Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

The Princess and Her Pearls


De soto encamped in a pine grove on the bank of a deep river, and there awaited the return of his scouts. Most of the weary troopers came back at nightfall, one after another, driving their horses before them with sticks or leading them by the bridle, but without having found any road or sign of settlement. They were famished, as well as worn with fatigue, and, as the maize, acorns, wild grapes, and even the roots and herbs, were exhausted, the governor ordered some of the swine to be slaughtered, giving to each man half a pound of pork. This allowance was not sufficient to allay their hunger, but served to sustain them a little longer, and meanwhile four parties of cavalry were sent out again to scour the country.

Juan de Afiasco proved the successful scout, for, after travelling down-stream, along the river-bank, three days and nights, he espied an isolated hamlet. It held but few inhabitants at the time, but proved to be well supplied with provisions, one barbacoa, or corn-crib, containing five hundred measures of meal made from parched maize and a great quantity of corn on the cob. The famished Spaniards soon allayed the cravings of hunger, and Afiasco sent back messengers to the governor and his people, "who were as much delighted as though they had been raised from death to life."

They broke camp immediately and pushed forward to the village, which De Soto aptly named Socorro, or Succor, and where he remained until all his scattered troopers had come in. For their information he had ordered an inscription cut into the bark of a pine-tree: "Dig here; at the root of this pine you will find a letter."

He reached Socorro on a Monday, and by Wednesday the three captains, who had been scouting in various directions, came straggling in, with nothing to add as to other villages existing in the country. But one of them exhibited to De Soto a skull and pair of horns which he had found, and which puzzled them all exceedingly. They had heard of herds of cattle owned by the Indians, and occasionally had been treated to a taste of beef, but could not learn where those herds were kept. The truth is, those "Indian cattle" were bison, or buffalo, which once roamed the prairies of the region traversed by De Soto in the year 1540 and thereafter.

The Spaniards remained at Socorro a week, during which time diligent inquiry was made for other villages, and the country was explored in every direction. Four Indians were captured, "not one of whom would say anything else than that he knew of no other town." The governor ordered one of them to be burned, and thereupon another said that two days' journey from there was a province called Cofachiqui. Socorro, in fact, was a frontier village of Cofachiqui, and several other settlements were discovered as the march was resumed down the river; but all were deserted, and had been recently ravaged. While the houses contained an abundance of provisions, and while the broad fields of maize had been carefully cultivated, showing that their owners could not have been long absent, not a living soul came forth to greet or repel the Spaniards. But, scattered along the trails, floating in the river, and outstretched upon the thresholds of many a deserted hut, were the mutilated corpses of men, women, and children who had been barbarously murdered and scalped. Patofa's bands had preceded the Spaniards, and had taken vengeance upon their ancient enemies, the Cofachiquis. Well aware that De Soto would not countenance such atrocities, they had committed the massacres stealthily, and had pressed so far ahead of their allies that it was difficult for the governor to overtake them.

Calling his captains around him, and pointing to the scalpless corpses collected by his orders and heaped up in the public square of the village he had last entered, De Soto exclaimed, indignantly: "Gentlemen, this must not be permitted to go on. We are, as you know, marching into an unknown country, and on the frontier of a province richer than any other we have entered. The queen of that province is reputed wealthy and powerful, and it behooves us to cultivate her friendship rather than incur her enmity. Go, then, forward, with your swiftest horsemen, and by all means intercept our ally, the cacique. Tell him to return, to come to me at once, for I wish to say certain things to him of moment."

In this tenor spake the governor to his captains, and they obeyed him so well and so promptly that soon they had found and turned back the cacique, who came willingly, inasmuch as his vengeance had been sated, and he already had in his possession hundreds of scalps, which he would take back to his people as trophies of his prowess. When, therefore, De Soto said he had sent for the purpose of dismissing him with thanks and rich presents, and begged that he would return, Patofa assented, saying that he was satisfied, for he had done his duty by his ancestors, and their manes were appeased. He and his braves then returned to Cofaqui, while the Spaniards kept on to Cofachiqui, which they reached a few days later, with the gallant Juan de Anasco in the lead. At the head of a reconnoissance he discovered an Indian village on the opposite bank of the river, which, from its size, he imagined to be a place of importance, perhaps the residence of the chief. He approached it at night, and, having stealthily made his way to the river-bank, where was a landing-place for canoes, and from which he could see innumerable lights and hear the confused murmur of many voices, he returned to report to his commander. Promptly at dawn the next day De Soto placed himself at the head of a hundred horsemen and advanced directly upon the town. When arrived at the river-bank he drew up his troopers in battle array, in order to make the most imposing appearance possible, and directed Juan Ortiz to say to the astounded Indians gathered on the opposite bank that he had a message for their cacique.

A grave and dignified warrior advanced a few paces and demanded: "Come ye in peace or in war?"

