform, easily traceable ways. It is also problematic that some of these documents were produced after the expedition was over, meaning the memory of the writers became less clear and detailed.
Currently, The Final Report of the United States De Soto Expedition Commission remains the most referenced summary of de Soto’s route. Smithsonian anthropologist John R. Swanton produced this report after substantial research. However, since its completion in 1939, new evidence of de Soto’s presence has appeared in multiple locations due to archaeological advances. Taking these discoveries into account, historian Charles M. Hudson produced a new version of de Soto’s path through North America in 1986. This is the version of de Soto’s route referenced in the information below.
Journey through La Florida
De Soto and his men arrived near Tampa Bay, Florida in late May 1539. They spent the majority of the year traveling through the modern day state of Florida before setting up a camp for winter at an Indian village located within the boundaries of modern day Tallahassee. This area was the chief town in the territory of the Apalachee Indians, called Anhayca. These natives constantly attacked de Soto and his men throughout the duration of the Europeans’ stay in their territory.
De Soto planned to pass through the chief towns of native kingdoms along his journey, which would enable him to take the natives’ food stores and other supplies the entrada may need for survival. So, while the majority of his men remained in their winter camp, de Soto ordered some of his men to explore the lands to the north and bring back information about what they encountered, particularly knowledge about the location of major native towns. These detachment parties traveled as far north as present-day Thomas County, Georgia before returning to the expedition’s winter camp. De Soto also commanded a detachment of men to take two of the smaller ships on a reconnaissance mission to explore the Gulf Coast. They sailed along the Florida panhandle, reaching as far as Pensacola Bay, before returning in February 1540.
De Soto and his men left their winter camp in early March and ventured north into the modern-day state of Georgia. They spent the next two months making their way through the country in search of the Cofitachequi chiefdom. The expedition encountered a few, smaller native tribes along the way located within the modern boundaries of Georgia, but they did not spend more than five days in any of these villages. However, while they were there, they took fresh food supplies from the town’s storage places.
The expedition had crossed into South Carolina by mid-April and finally arrived at a town within the Cofitachequi kingdom in early May. Shortly after they arrived, they learned that the Cofitachequi population had been severely depleted two years earlier after a horrible illness (smallpox) swept through its people. Food and other resources were in short supply throughout their tribal lands as a result of this hardship. Because de Soto quickly discovered the kingdom did not possess riches or anything else of value, even foodstores, he decided to continue his journey.
In order to cover more ground, de Soto split the members of the expedition into two groups. A portion of the troops remained under his leadership while the remaining conquistadors, led by Baltasar de Gallegos, traveled north to the kingdom of Ilapi. De Soto and his men remained at Cofitachequi for a few weeks and left the settlement around the same time Gallegos departed from Illapi. The two groups traveled separately (heading northwest) and met again in late May at the town of Xuala, located near present-day Marion, North Carolina.
After reuniting, the entire entrada then proceeded through North Carolina and into Tennessee throughout the course of June. In mid-July, they crossed back over to Georgia and reached the dominant native capital of the Coosa kingdom, located near modern-day Cartersville. They spent over a month there, departing at the end of August by following the Coosa River. They crossed into the current state of Alabama at the beginning of September.
By mid-October, they reached a village near the modern town of Selma. Here, they began looting from villages in the surrounding area on their way to the native town of Mabila. When they reached Mabila, de Soto and his men were attacked by thousands of native warriors. Although they were caught by surprise, at the end of the day the Spanish only lost approximately twenty-nine men while the number of native casualties is estimated at between 2,500 and 3,500. The Spanish victory serves as a testament to their advanced weaponry and use of horses on the battlefield. De Soto and his men remained in this town for a month while the wounded men recovered before heading north in mid-November.
In mid-November the expedition passed into the current territory of Mississippi. With winter fast approaching, they hurried to find sufficient accommodations for the season. They spent the winter of 1540-1541 in the town of Chicaza, which they found mostly deserted after the natives fled in anticipation of their arrival. It proved to be a very cold and harrowing winter supplemented by frequent native attacks on the Spanish winter camp. De Soto prepared to leave the town in early March. However, he was delayed by a Chicaza attack on Spanish where the natives burned their own houses that the Europeans were occupying down. This prompted de Soto and his men to flee to a nearby town, Chicazilla, and recover from their wounds. They remained there until late April.
They continued to make their way west across the remainder of Mississippi, engaging in several disputes with the natives they encountered along the way. They reached the Mississippi River sometime around May 21, 1541. They remained on the banks of the river for a month preparing to cross it. In mid-June, de Soto and his men became the first Europeans to cross this landmark.
