Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

The First Winter in Florida


Returning with his captive to Anhayca, the Apalachee capital, the governor made preparations, the last week in October, 1539, for settling down there for the winter; but not to a life of inaction. While he had been in pursuit of Capafi, two of his captains, Tinoco and Vasconceles, were scouring the country for gold and supplies, and shortly after his return another, Juan de Anasco, was sent southward on a most important mission. This was to discover, if possible, a route to the sea, which, the Indians told De Soto, was not many leagues away.

Taking with him ninety horse and foot, Anasco, who was the contador, or auditor, of the expedition, and a man who could be trusted implicitly, started on his perilous trip to the sea-coast. It must be remembered that De Soto had no maps or charts upon which he could rely for guidance, and depended entirely upon information given him by the Indians, who were not always understood by the interpreter. On this occasion it happened that the governor had been correctly informed, and Anasco found the object of his search, though only after enduring great privations.

He took along as guide an Apalachee prisoner, who was soon accused of treachery, because he attempted (the soldiers said) to lose them in a vast morass. Several times he brought them within sound of the sea waves on a distant shore, and then started in a different direction, which invariably led into the wilderness. At last their suspicions became so strong that an iron collar was put on his neck, to which was attached a chain, held by a soldier, who was charged to keep strict watch, lest he should escape.

One night, as his enemies were asleep, he snatched a glowing brand from the camp-fire and beat the soldier with it over the head, at the same time trampling upon him as he lay helpless on the ground. This so exasperated Captain Anasco, who was already greatly incensed, that he thrust the recreant guide through with a lance, then loosed his hound, who quickly tore him to pieces. The Spaniards thus gratified their desire for revenge; but they had deprived themselves of the only man who knew the way out of the wilderness, and for fifteen days they wandered aimlessly about, finally reaching the coast nearly exhausted and on the verge of starvation.

Here they found, not only abundant supplies of fish, but a large and excellent bay, and came upon gruesome relics of the ill-starred expedition of Narvaez. That this bay was the one from which the remnants of his command had set sail was shown by the stumps of trees which had been felled for the construction of the brigantines, a forge for the making of bolts and nails, and finally by the skulls of horses which had been killed.

This bay was undoubtedly that of the present St. Marks, and is distant but a few leagues, in a direct line southward, from Anhayca, which was probably on or near the site of Tallahassee. It was called Aute by the natives, who had picked up a few Spanish words from the former visitors, and who conducted Masco and his men to scenes identified with its discovery. With this valuable information, after going out in a canoe and sounding the harbor, Anasco returned to Anhayca, whence he was soon despatched by De Soto to Tampa, with orders for Captain Calderon to abandon his encampment there and join him in Apalachee.

The intrepid Anasco, in command of thirty lancers, like himself men of valor and endurance, set out on November 20th for Tampa, or Espiritu Santo, which he reached at the end of ten days. As De Soto did not take part in this desperate dash through a country swarming with Indians already roused to fury by the outrages committed upon them by the Spaniards, we feel constrained to omit it from our narrative. But it was one of the most venturesome episodes of the expedition, and replete with exciting incident. Anasco took Calderon orders to proceed northward by land, while he himself was to sail along the coast to the harbor of Aute, and march thence to Apalachee. To a worthy companion of his, Gomez Arias, was given the enviable commission of bearing to Dona Isabel tidings from her liege lord in Apalachee, and he soon set sail with two caravels for Havana, carrying with him twenty Indian women and some pearls of the country as presents.

The garrison at Tampa had planted gardens, which were fruitful and flourishing at the time Anasco returned, and they were loath to leave them, especially when they learned that no gold had been discovered. This was their first demand: "Have you found any gold?" The welfare of their commander and comrades seemed to concern them no whit; but in refreshing contrast to their indifference was the lively interest of the good cacique, Mocoso, who inquired earnestly after his friends in distant Apalachee.

It is a pleasure to record that he was richly rewarded for his loyalty to the Spaniards, for to him and his people they gave all their surplus stores, helmets, armor, lances, pikes, etc., of which a mountain-heap remained after the retiring soldiers had taken all they could carry. It took Mocoso's people nearly a week to remove these articles to their town, though every man, woman, and child was impressed into service; and thereafter they were living examples of Spanish beneficiaries.

