Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

A Year of Aimless Wandering


The year that followed the crossing of the Mississippi was devoted to the same insensate quest for gold that had been pursued by De Soto during the two years preceding, and was equally barren of results. Learning that some hills, or mountains, many leagues distant to the south and west abounded in a certain yellow metal, the governor set out in search of them, accompanied by Cacique Casqui, with five thousand warriors and three thousand Indians laden with the baggage and supplies of the army. The Spaniards had rested nearly ten days on the western bank of the Great River, and they marched eagerly and with alacrity through an attractive country, until they reached the borders of an extensive swamp. This was crossed on rude bridges constructed by Casqui's Indians, two days' march beyond which the army came in sight of the capital town of another cacique known as Capaha. This savage was at war with the allies of De Soto, who was not aware of this fact until the town was reached, when it was discovered that Casqui, who had forged ahead with the pick of his warriors (under pretence of clearing the trails and foraging for supplies), had sacked and plundered the place, besides massacring the inhabitants.

It then developed that a perpetual enmity existed between the two tribes, of Casqui and Capaha, and that the former had availed himself of the protection afforded by his new allies to commit a ravage which hitherto had been impossible, owing to his inferiority in strength and courage to his rival, who had always vanquished him when they met on the field of battle. He and his warriors gratified their long-deferred vengeance, not only by killing and scalping all they found alive in Capaha's town, but by breaking open and desecrating the sepulchres of his ancestors. They wrenched from their coffins the remains of warriors who had defeated them in the past, exposing them to every sort of indignity, and then, removing from poles planted around the sepulchre the heads of their own braves, who had been killed in previous wars, replaced them with similar gory trophies severed from the trunks of those they had so recently slain.

All this had been accomplished by the time the Spaniards arrived, and it was too late to repair the evil, though De Soto was greatly distressed, as he had hoped to make an ally of Capaha, and not an enemy. He could not afford to antagonize a cacique of his importance, in the condition in which he found himself at that time, and so he sent an embassy to seek him out and proffer his friendship.

Capaha had retreated from the town, because, being a practised warrior, he recognized the futility of opposing Casqui and the Spaniards in that defenceless position, but had intrenched himself on an island, where he awaited an attack, with a large force of warriors. As he spurned all proffers of peace, the governor had no alternative but to attack him in his stronghold, and by means of seventy canoes, which Casqui promptly provided, crossed over, with two hundred Spaniards and three thousand Indians. The invaders were met with such furious assaults, however, that they could hardly effect a landing, and had scarcely done so before Casqui's warriors, intimidated by the fury of their ancient enemies, abandoned the Spaniards to their fate and paddled away in the canoes.

This defection might have cost De Soto his life and his army had not the valiant Capaha ordered a cessation of hostilities, after inflicting terrible injuries upon his foes, and himself extended the olive-branch of peace. He was as sagacious, it seemed, as he was courageous, and, recognizing the wonderful prowess of his assailants, determined to conquer a peace and convert them into allies. This was the more readily accomplished since the Spaniards were inclined that way, and soon the recreant Casqui learned, to his great mortification, that his hated rival, Capaha, was in confab with his redoubtable ally. Recalling his men, he sent to De Soto presents of fish and mantles, as well as one of his own daughters as an ambassadress.

Though the governor despised Casqui for his cowardice, yet he felt the necessity of retaining both caciques as friends, and used his best efforts to bring about a reconciliation. When, however, Casqui came into the presence of De Soto and Capaha, the latter did not deign to look in his direction, but ignored him completely. He refused to listen to the governor's entreaties at first, for his heart was full of grief at the insults offered to the remains of his ancestors and dead warriors, which he had reverently gathered together again and, with tears and groans, deposited in their coffins. He finally gave his hand to Casqui, but at the same time significantly remarked: "Through the strength of these strangers you have revenged your past defeats, which you never could have accomplished unassisted. Thank them for it, then; but remember, they will not stay here always; they will go, while we remain. And, rest assured, we shall meet again on the battle-field!"

Capaha was a young man, of frank and manly bearing, and De Soto was more drawn to him than to Casqui; but the latter recovered the governor's confidence by the following pathetic appeal: "How is it possible, my lord," he said, "that after having given me the pledge of friendship, and without my having done any harm to you, now you desire to destroy me, your friend and brother? You gave me the cross, for a defence against my enemies; yet with it you now seek to destroy me. Now, my lord, when God has heard us, by means of the cross; when my women and my men and my boys threw themselves on their knees before it, to pray to the God who you said suffered on it, and He heard us, and gave us water in abundance and refreshed our fields; now, when we had the most faith in it, and in your friendship, you desire to destroy these men and women and boys, who are so devoted to you and your God."

