Hernando de Soto’s American Expedition

Hernando de Soto (1496/1497 – 1542)

Hernando de Soto
(1496/1497 – 1542)

On June 3, 1539, Spanish conquistador and explorer Hernando de Soto, with all the dignitaries and necessary paraphernalia, took formal possession of La Florida, where he landed nine ships with more than 620 men and 220 horses. De Soto‘s expedition was the first European expedition leading deep into the territory of the modern-day United States, searching for gold, silver and also a passage to China. Moreover, he also was the first European documented to have crossed the Mississippi River.

Hernando de Soto left for his first expedition to the Peninsula of Yucatán in order to find a passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. The goal was to improve trading routes with the Orient. Unfortunately, his expedition failed wherefore he joined Francisco Pizarro‘s fleet as a captain, departing for the present day Peru. De Soto’s troops fought against the Incan army and plundered their villages. During their following battles, the Spanish plundered further cities such as Cuzco, becoming very rich due to the great amounts of gold and silver found before returning to Spain in 1534.

After returning to Spain, Hernando de Soto and his activities in Peru were well known and his reputation grew. Only a few years later, the explorer had another crew with two ships together, leaving for North America. De Soto arrived at present day Brandeton, Florida along with 620 men and 220 horses. The conquistador and explorer brought mostly priests, farmers, engineers, merchants, and soldiers. The expedition made their way along Florida’s west coast up north, facing several issues with natives. After hearing about gold findings they turned towards north-east, present day Georgia continuing towards South Carolina. Failing to find any gold, the expedition stopped for about a month in North Carolina and continued along the Tennessee River and then headed to the Gulf of Mexico. On their way, the Spanish were again encountered by natives and lost hundreds in a cruel battle, killing thousands of hostile warriors. The battle became known as one of the most cruel and the bloodiest in history of North America.

To keep the battle secret, de Soto sent his troops into Mississippi, reaching Mississippi River in 1541. Hernando de Soto did not really care for the river itself, seeing it rather as an obstacle. The expedition members built several floats to cross the river but were often hindered by hostile natives and one month later they were finally able to reach the river’s other side, continuing the expedition towards Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. They continued their travel, eventually reaching Caddo River, but after another encounter with dangerous natives, the expedition returned to Mississippi River.

In 1542, Hernando de Soto passed away and due to the fact that the expedition did not quite meet the goals, they returned home. From the Spanish point of view, the expedition depicted a failure. Still, new trade routes were established and improved, the contact to several native tribes was developed and a documentation of the North American flora and fauna was established.

References and Further Reading:

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