Inspired by the stories of Cabeza de Vaca, who had survived in North America after becoming a castaway and just returned to Spain, in 1540, Hernando de Soto petitioned the King of Spain and was appointed governor of Cuba and granted the right to explore and colonize North America [refer to Part 1]. Cabeza de Vaca had originally gone to Florida with Panfilo de Narvaez in 1527. The King of Spain had granted Narvaez the right to explore and colonize Florida and de Vaca was his second in command.
The legacy of Panfilo de Narvaez would cause great problems for the Soto Expedition. Narvaez was described as “a man of authoritative personality, tall of body and somewhat blonde inclined to redness” and he was noted to be “very cruel to Indians.” One of the chroniclers of the Soto Expedition, Garcilaso de la Vega, “The Inca” [see Part 1], described it this way, “… they marched inland a little more than two leagues to the pueblo of a cacique (chief) named Hirrihigua, with whom Panphilo de Narvaez had fought when he went to conquer that province. Although afterward the Indian had been induced to become a friend, during that time, it is not known for what reason, Panphilo de Narvaez, angered, had committed certain offenses against him, which as they are so detestable are not recounted.”
Later in his account, the Inca gives us a hint of the “detestable offenses” that Narvaez inflicted upon Hirrihigua, “… However (and this was the injury that he [Hirrihigua] could not pardon), every time he remembered that they [Narvaez and the Spaniards] had thrown his mother to the dogs and left her to be eaten by them, and when he went to blow his nose and could not find his nostrils, the devil possessed him to avenge himself …”
After Panfilo de Narvaez had left the country of cacique Hirrihigua, his wife became concerned when she had not heard from him and sent a ship with a search party to look for him. According to the Inca’s account, Hirrihigua was bent on revenge and “wished to capture all who were in it and burn them alive.” In the end, he was only able to capture four of the Spaniards and took them back to his village where he released them one-at-a-time to be the object of target practice for his warriors as the raced about in the plaza. They were instructed to shoot them sparingly so that they would not die quickly. After killing three, when the fourth was brought out, Hirrihigua’s wife and daughters felt pity for him. Juan Ortiz was a young boy and the women argued that he was too young to be guilty of the cruelty of the Spanish. Thus, the young Spaniard was spared and placed into slavery.
Hirrihigua’s wife and daughters had another opportunity to save him years later when, in a fit of rage, Hirrihigua placed him on a spit with the intent to roast him alive. Quoting the Inca, “This was done, and here the poor Spaniard remained for some time stretched on one side, fastened to the frame. At the cries that the poor unfortunate gave in the midst of the fire, the wife and daughters of the cacique came, and begging the husband and even reproaching his cruelty, they took him from the fire, already half roasted, having blisters on that side as large a half-oranges, some of them broken and bleeding freely, so that it was pitiful to see him.”
His respite was short-lived however, and when Hirrihigua decided to finally kill him, his daughter managed to help him escape. Her deed became the fodder for the “Legend of Princess Hirrihigua , the Pocahontas of Florida.” With her help, Juan Ortiz managed to escape to the cacique of Mucoco where the chief took pity upon him and allowed him to live peacefully with them. When the cacique Mucoco learned of the landing of de Soto’s ships, he feared what the Spanish might do to his people and wisely reached out to Soto in friendship and allowed Juan Ortiz to rejoin his fellow Spaniards as a guide. [refer to Part 2]
Seeing that the natives could be a valuable resource for his expedition, Soto endeavored to restore good relations with the native peoples. He even reached out to Hirrihigua. From the Inca’s account, “The cacique not only refused to come out peaceably, but refused to accept the friendship of the Spaniards or even to reply a single word to any of the messages they sent him. He only said to the messengers that his injury did not admit of giving a favorable response …”
As for Panfilo de Narvaez, the cruel and headstrong adalentado (King’s nobleman) of Florida, he continued his ill-fated journey in search of gold and treasure running into the formidable tribes of the Appalachee Indians. Unable to conquer the powerful Appalachee and unable to find gold, he had his men construct four wooden rafts so they could attempt to return to sea. He manned one raft for himself and another was lead by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, his second in command. Narváez stubbornly allowed the rafts to separate in a storm and his raft was blown out to sea. He was never seen again. Only 86 survived to be captured by local Indians on Galveston Island. Cabeza de Vaca and three others managed to escape and made their way back to Florida and eventually to Spain.