Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

The Landing in Florida


De Soto's fleet, in which he sailed from Havana for Florida, on Sunday, May 18, 1539, consisted of five large vessels, two pinnaces, and two caravels. Dona Isabel greatly desired to accompany the expedition, but was compelled to remain in Cuba as regent. With her were left the wives of Nuno de Tobar, of Don Carlos, who had married a niece of De Soto, and of Baltasar de Gallegos, who had sacrificed a fine vineyard in Spain in order to gratify his ambition to be a soldier.

The castle-tower is still pointed out in Havana from the battlements of which these sorrowing wives waved farewell to the fleet as it ploughed its way into the open sea. It was to be a last farewell for Dona Isabel, who never set eyes on Ferdinand again. Fifteen years she had waited for this—to be united, at last, to the chosen companion of her heart, only to be separated from him, after a short period of wedded bliss, then to lose him forever. He sailed away with that gallant company, and the wilderness swallowed him up.

Thanks to the precautions De Soto had taken, a safe harbor was made in the great bay of Espiritu Santo, on the west coast of Florida, which was reached on May 25th. It is now known as Tampa Bay, and at present is a flourishing winter resort, between which and Havana frequent steamers perform the voyage in a few hours, which in De Soto's time consumed a week. There were nearly a thousand men in the expedition, with three hundred and fifty horses, so the debarkation was a slow and toilsome process, and was not accomplished until the last of May.

Map of ancient Florida


During this time the savages on shore had not been inactive, for they were alert and vigorous, expert in the use of bow-and-arrows, and efficient with their war-clubs. They had watched the progress of the fleet as it sailed along the coast, as numerous signal-smokes attested, and by the time it had come to anchor were gathered to oppose a landing. But they had not shown themselves, though lying in ambush in the forest, and the first detachment of soldiers, about three hundred in number, camped on the beach without taking any precautions against surprise.

The night air was warm and filled with the fragrance of a thousand flowers, so the soldiers threw themselves upon the sands and slept, wherever they could find a couch prepared by nature. Just before dawn they were awakened by the war-whoops of the savages, who broke upon them without other warning, out of the darkness, and wounded several with their javelins and arrows. So suddenly aroused, and attacked by an unseen enemy, the troops were thrown into confusion, and, instead of making a counter-attack, crowded tumultuously to the shore.

There was then a hasty buckling-on of armor and grasping of weapons on board ship, each cavalier being spurred to action by the terrible tumult ashore. Into the boats tumbled the doughty warriors, burning to have a brush with the enemy, and as dawn broke and revealed the Indians they leaped ashore and charged upon them with great shouts. Among the foremost of those to the rescue was Lieutenant-General Porcallo, who seized and mounted the first horse he could find and led the charge. He was sustained by seven troopers only; but these were sufficient to put the savages to flight, and the lusty Porcallo, having pursued them for quite a distance into the forest, soon returned to the beach, brandishing his lance and loudly vaunting his victory. While in the midst of his boastings, his gallant steed staggered and fell to the ground stone dead, having been shot through the ribs by an Indian arrow. Then the boastings of Porcallo were louder than ever, and he did not fail to call attention to the fact that his horse was the first to fall in battle with the pagans, and his weapon the first to be turned against them.

The Spaniards were astonished at the force with which the arrow that pierced the horse had been sent, and gathered around to examine the unfortunate beast. As to the Indians, says the chronicler of the expedition, "they are exceedingly ready with their weapons, and so warlike and nimble that they have no fear at all of infantry; for if these charge upon them they flee, but when they turn their backs are soon again upon them. They avoid nothing more easily than the flight of an arrow, and as they are continually running about and in motion, neither arquebuse nor cross-bow can be aimed at them with effect. Before a Christian can make a single shot with either, an Indian will discharge three or four arrows; and he seldom misses his aim. Where the arrow meets with no armor, it pierces as deeply as the shaft from a cross-bow. Their bows are very perfect, while the arrows are made of certain canes, like reeds, so heavy and rigid that when their ends are sharpened they will pass through a shield. Some are pointed with the bone of a fish, sharp and like a chisel; others have a stone, like the point of a diamond."

This testimony as to the bravery of the Floridian savages and the efficacy of their weapons is very important. It gives us an idea of the kind of people De Soto encountered at the outset. Instead of finding them less warlike, as he progressed with the invasion, he was to experience yet greater resistance from the natives of the interior. An Indian village was discovered near the shore, but deserted, at one end of which was a sort of temple, having a wooden fowl with "gilded eyes" perched upon it, and at the other was the dwelling of the chief, or cacique. This dwelling occupied the summit of a great artificial mound, probably a construction of the mysterious "mound-builders," who, however, had passed away before the advent of the Spaniards in America. A few pearls were found within the temple, but they were of little value, having been injured by fire. De Soto was to find bushels of such pearls later in his journey, and he looked upon these as promising evidences of the country's richness.

After the troops and munitions had been landed, the governor took up his residence in the chief's house, and lodged his soldiers in the huts that were grouped about the great mound. This mound, by the way, is said to exist to-day, and is one of the objects by which the place of debarkation and the subsequent wanderings of the Spaniards have been traced. The forest growth was cleared away "for the distance of a bow-shot" around the mound and village, and, while the great camp was being put in order, De Soto sent out messengers to find the cacique, whose name, an Indian captive told him, was Ucita. But Ucita was not only wary, he was fierce and crafty. Moreover, he was greatly incensed against all Spaniards, on account of a fiendish act committed by Narvaez when in Florida. Enraged at some action of the cacique, he had caused his nose to be cut off, and, not content with this act of cruelty, he had cast Ucita's poor old mother to the dogs, to be torn to pieces before his very eyes.