"In peace," replied De Soto, through the interpreter. "We desire only to speak with your cacique, and to have a free passage through your province, with provisions by the way."

"It is well," replied the warrior. "I will speak to my queen." He then made three profound salaams, the first towards the sun, in the east; the second towards the moon, in the west; the third towards De Soto, who returned the salute most courteously.

Soon after, a commotion was observed in the village, where a procession was being formed in front of the principal dwelling, and there later emerged from it a litter, or rustic palanquin, in which was seated a lovely Indian maid. The palanquin was borne on the shoulders of four stout men, who lowered it at the water-side and assisted the occupant, who was undoubtedly a princess or queen, into a large and gayly decorated canoe. There she reclined on soft cushions, beneath a canopy or awning supported on lances held by stalwart warriors. Eight comely attendants of her own sex surrounded and waited on this barbaric princess, whose barge of state was taken in tow by another grand canoe, filled with warriors and paddled by half-naked Indians. In this manner she approached the bank on which De Soto awaited her, seated in a gilded chair, like a throne, and surrounded by his captains in their shining armor. These brilliantly costumed strangers, with their caparisoned steeds and wonderful weapons, were things entirely new in the experience of this simple princess of the wilds; but she manifested neither alarm nor surprise as she landed from the barge and calmly took her seat on a large stool provided by an attendant.

Then, with the aid of the interpreters, Juan Ortiz and Perico, the Indian boy, she and De Soto conversed together, while their attendants preserved a discreet silence. The Spaniards were impressed with her modesty, as well as her dignity, grace, and beauty of form and feature. She made a little speech, and a very pretty one, if we may believe the "Fidalgo of Elvas," who was one of the cavaliers present at the interview, and who thus reports it: "Excellent lord, be this coming to these your shores most happy. My ability can in no way equal my wishes, nor my services become the merits of so great a prince; nevertheless, good wishes are to be valued more than all the treasures of the earth without them. With sincerest and purest goodwill, I tender you my person, my lands, my people, and make you these small gifts."

While she was speaking she had been toying with a necklace of beautiful pearls, which "passed three times round her neck and descended to her waist, so many there were." After disengaging the necklace, she handed it to Juan Ortiz, with the request that he give it to De Soto. When told that the governor would appreciate it most highly if received from her own hands, she shrank back timidly, saying that she could not do so with propriety. When urged, however, she rose, and with a shy laugh threw the precious rope of pearls about his neck, he stooping to receive the gift, with that knightly courtesy for which he was ever celebrated. In return he placed upon one of her fingers a ring of gold set with a ruby, with which she was far more pleased than with the pearls, and thanked him gratefully.

Then, the interview terminated, he handed her into her canoe, with helmet doffed the while, his captains likewise showing the princess those respectful attentions which are so highly appreciated by the gentler sex, whether living in the forest or at court. The cavaliers were glad, indeed, to behold this lovely apparition, suggestive of state and royalty; and though she was only half clad, in skins and not in silks, and her complexion was nut-brown in hue, her tresses raven black, they became quite enthusiastic in her praise. Her attendant maidens were equally discreet. Their eyes fell shyly as they beheld the bold glances of the soldiers, but they could not refrain from looking admiringly at those martial figures cased in armor.

The cacica had offered De Soto not only half her house, but half the village for his soldiers, and, by her direction, on the following day rafts and canoes were sent over to ferry the army across the river. In due time, all had crossed over, though several horses were lost in the rapids and whirlpools with which the river abounded, having been unwisely forced into them by their riders. A portion of the army was quartered in the village, but the bulk of the soldiers were lodged in capacious wigwams, which the princess had ordered built in a large mulberry grove on the bank of the river. After all their toils and battles, many of them would gladly have settled here, taking the Indian maidens for wives, and have made the beginnings of a settlement; and it would have been better for many of them if they had done so, for they marched thence to misery and to death.

The country was open, fertile, and attractive, with great groves of walnuts and mulberries, fine streams, and extensive grazing-lands. Two or three leagues distant from the village was another, the houses in which were abodes of bats and owls, for it had been abandoned by the Indians on account of a pestilence which had swept the land. In the old town were many sepulchres, filled, the natives told the Spaniards, with treasures of various sorts, such as skins of fur-bearing animals and pearls. Despite the pestilence, of which many of the inmates of these sepulchres had died, they were ravaged by the soldiers, who secured vast quantities of pearls, which they later threw away or lost on the march.

"The cacica," says one of her guests, "observing that the Christians valued pearls, told the governor that, if he cared to order those sepulchres searched that were in her town, he would find many; and if he chose to send to those that were in the abandoned towns, he might load all his horses with them. They examined those that were in the town, and found three hundred and fifty pounds' weight of pearls, and figures of babies and birds made of them."

