This is part of a series of articles by Courtney Miller on the subject of “First Contact”–the initial contact of the Native Americans with the Europeans. “The Soto Expedition” delves into Hernando de Soto’s commission from King Charles I of Spain to “conquer and colonize” Florida.
Hernando de Soto, grew up poor in the impoverished Extremadura region of southwestern Spain and dreamed of travelling to the New World to make a fortune. Around the age of 14, de Soto managed to join an expedition to the West Indies led by Pedro Arias Dávila where he earned a fortune from Dávila’s conquest of Panama and Nicaragua. Sixteen years later, he was the leading slave trader and one of the richest men in Nicaragua.
In 1531, he joined Francisco Pizarro as his chief lieutenant on his conquest of the Inca in Peru. De Soto helped capture the Inca emperor Atahualpa and the capital city of Cuzco and was the emperor’s closest contact while in captivity. Even though the Incas assembled a huge ransom in gold for his release; Pizarro’s men executed Atahualpa in 1533 and Soto gained a fortune when the ransom was divided. He was later named lieutenant governor of the city of Cuzco and participated in Pizarro’s founding of the new capital at Lima in 1535.
In 1536, Hernando de Soto returned to Spain as one of the wealthiest conquistadors of the era, married his sweetheart, Isabel de Bobadilla, and as a national hero, was admitted into the prestigious Order of Santiago. But, he was not satisfied and yearned to return to the New World. in 1537, he sought special permission from King Charles I of Spain to conquer Ecuador, with special rights to the Amazon River basin. Instead, he was made governor of Cuba, and commissioned to conquer, colonize, (and plunder) what was then known as Florida, what is today Southeastern North America.
Hernando De Soto organized a huge group of fortune seekers to join his expedition to Florida hoping to find gold, silver, and precious metals. The expedition was privately financed mostly by Soto, but each person on the expedition was responsible for their own expenses with the exception of a few friends, relatives, servants, and priests. De Soto set out from Spain in April 1538, with 10 ships and 700 men. After a stop in Cuba, the expedition landed at Tampa Bay in May 1539. They moved inland and eventually set up camp for the winter at a small Indian village near present-day Tallahassee. It was not “first contact” for the Native Americans in the Florida area. But, when the Soto Expedition truly began in the spring of 1540, the clash between the cultures began for many tribes in Southeastern North America.
Most of what we know about the Soto Expedition comes from the accounts of four chroniclers of the expedition. The first account of the expedition to be published was by the “Gentleman of Elvas”, a Portuguese knight who was a member of the expedition. His chronicle was first published in 1557.
Luys Hernández de Biedma, wrote a report which still exists in the royal archives in Spain. It was translated into English by Buckingham Smith and published in 1851. Biedma was the King’s agent responsible for the royal property of the expedition.
A third account is based upon the diary of Soto’s secretary, Ridrigo Ranjel. The diary itself has disappeared, but Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Vlades wrote “La historia general y natural de las Indias” was based on the diary.
The fourth chronicle was written by Garcilaso de la Vega. Although, not not a participant in the expedition, he wrote, “The Florida of the Inca”, years later based on interviews with some survivors of the expedition. Garcilaso de la Vega was the son of Captain Garcilaso de la Vega y Vargas, one of the members of the conquest force of Pedro de Alvaradois mother was Palla Chimpu Occlo, a member of the Inca royal family.
In the years since, there has been extensive study of not only the above texts, but research by historians, archaeologists and anthropologists. There are, of course, many conflicting facts and the chronicles contradict and are sometimes suspect. So, what I am presenting here is a personal perspective on the subject. Next week, let the expedition begin!