The cacique had sworn vengeance upon every Spaniard who should fall into his hands, and had already sacrificed several unfortunates who had been lured ashore by stratagem about twelve years previous to the arrival of De Soto. The wife of Narvaez had been left behind in Cuba when her husband sailed for Florida, and, becoming alarmed at his long absence, had sent a pinnace with a score of men to get news of him. They arrived at Tampa Bay, and, sailing near to shore, saw a folded paper, evidently a letter, in the cleft end of a reed stuck in the sands. The Spaniards naturally supposed this might be a letter left by Narvaez, before he set out on his disastrous march, and a boat containing four men was sent ashore to get it. The moment the keel struck the sands a horde of savages rushed out from ambush and, surrounding the men, took them to their village. At sight of this, the cowardly crew aboard the pinnace made all haste to sail away, leaving the miserable captives to their fate, which was a horrible one, indeed.

The Indians belonged to Ucita's band, and when that savage found these hated white men in his clutches he resolved to put them to the torture. Three of them were shot to death with arrows, their sufferings being prolonged as much as possible, but the fourth was stretched upon a wooden frame in the shape of a gridiron over a fire. He was a young man, hardly eighteen years of age, and came of a noble family that lived in Seville. As the cruel flames scorched his skin he cried out in agony, and the heart of the cacique's daughter was touched with pity. She was a comely maiden, much beloved by the chief, and though his vengeance was far from satisfied he listened to her entreaties. He released his captive, and, after directing that his wounds should be dressed, sent him out to watch the graves in a cemetery. It was a lonely spot, in the depths of a forest; but the youth felt more secure amid the dead, and surrounded by wild beasts, than in the presence of the chief. His duty was to prevent the prowling beasts of prey from robbing the shallow graves of their contents, and so he was given a bow and arrows, and warned that if one corpse was removed he should be burned alive.

One night, overcome by weariness, he fell asleep, and was awakened by the falling of a coffin-lid, only in time to see an animal making off with the body of a boy, son of a man of consequence in the tribe. The night was very dark, but he let fly an arrow and shot the beast, which proved to be a panther, through the heart. His prowess was greatly admired by the Indians, and for a time secured him immunity from harm at the hands of the cacique; but the time came when the latter determined to carry out the sentence of death, and the captive was warned by the daughter to fly for protection to a neighboring chief, named Mocoso. This cacique was in love with Ucita's daughter, and for her sake, she assured the youth, he would be welcomed and sheltered from harm. He succeeded in reaching Mocoso's territory, and was warmly received by the chieftain, who soon became greatly attached to the captive, whom he stoutly defended when Ucita attempted to regain his prisoner for the purpose of putting him to death. He thus incurred the enmity of Cacique Ucita, who leagued his brother chiefs against him and ravaged his territory, but without forcing him to give up the young Spaniard.

All these particulars were related to De Soto, who was naturally desirous of securing the release of a fellow-countryman, and sent a troop of lancers into Mocoso's country for that purpose. It happened that about the same time the young man, whose name was Juan Ortiz, heard of the arrival of Spaniards in the bay of Espiritu Santo, and begged his master to allow him to join them. The generous savage not only gave his consent, but sent him to the coast with an escort and a message of welcome to the strangers, saying: "Go to the chieftain of this great army which has landed on our shores. Tell him what I have done for you, and entreat him, in return, not to lay waste my territory nor do harm to my people. In setting you free, while you were in my power, I shall hope to win the favor of your great lord, whose alliance I would fain secure against the enemies I have made on your account."

Juan Ortiz and his escort encountered the lancers sent in search of him as they were emerging from a dense forest, and the meeting is described by Rodrigo Ranjel, De Soto's secretary, who wrote a narrative of the expedition, in the manner following: "Towards sunset, being off their road, because the Indian who was their guide led them wandering and confused, it pleased God that they [the troopers] descried at a distance some twenty Indians, painted with a kind of red ointment that these Indians put on when they go to war or wish to make a fine appearance. They wore many feathers and had their bows and arrows. And when the Christians ran at them the Indians fled to a hill, and one of them came forth into the path, lifting up his voice and saying: 'Sirs, for the love of God and the holy Mary, slay not me; for I am a Christian like yourselves, and was born in Seville, and my name is Juan Ortiz.' The delight of the Christians was very great, in God's having given them a tongue and a guide, of which, at that time, they were in great need; and, with every one very much elated, Baltasar de Gallegos [the commander] and all the Indians who came with him, returned that night very late to the camp."

The governor received Juan Ortiz like a son who had been given up for lost, seated him on his right at table, and ordered that he should be fully equipped, with fine apparel, the best of armor, and an excellent horse. Thenceforth he was one of the most honored men in the command, and, as he had a good knowledge of the Indian language as spoken in Florida, he became invaluable as an interpreter.

Note: The numerical strength of De Soto's army in Florida is variously given, as follows: "A thousand men and 350 horses," Theodore Irving; the same, J. S. C. Abbott; "570 men, 223 horses," J. G. Shea; "nearly a thousand," Rev. E. E. Hale; "mil hombres" (1000 men), Cronau, Spanish edition; "600," Encyclopedia Britannica, Chambers' Encyclopedia, and Hakluyt; "570 men, not including the sailors"—fully 700, Ranjel and the Fidalgo; "620 men, 223 horses," Biedma.