The governor, to his credit let us note it, was affected to tears as he replied: "Look you, Casqui, we are not come to destroy you, but to do for you what you know and understand is the work of the cross and our God—as you tell me. And these favors which it has bestowed upon you are small things in comparison with many others, and very great ones, which it will secure you if you love it and believe in it. Be, then, assured of this, and you will find it so, and realize it better every day. And when you ran off without my permission, I thought that you held the teaching we had given you of little account. But, now that you have come in humility, be assured that I wish you more good than you think; and if you have need of anything from me tell me of it, and you will see, since we do what our God commands us, which is not to lie; and, therefore, believe that I tell you the truth, since to speak a lie is a very great sin among us."

There is other evidence, also, that at this time the governor's mood was changing, his hard heart softening towards the Indians; but that his attitude with respect to the soldiers was unchanged is shown by an incident which occurred in the province of Quigate a few weeks after he had parted from Casqui and Capaha. Information was brought him, at or about midnight, that one Juan Gaytan, the king's treasurer, had refused to go on patrol at the morning watch, declaring it derogatory to his station. Now it chanced that this same Juan Gaytan had been among the loudest of the murmurers at Mauvila, and led the faction that desired to seize the ships at Pensacola for the purpose of returning to Cuba; so De Soto was particularly incensed at his defection. Springing from his couch in the dwelling of the cacique, he strode forth upon the terrace above the village and shouted, so that all his men might hear: "What is this, my soldiers and captains? Do the mutineers still live who, when in Mauvila, talked of returning to Cuba or to Spain; and do they now, with the excuse of being officers of the royal revenue, refuse to patrol the four hours that are allotted them? . . . Shame, shame on you! And recollect that, officers of the royal treasury or not, you must all serve your sovereign. Presume not upon rank you may possess; for, be he who he may, I will take off the head of that man who refuses to do his duty. And, to undeceive you, know that while I live no one shall leave this country until we have conquered and settled it!"

Needless to say, Juan Gaytan went the rounds that morning, and every morning thereafter when it came his turn. And the soldiers saw that their stern commander was in no mood to tolerate murmuring, much less any suggestion looking towards a cessation of their wanderings. It mattered not that the "yellow metal" of the mountains proved to be nothing more valuable than copper, that the country became less attractive the farther it was penetrated, and the Indians, if possible, more hostile. De Soto was still inexorable. There was never a sign of civilization, any more than there had been before, in Florida. The people were savages, all of them, and their dwellings were huts of the rudest character, while as for gold and gems, they possessed neither, and seemed never to have heard of them. Thus there was absolutely no excuse or reason for further wandering; yet De Soto wandered on, from one province to another, here meeting with kindness and hospitality, there with a hostile reception. Decidedly hostile was the greeting the Spaniards received in the province of Tula, which is a name likewise borne by an Indian settlement in Mexico. The natives of Tula were ugly by nature and in feature, so hideous in appearance that they appeared deformed. In truth, their foreheads were artificially compressed, by bandages applied in infancy, until their skulls were almost conical at the crowns. But they were as brave as they were ill-looking, and after the Spaniards had occupied their village, which they had abandoned at their approach, they made a midnight attack upon it, fiercely fighting till dawn, and killing many with their pikes and battle-axes. They fled at sunrise to the forest, and the Spaniards dared not pursue them; but of those made captive "the governor sent six to the cacique, their right hands and their noses cut off, with the message that, if he did not come to him to apologize and render obedience, he would go in pursuit, and to him and as many of his as he might find would do as he had done to those he sent."

This barbarous act and peremptory message had the desired effect, for at the end of three days some Indians appeared, deputed by their chief to treat with De Soto. As soon as they saw him they wept copiously and cast themselves at his feet. They brought a present of cow-skins, dressed with their tails on, which, they said, were obtained in the north, where roamed great herds of enormous beasts—which were doubtless the bison, or buffalo.

About eighty leagues distant from Tula lay the province of Autiamque, where, the Indians said, was a "great water," which from their accounts appeared to be an arm of the sea. "Hence the governor determined to winter there, and in the following summer go to the seaside, where he would build two brigantines, one to send to Cuba, the other to Mexico, that the arrival of either might bear tidings of him, for three years had now elapsed since he had been heard of by Dona Isabel or by any other person in a civilized community. Two hundred and fifty of his men were dead, likewise one hundred and fifty horses. He desired to recruit from Cuba of man and beast, calculating out of his property there to refit and return, to discover farther on to the west, where he had not reached, and whither Cabeza de Vaca had not wandered."

In Autiamque De Soto resolved to pass the winter of 1541–1542; and as the abandoned Indian granaries were full to bursting with maize, beans, dried grapes and plums, while the meadows afforded fine pasturage for the horses, the Spaniards did not lack food for themselves or for their beasts. The few Indians who had lingered were made captive and served to bring in wood and water, thus the soldiers were relieved of labor, and passed the most enjoyable winter of any they had experienced in "Florida."