What became of all these things, especially of such as were in their nature imperishable, like the helmets and the armor, no one in recent times has been able to discover. It would seem likely that some relics of this expedition, which wound its way through the forests and over the prairies for years, scattering hundreds of objects in iron and steel along its route, might be found; but few, if any, have been recovered. Mocoso and his subjects have disappeared, along with the objects with which the Spaniards enriched them, and so, also, have all the tribes encountered, except a few in the northern region traversed by De Soto.

Gomez Arias sailed southward with two caravels, and safely reached Havana, with news which cheered the heart of Dona Isabel and at the same time saddened it. While the message from De Soto was affectionate, nevertheless it conveyed to her his stern resolve never to return without accomplishing the objects sought. Thus far there had been no indications either of a golden region or an extensive empire (as he frankly stated), but he should still persist in his search for both. His sorrowing consort knew him well enough to be convinced that, if neither existed, she might never see him again, for his proud nature would not permit him to return to Cuba impoverished.

She had already divined the situation, it is said, and had sent a letter to Tampa, which Captain Calderon bore to his commander, begging him to abandon the enterprise and resume his captain-generalcy in Cuba, which was an island already ripe for development. After entering a plea for the Indians of Florida, she continues: "I hope, my dearest husband, that no considerations of worldly advantage will make you neglectful of the precepts of humanity and of the duties of religion. Be persuaded to return to me at once, for you can gain nothing in Florida which can compensate me for the sorrow and anxiety I feel in your absence. If you have gained nothing, I shall be better satisfied, because there may be the less cause for repentance. Whatever may have been your want of success or your losses, I implore you to come to me without delay; for any reverse of fortune is far better than the suspense and misery I now endure."

It would seem that the daughter of Pedrarias was paying the penalty of her father's sins, for surely few women have had to suffer more mental anguish than she endured during those long months of waiting, which stretched into still longer years that finally ebbed away into eternity. She was never to see her lover and husband again, yet she remained hopeful and faithful, sending several missions in search of him, all of which were fruitless in their quest.

While Juan de Afiasco sailed northward, taking with him in the brigantines his thirty lancers, sturdy Pedro Calderon, with one hundred and twenty horse and foot, made his way to Apalachee by land. He had literally to carve a path anew through the forests and swamps, for, though thrice opened, it had closed behind the previous cavaliers, like the waves parted by a vessel's keel. Almost every mile of his route was contested by the enemy, and he arrived at Apalachee, the last of December, with his little force reduced by many killed and wounded.

Afiasco arrived shortly before Captain Calderon, and De Soto received them both with rejoicings. The original band of adventurers was now reunited, and, as the soldiers looked upon their governor with feelings akin to reverence, there was no dissension in camp, but all dwelled together as brothers. The interior of Florida had been opened up by the various marches through it, and the west coast had been explored as far north as St. Marks. Westward from this bay both the coast and interior country were still unknown, and De Soto sent Diego Maldonado, in the brigantines Afiasco had brought, with a company of soldiers and sailors, to investigate. He sailed away westward, and about seventy leagues from Aute found what his commander wanted—a magnificent harbor large enough for world-commerce and advantageously situated, with its splendid country adjacent, for a colony. The fleets of all Europe might safely ride at anchor there, Maldonado reported to De Soto, and, moreover, it was land-locked, with shores so "steep-to" that vessels might sail right up to the bluffs.

This information rejoiced the governor exceedingly, and he took energetic measures, by despatching Maldonado to Havana for a fleet well freighted with supplies, towards making this bay of Ochuse, as the natives called it, a nucleus for the great empire which he hoped to create in Florida. This fine harbor is known to-day as Pensacola, and is worthy of all the encomiums that the early navigators lavished upon it. Instructing Maldonado to sail for Havana with all speed and rendezvous at Ochuse the following October, De Soto, with tireless energy, made preparations for an extended exploration of the interior country, intending to meet his lieutenant at the time appointed. He had kept the road to Aute open by marching and countermarching over it several companies of horsemen, so the various operations were conducted and communication was maintained between the port and Apalachee without any considerable losses by the Spaniards. Yet they were continually in warfare with the savages, who assailed them by night and by day, attacking not only their outposts, but the headquarters as well, with all the fury of their first assaults.

