Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

De Soto's Beautiful Captive


The generosity of the cacica was excessive, for the Spaniards lacked nothing that her kingdom could supply. When she learned from the interpreters that De Soto cared for gold above all other things, she told them that in a remote district of her territory there was a large deposit of yellow and shining metal, and she thought it must be that of which they were in search. She hoped so, at least, and if it proved to be, they had only to dig up and take away all they desired. So she sent some Indians for the "precious metal," who returned a few days later with as much as they could carry on their backs. The Spaniards, says their historian, did not have any acid, or touchstone, for testing the metal; but it did not need an expert to perceive that this was not gold the Indians had brought them, but an alloy of copper; and what they supposed, from the descriptions, might be silver, proved to be nothing but mica and crystals of quartz.

The Spaniards were bitterly disappointed, but the princess was grieved, and it was to console them that she gave permission for the desecration of the royal sepulchres. When De Soto and a retinue of his captains visited the tombs of Talimico, they were surprised to find them within an edifice a hundred paces in length and forty in breadth. The roof was of reeds, but lofty, and the entrances were guarded by statues of wood excellently carved, and about twelve feet in height. They were probably effigies of the warriors who reposed here, their mouldering remains contained in wooden chests, or caskets, like those which Juan Ortiz was set to guard, in the distant province governed by Ucita.

Besides the pearls, of which mention has been made already, there were robes of dressed skins, valuable furs, and rich mantles made of feathers and flax. All these articles had been placed here by the Indians in order that their chiefs and caciques, when they passed to the unknown region above, might carry with them the wealth they possessed on earth. Thus it will be seen that, whatever mistakes their superstitions may have led them into, the Cofachiquis were violating their most cherished traditions when they allowed the Spaniards to ravish the graves of their great warriors. This was their Valhalla, their Pantheon, and around it were clustered memories that must have been tender and sacred.

But even to this extent the generous nature of the cacica carried her, in the desire to serve her guests and promote their welfare. More than fourteen bushels of pearls were found in the sepulchres, according to the historians, and though most of them had lost their lustre by having been long buried, this fact did not detract from the value of the gift. The Spaniards were given permission to carry away everything they found, and, base and perfidious to the last degree, they so perverted the noble intention of the offer as to carry off the cacica herself!

By the time the spoils had been divided, and the lustrous pearls sifted out from those which had been injured by burial in the earth, or by fire used in opening the shells that contained them, the princess had discovered the true nature of her visitors, and meditated flight. It was quite natural that she should have grown cold and indifferent; but the Spaniards attributed the change to distrust, or treachery, and when De Soto was told that she refused to furnish guides and carriers for the army beyond the frontiers of her province, he took prompt measures to secure her person. It was his custom, as we have seen, to insure the services and fidelity of whatever people he was travelling among by seizing and holding in durance their chief or leader; but in this instance the action was hardly necessary as a precaution, and was assuredly a gross insult to the friendly Cofachiquis.

"On May 3, 1540," wrote the Fidalgo of Elvas, "the governor set out from Cutifachiqui [Cofachiqui), and, it being discovered that the wish of the cacica was to leave the Christians, if she could, giving them neither guides nor carriers, because of the outrages committed upon the inhabitants (there never failing to be men of low degree among the many who will put the lives of themselves and others in jeopardy for some mean interest), the governor ordered that she should be put under guard, and took her with him.

"This treatment was not a proper return for the hospitable welcome he had received; but thus she was carried away, on foot, with her female slaves. This brought us service in all the places that we passed, she ordering the Indians to come and take the loads from town to town. We travelled through her territories a hundred leagues, in which, according to what we saw, she was greatly obeyed, whatsoever she ordered being performed with diligence and efficiency."

This offence of De Soto has been condoned by some, with the remark that he treated the princess with deference and bound her with "silken chains," figuratively speaking; but she was a prisoner, nevertheless, having been made one against her will, and in violation of the most sacred rites of hospitality. She was constantly guarded, and her privacy invaded, though she was provided with a beautiful palanquin and allowed the attendance of her serving-maids. But neither princess nor maidens were the same as before the advent of the Spaniards; no longer the shy and fawnlike creatures who had greeted the cavaliers with downcast eyes and murmured welcomes. They spoke but seldom, they no longer sang, nor wove garlands for their favorites, as formerly, for their hearts were heavy. Silent and sad, the beautiful cacica was borne along in her palanquin, on the shoulders of her dejected warriors, while the maidens walked sullenly by her side. In this manner nearly three hundred miles were travelled, the governor going he knew not whither, save that he still sought for the yellow gold that had been the ruin of so many of his countrymen.

The general direction of the march, after leaving the cacica's capital, was north, and then northwest, across the present state of Georgia. The province of Achalaque, which the Spaniards reached after seven days' travel, is supposed to have been the so-called barren country of the Cherokees, and was "the poorest off for maize of any that was seen in Florida. The inhabitants subsisted on roots that they dug in the wilds, and on the animals they destroyed with their arrows." Their poverty was such that, when the cacique presented De Soto with two tanned deer-skins, he seemed to think it a very great gift. But the wild creatures of the woods were very abundant, such as turkeys and prairie-hens, of which latter seven hundred were presented to the Spaniards in a single village.

