Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

De Soto and the Father of Waters

America was to the Spaniards the land of gold. Everywhere they looked for the yellow metal, more precious in their eyes than anything else the earth yields. The wonderful adventures of Cortez in Mexico and of Pizarro in Peru, and the vast wealth in gold found by those sons of fame, filled their people with hope and avarice, and men of enterprise began to look elsewhere for great and rich Indian nations to subdue and plunder.

North of the Gulf of Mexico lay a vast, mysterious region, which in time to come was to be the seat of a great and mighty nation. To the Spaniards it was a land of enchantment, the mystic realm of the unknown, perhaps rich in marvels and wealthy beyond their dreams. It was fabled to contain the magic fountain of youth, the hope to bathe in whose pellucid waters lured Ponce de Leon to his death. Another explorer, De Ayllon, sailed north of Florida, seeking a sacred stream which was said to possess the same enchanted powers. A third, De Narvaez, went far into the country, with more men than Cortez led to the conquest of Mexico, but after months of wandering only a handful of his men returned, and not a grain of gold was found to pay for their suffering.

But these failures only stirred the cavaliers of Spain to new thirst for adventure and gain. They had been told of fertile plains, of splendid tropical forests, of the beauty of the Indian maidens, of romantic incidents and hair-breadth escapes, of the wonderful influence exercised by a white man on tribes of dusky warriors, and who knew what fairy marvels or unimagined wealth might be found in the deep interior of this land of hope and mystery. Thus when Hernando de Soto, who had been with Pizarro in Peru and seen its gold-plated temples, called for volunteers to explore and conquer the unknown northland, hundreds of aspiring warriors flocked to his standard, burning with love of adventure and filled with thirst for gold.

On the 30th of May, 1539, De Soto, with nine vessels and six or seven hundred well-armed followers, sailed into Tampa Bay, on the Gulf coast of Florida. Here they at once landed and marched inland, greedy to reach and grasp the spectral image of gold which floated before their eyes. A daring but a cruel man was this new adventurer. He brought with him blood-hounds to hunt the Indians and chains to fetter them. A drove of hogs was brought to supply the soldiers with fresh meat. They were provided with horses, with fire-arms, with cannon, with steel armor, with everything to overawe and overcome the woodland savages. Yet two things they needed; these were judgment and discretion. It would have been wise to make friends of the Indians. Instead, by their cruelty, they turned them into bitter and relentless enemies. So wherever they went they had bold and fierce foes to fight, and wounds and death marked their pathway across the land.

Let us follow De Soto and his men into the realm of the unknown. They had not gone far before a strange thing happened. Out of a crowd of dusky Indians a white man rode on horseback to join them, making gestures of delight. He was a Spaniard, Juan Ortiz by name, one of the Narvaez band, who had been held in captivity among the Indians for ten years. He knew the Indian language well and offered himself as an interpreter and guide. Heaven seemed to have sent him, for he was worth a regiment to the Spaniards.

Juan Ortiz had a strange story to tell. Once his captors had sought to burn him alive by a slow fire as a sacrifice to the evil spirit. Bound hand and foot, he was laid on a wooden stage and a fire kindled under him. But at this moment of frightful peril the daughter of the chieftain begged for his life, and her father listened to her prayer. Three years later the savage captors again decided to burn him, and again, the dusky maiden saved his life. She warned him of his danger and led him to the camp of another chief. Here he stayed till the Spaniards came. What became of the warm-hearted maiden we are not told. She did not win the fame of the Pocahontas of a later day.

Many and strange were the adventures of the Spaniards as they went deeper and deeper into the new land of promise. Misfortune tracked their footsteps and there was no glitter of gold to cheer their hearts. A year passed over their heads and still the land of gold lay far away. An Indian offered to lead them to a distant country, governed by a woman, telling them that there they would find abundance of a yellow metal. Inspired by hope, they now pushed eagerly forward, but the yellow metal proved to be copper instead of gold, and their high hopes were followed by the gloom of disappointment and despair. But wherever they went their trail was marked by blood and pillage, and the story of their ruthless deeds stirred up the Indians in advance to bitter hostility.

