Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

In the Floridian Forests


Ferdinand de Soto himself wrote, respecting the acquisition of Juan Ortiz: "We rejoice no little over this interpreter, for he speaks the language; and although he had forgotten his own, yet it returned to him. . . . He puts a new life into us, in affording the means of our understanding these people, for without him I know not what would become of us. Glory be to God, who by His goodness has directed all, so that it appears as if He had taken this enterprise in His especial keeping!"

This letter of De Soto's was written July 9, 1539, at the port of Espiritu Santo, to the magistrates whom he had left in charge of affairs in Cuba. In it, also, he makes mention of what little information had been obtained, through Juan Ortiz, respecting the inland region which he purposed to explore:

"There is a town called Ocalla, where is an abundance of fowl, a multitude of turkeys, kept in pens, and herds of tame deer that are tended. What this means I do not understand, unless they be cattle, of which we brought the knowledge with us. He says, also, there are many trades among that people, an abundance of gold and silver, and many pearls. May it please God that this be so; for of what these Indians say I believe nothing but what I see; although they know, and have it for a saying, that if they lie to me it will cost them their lives!"

We thus have a pen-picture of De Soto at this time, sketched by himself. We find him, at the outset of this great adventure, disposed to be just towards the Indians, but at the same time inclined to exact of them the "pound of flesh," even though their lives be sacrificed. Oviedo the historian says that he "was much given to the sport of slaying Indians, from the time that he went on military expeditions with the governor, Pedrarias Davila, in the provinces of Castilla del Oro and of Nicaragua"; but, if what we have been able to discover is true, he was not greatly given to this "sport" previous to the year 1540. As he became entangled in the morasses of Florida, with faint prospect of emerging with either the gold he sought or the honors he hoped to gain, his disposition grew morose. Such Indians as then fell into his hands fared badly.

It was, doubtless, gold that De Soto craved above all other things; but he had no assurance, either in what had been revealed by Narvaez or by information obtained from Juan Ortiz, that gold existed in the country. Pearls there were, said honest Juan, but no gold, so far as his knowledge went. Yet, with the gaining of gold as his object, Ferdinand de Soto set out from Espiritu Santo on one of the most desperate and protracted wanderings known to history. Sending his largest vessels back to Havana, and retaining only two brigantines and a caravel for coast service, thus cutting off all hopes of a speedy return that might be indulged in by his men, the governor struck inland from the great bay about the middle of July. He had not found the region roundabout sufficiently fertile for a settlement, so he took with him on the march a drove of three hundred hogs, which had been intended for the settlers, and nearly all the horses. A valiant veteran, Pedro Calderon, was left as commander of the port, and with him thirty cavalry and seventy infantry, provisioned for two years.

Florida indians in canoe


De Soto gave the order and the irregular columns were soon in motion, the cavalry in advance, the infantry bringing up the rear, with the drove of swine straggling along in charge of herders specially detailed for the purpose. This herd of swine was regarded as the mainstay of the army, in case starvation should threaten; but was to be reserved to the last, as a nucleus for the colony's livestock.

No more brilliant pageant has ever been seen in Florida than this assemblage of mailed knights and footmen, with shining helms, prancing steeds, flaunting banners, and glistening weapons. It was a company such as might have been gathered for assault upon Moorish castle, citadel of Saracen, or pilgrimage to holy shrines. Every man was a crusader, yet every soldier was bent upon acquiring wealth enough to enable him to retire to Spain and lead a life of luxury.

The trumpets sounded, their blasts echoing through the forests of pine and over the broad savannas where flocked the cranes and curlews. The expedition had started, that much-vaunted enterprise upon which De Soto had lavished all his wealth, and for the return of which his good wife was to look long years in vain. It began with a misadventure, in which figured conspicuously that fantastic rival of the "Knight of La Mancha," Vasco Porcallo de Figueroa.

Word came to De Soto that the cacique Ucita was concealed in a swamp not far distant and near the line of march. Having used all his endeavors to induce him to come in, the governor was not disposed to give the chieftain further thought; but old Porcallo insisted that he should be captured and rebuked, if not punished, for his lack of courtesy. He insisted, also, that he was the man to effect that capture, and, to humor him, De Soto placed a troop of horse at his disposal.

"Ah, ha, now we shall see!" shouted the old cavalier as he rode down the lines, with the troopers clattering at his heels. "Do you go on, senor governor, and I will soon join you with that caitiff savage a prisoner, or his head on a pole."

"Do him no harm, unless strictly in defence," was De Soto's answer. "We do not wish to war upon the natives, especially at the beginning of our march."

"I know," rejoined Porcallo, and he was off at a gallop, his horse tearing through the forest at so swift a pace that soon the cacique's stronghold was in view. It was a vast and dismal swamp, in the centre of which was an island covered with "hammock" growth, matted together with vines. An Indian messenger met Porcallo, warning him of the difficulties and dangers in the way, but the old knight merely scoffed.

"Come on, my merry men!" he shouted to his escort. "We have him securely trapped. It is only to go in and fetch him out." So saying, he put spurs to his horse—and found himself bogged in a quagmire.