As the western boundaries of her province were approached, the cacica grew nervous and uneasy, for she doubted the word of De Soto, that he would release her on the confines of her dominion, and she was seen to talk more than usual with her maidens. Taking advantage of a curve in the trail one day, as they were passing through a dense forest, the captive princess suddenly sprang from the palanquin, and, with her faithful females, hid in a thicket at the head of a ravine. All search for them was fruitless, for when hunted up they scattered like a covey of quail, and were quite as successful in concealing themselves. They were found and joined by a band of the cacica's warriors, who had skulked through the forest for this very purpose, and, though more than three hundred miles from their homes, finally reached them in safety. The cacica's departure was greatly lamented by De Soto; not from any considerations of a sentimental nature, but because she had taken with her, in her flight, besides two negro slaves and a Barbary Moor, a petaca, or small chest of pearls, which, never having been pierced or exposed to fire, were of extraordinary value and beauty.

Pearls, however, were a "drug in the market" at that time and in the circumstances which beset the Spaniards, having no value unless they could be exchanged for provisions. It is told of a foot-soldier named Juan Terron, that, becoming tired of carrying a bag of beautiful pearls which he had taken from one of the sepulchres, he offered bag and contents, weighing more than six pounds, to a comrade on horseback.

"Nay, nay, Juan Terron," said the trooper. "Though I can carry them, still you had better keep them yourself. When next the governor sends to Havana, you can purchase, with the half of them, the finest horse in the island, and need no longer go afoot. Six pounds of pearls—verily, a king's ransom!"

"Whether they be so or no, here they go," exclaimed Terron, untying the mouth of the bag and whirling it about his head, with the result that all the pearls were scattered on the ground. Most of them were lost, as only thirty were recovered by the soldiers, who hastily scrambled for them; and when it was seen how fine they were, their former owner was bantered unmercifully. He finally became sensible of his folly, especially after the governor had rebuked him severely for his insensate act; but it gave rise to a saying in the army, "There are no pearls for Juan Terron," which passed into a proverb.

The two black runaways were recovered, but the lovely cacica and her maids were never beheld by the Spaniards again. As time passed, and the toilful march still continued, apparently without end or aim, many a sigh was sent after them by the weary soldiers, who thought with regret of the prospects cast away by the governor when he turned his back upon the land of pearls. The thoughts of De Soto himself were not divulged; but doubtless he felt he had made a mistake, though his pride would not permit him to acknowledge it.

"He was an inflexible man, and dry of word," wrote one who was with him at the time, "who, although he liked to know what the others all thought and had to say, after he once said a thing he did not like to be opposed; and as he ever acted as he thought best, all bent to his will. For, though it seemed an error to leave that country, when another might have been found about it on which all the people could have been sustained until the crops had been made and the grain gathered, there was none who would say a thing to him after it became known that he had made up his mind."

Thus he marched on, grim and inflexible, regretting, perhaps, that he had treated the cacica so harshly, though outwardly he gave no sign, excusing himself on the grounds of expediency. The next province belonged to the cacique of Ichiaha, who sent word that he had collected a great quantity of maize and mulberries for the Spaniards, and would meet them with a retinue of warriors. His country was fertile and well watered, with beautiful valleys and extensive savannas. His maize-fields were seemingly boundless in extent, and when his chief village was reached there were twenty barbacoas full of the golden grain, which were placed at De Soto's disposal.

At the head of five hundred plumed and stately warriors, the cacique met the Spaniards two miles from his village, which was set in a valley among the hills. It contained about three hundred houses, the largest of which, the cacique's palace, was perched upon an artificial mound surrounded by a spacious terrace. Towards this mound, after fraternally greeting De Soto and his officers, the chieftain ordered his warriors to lead the way. As they approached it they parted column, and the Spaniards marched between their ranks, with banners flying and bugles blowing, to the quarters assigned them.

They remained here many days, during the month of June, in fact, literally living on the "fat of the land." "We found here," says one of the company, "an abundance of lard, in calabashes, drawn like olive-oil, which the inhabitants said was the fat of bears. There was likewise found much oil of walnuts, which, like the lard, was clear and of good taste; and also a honey-comb, which the Christians had never seen before in this country, nor saw they afterwards, nor honey, nor bees."

The Indian huts proving too confined, a camp was pitched in a grove of mulberry-trees between the hills, in front of which was a verdant meadow, where the lean and famishing steeds were turned loose to feast and recuperate. While the men and horses were refreshing themselves, De Soto was diligently inquiring for the gold-mines, which were reputed to be in the hills or mountains of this province. They lay, the cacique informed him, about thirty miles to the northward; but the intervening country was a mere wilderness, and the mountains said to contain the mines were so rugged that no horse could travel in that region.

