The De Soto Expedition 1539-1543

Subject: Famous Person
Type: Descriptive Essay
Pages: 4.8
Word count: 26
Topics: Biography, Colonialism, Leadership

The Hernando De Soto expedition in Southeastern North America took place between 1539 and 1543. Hernando lived between 1496 and 1542, and he was a Spanish explorer and conquistador in the 16th century. The King of Spain wanted to explore Florida, a Spanish territory which was part of the whole Spanish territory in Southeastern North America. The King wanted to find out what Florida had to offer regarding new found treasures such as gold and silver. Hence De Soto was selected to lead the new expedition (Clayton et al. 23).He was a very competent, courageous leader, and dedicated soldier that the king trusted him in any assignment he was assigned to conduct. The King selected him to be the Cuban governor. He went on to become wealthy in West Indies by benefiting from the slave trade. His desire to be wealthier and gain fame, he was more than eager to venture into the new expedition of Florida so as to appease the Spanish crown. The expedition that lasted four years encountered many challenges as expected from the Native Americans. A total of about 620 men joined the expedition in six ships, and they covered about 4000 miles across the region. It is regarded as the first European expedition in the United States territory. During the four years of the expedition, the states explored were Florida, Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississipi, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana (History par.8). The expedition was a loss as no wealth or good fortunes were found, but instead, De Soto along with other 300 soldiers died.

During the expedition, De Soto was very tactical and wise in leading the others just like any wise leader of the contemporary society. He was also ruthless to those who were resistant or showed any opposition. One surprising thing about his expedition is that he managed to find a way of conversing with the local dialects that he encountered along the way (Horwitz 56). That was made possible by the guides recruited from each tribe encountered along the way. It was never a smooth sailing during the expedition. No one would allow a stranger to intrude into their land without facing any opposition. That is exactly what met De Soto and his men during the expedition. But De Soto was more than determined to capture North America for Spain. He had the passion, the courage, the technique, and was led by purpose or reason. It was so sad that he could not achieve his goal during his lifetime as he succumbed to fever on the Mississippi banks. Although it is something not is laughed at one cannot help laughing with the story that his men left a trail of epidemics in their ways. That resulted in more troubles for the natives as the society that was complex and closely neat was reduced to shambles and hopelessness. There is not so much information about the inner details of the affected societies and the degree of impact.

De Soto arrived in central Georgia (formerly Ichisi) in March 1540, and the native Indians at the shores were bewildered to see the strangers (History par.5). They wondered who those people were as they had not seen Europeans before. It attracts a lot of curiosity as just how the Native Americans lived regarding cultural practices and how the Europeans influenced any change. Some events were quite amusing during the expedition especially the lies told by De Soto to the Indians that he was a sun god even though some did not believe it. A good case scenario was when De Soto was challenged by a local chief to turn river Mississippi dry so that they could believe him to be a god of the sun. This was to gain their submission and acceptance. That depicted his soft side, and that he was not all out advocating for war or confrontations with the natives. He only used force when he knew there was a threat. The army men had to conceal his death because the natives could have been astonished that a god had passed on which could be extremely ironical. The natives had been brainwashed that the Christians were immortal hence his death could have confirmed otherwise.

The period of contact between the Europeans and the Native Americans is dubbed the “early contact period”. This expedition was among the first of such contacts between the locals and the Europeans. The exact routes that were used by De Soto and his crew are not clear of which historians are trying to understand the social impact of these encounters. It should be known that expedition could stay in an area for days, weeks, or even months and it also depended on the reception they received. Some were repulsive while others were friendly. It was quite emotional and disheartening for the expedition to have taken along with them men and women who were captured. They interfered with the local fabrics of the society and hence disorganized them. Those slaves were fathers and mothers to children, and that meant as they were captured and taken away, the children lost parental attachment or love and care. The captives were not treated well because it is documented that they were chained and made to carry heavy loads with collars on their necks. It was very humiliating for the natives to be mistreated or be dehumanized in that particular state. The Christians and the Indians were also in conflict with each other during the expedition (NHC 9).

Reportedly, the expedition moved from Florida to Georgia, to Carolinas, to Tennessee, and into Alabama. It is in Alabama that there were thousands of natives who were killed during a fierce encounter with the expedition army. Finally, they went to Mississippi and Arkansas. On numerous occasions due to fear of attacks from the natives, De Soto used to send his troops to massacre all men. That was very depressing especially in a town called Nilco. After De Soto’s death in 1542, the army lacked leadership and effective command but somehow managed to push through and continued with the expedition under the guidance of a new commander. It was not easy for the expedition army to be without the courageous and wise De Soto who was very instrumental in their many conquests. The Army soldiered on and tried to reach Mexico through a land route, but sadly their mission was hampered by a lack of supplies. In June of 1543, they arrived at the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River with 311 Spaniards who had survived and some captured Indian slaves (Horwitz 55). Despite all the years of searching for riches and treasures, they were not lucky however to get anything in their four-year expedition.

When the expedition returned to Mexico, it had nothing substantial to offer regarding anything worth investing by the colonial government. There was no place found that was hospitable to them. The expedition lost about half of its men, and that was a total blow. If at all human lives were more precious to be lost, even the animals had their harrowing tales of death. Most of the dogs, pigs and the horses that were brought during the expedition died. The desperate state of the soldiers had reached alarming levels as they wore animal skins and the majority suffered in bad health (Clayton et al. 98).

They returned to Mexico after aborting the expedition but then it was not an easy journey back to Mexico, which was one of the Spanish colonies. One of the greatest challenges was insecurity or fear of attacks by some of the hostile tribes. They attacked the expedition soldiers with arrows on their canoes, and a dozen soldiers were killed, and many others left nursing severe wounds (Horwitz 178). They could not use the Gulf of Mexico for example because it was too risky. They had to build new boats which were quite challenging and also time-consuming. Also, there were no food supplies, and most often they would try and attack villages that were practicing agricultural activities. Out of the about 700 who had started the expedition four years earlier, only slightly above 300 remained to see the light of day as the majority were killed.

Apparently, De Soto’s expedition impacted the native societies that it encountered in southeastern North America. Some had a flourishing culture but were distorted by the arrival of the Spaniards. It has always remained as one of the most crucial historical events in the southeastern United States, but it was a massive blow to De Soto and his team. It will always be remembered that the expedition changed the cultures of the local natives. However, it also had other repercussions more so in North America. On the bottom-line, it was a massive failure to De Soto who had intended to get more riches and conquer more colonies in Florida. All his efforts and that of the army that was left behind were in vain. To lose half the number of soldiers in a war is utterly disappointing to a commander and by the extent to the country of origin. No gold, no colonies, no prosperity, and more deaths to humans and animals were the summary of the expedition. It should also be remembered that De Soto’s expedition increased the hostile relationship between the Native Americans and the Europeans. They made the local communities suffer from illnesses they could not get rid off because of lack of immunity such as measles and smallpox. They also distorted the social harmony that had for years existed in those communities or native societies. The majority of societies were depopulated by the epidemics, and overall the social structure was totally changed. To the Europeans, the expedition brought some light to them since they became more knowledgeable about the New World.

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  1. Clayton, Lawrence et al. The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando De Soto to North America in 1539-1543 (Two Volume Set). University Alabama Press, 1995.
  2. HISTORY. Hernando de Soto., 2017.
  3. Horwitz, Tony. A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and other Adventures in EarlyAmerica. Macmillan, 2009.
  4. NHC. The Expedition of Hernando De Soto in southeastern North America, 1539-1543. National Humanities Center, 2006.
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