He fumed and swore, he called on all the saints, and then he called on his soldiers; but the former did not respond and the latter could not reach him. The weight of his heavy armor caused his struggling beast to sink deeper and deeper into the mire, until he was actually in danger of suffocation. At last, by a mighty effort, he extricated himself from his dangerous position and reached firm ground once more. But he was covered with mud from head to foot. His shining armor and the splendid accoutrements of his steed were bespattered, and he made such a sorry spectacle that the soldiers were convulsed with merriment. Spanish gravity is a thing not easily upset, but in this instance the soldiers threw all restraint to the winds and gave vent to derisive shouts and laughter. Their taunts were more than the vain Porcallo could endure, and the instant he rejoined De Soto he resigned his commission and left the office of lieutenant-general once more vacant.

Old Porcallo was vain, and his motive in joining the expedition—which was said to be the hope of getting slaves for his plantations—was ignoble; but he was generous to the last. Before embarking for Cuba he gave away all his horses, accoutrements, and munitions, and bestowed upon the army his vast supply of provisions, reserving only enough to last him the voyage. Even at this cost, as the sequel will show, he bought his freedom cheaply; and though he retired because of pique, he afterwards had great reason to rejoice at the disaster which, for a time, covered him with shame and confusion.

Beyond the province of Mocoso lay that of Paracoxi, who was a wary savage, and had learned by sad experience that the Spaniards could not be trusted. As Narvaez had passed his way—as was ascertained by finding the remains of a bridge he had built—it is probable that the savage had suffered severely, and he could not be induced to emerge from his retreat, which was in the midst of a vast morass. Indeed, the whole country was of this character, apparently, from a point three leagues beyond Paracoxi's deserted village, and the army was three days in traversing a swamp which lay between it and the firm land of a rolling prairie. While involved in the darkness of this dismal swamp, lurking Indians, probably some of Paracoxi's band, annoyed the soldiers exceedingly by discharging arrows at them from their hiding-places. Some were killed, some were captured, and an attempt was made to use the prisoners as guides. Finding, however, that they were prone to lead them into ambush, the Spaniards let loose their dogs upon them, who killed four, by tearing them to pieces.

This is the first act of deliberate cruelty which we can fasten upon the soldiers of De Soto in Florida; but this mode of inflicting death was not unusual with the Spaniards, who thereby killed their prisoners without waste of ammunition. Alarmed at the penalty which his companions had paid for their treachery, another Indian offered to guide the army to dry land; but before it was reached a stretch of water was entered which came up to the saddles of the cavalry and the shoulders of the infantry. It was a league in breadth and, in the centre, too deep to be forded. Here were discovered the remains of the bridge Narvaez had built years before. Two trees had been felled, one each side of the stream, and the intervening space filled by logs tied together and floored with poles.

This rude structure reminded De Soto of the aerial hammock bridges, made of vines, which he had seen and often crossed in Peru; and, to encourage his men, he told them that the difficulties here were as nothing compared with what he had encountered on the march to Cuzco. He detailed the most expert swimmers, with hatchets, to repair the bridge; but while they were at work they were frequently molested by Indians in canoes, and two of them severely wounded.

This difficult waterway is supposed to have been near the headwaters of the Hillsboro River or on the Ouithlacoochee. Beyond it, several miles, lay a beautiful prairie, covered with fields of maize; and as the soldiers had been for days subsisting upon watercresses, they greedily ate the young corn in the ear, as they stripped it from the stalk. Difficult and dangerous as this passage of the swamp had been, De Soto was obliged to send a courier back, through a country swarming with excited savages, to summon the remainder of the army, which had stayed behind under command of Lieutenant Luis de Moscoso. Two young men, Sylvestre and Lopez, were selected for this perilous enterprise, and they accomplished it only by riding night and day, following the trail by the sagacity of their horses, who picked it up like dogs on the scent. During three days and nights, these gallant steeds were hardly unsaddled and rarely unbridled, their riders sleeping in the saddle or standing by their heads as they snatched a bite of grass. At the perilous ford they found the Indians waiting for them in canoes, but they dashed through the water at speed, amid such a shower of darts and arrows that, looking back, they saw the surface covered, as with leaves that had fallen from the trees. Relays of Indians pursued them to the very vicinity of Moscoso's camp, and, hearing their cries, a rescue party dashed out, led by Nuno de Tobar, on a dapple-gray horse that became as famous as his rider.

On the march to reinforce De Soto, it seemed to the soldiers that the entire country had roused itself to repel the invaders, for they were beset by Indians on every side, by night and by day. Still, they suffered very little from the missiles of the savages, who shouted continually: "Keep on, robbers and murderers! In Apalachee you will get what you deserve! No quarter will be given to captives, who will be hung on the highest trees along the trail!"

They found the governor encamped in a land of plenty, but at odds with the cacique, who, when invited to a friendly chat, had sent word: "I am a king in my own land; but, what is your employment? Why are you here? I know, for others of your accursed race have been here. It is to wander about like vagabonds; to rob the poor, murder the defenceless. No, with such as you I want no friendship. War only, and never-ending, shall be waged against the invaders of our soil!"