The Spanish conqueror and explorer Hernando de Soto (1500-1542) participated in the conquest of Peru, explored the southeastern part of the United States, and was the first white man to cross the Mississippi River.
Hernando de Soto was born at Jerez de los Caballeros in the province of Estremadura. Although of noble lineage, he was without wealth. "With only a sword and shield" he accompanied Pedrarias when the latter assumed his post as governor of Darien (Caribbean side of the Isthmus of Panama and Colombia). As Pedrarias's lieutenant, De Soto explored the area encompassing modern Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras in the 1520s.
Sailing from Nicaragua in 1531, De Soto joined Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, emerging from the conquest with a reputation as a skilled horseman and "one of the four bravest captains who had gone to the West Indies." With a fortune of 100,000 pesos in gold, De Soto returned to Spain in 1536, where Emperor Charles V rewarded his exploits by appointing him governor of Cuba and adelantado of Florida. As adelantado, he was commissioned to conquer and colonize, at his own expense, the entire region which is now the southern part of the United States.
De Soto returned to Cuba in 1538, where he assumed the governorship and prepared for his expedition to Florida. Hoping to find another Peru, De Soto and 620 men landed south of Tampa Bay on May 30, 1539. A reconnaissance party returned with Juan Ortiz, a survivor of the earlier illfated Narváez expedition, who had lived among the Indians for 12 years. With Ortiz acting as interpreter, De Soto began a 3-year journey in search of treasure and an advanced Indian population. Marching up the west coast of Florida, he wintered near the present site of Tallahassee. In the spring of 1540 De Soto resumed the march through Georgia. At the Savannah River he met an Indian chieftainess who offered him a long string of pearls and told him more could be found in nearby burial grounds. After collecting 350 pounds of pearls, the expedition continued northward into what is present-day South and North Carolina, across the Smoky Mountains into Tennessee, and southward into Georgia and Alabama. Their severest battle with Indians, which resulted in heavy casualties and loss of the pearls, occurred in southeastern Alabama at a large town called Mavilla.
De Soto set out once again to the northwest into northern Mississippi. In May 1541 he sighted the Mississippi River south of Memphis. After crossing the Mississippi he explored Arkansas and established his winter quarters near the present site of Fort Smith. Now resolved to return to the sea, he reached the mouth of the Arkansas River, where he died of fever on May 21, 1542.
De Soto's men wrapped his body in mantles packed with sand and cast it into the river. The 311 survivors, under Luis de Moscoso, built seven brigantines, floated down the Mississippi, and coasted along the Gulf shore until they reached Tampico, Mexico, on Sept. 10, 1543.
Further Reading on Hernando de Soto
The most recent sources on De Soto are Garcilaso de la Vega, The Florida of the Inca, edited by John G. and Jeannette J. Varner (trans. 1951), and James A. Robertson, ed., True Relation of the Hardships Suffered by Governor Fernando de Soto and Certain Portuguese Gentlemen during the Discovery of the Province of Florida (trans., 2 vols., 1932-1933). Accounts of De Soto's career can be found in Woodbury Lowery, The Spanish Settlements within the Present Limits of the United States, 1513-1561 (1901); Edward G. Bourne, Spain in America, 1450-1580 (1904); and Herbert E. Bolton, The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest (1921).