Fear alone made any of the natives meet them with a show of peace, and this they repaid by brutal deeds. One of their visitors was an Indian queen—as they called her—the woman chief of a tribe of the South. When the Spaniards came near her domain she hastened to welcome them, hoping by this means to make friends of her dreaded visitors. Borne in a litter by four of her subjects, the dusky princess alighted before De Soto and came forward with gestures of pleasure, as if delighted to welcome her guests. Taking from her neck a heavy double string of pearls, she hung it on that of the Spanish leader. De Soto accepted it with the courtly grace of a cavalier, and pretended friendship while he questioned his hostess.

But he no sooner obtained the information he wanted than he made her a prisoner, and at once began to rob her and her people of all the valuables they possessed. Chief among these were large numbers of pearls, most of them found in the graves of the distinguished men of the tribe. But the plunderers did not gain all they hoped for by their act of vandalism, for the poor queen managed to escape from her guards, and in her flight took with her a box of the most valuable of the pearls. They were those which De Soto had most prized and he was bitterly stung by their loss.

The adventurers were now near the Atlantic, on ground which had been trodden by whites before, and they decided to turn inland and explore the country to the west. After months more of wandering, and the loss of many men through their battles with the Indians, they found themselves in the autumn of 1540 at a large village called Mavilla. It stood where stands to-day the city of Mobile. Here a large force of Indians was gathered.

The Indian chief or cacique met De Soto with a show of friendship, and induced him and a few of his men to follow him within the palisades which surrounded the village. No sooner had they got there than the chief shouted some words of insult in his own tongue and darted into one of the houses. A minor chief got into a dispute with a Spanish soldier, who, in the usual Spanish fashion, carried forward the argument with a blow from his sword. This served as a signal for hostilities. In an instant clouds of arrows poured from the houses, and before the Spaniards could escape nearly the whole of them were slain. Only De Soto and a few others got out with their lives from the trap into which they had been beguiled.

Filled with revengeful rage, the Spanish forces now invested and assailed the town, and a furious conflict began, lasting for nine hours. In the end the whites, from their superior weapons and organization, won the victory. But theirs was a costly triumph, for many of them had fallen and nearly all their property had been destroyed. Mavilla was burned and hosts of the Indians were killed, but the Spaniards were in a terrible situation, far from their ships, without medicine or food, and surrounded by brave and furious enemies.

The soldiers felt that they had had enough adventure of this kind, and clamored to be led back to their ships. De Soto had been advised that the ships were then in the Bay of Pensacola, only six days' journey from Mavilla, but he kept this a secret from his men, for hopes of fame and wealth still filled his soul. In the end, despite their entreaties, he led the men to the north, spending the winter in a small village of the Chickasaw Indians.

When spring opened the adventurers resumed their journey into the unknown. In his usual forcible fashion De Soto seized on Indians to carry his baggage, and in this way he brought on a violent battle, in which the whites met with a serious defeat and were in imminent danger of annihilation. Not a man of them would have lived to tell the tale if the savages had not been so scared at their own success that they drew back just when they had the hated Spaniards in their power.

Desoto and Mississippi


A strange-looking army was that which the indomitable De Soto led forward from this place. Many of the uniforms of the men had been carried off by the enemy, and these were replaced with skins and mats made of ivy-leaves, so that the adventurers looked more like forest braves than Christian warriors. But onward still they trudged, sick at heart many of them, but obeying the orders of their resolute chief, and in the blossoming month of May they made that famous discovery by which the name of Hernando de Soto has ever since been known. For they stood on the banks of one of the mightiest rivers of the earth, the great Father of Waters, the grand Mississippi. From thousands of miles to the north had come the waters which now rolled onward in a mighty volume before their eyes, hastening downward to bury themselves in the still distant Gulf.