While wintering in Autiamque (or Utiangue) the expedition met with the greatest loss it was called upon to sustain, in the death of faithful Juan Ortiz, the interpreter. Of his last moments we know nothing; but, says one of the soldiers, plaintively, "His death was so great a hinderance to our going, whether on discovery or out of the country, that to learn of the Indians what he would have rendered in four words it became necessary now to have the whole day; and oftener than otherwise the very opposite was understood of what we wished to know. Thenceforth a lad of Cutifachique, who had learned somewhat of the Christians' language, served as the interpreter."

Poor Juan's position had been no sinecure, and his services were in continual request, by day and by night. "Understanding only the Floridian language," says an historian, "he conducted conversations through the Indians of different tribes who understood one another and who attended the expedition. In conversing with the Chickasaws, for instance, he commenced with the Floridian, who carried the word to a Georgian, this one to the Coosa, the Coosa to the Mobilian, and the latter to the Chickasaw. In the same tedious manner the reply was conveyed to him, and finally reported to De Soto."

The Indian lad who succeeded to the post of interpreter was but a sorry substitute, and when, in the month of March, 1542, the winter cantonment was abandoned and the wearisome journeying again taken up, the Spaniards became acutely sensible of their irreparable loss. They were involved in all sorts of difficulties: lost in swamps and in dense forests, and plunged into encounters with Indians, which might have been avoided had they possessed an intelligent interpreter. Their only consolation lay in the fact that, at last, their commander had become convinced of his error, in continually wandering westward, after the ignis fatuus  of gold that never materialized, and was now directing his course once more towards the Mississippi.

Having heard of a fertile province called Anilco, which the Indians said was near the Rio Grande, he was bent on reaching it before his waning energies should prevent him from carrying out his plan, as already mentioned, of building brigantines and sending to Cuba for supplies. He had not then, says one of the original chroniclers, more than four hundred efficient men, nor more than forty horses. "Some of these beasts were lame, and useful in making a show, only, of a cavalry troop; and, from the lack of iron, they had all gone a year without shoes."

Reflecting upon the sorry condition of his steeds, a painful contrast must have been forced upon the dispirited commander, when he recalled that his horses were once in a similar predicament in Peru. Climbing the craggy steeps of the sierras had worn out their shoes, and there was no iron available in the land; but that mattered not, for more precious metals were abundant in the Inca's country, and so they were shod with silver! Neither silver nor gold had been found in paying quantities, and no natural wealth, in fact, save pearls, the deposits of which lay so far to the eastward that they could not be regained.

The country was populous and fertile; but the more Indians De Soto encountered, the more foes there were; and he could not take advantage of the soil's fertility, even were he so disposed, owing to the lack of an advantageous situation for the founding of a colony. Anilco, which was reached after a toilsome march through swamps and rolling country, was a fruitful province, and, like Autiamque, was situated on a tributary of the Mississippi, supposed to be the Arkansas River. About twenty miles below its junction with the Great River, however, lay the populous town of Guachoya, between which and Anilco the country was of inexhaustible fertility.

Towards Guachoya, consequently, De Soto directed his march, and, finding the favorable descriptions verified, established himself there and at once began preparations for building two brigantines, in which a portion of his command should embark for Cuba and Mexico. The cacique of Guachoya was most hospitably inclined, receiving the governor into his own house and providing subsistence for the army; but, for reasons of his own, every day, at sunset, he and his warriors embarked in their canoes and sought the eastern bank of the Mississippi, where they remained till sunrise next morning, when they returned, to minister to the wants of their guests.

From the behavior of the cacique, De Soto suspected that he was forming an alliance against him of the neighboring chiefs, especially as the cacique of Quigaltanqui, on the opposite bank of the river, was decidedly hostile. Neither cacique would give him any information relating to the sea, or ocean, into which the Mississippi emptied its vast volume of waters, so he sent the trusty Juan de Anasco on a scouting expedition, from which he returned, eight days later, without having discovered anything of importance.

"Then the governor sank into a deep despondency," relates the Fidalgo of Elvas, "at sight of the difficulties presenting themselves to his reaching the sea; and, what was worse, from the way in which the men and horses were diminishing in numbers, he felt he could not sustain himself in the country without succor. Of that reflection he pined; but before he took to his pallet he sent a messenger to the cacique of Quigaltanqui, to say that he was a child of the sun, and whence he came all obeyed him, rendering their tribute; that he would rejoice to see him, and in token of his love and obedience he must bring something from his country that was most in esteem there.

By the same Indian the chief returned this answer: "As to what you say of your being the son of the sun, if you will cause him to dry up the Great River I will believe you; as to the rest, it is not my custom to visit any one; but, rather, all of whom I have ever heard have come to visit me, to serve me and to pay me tribute. If, then, you desire to see me, come where I am. If for peace, I will receive you with special good-will; if for war, I will await you within my town; but neither for you nor for any other man will I set back one foot!"

When the messenger returned, the governor was already very ill of fever. He grieved that he was not in a state to cross the river at once and go in quest of the cacique, to see if he could not abate that pride. But the stream was already flowing very powerfully, was nearly half a league broad, sixteen fathoms in depth, and rushing in furious torrent, while on either shore were many, many Indians.