Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

The Reward of Devotion


Having informed ourselves as to the influences which shaped the character of Ferdinand de Soto, we will now return to the Inca's court, at which we found our hero in the first chapter of this biography. Succeeding to the arrival of Pizarro's army at Cassamarca and the visit paid the Spaniards by the Inca, Atahuallpa, came the horrible massacre by which Peruvian affairs were thrown into chaos and the "Child of the Sun" made a prisoner.

While this atrocious deed was planned by Pizarro, it evidently received the sanction of his captains, and there is nothing to show that De Soto disapproved it or did not lend his active assistance. As commander of the most active troop of cavalry, he probably took a leading part in the fiendish slaughter of unarmed Peruvians; but, as he is not mentioned particularly, we may give him the "benefit of the doubt," and hope, at least, that he did not. He was assuredly absent when the massacre was planned, but present when it was carried into execution.

It does not accord with our conception of him, as obtained through scanning his deeds in Darien and Nicaragua; but inasmuch as he shared in the spoils—which he did to a notable extent—he must have participated in the slaughter. However this may have been, it is known that he was the only man in Pizarro's army who was admitted to the confidence of the captive monarch, and perhaps the only one who could have saved him from an inglorious death. It is said that it was through him that Atahuallpa offered to ransom himself by filling an immense room with gold and another with silver.



An ardent friendship existed between him and Atahuallpa, who now regarded the handsome cavalier as his sole reliance. Pizarro did not dare attempt the Inca's life while De Soto was by, so he invented the report that a conspiracy had been formed by the Peruvians to release their ruler, and sent him off with his troopers to investigate. The uhsuspicious Ferdinand set out on this toil-some journey as a mission of love—for it was said that the Inca had incited this conspiracy, and he was anxious to disprove it. He was gone several days, and when he returned. the dreadful deed had been committed.

Atahuallpa was dead. He had been sentenced to be burned at the stake, on the evening of the very day he went through the semblance of a trial, in order that he should be put out of the way before De Soto returned. Though the sentence of burning had been commuted to death by strangling, that "he might die a Christian," he had suffered the extreme penalty. When led to the stake, and while the fagots were being piled about him, the hapless Inca looked around for De Soto.

"Oh, where is he, my friend?" he asked. "It is not like him to consent to this foul murder. He can save me, I know. Why does he not compel my release?"

When told that De Soto had gone to suppress a conspiracy instigated by the Inca himself, he groaned, and said no more, The full extent of Pizarro's treachery was then apparent to him. His only friend with influence had been sent away, in order that he might be murdered without a protest.

When De Soto arrived at the place at which it was declared by Pizarro the Inca’s followers were assembling, he found everything quiet and no signs of a disturbance. A terrible suspicion then took possession of him, and he hastened back to the city with all speed. On the way he learned the truth, and on his arrival at headquarters strode into the room where Pizarro was sitting, with a slouched hat drawn over his eyes, in sign of mourning, and fiercely upbraided him for his perfidy.

"Look up, miserable coward and assassin!" he shouted, drawing his sword and wit its point lifting the had from Pizarro’s head. "There was no conspiracy—as you knew. There was no treachery, except in your own black heart—which I have a mind to thrust through with the sword, Francisco Pizarro!"

In this tenor he raved, his indignation blazing forth like a flam; but to no avail. The deed was don, and eh could not restore the dead. It is said that he ended by challenging all the Pizarros to single combat, and that not one of them dared accept it; but it is certain that he threatened to sign his commission and leave Peru at once. Thinking it over, however, after his wrath had somewhat cooled, he concluded to remain, at least until Cuzco was taken.

The entire force of invaders amounted to less than five hundred men, while the Inca's standing army was ten times that number, and the people were everywhere rising to avenge the death of their ruler. To resign, in those circumstances, would appear the act of a coward, and De Soto resolved to remain until victory perched upon the Spanish standards. Nearly another year, in truth, he remained in Peru, and when he left it was with the satisfaction of having done his duty, in the light in which he saw it then.

But it was a sullen and fractious De Soto that went along with the army when, on a day in September, 1533, it set out for Cuzco, the former capital of the incas. He had accomplished the object of his ambition, and was now wealthy, even beyond the anticipations in which he had indulged when, as a young adventurer, he first set foot on American soil. He was at liberty to return to Spain and claim his bride, but his keen sense of honor restrained him.

