Hernando de Soto was the leader of the first European expedition into the area that became Mississippi. His parents were Francisco Mendez de Soto and Leonor Arias Tinoco. They were minor nobility and, more important to the Spanish ethos of the time, were old Christians and not Jews, conversos, Moors, or peasants.
Hernando de Soto’s birth date is unknown. In 1535, when he resigned the governorship of Cuzco, Peru, he stated in a signed affidavit that he was approximately thirty-five years old. His birth date has been estimated to be anywhere from 1496 to 1500, with 1500 the generally accepted date. His birthplace is also unknown. His father was from Jerez de los Caballeros, and his mother was from Badajoz. Both cities claim to be Hernando de Soto’s birthplace. De Soto in his will asked to be buried in Jerez and throughout his life asserted that he was from there.
Hernando de Soto had two sisters, Catalina and Maria, and an older brother, Juan. As the second son, Hernando would not inherit, and he, like other second sons, saw the recently discovered New World as an avenue to wealth.
De Soto journeyed to the New World in 1514 as part of the expedition of Pedro Arias de Avila. The destination was Castilla del Oro, in modern-day Panama. Since the Spanish Crown did not fund exploration, many conquistadors formed partnerships for economic reasons. De Soto formed a partnership with Hernan Ponce de Leon and Francisco Companon. With Panama as the base, these Spanish conquistadors explored Central America, notably what is now Nicaragua, amassing wealth through the Indian slave trade, mines, and encomiendas. They eventually added shipping to their enterprise, leading to their greatest wealth.
When Francisco Pizzaro needed men and supplies to explore Peru, de Soto and his partners contracted to provide a ship, men, and horses for Pizzaro’s expedition. The partners were to be paid for the ship’s cargo and would earn shares in the enterprise. In addition, de Soto was to receive a governorship of Cuzco, the chief Spanish (Inca) city. In 1532 the conquest of the Inca Empire began, and de Soto benefited monetarily from its plunder.
Not satisfied with his secondary position in the Incan conquest, de Soto wanted to be governor of a rich province. In 1535, he resigned the governorship of Cuzco and sailed for Spain, where he petitioned King Charles V for governorship of a province. While waiting for his request to be granted, Hernando de Soto married Isabel Bobadilla, the daughter of Pedro Arias de Avila, in what was probably a political marriage to maintain and increase property. The union also allied de Soto with one of Spain’s more powerful families.
On 20 April 1537 Charles V granted the Capitulación de La Florida to Hernando de Soto, giving him the right to conquer and settle Florida along with several titles and honors. In 1539 de Soto arrived in La Florida, which included modern-day Mississippi. De Soto’s background in Peru and Central America was essential to his interest in La Florida, where he focused on gold and precious metals. He reconnoitered the region looking for large-scale native urban civilizations like the Incas.
Since de Soto lacked a supply line, he forcibly acquired food and labor from the local populations. This approach required de Soto to be constantly moving. In 1541 he crossed into present-day Mississippi and wintered at Chicaca. The Spaniards were attacked by the Native Americans and lost most of their remaining belongings and equipment. After recuperating from the attack, the conquistadors left Chicaca and were the first Europeans to see the Mississippi River.
After crossing the river, they searched for gold and food. The Native Americans informed the Spaniards that to the west they would not find large populations. De Soto turned back to the southeast and returned to the Mississippi River.
In 1542 de Soto fell ill. He became despondent and told his men that he felt grief and sorrow for leaving them in a land where they did not know where they were. De Soto died, probably from typhoid fever, and was buried in the Mississippi River to conceal his death from the natives.
Hernando de Soto did not find the gold that he sought, and his legacy is still debated in the Southeast and Mississippi. The de Soto chronicles offer invaluable primary sources for historians, both for their information about geography and the environment and as the first written history of the southeastern Native Americans. The chronicles are especially useful for the insight they provide into Native American culture before wide-scale European influence.
De Soto was not interested in settling the land. He and his troops stole maize and food from the Native Americans, causing hardship, starvation, and conflict. De Soto treated the Native Americans brutally, using dogs to track and hunt them. He continued the policy practiced in Central America of abducting chiefs to ensure compliance with Spanish objectives. He enslaved Native Americans to use as porters and guides. Perhaps most important, his men and animals introduced the diseases that so dramatically decimated the Native American populations.
- Miguel Albornoz, Hernando de Soto: Knight of the Americas (1986)
- Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight Jr., and Edward C. Moore, eds., The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539–1543, 2 vols. (1993)
- David Ewing Duncan, Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas (1996)
- Charles Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms (1997)
- Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (1976)
- John R. Swanton, Final Report of the United States De Soto Expedition Commission (1985)