There were found, also, breastplates, glass beads, and armor. When the governor exclaimed at the sight of so many pearls, the cacica simply said: "Do you consider that of much account? Go, then, to Talimico, another village of mine about a league from this, and you will find so many that your horses cannot carry them." The governor replied: "Let them stay there, then. To whom God gives a gift, may St. Peter bless it." With this enigmatical reply, it is thought, he would have diverted attention from this deposit of pearls, with the intention, perhaps, of returning to secure them at a more convenient time.

"That same day," wrote Rodrigo Ranjel, his secretary, "the governor and some of his staff entered a mosque and oratory of this heathen people, and, opening some burying-places, they found some bodies of men fastened on a barbacoa. Their breasts, necks, arms, and legs were adorned with pearls; and as they were taking them off, Ranjel saw something green, like an emerald of good quality, and he showed it to the governor, who was much rejoiced, and he ordered him to look out of the enclosure and call Juan de Masco, their majesties' treasurer. Then Ranjel said to him, 'My lord, let us not call any one, for it may be that this is a precious stone or jewel.'

"The governor replied somewhat angrily, and said, 'Even if it be one, are we to steal it?' When Juan de Anasco came they took out this supposed emerald, and it was but a bit of glass, and there were also other and many beads of glass, as well as rosaries with their crosses. They also found Biscayan axes of iron; from all this recognizing that they were in the territory where the lawyer, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, came to his ruin.

In the mosque, or house of worship, at Talimico, there were found breastplates resembling corselets, and head-pieces made of raw-hide with the hair scraped off, also very good shields."

The axes, armor, and beads were, doubtless, relics of the ill-fated expedition of Vasquez de Ayllon, a lawyer from Santo Domingo, who had landed on the coast of what is now South Carolina in quest of Indian slaves. One cargo had been sent to Santo Domingo; but on the second voyage, Ayllon and his companions were set upon and massacred, to the number of more than two hundred, and the rich plunder was probably distributed among the tribes of the coast. No survivor of that expedition was found by De Soto; but these relics show that he had reached a point within a few days' journey of the Atlantic coast, near the mouth of the Savannah River.

It appeared to some of De Soto's captains that the province of Cofachiqui would be a good one for a settlement. While the soil was not very fertile, yet it was good enough for their purpose, and while the colony was being established on a sure foundation, it might be supported by the pearl fisheries, and by trade opened direct with Spain.

"But Soto, as it was his object to find another treasure like that of Atabalipa, lord of Peru, would not be content with good lands, or pearls, even though many of them were worth their weight in gold; so he answered them who urged him to make a settlement, that in all the country together there was not support for his troops a single month; that it was necessary to return to Acusi (Pensacola), where Maldonado was to wait; and should a richer country not be found, they who would could always return; and in their absence the Indians would plant their fields and be better provided with maize."

Still, the governor was not insensible to the charms of the province, nor to the blandishments of its beautiful cacica, whose admiration for the handsome cavalier amounted at first almost to worship. She not only entertained him hospitably, but she endeavored to induce her mother, the queen-regent, to visit her and see for herself what wonderful creatures were these beings who had honored her with their attentions. But the mother of the princess was a widow, and wary. The more she was urged to emerge from her retreat and show herself, the farther she retired into the forest depths. Learning that she was a woman of superior attainments, and that she possessed vast quantities of pearls, De Soto was very earnest in his efforts to draw her from the forest. He despatched the trusty Anasco with a troop, and the princess sent with him a young man, her cousin, as guide. He resembled the beautiful princess, it is said, bore himself with dignity, and was garbed as became a member of the royal family.

It was noticed that the young prince departed on his mission with reluctance, though he received the request of the cacica as a command which he must obey. He led the Spaniards along the bank of a river, and at noon they rested in a grove of walnut-trees, where lunch was spread. After the meal was over, the guide took the quiver from his shoulder, and drew out the arrows in it, one by one. He looked them all over thoughtfully, and the Spaniards gathered about to admire them, for they were superior to any they had ever seen. Some were barbed with flint, and some with crystal, while the shafts of all were highly polished and tipped with feathers. At length he drew forth an arrow dagger-pointed, though the barb was of flint. This, without a word, he plunged into his throat, and fell prostrate, bleeding from a mortal wound.

The Spaniards were at first unable to conjecture the cause of this action on the part of the youth; but it developed that, while he was a favorite of the princess, he was also deeply attached to the queen-mother, whom the Spaniards intended to kidnap. As they could succeed only through his aid, he resolved to extricate himself from the perplexing situation in which he was placed by committing suicide. Thus the attempt to secure the queen-regent was frustrated, for no one else could guide the Spaniards to her hiding-place. De Soto, it is said, mourned the death of the high-spirited youth; but not long after he confirmed the suspicions that chivalrous savage had formed of his intentions by carrying away as a captive the generous princess to whom he was so deeply in debt for inestimable favors.