After crossing, they arrived in the kingdom of the Aquixo, located in modern-day Arkansas. These natives related to de Soto that the chiefdom they belonged to, Pacha, had access to gold. This inspired de Soto to travel north along the Mississippi River towards the location of the principal town that housed the Pacha chief. Along the way, they learned that the Pacha people were at war with the Casqui. De Soto used this knowledge to his advantage, arriving at the kingdom of Casqui first and securing them as allies. Together, the Casqui and the Europeans made their way to the main town of Pacha. They remained there for over a month, with de Soto sending several small groups out in different directions to explore the surrounding regions. One of the groups wondered as far as Missouri. After spending approximately a month in Pacha, de Soto and his Casqui allies departed the region and returned to the Casqui territory.
They continued to head south and eventually reached the kingdom of Quiguate. Their chief related to de Soto that gold was located in the mountains to the northwest, prompting him to travel in that direction. De Soto and his men spent the next few several months traveling throughout the modern state of Arkansas searching for gold. They settled down for the winter at the kingdom of Autiamque. Their interpreter, Juan Ortiz, died during the course of the cold winter. From that point on, de Soto was forced to rely only on natives that had learned some Spanish for guidance.
On March 6, 1542, de Soto and his men set out in search for gold once agian They continued to travel through modern-day Arkansas. After arriving at the kingdom of Guachoya, he sent out a small party to scout the lands to the south. They returned and reported the swampy quality of the area, which was disappointing news. This proved to de Soto that there was not a state-level society east of the Mississippi River, as he knew from the natives that only wilderness existed to his north and west. The expedition was already experiencing hardship due to their exhausting battles with natives and dwindling supplies. Soon after receiving this report from the scouting party, de Soto fell ill with a fever. He died after a short sickness on May 21, 1542.
The Hernando de Soto expedition ultimately covered over 4,000 miles of territory located within the boundaries of ten present-day US states. Although they never achieved their goal of finding gold or establishing a permanent spanish settlement, they were the first Europeans to cross the Mississippi River. They also left an enduring imprint among the lives of the Native Americans that they encountered, significantly altering their societies for future generations.
Time in Georgia
De Soto first entered present-day Georgia in March of 1540. He and his men arrived in the territory that currently comprises the southwest corner of the state after traveling north from their winter camp in Tallahassee. For the next month and a half they traveled northeast through the state looking for the Cofitachequi kingdom (centered in South Carolina), which they heard was one of the largest and most wealthy in the region.
While traveling through Georgia, they encountered several smaller native tribes and settlements. The first village they came across belonged to the Capachequi. When they reached the tribe’s principal town, located within the Chickasawhatchee Swamp, they found it empty. The natives fled from the village to hide out in nearby swamps within their territory in anticipation of the arrival of the Spanish. However, de Soto did find a supply of food, which he and his men took with them upon their departure from the town in the middle of March.
They spent the remainder of the month forging rivers on their way northeast. They stayed a few days at a small village belonging to the Toa people while making their way to the territory of the slightly larger Ichisi tribe. They soon reached the Ocmulgee River, which was in Ichisi territory. There, the natives helped the entrada cross the river in dugout canoes and allowed them to stay in their main town, located near modern-day Macon, for about three days.
After departing from Ichisi lands, the expedition traveled east and reached the Oconee River within a day. Altamaha indians assisted them across the river, and the group stayed in their principal town near modern-day Milledgeville. After learning the Altamaha tribe was under the authority of the more powerful Ocute indians, de Soto sent for the Ocute leader to come and meet him. When the chief did not show after a few days, de Soto and his men left Altamaha territory and headed towards the center of the Ocute kingdom. They arrived at the main town a day later which was located around present-day Sparta.
The group did not stay there long. De Soto remained adamant about his desire to reach the Cofitachequi kingdom. So, after only two days, he and his men left in search of the other tribe. They stopped at another native settlement belonging to the Cofaqui, near contemporary Greensboro, Georgia, after realizing that their principal native guide did not know as much about the territory they were exploring as he claimed. The guide, Perico, claimed that they could reach Cofitachequi lands four days after departing from Ocute territory. However, the Ocute natives warned de Soto that the distance between their two kingdoms was much more vast and the entrada would need far more food sources to make the journey. De Soto did not take their advice and continued on towards Cofitachequi, leaving the boundaries of Georgia in the process in mid-April 1540.
De Soto and his entrada re-entered northwest Georgia in the middle of July, near the modern border with Tennessee. They soon reached the capital of the Coosa kingdom, just outside of what is now Cartersville. The members of the expedition remained in Coosa territory for over a month. When they left in the last week of August, they kidnapped the chief of the Coosa people, his sister, and some other tribe members and took them as hostages. They also enslaved other tribe members and forced them to assist members of the expedition as laborers. From Coosa, they traveled southeast along the Coosa River. At the end of the month they reached present-day Rome, where the Ulibahali tribe resided. They only spent a day in the territory before departing again, following the Coosa river towards the modern Alabama border.
De Soto spent most of his time in Georgia in search of gold. He and his men believed it existed somewhere in the mountains that occupy the northwestern part of the state after hearing rumors from natives that they consulted. They ultimately failed in their endeavor to find the precious metal within the boundaries of the modern-day US state, causing them to exit the state and continue their journey in search of wealth.