These Apalachees, in fact, were unconquerable, and, even though their capital was in the hands of the enemy, they never ceased their efforts until the Spaniards had departed from their province. De Soto had thought to restrain them somewhat by keeping their chief, the fat cacique, in custody; but this individual was as crafty as he was skilled in warfare, and one day he effected his escape by playing upon the credulity of his captors. His warriors continued to molest the Spaniards at every opportunity; and when the governor remonstrated, telling him that he thought it very ungrateful in his subjects to do so, when their chief was receiving from him every kindness and attention, he agreed and expressed great grief at their conduct.

"But," he said, "they do not know that I am well treated. They think of me as imprisoned in a dungeon and with fetters on my limbs. Let me but show myself to them unfettered, and doubtless they will cease their ravages at once."

De Soto agreed that this seemed reasonable, and asked him how he should proceed.

"My chief men are encamped in a forest, five or six leagues from here," answered the cacique. "Send me to them, guarded by a small company of soldiers, and I will soon bring them to terms. But do not put irons upon me, for that would enrage them."

As the obese cacique could not walk without assistance, much less run away, the governor assented to this proposition, and, closely guarded by a company of picked soldiers, he was sent to interview his warriors. Setting out at daylight one morning, they marched till near sunset, when the forest was reached in which the warriors were said to be concealed. The soldiers were weary from their march, and, though they took every precaution, by posting sentinels and surrounding the cacique with a very strong guard, they all fell asleep in the night.

Their prisoner was not weary, as he had been carried all the way, and he was very wide-awake, for, watching his opportunity, about midnight he crawled off into the thickets on his hands and knees; and that was the last the Spaniards ever saw of the fat cacique.

When his absence became known, next morning, the sentinels swore, by all the saints they could remember and name, that they had not slept a wink, so it was agreed among the company that the fat cacique must have been a necromancer, and, by conjuring a demon to his aid, had got himself spirited away. At least, this was the story they told the governor on their return, and he, wise and forbearing man that he was, said in reply (though with something approaching a twinkle in his eyes): "It is very possible, my sons, for I really believe these Indians are capable of more wonderful feats than merely conjuring off a fat cacique. Still, would I had been there to behold the feat!"

Relieved of anxiety respecting their chief, the Apalachee warriors redoubled their efforts to drive the invaders away. Whenever the Spaniards went to the forest for wood or to the streams for water, they were quickly surrounded by hosts of savages, who massacred and scalped the white men and broke the chains of their slaves, whom they took with them to their haunts. Though some few were captured, most of the Apalachees encountered fought to the death, and they were so regardless of pain that, says the Portuguese chronicler, "if their hands and noses were cut off, they made no more account of it than if each of them had been a Mucius Scavola of Rome. Not one of them, for fear of death, would deny that he belonged to Apalachee."

Two young cavaliers, Diego de Soto, a nephew of the governor, and Diego Velasquez, were making their rounds one day, when they espied an Indian stealing across a field surrounded by a forest.

"At him!" shouted Diego de Soto, rising in his stirrups and shaking his lance. Finding himself unable to regain the forest, the Indian placed his back against an isolated tree in the cornfield, fixed an arrow in his bow, and calmly awaited his enemy. As he pranced up to the tree, Diego de Soto made a pass at the Indian with his lance, which the latter dodged, and then let loose an arrow. It struck the horse in a vital spot, and he fell dead in less than twenty paces.

Then Diego Valasquez took a hand in the affray, but met with no better luck than his companion. He missed the savage with his lance, and an arrow was buried in the body of his horse, just back of the saddle-girth, and the noble beast stumbled headlong to his death. Enraged beyond expression at the loss of their gallant steeds, the two cavaliers sprang for the Indian with their lances; but he was more than their equal afoot, and fled to the forest, keeping just beyond reach of their weapons and jeering them all the way.

The two Diegos walked ruefully back to camp, where they had to endure the gibes of their comrades also. But they were far more fortunate than two other horsemen, Simon Rodriguez and Roque de Yelves, who rode out one afternoon to gather wild grapes at the edge of the forest. Leaving their horses at the foot of a tree, they climbed up into the branches, where the vines were thick with fruit.

Some savages discovered them there, and shot them with barbed arrows. As they fell to the ground, their horses broke loose and fled wildly to the camp, pursued by bow-shots from the Indians. One of them had a few drops of blood on his thigh, but nothing was thought of it at the time. Next morning he was dead, and when opened an arrow was found in his entrails, which had entered his thigh at the spot where the drops of blood were seen.