Sullenly, then, he led his troopers over the mountains, taking as usual the post of danger, and obeying with alacrity the command of Pizarro to force a perilous pass held and fortified by the Indians. It was a gloomy defile between precipitous cliffs, and the only passage was over a narrow stairway cut in solid rock. Setting the example to his men, De Soto dismounted and, with his bridle-rein over one arm, began the perilous ascent. He had scarcely done so when a great boulder came rolling down, sent by a troop of howling savages above. It bounded over him, as he was sheltered by an intervening ledge and cut a ghastly swath through his men, who were toiling behind. Several were crushed to death, as well as their horses; but, though the approaching contest promised to be one with cyclopean forces, Ferdinand hesitated only long enough to give directions to clear the pathway of the mangled remains, and hastened on. The air was filled with arrows, javelins, lances, hurled by sinewy arms, and now and again great rocks came thundering down; but still on he pressed, bowing his head to the storm, the missile-weapons glancing like hail form his armor.

Gallantly supported by his brave troopers, he gained at least a plateau on the mountain-top, where, forming his men in battle array, he charged the Indians and drove them to a distance. He did this repeatedly, but, just as often as he returned to the spot he had fixed upon for a camp, just so often carne rolling back the tide of yelling savages, evidently intent upon forcing him and his men over the precipices. The coming of night alone saved the Spaniards from complete destruction; but they dared not sleep, for ominous noises in the surrounding forest told them that the desperate Peruvians were assembling by thousands, determined to make one last effort to save their capital from invasion.

They had chosen their stand with consummate strategy, and here they concentrated their warriors, with the intention of destroying the Spaniards at the coming of the dawn. They were only prevented from doing so by the opportune arrival of reinforcements under Almagro, the partner of Pizarro in this enterprise. He was in command of a strong detachment of infantry, which had camped at the foot of the mountain, unaware of the desperate situation of De Soto. A courier, sent by the latter, managed to break through the investing lines and take to Almagro tidings of the disaster. Without a moment's hesitation, the command was set in motion. It scaled the dizzy heights in midnight darkness, and gained the plateau, the first intimation of succor coming to De Soto from Almagro's bugle-blasts, which echoed through the forest.

Both commanders held a similar detestation of Pizarro, for both had been wronged by him; yet both were engaged in a common cause against the foe. Back to back, with the infantry in the centre and the mailed chargers presenting a front of steel, they repulsed the advancing Indians, then in loosened formation opened fire with cross-bows and arquebuses, while the cavalry charged madly across the plain. The slaughter was terrible, and the ground was soon covered with the slain; but victory was won at great cost to the Spaniards, many of whom were crushed beneath the blows from ponderous battle-axes or transfixed with arrows and javelins.

The Peruvians retreated in confusion, and, save for a slight skirmish a few days later, the Spaniards encountered no further opposition to their entry into Cuzco, which was accomplished on November 15, 1533. The battle of the plateau was the first of any importance fought between Peruvians and the invaders of their country, and it was also the last in which De Soto was engaged.

In Cuzco the Spaniards found a large amount of treasure, though not so much as if they had pushed on rapidly, as De Soto had desired to do after the battle of the pass. It may have been because Pizarro was feeling the effects of advancing years, or from an inclination to allow De Soto to bear the brunt of the attacks, that he lingered by the way, when the City of the Sun was almost within his grasp. But he did so, first in this seductive valley, then in another, until at last his fiery captain, provoked beyond measure at the delay, which was unpardonable from a military point of view, burst the slight bands of restraint which held him, and dashed forward with his devoted dragoons.

He and they led the advance, from beginning to end of that long march, as well as fought all the battles. When the setting sun of that November day in which the valley of Cuzco was entered glanced athwart the helms and banners of Pizarro's army descending the sierras, Ferdinand de Soto might have been seen well in the van. He was also the first in Cuzco, and not the last to engage in the sacking of the city, where the spoils were vast, notwithstanding much treasure had been taken away and secreted. Plunder, chiefly gold and silver, was divided among the common soldiers alone to the amount of half a million dollars, or above a thousand dollars to each one, while the officers, all, were made affluent for life, if they could but keep the treasure they had gained.

There was but one way to do this, and that was to retire at once from the country where the wealth had been acquired and return to Spain. To this sensible conclusion came Ferdinand de Soto, and, as his services were no longer urgently required—as, in fact, Pizarro would rather be rid of him than have him remain—he resolved to return. Sometime in the summer of 1534 he bade farewell to his comrades in arms and, after making the long journey from Cuzco to the coast, embarked for Spain. We have no particulars of the final scenes when De Soto and his faithful troopers parted company. They had been together during years of hard service, had encountered dangers, and run the gantlet of death many times in company, so it came hard, at the end, to say farewell. Some of his comrades, in truth, followed his example and returned in the same ship with him to Spain, afterwards going with him through Florida. All were enriched by the spoils of Peru, and Ferdinand himself took back, according to the old historian, one hundred and eighty thousand cruzados in gold, or more than half a million dollars.

