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Hernando de Soto Discovers the Mississippi River: May 21, 1541

This text comes from our book, From Sea to Shining Sea.

Many leagues south of Mexico, in the tall and cold Andes Mountains, there reigned another Indian king as powerful as Montezuma. This king, called the Inca (EEN•cah), ruled over a great kingdom called Peru. Like the land of the Aztecs, Peru had cities with great and beautiful temples and grand public buildings. Peru also had gold—an abundance of gold. Stories of Peru’s gold reached the ears of the Spaniard, Francisco Pizarro (pee•ZAHR•oh), and his brothers. In January 1530, with a small band of adventurers, they set sail for Panama; a year later, they embarked from Panama to Peru in hopes of conquering it as Cortés had conquered Mexico.

Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, Peru
Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, Peru

With the Pizarro brothers went a young man named Hernando de Soto. Since coming to the New World several years before the conquest of Mexico, De Soto had fought in many Indian wars in Darien (Panama), Honduras, and Nicaragua. As Pizarro’s second-in-command, De Soto discovered the capital of the Inca and helped in capturing that mighty ruler. Receiving a share of the Inca’s treasure, De Soto returned to Spain a very rich man.

Hernando de Soto seemingly had everything a man could want. He was immensely rich, owned a great estate, and had a beautiful wife. Even King Charles borrowed money from him! But De Soto was not content. He missed his life in the New World. He longed for adventure. He desired, once again, to do great deeds. Hearing stories of the great riches to be found in the land of Florida, De Soto asked King Charles to allow him to explore and conquer that land. King Charles granted his request, and in 1538, De Soto set sail for Cuba.

De Soto remained in Cuba only long enough to outfit his expedition. In May of 1539, he set sail for Florida with nine ships and 1,000 men. Landing at what is today Tampa Bay (De Soto called it Espiritu Santo [ay•SPEER•ee•toh SAHN•toh], or “Holy Spirit Bay”), De Soto and his men explored the wilderness of western Florida. De Soto soon learned how fierce the Florida Indians, especially the Apalachee, were. Though the Apalachee were not easy foes to overcome, De Soto eventually subdued them. Then, turning northward toward what is now the state of Georgia, De Soto and his men followed the rumors of gold.

De Soto lands in Florida.
De Soto lands in Florida.

Pushing into northern and eastern Georgia, De Soto found some pearls, but no gold. As in Florida, the Indians were proud and warlike. They did not take kindly to De Soto’s habit of forcing warriors to carry his baggage. Finding no gold, De Soto again turned south, leading his men into what is today Alabama.

Near Mobile Bay (where hundreds of years before Madoc may have landed) Indians invited the Spaniards into their village, which was surrounded by a high wood stockade. One of De Soto’s men warned him that it might be a trap, but De Soto was too proud to refuse the invitation. De Soto should have listened to the soldier, for it was a trap, and the Spaniards barely escaped from the village alive.

Forming up his men outside the village, De Soto met the Indian attack. It was a fierce, nine-hour battle. The Spaniards tried to push their way into the stockade, but the Indian defenders kept them at bay; even Indian women and children came out to defend their village. Finally, the Spaniards seized the stockade and the battle ended. About 2,500 Indians lay dead, and about 20 Spaniards.

So far, De Soto’s expedition had been a failure; but, brave and stubborn, he would not accept defeat. Instead of heading east to where ships awaited that would take his army home, De Soto turned his march northwest. From December 1540 to April 1541, Indians attacked De Soto and his men nearly every night; but, still they marched on. On May 21, 1541, De Soto and his men reached a wide, muddy river. It was the Mississippi. Crossing this greatest of North American rivers, the Spaniards marched into what is now Arkansas.

De Soto discovers the Mississippi River.
De Soto discovers the Mississippi River.

There, De Soto showed that he did not care for gold and adventure alone, but also for the Catholic Faith and the salvation of souls. Raising a tall cross, the conquistador preached to the Indians about how God, who had made the world, became a man and died on the cross for their salvation. He told how Christ had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. Christ, he said, waited with open arms to receive anyone who would believe in him.

The Spaniards spent the winter in Arkansas and returned the following spring to the Mississippi River. De Soto was exhausted and filled with disappointment. His dream of finding gold had come to nothing; his expedition, he now knew, had been a failure. The proud conquistador came down with a fever. He suffered from pain and disappointment, but no word of complaint passed his lips. On May 20, 1542, he confessed his sins and begged his men to pray for him. The next day, Hernando de Soto died. His men buried him in the broad Mississippi, the river he had discovered exactly one year before.

The adventure had ended for De Soto, but not for his men. Under their new leader, Luis de Moscoso, they built small ships and floated down the Mississippi. Though Indians attacked them continually from the riverbanks, the Spaniards finally reached the Gulf of Mexico. They passed down the coast of Mexico until they arrived at the Mexican town of Panuco. The first thing the adventurers did after coming ashore was to find a church and hear Mass. With the priest, they raised their prayers of thanksgiving to God for their deliverance from danger and death.

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