Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

De Soto's Fatal Decision


The Spaniards had arrived at Mauvila, or Mabila (which, no doubt, was the Indian name for Mobile), on October 18th, and, says De Soto's secretary, Rodrigo Ranjel, "after the end of the battle as described they rested there until November 14th, caring for their wounds and their horses. Up to that time the total deaths, from the time the governor and his forces entered the land of Florida, were one hundred and two Christians—and not all, to my thinking, in true repentance." Further, he says: "They killed three thousand of the vagabonds, without counting many others who were wounded and whom they afterwards found dead in the cabins along the road. Whether the chief were alive or dead was never known; but the son they found thrust through with a lance."

The battle of Mauvila was a crucial event with De Soto, for he lost more than men and horses, plunder and ammunitions: he lost hope, and, in a certain sense, he lost courage. Though he was not animated by the highest of motives hitherto, yet his invincible spirit, his dauntless bravery, compel our admiration. But after the terrible conflict at Mauvila we cannot but wonder at the obstinacy of the man in persisting in a course which every one in the army but himself recognized as criminally wrong.

While resting in Tuscaloosa's territory, endeavoring to repair his losses in some measure, waiting for the wounded to recover or die, he received the information that Maldonado had arrived at Pensacola with supplies and reinforcements. Such gladsome tidings, coming to him in the midst of dire discouragements and perplexities, could not but have given him the greatest satisfaction and renewed in his heart the long-deferred hope of establishing that colony which it was his intention to found in Florida. The bay of Pensacola was then but a seven days' journey, or less than a hundred miles, distant from Mauvila, and the soldiers naturally expected that his next move would be in that direction. The general course of their route from Coosa had been southwest, and a continuation of it would have brought them to the gulf. The battle with Tuscaloosa's warriors was only an episode of the long journey, which, instead of frustrating their intention, should have emphasized the necessity for meeting the ships and securing supplies, even were the search for gold to be continued.

Nothing was further from the governor's intentions than to abandon this search, notwithstanding the fact that, after more than a year, devoted to toilsome marches and persistent seeking, no trace of the precious metal had been found. It was a reasonable assumption, then, that further search would be worse than useless, and this view was adopted by the soldiers generally, who, in discussing the situation among themselves, agreed that, the bay of Pensacola once arrived at, they would take the first opportunity that presented itself for leaving the country. There were still other lands, such as Peru and Mexico, where gold had already rewarded adventurers with great wealth, and which had been obtained with one-tenth the toil and fighting they had experienced.

No one could doubt their loyalty to the governor; no one could charge that they had not endured patiently and accepted without complaint the severe trials that had been their portion. But, while these dauntless spirits were not in the strictest sense disheartened, they saw that nothing was to be gained by continually fighting half-naked savages and wandering about aimlessly over a country that displayed no evidence of wealth, either in the accumulations of the people or in its natural resources.

Now, the information received by the governor respecting the arrival of Maldonado was conveyed to him privately, through the interpreter Ortiz, whom he cautioned to keep it secret. Rumors, however, reached the soldiers, and when De Soto talked with his officers of his plan for continuing the exploration after reaching the coast, they informed him that in all probability he would be left without support. This intelligence came to De Soto like a revelation, for up to that time his men had yielded unquestioning obedience to his slightest wishes, and he could not believe them capable of thwarting him in any event. So he disguised himself and went stealthily about the camp. The upshot of it was that he returned to his quarters with the worst news that he had heard confirmed, and from that moment was a changed individual.

He seemed to forget that these men, comprising Spaniards of every rank, from the humblest soldier to the proudest hidalgo, had embarked on this expedition at his own solicitations, had ventured their entire fortunes, whether large or small, had suffered extreme privations, witnessed the deaths of a hundred companions and the sweeping away of all their accumulations, with hardly a murmur of complaint.

He thought only of his own terrible losses: of the fortune he had spent in the equipment, of the renown and dignities he had gained, and hoped to gain, trampled, as it were, in the dust; of the return to Cuba, not only penniless, but an object of hatred and contempt. In a sentence, then, he resolved to turn his back on Pensacola and safety, "because the pearls he wished to send to Cuba for show, that their fame might raise the desire of coming to Florida, had been lost, and he feared that, hearing of him without seeing either gold or silver, or other thing of value from that land, it would acquire such a reputation that no one would be found to go there when men should be wanted."

Thus wrote one of the annalists who was with him, the anonymous Fidalgo of Elvas, who further says: "So he determined to send no news of himself until he should have discovered a rich country."

Yes, that was his resolve: to set his face again to the wilderness; to forego the luxury of rest and refreshment the ships would afford; to deprive himself of news from his wife and his government in Cuba; and all that his stubborn pride might not be wounded.

The stern, invincible nature of the man, De Soto, is displayed in this determination; but also, alas! his supreme selfishness. He thought only of himself, of his blasted hopes, his unsatisfied aspirations; but to the other nine hundred entities comprising his command he gave, apparently, scant consideration. They, too, had honorable aspirations, hopes, desires; they had wives and children, whose hearts were yearning for some news of them; they had fought, and freely shed their blood, that their commander might realize his ambitions; yet they were ignored.

It was in this spirit that he gave the order to leave Mauvila and march northward, instead of southward—into the unknown wilderness, instead of towards the coast and the ships. Pursued by this demon of unrest and unsatisfied ambition, he continued to wander thereafter, until a year later he met the messenger of death. That the soldiers murmured when ordered to march away from the haven of their desires, is not to be wondered at; that they did not mutiny is more surprising. But they did not dare to oppose their stern commander, who, though he might be irrational, even eccentric to the verge of insanity, yet represented the crown and their king. Silent and sullen were they, as they stored their wallets with two days' provisions of toasted maize and took their places in the ranks—those decimated ranks. Heavy must have been the hearts of the soldiers as they thought upon the comrades who had fallen.