Next we see this hero of many battles and numberless skirmishes with the Indians of America at the court of his sovereign, where he was received with great distinction, as the most heroic figure, on the Spanish side, in the conquest of Peru. The laurels of that conquest belong by right to Francisco Pizarro, and De Soto manifested no inclination to snatch them from his brow; but, as the first honorable man of importance to arrive in Spain from Peru, with his pockets well lined and his claim to nobility well founded, he became for a while the observed of all observers.

The king not only received him well, but honored him by accepting a loan—which, strange to say, he repaid. "De Soto made his home in Seville, where he set up in great state, employing a major-domo, or superintendent of the household, an usher, pages, chamberlain, footmen, and all other requisites for the establishment of a gentleman."

And it was not a bachelor establishment, either, that he set up in that grand old city by the banks of the Guadalquivir, for, some time after his arrival, he took thither as its mistress none other than Dona Isabel de Soto, born Bobadilla, second daughter of the infamous Pedrarias.

The course of true love had not run very smooth with these two lovers, but it had run a long while, and nobody can with truth deny that Ferdinand was entitled to his Isabel, having fought for her and waited for her fifteen long and weary years. In the end, as all true lovers will rejoice to learn, he was successful in getting possession of her hand, having won it years before; but it was only after the death of Don Pedro, who sought to frustrate his designs by leaving his second daughter penniless.

The hardened old wretch had died, after lingering long in physical agony and mental anguish. His conscience was troubled, not at the thought of the misery he had caused in this world, but at the prospect of what he was to receive in the next. The only reparation he could make (the priests at his bedside assured him) was a liberal donation to the Church, and the way in which he did this was eminently characteristic of the man-fiend Pedrarias.

In his gloomy castle at Badajoz, ever since her father had assassinated her affianced husband, had lived his eldest daughter, Maria. She had remained true to the memory of Balboa, as her sister had continued faithful to De Soto, and her father rewarded this constancy by bequeathing her his vast fortune, for the founding of a nunnery, over which she was to rule as abbess. Unless she went into the nunnery, poor Isabel was left at the mercy of the world, without a centavo to her name; but at this juncture arrived Ferdinand de Soto from Peru, and she became the wife of a rich and powerful noble and the envy of her sex throughout all Spain.

Thus far, in narrating the adventures of De Soto, we have followed the accounts which have seemed most entitled to credence; but all are not alike, and, indeed, some writers have stated that Ferdinand first met his wife at court, whither she had gone with her mother, the widow of Pedrarias. Also, that, instead of being at feud with her father, he had lived with him in Nicaragua, without falling out at all. Whether this be true or not, most of us would rather believe that Ferdinand had met his Isabel in youth, and was constant to her throughout, and that he returned to Spain for the sole purpose of laying his hard-won fortune at her feet. Constancy in man is such a rare jewel, and so seldom discovered, that we cannot refrain from making the most of that which is said to have sparkled on the breast of Ferdinand de Soto.

Ferdinand was under forty years of age at the time he settled down in Seville and became a gentleman of leisure. As entitled to that distinction by birth, he was made a knight of Santiago, and felt bound to sustain the dignities of his position by a large establishment and vast expenditure. Within two years his fortune had been reduced more than one-half, and, having become wearied of inaction, he cast about for some means of replenishing his coffers and for a field in which to exercise his energies.

That field seemed to open to him in the then boundless region called Florida, which was in the main unknown, and extended from the most northern territory of which the Spaniards had knowledge to the confines of Mexico. Though Ponce de Leon had landed on the coast of Florida in 1513, and eight years later had received his death-wound in a conflict with Indians there, little was known of the country until the attempted conquest by Panfilo de Narvaez in 1527.

This unfortunate Spaniard, who had opposed Cortes in Mexico, where he lost an eye in the fight at Cempoalla, obtained from Emperor Charles V. permission to conquer Florida, of which country he was made adelantado, or military governor. He landed on its eastern coast, in a large bay open to the sea, with a force of four hundred men and forty horses. After crossing the peninsula, and after enduring incredible hardships, his command, diminished to about one-half its original strength, launched upon the waters of the gulf, with the intention of seeking a port of Cuba or Mexico.

The vessels in which Narvaez and his men had sailed to Florida could not be found, and they constructed rude barks from the wood of native trees, with nails forged from their bits and bridles, and sails made from their garments. They embarked, it is supposed, in the Bay of St. Marks, and coasted southwardly, occasionally landing and fighting with the Indians for food to keep them from starvation. A gale drove the boat in which was Narvaez out to sea, and he was never heard of after, while all the rest of his men save four perished through shipwreck or starvation. Nine years later, after most wonderful adventures with various Indian tribes, these four arrived in Mexico, and in 1537 one of their number, Cabeza de Vaca, met and conversed with Ferdinand de Soto in Spain.