Hernando de Soto lived from about 1496-1542. His story ends in the spring of 1541, when on the banks of a great stream in the heart of the new American continent, a stream that was very deep and muddy and so wide that "if a man stood still on the other side it could not be discerned whether he were a man or not" a band of tired, hungry, and disheartened men stood. They were Hernando de Soto and his followers, the first known white men to see the inland course of the mighty Mississippi which rolled at their feet. More than three years before, de Soto had obtained from Emperor Charles V, king of Spain an appointment as governor of the vast unexplored interior of southeastern North America, called "Florida" since Ponce de Leon's discovery a score of years before, with orders to subdue and to rule it. De Soto fully expected to find such fabulous riches as he had seen in Peru when he aided Pizarro in the conquest of that land, for there were rumors of a country so rich in gold that its king was completely gilded, and he was known as "El Dorado" or "The Gilded One". After staying for a time in Cuba,his company of over 700 men had landed, in May 1539, in Tampa Bay, which they christened "Bay of the Holy Spirit". Captured Indians loaded with collars and chains of iron, had guided the armor clad explorers and performed the heavy work about the camp. But these Indian slaves proved untrustworthy, and the cruelty with which they were treated, aroused the hostility of the tribes through whose country the expedition passed. Through dismal swamps and pine forests, harassed by Indians, the ever lessening company kept up its wearisome march through what are now the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. At last they had come to the banks of the Mississippi, just below the site of the present city of Memphis, Tenn. Still lured on by the will-of-the-wisp of fabulous wealth beyond, they built boats and crossed the swiftly flowing stream. On the other side they found other slimy bogs, dense cane breaks, and thickets festooned with hanging vines, but nowhere a settled land and the riches of which they were in search. Just as de Soto in despair had decided to abandon the country, he sickened and died in June of 1542 on the banks of the great river he had discovered. His followers placed his body in a hollowed out tree and screwed a plank over the opening. Weighting this rude casket with de Soto's heavy armor, they sank it one dark night in the turbid waters of the Mississippi, that the Indians might not know of the loss of their leader. Those of de Soto's followers who were left, about 300, attempted to reach Mexico by land. But the Red River proved impassable and they turned back to the Mississippi. There they built seven frail vessels, and after a perilous voyage down the river and through the Gulf of Mexico they reached a Spanish settlement in Mexico, late in September 1542. De Soto's expedition, with that of Coronado, which was made at the same time, almost spanned the continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. They had explored a vast territory in what is now the southern part of the United States, including the area now known as Oklahoma. Though his records were not as complete as those of Coronado, he most surely spent time among the hills and valleys of the country. He had given Spain a claim to the whole interior of North America.
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Ann Maloney, Bartlesville, OK.
Copyright © 1998 Ann Maloney all rights reserved.