By his advice, therefore, two sturdy soldiers were sent to explore, on foot and accompanied by guides. They were absent ten days, but returned in safety, though without any gold, of which, however, they thought they had discovered traces here and there. What they brought back with them was not gold, but ore of copper; thus again was the governor disappointed. The precious metal has been found in that province in times more recent; but not in such quantities as De Soto had hoped to discover it. The natives then had a few articles, in the shape of hatchets and "chopping-knives," of gold alloyed with copper, but no ornaments or jewels.

Nearly all the streams of this province, and they were quite numerous, abounded in the fresh-water mussels which yielded the precious pearls. The cacique of Ichiaha, one day, threw over De Soto's broad shoulders a string of pearls a fathom in length. Some of them were as large as filbert-nuts, and of perfect shape, but had been injured by boring, with the aid of fire, in order that they might be strung as necklaces. If the governor desired more and better pearls, said the cacique, he might seek them in the sepulchres of his ancestors, where were countless thousands.

The governor replied, with an affectation of horror at the thought, that he would never consent to such an act of desecration as ravishing the royal tombs, but that he should like to see how the pearls were obtained. Struck by the consideration manifested by his guest, the obliging cacique at once despatched forty large canoes to fish for pearl-oysters during the night. In the morning he and De Soto repaired to the river-side, accompanied by their officers, and there the Spaniards witnessed the operation of opening the oysters, or mussels. Fires had been made of hard wood, and upon their glowing coals were placed the shell-fish brought ashore in the canoes. They were quickly opened by the heat, and from their gaping mouths the pearls were taken out, some of them as large as peas, and presented to De Soto.

After the cacique had gratified his guest with this exhibition, he invited him to his house, where a repast was set forth at which the mussels were served in various dishes. While the meal was in progress, one of the soldiers at the lower end of the table uttered an exclamation, and, taking something froth his mouth, after showing it to his companions, rose and went towards De Soto. "See, my lord," he said. "Here is a pearl that neither fire nor smoke has injured, for I just now found it within an oyster I was eating."

"Truly, my man," answered the governor, "it is large, and white, and beautiful. In Spain, I doubt not, it would bring four hundred ducats. Save it till we have occasion to send to the Havana, and there I will procure thee its value."

"Nay, my lord. Allow me, rather, to present it to our lady patroness, Dona Isabel, whom we all hold in great esteem."

"Not so," rejoined De Soto. "While I appreciate thy generosity, my son, I cannot allow thee to rob thyself. Keep it, then, and I myself will remit to the king his fifth part in thy stead."

Thus the soldier's liberal disposition brought him the regard of his commander, who, high-minded and generous himself, knew how to appreciate worth in others.

Another incident, though a sad one, that occurred at this time, emphasizes the fact that all the men of De Soto's command were youthful, or in the prime of life, for it relates to one Juan Mateos, who was the only man among them whose hair was gray. While De Soto and the cacique were inspecting the pearl-fisheries, gray-haired Juan Mateos slipped into the thicket and cut a cane with which, by the aid of a line twisted from some flax, and an improvised hook, he went fishing. As he was sitting quietly oh the bank, concealed in the long grasses, one of the cavaliers named Luis Bravo darted his lance at a small animal he saw a short distance away. As ill-luck would have it the weapon missed the animal, but Struck poor Juan Mateos in the temple, killing him instantly. Thus the Spaniards lost "Father Juan"—as he was called on account of his gray hairs—the oldest man in the army, but probably not more than fifty years of age at the time of his death.

Having nearly exhausted the resources of this generous host, and, very wisely, desiring to depart before he had wholly done so, De Soto announced his intention to proceed on his journey. The cacique of Ichiaha would have detained him, having conceived a great liking for the governor; but it was then midsummer (the first week in July, 1540), and a great distance yet remained to be traversed before cold weather set in. Whence he was going, and wherefore, De Soto could not inform his friend; but doubtless his intention was to describe a great circuit and make his winter quarters at Pensacola, where the brigantines were instructed to meet him in the month of October. Hence he followed the banks of the Coosa River, and constantly bore southwardly, on a westerly course, going farther and farther from the Atlantic and towards the Gulf of Mexico.

The next province to Ichiaha was that of Acoste, the cacique of which awaited the coming of De Soto in the great square of his chief town, with more than fifteen hundred warriors. He was fierce and warlike, his braves were well armed and insolent of manner; but while the two armies were confronting each other, some vagabond soldiers or camp-followers began pillaging the huts, without giving a thought to the possible consequences. The women who lived in the huts raised an outcry, at which many of the braves seized their war-clubs and set upon the vagabonds most lustily. De Soto, at the time, was well in advance of the main body, with a small retinue only. Perceiving his peril, should the cacique's warriors become exasperated and attack him, he sought to divert their attention by himself falling upon the soldiers who had caused the disturbance and beating them soundly.