A discovery such as this might have been enough to satisfy the cravings of any ordinary man, but De Soto, in his insatiable greed for gold, saw in the glorious stream only an obstacle to his course, "half a league over." To build boats and cross the stream was the one purpose that filled his mind, and with much labor they succeeded in getting across the great stream themselves and the few of their horses that remained.

At once the old story began again. The Indians beyond the Mississippi had heard of the Spaniards and their methods, and met them with relentless hostility. They had hardly landed on the opposite shore before new battles began. As for the Indian empire, with great cities, civilized inhabitants, and heaps of gold, which De Soto so ardently sought, it seemed as far off as ever, and he was a sadly disappointed man as he led the miserable remnant of his once well-equipped and hopeful followers up the left bank of the great stream, dreams of wealth and renown not yet quite driven from his mind.

At length they reached the region of the present State of Missouri. Here the simple-minded people took the white strangers to be children of the Sun, the god of their worship, and they brought out their blind, hoping to have them restored to sight by a touch from the healing hands of these divine visitors. Leaving after a time these superstitious tribes, De Soto led his men to the west, lured on still by the phantom of a wealthy Indian realm, and the next winter was passed near where Little Rock, Arkansas, is now built.

Spring returned at length, and the weary wanderings of the devoted band were resumed. Depressed, worn-out, hopeless, they trudged onward, hardly a man among them looking for aught but death in those forest wilds. Juan Ortiz, the most useful man in the band, died, and left the enterprise still more hopeless. But De Soto, worn, sick, emaciated, was indomitable still and the dream of a brilliant success lingered as ever in his brain. He tried now to win over the Indians by pretending to be immortal and to be gifted with supernatural powers, but it was too late to make them credit any such fantastic notion.

The band encamped in an unhealthy spot near the great river. Here disease attacked the men; scouts were sent out to seek a better place, but they found only trackless woods and rumors of Indian bands creeping stealthily up on all sides to destroy what remained of the little army of whites.

Almost for the first time De Soto's resolute mind now gave way. Broken down by his many labors and cares, perhaps assailed by the disease that was attacking his men, he felt that death was near at hand. Calling around him the sparse remnant of his once gallant company, he humbly begged their pardon for the sufferings and evils he had brought upon them, and named Luis de Alvaredo to succeed him in command. The next day, May 21, 1542, the unfortunate hero died. Thus passed away one of the three greatest Spanish explorers of the New World, a man as great in his way and as indomitable in his efforts as his rivals, Cortez and Pizarro, though not so fortunate in his results. For three years he had led his little band through a primitive wilderness, fighting his way steadily through hosts of savage foes, and never yielding until the hand of death was laid upon his limbs.

Fearing a fierce attack from the savages if they should learn that the "immortal" chief of the whites was dead, Alvaredo had him buried secretly outside the walls of the camp. But the new-made grave was suspicious. The prowling Indians might dig it up and discover the noted form it held. To prevent this, Alvaredo had the body of De Soto dug up in the night, wrapped it in cloths filled with sand, and dropped it into the Mississippi, to whose bottom it immediately sank. Thus was the great river he had discovered made the famous explorer's final resting-place.

With the death of De Soto the work of the explorers was practically at an end. To the Indians who asked what had become of the Child of the Sun, Alvaredo answered that he had gone to heaven for a visit, but would soon return. Then, while the Indians waited this return of the chief, the camp was broken up and the band set out again on a westward course, hoping to reach the Pacific coast, whose distance they did not dream. Months more passed by in hopeless wandering, then back to the great river they came and spent six months more in building boats, as their last hope of escape.

On the 2nd of July, 1543, the scanty remnant of the once powerful band embarked on the waters of the great river, and for seventeen days floated downward, while the Indians on the bank poured arrows on them incessantly as they passed. Fifty days later a few haggard, half-naked survivors of De Soto's great expedition landed at the Spanish settlement of Panuco in Mexico. They had long been given up as lost, and were received as men risen from the grave.