Hernando de Soto (Conquistador)
Hernando de Soto was a Spanish conquistador during the early-16th century. An active participant in the conquest of the Inca Empire, he would gain greater fame - as well as infamy - in his vain search for a similar civilization in what is now the southeastern United States.
De Soto was born into wealth about 1496 or 1497, in Jerez de los Caballeros, Badajoz, Spain. His father intended him to enter the practice of law, but he left for Seville in 1514, intending to gain a part on an expedition to the newly-discovered West Indies. Staying in Panama for several years, de Soto became a wealthy man by 1520 through trading (including slave trading) and organizing his own expeditions; this included partnerships with future conquistadors Ponce de León and Francisco Campañón. In the period of 1524–27 de Soto succeeded in winning control of Nicaragua from a major rival, and was able to expand his trading operations there.
Hearing of rumors of gold south of Darién (Columbia) in 1530, de Soto loaned Fransisco Pizarro two ships to investigate; when this was confirmed de Soto was made Pizarro's chief lieutenant on a new expedition in exchange for use of the ships. What they discovered was the Inca Empire, and in 1532 the Spanish conquest begun. One hundred eighty Spaniards defeated the Inca - in part by de Soto's use of the horse, an animal the Inca had never seen - and captured Atahualpa, the Inca emperor, who was executed despite his subjects paying a ransom of some 24 tons of gold and silver to secure his release.
De Soto returned to Spain in 1536, an extremely wealthy man due to his trading enterprises, not to mention his share of the Inca ransom. But he was dissatisfied; he craved power as well, and he wanted to be appointed governor of a large colonial territory. Crafting a plan to conquer Ecuador and seeking special permission for the mission, he instead was made governor of Cuba and commissioned to conquer the area now known asFlorida.
In North America
In April 1538 de Soto left Spain with 10 ships and 700 men, landing in Florida near present-day Tampa Bay in May of 1539 after a brief stop in Cuba. His expedition moved northward into Georgia, through the Carolinas then westward into Tennessee, believing that he would find a civilization of comparable wealth to the Inca that he could conquer and plunder. A large cache of pearls at Cofitachequi in eastern Georgia would be the closest he would come to riches during this expedition.
But friendly to the native peoples he was not; he had earlier kidnapped Indians in Florida and forced them to act as guides and interpreters along the way. Tribes he had encountered were roughly handled and treated with contempt, if not outright attacked. Worse was the disease his men had carried - principally smallpox - which had ravaged many of the tribes in much of the country south of the Tennessee River; by the time de Soto had arrived in the vicinity of Lookout Mountain in south Tennessee and turned towards Alabama, word was going around to the scattered tribes about the mysterious white men who were bringing death with them. In October of 1540, de Soto attempted a rendezvous with his ships near Mobile Bay; in the process he rashly decided to attack a well-fortified Indian town named Mauvila. Although he defeated a counter-attack, de Soto lost a number of men, most of their equipment, and all of the pearls.
After a month of rest, de Soto took his expedition back north through Alabama, then towards the Mississippi River, still with the conviction that he would find treasure. Unfortunately, his reputation had preceded him and his men were relentlessly attacked by Indians, who knew if they used ambush techniques and did not touch them personally, they would not catch the white man's sickness. He succeeded in reaching the Mississippi River in May, 1541, becoming the first European to see it; he crossed into Arkansas a short time later and headed south. Sometime in 1542, he unexpectedly ordered a march back towards the Mississippi, but died of fever in May before he could reach it. The surviving members of the expedition, in rags with most of their tools and weapons gone, made rafts, floated down the river towards the coast, and marched west towards Mexico and relief.
Later expeditions to the Gulf Coast of North America would see for themselves the damage de Soto had wrought among the native peoples. Tristan de Luna led an expedition to colonize the area of Pensacola over ten years later and discovered how few of them were left.