"I have wondered many times," wrote the historian, Oviedo, more than three hundred years ago, "at the venturesomeness, stubbornness, and persistency, or firmness—to use a better word for the way these baffled conquerors kept on, from one toil to another, and then to another still greater; from one danger to many others: here losing one companion, there three or four; going from bad to worse, without learning from experience.

"O wonderful God! That they should have been so blinded and dazed by a greed so uncertain and by such vain discourses as Hernando de Soto was able to utter to those deluded soldiers, whom he brought to a land which he had never seen, nor put foot into, and where three other leaders, more experienced than he, had ruined themselves.

"O wicked men, O devilish greed, O bad consciences! O unfortunate soldiers! That ye should not have understood the perils ye were to encounter, how wasted would be your lives, and without rest your soul!"

How true the words of the moralist, coming down to us through the centuries which have intervened between his time and ours! Yet those men of action did not pause to moralize. They could not have scanned their deeds as they transpired, for, had they done so, we should not have to record such things of them as are shown in the preceding pages. "From the moment that De Soto discovered the purpose of his men to leave him, once were the coast attained," writes the most entertaining of his biographers, "he became a moody, irritable, discontented man. He no longer pretended to strike out any grand undertaking, but, stung with secret disappointment, went recklessly wandering from place to place, apparently without order or object, as if careless of time and life, and only anxious to finish his existence."

Five days of marching through a fertile country, pleasant even in November, took them to the frontiers of another province, where they found, gathered on the farther bank of a deep, wide, and rapid river, fifteen hundred warriors to oppose them. These were commanded by a cacique who had heard of the atrocities committed in Mauvila, and who replied to De Soto's proffer of peace: "Nay, war is what we want, a war of fire and of blood."

"So be it," muttered De Soto. "We come as men of peace, but war is our vocation."

It would have fared ill with the cacique could the governor have reached him then; but twelve days elapsed before the stream was crossed, owing to the necessity for building piraguas. During that time the opposing skirmishers were incessantly in conflict; but when, after infinite toil, the army had been ferried over the river, short work, indeed, was made of the Indians. After seizing and sacrificing a friendly native, who had been sent over with a message of peace, the savages fled to a fort of palisados and the Spaniards took possession of their village.

They were now in the country of the Chickasaws, and here they established themselves in cantonment for the winter of 1540–1541. Following his invariable custom, De Soto tried to draw the cacique of the Chickasaws from his retreat, sending him as a bait some roasted pork, having sacrificed a few of his precious swine for the purpose. The chief and his warriors ate the meat with relish, finding it so delicious that they could not resist the temptation to appropriate such of the swine as they could secure by prowling about the camp at night. The governor had not intended to go to this extreme of hospitality, and two Indians caught in the act of stealing hogs were by his orders summarily shot, while another thief had his hands cut off as a warning.

The cacique "appeared grieved that they had given offence, and glad that they were punished"; but when two Spanish soldiers entered his house during his absence, and stole several marten-skins, he insisted that the same punishment should be inflicted upon them. The governor, being then and thereafter in stern and melancholy mood, assented to the justice of this proposition, and condemned the soldiers to death. In vain his officers and chaplains begged him to be merciful. The culprits were led forth to be executed, when at this juncture a party of Indians arrived in the village. They came to complain of these very soldiers; but Juan Ortiz, the only interpreter, told the governor that the cacique desired him to pardon them, and, as a favor to the savage, he did so. Ortiz then informed the embassy that the real offenders were in prison, and would be punished with great severity.

Whether on account of this double-dealing or not, the Indians soon displayed unmistakable signs of hostility, and De Soto warned Camp-master Moscoso to be constantly on his guard. Twice, already, Moscoso had failed his commander at a critical moment, and a third time he was to prove unreliable, for, one dark and stormy night, when the north wind was shrieking through the village, the Indians stealthily passed the sentinels and gained the central square. Above the howling of the tempest rose the shrill war-whoop and rolling of barbaric drums. Suddenly the whole hamlet burst into a blaze, for the savages had shot fire-tipped arrows into the thatched roofs of straw, and also lighted them with torches, which they had carried concealed in earthen pots.

Fanned by the gale, the fire swept the village, driving the astonished Spaniards from their shelters and into the arms of their relentless foes. They were dazed by the swiftness of the assault, scorched by the flames, and half suffocated by the smoke; but they fought like fiends, grasping the first weapons they could lay hands upon.

De Soto himself leaped forth with less than half his armor on, but, sword in hand, mounted his horse and dashed into the midst of the savage throng. Seeing in front of him an Indian of gigantic frame, whom he took for the cacique, he charged at him with his lance, upon which he leaned with all his weight to give force to the blow. As he did so the saddle slipped, having been put on hastily and without being girthed, and he fell headlong to the ground. The savage leaped upon him, and the next moment would probably have been the governor's last, had not a dozen troopers dashed to his rescue, and with lance and sabre held the Indians of till he had gained his feet and remounted his horse. Then, without a moment's hesitation, he spurred into the thickest of the fight again.

Though more than forty Spaniards perished in the flames or at the hands of the Indians, victory eventually crowned De Soto's efforts, and the savages were vanquished. They had accomplished their chief design, however, which was to secure possession of the swine, for, shut within a thatched enclosure, nearly the whole herd met death in the flames, and for several days thereafter the Indians had a surfeit of roast pork.

Fifty horses, also, were destroyed that night, some by fire and others by the Indian arrows, so that when dawn revealed to the Spaniards the extent of their losses they found themselves in a worse plight than at Mauvila. They were houseless, almost without food or raiment, and as the weather was extremely cold, their condition was pitiable.