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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > September 2016 > Great Adventures: Hernando de Soto Crosses the Mississippi

Great Adventures: Hernando de Soto Crosses the Mississippi

Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto made his fortune invading South and Central America but, as Pat Kinsella tells us, a wild goose chase for gold took him across the Mississippi, and cost him more than just his money...
BLOODLUST A 16th-century engraving depicts the Spaniard’s torture of Native Americans in Florida

“Christians, weary and very thirsty, went to drink at a pond nearby, tinged with the blood of the killed.” Contemporary chronicler Elvas on the Battle of Mabila

Hernando de Soto proved he was worth considerably more than his own weight in gold during Spain’s treasure-frenzied, empire-toppling conquests of South and Central America.

Having taken part in gold-seeking expeditions and slave-trading enterprises in the Yucatán Peninsula, Panama, Nicaragua and Colombia, and fought the Incas alongside Francisco Pizarro in Peru, he returned to his homeland in 1536 with a huge swag of sparkling spoils – an immensely wealthy man at just 36 years of age.

But despite his riches, and a marriage to the royally connected Isabel de Bobadilla, de Soto wasn’t ready to settle down into domesticity. He soon became beguiled by stories of adventure percolating back across the Atlantic, including the amazing tale of Cabeza de Vaca (see box, p68, one of just a handful of survivors from a disastrous 600-man expedition to North American led by Spaniard Pánfilo de Narváez in 1527. De Soto appealed to King Charles for the governorship of Ecuador, simultaneously seeking “permission to create discovery in the South Sea”, but was given control of Cuba instead. Charles further issued him with orders to conquer and colonise the region then known as La Florida and, in 1539, de Soto embarked on an expedition to try and succeed where Narváez had so spectacularly failed.


De Soto selected 620 young men – fortuneseeking volunteers from Spain, Portugal, Cuba and North Africa, picked primarily for their battling ability – and set sail from Havana, heading north towards the peninsula dangling down from the North American mainland. The Florida-bound flotilla was comprised of seven of King Charles’s ships and two caravels belonging to de Soto himself.

On board – besides the large fighting force – were craftsmen, farmers, families and holy men plus 237 horses, 200 pigs and other assorted livestock. It was all the ingredients that the ambitious explorer thought he required for a planned four-year expedition, with the aim of seeding a colony and bolstering his bank account.

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About History Revealed

September 2016 issue of History Revealed.