American Conquest - Background
History For Teens

By Donald E. Sheppard

Native Americans were invaded by Conquistadors five centuries ago. Not long after Columbus discovered the New World, Spain settled Indian villages along our coasts. Hernando de Soto invaded Panama in his teens. He was "inspired" by three Conquistadors: Ponce de León, Balboa and Magellan. All were famous New World Explorers: Ponce de León discovered North America, Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean, and Magellan sailed across it to China, the greatest market in the World.

Press for MorePonce de León, who had sailed with Columbus, and Balboa made their discoveries when DeSoto was 13 years old. Later, on "Missions" with Balboa in Panama, DeSoto learned that vicious dogs, fast horses, and extortion worked wonders on Natives. He was called the "Child of the Sun" by the Natives for attacking villages at dawn, capturing women and children, then holding them for ransom for their release. Land and Indians became objects of ownership. A few years later Magellan sailed to China, but lost his life on the long voyage by taking the long way there: around South America.

1544 MapDeSoto got very rich by Conquering the Incas of Peru. Spain became a very rich nation. To spend their New World fortunes, DeSoto believed he could reach China from Spain by traveling north from Cuba, Spain's stronghold in the New World. He planned to raid Indian villages for food and slaves along his way to the Northern Sea which Indians had told other Spaniards about. DeSoto believed America's Northern Sea (Lake Michigan) was the Pacific Ocean... and that he could sail a short distance across it to China. Coronado would explore America's West at the same time.

The King of Spain gave DeSoto four years to conquer North America. DeSoto would be granted a 500 mile wide swath of North America of his choosing, for himself and his heirs, if he could settle it. His long journey across America, searching for a passage to China and enough gold to attract settlers to his planned colony, was well recorded by people caught up in something they had little understanding of and no control over. Their records, misunderstood for centuries, are the only spoils of Spain's "Conquest of America." Our land and Indians would never be the same again; theirs is the only account of what it was like when White and Black people, young and old, first penetrated America. What follows is their story, sketchy in places, incredible in others, it's the oldest written history of America.

Young Man - Press for More New ImagesDeSoto's people sighted Florida in May, 1539, at a port discovered by Ponce de León, who called this place "The Island of Florida." DeSoto brought 640 "soldiers" from Spain and Africa. Most of them were young. Some even brought their wives; 200 of them brought horses; many brought their dogs; and all brought equipment for hiking, camping and fighting. DeSoto brought tons of supplies - cannon, gun powder, cross bows, shields, lances, armor, helmets, blood hounds, seeds, nails, axes, saws, pigs and mules - to colonize and hold America for Spain.

Along for the riches of Conquest were carpenters, priests, navigators, lords, engineers, ship builders, blacksmiths, farmers, herdsmen, merchants and prospectors. Some had sold their houses and farms to be with DeSoto, the famous Conquistador, but most had never been trained as soldiers. Many had never been outside their own villages, much less in a land so vast that even the worldly DeSoto misjudged its size. Spain and Portugal could be walked from one end to the other in less than one month. This "army" would hike America for 4 years without seeing an ocean, not one of them ever knowing what they were up against.

DeSoto's Eyewitness Reports:  Biedma,  Rangel,  Elvas,  Inca

A Florida Beach near a Conquest Landing PlaceThey would trudge Florida's swamps from Charlotte Harbor to Tallahassee and beyond; spend the Winter among hostile Indians near Panama City (where Spaniards had been before), then enter a peaceful Alabama, Georgia and Carolina (where Spaniards had never been). Foreign diseases, brought here by the Spaniards, destroyed Indian lifestyles. Descriptions of Indians living in places which are cities today were well recorded, and have been translated into English. They are available on-line, but were not understood until recently because scholars never knew where DeSoto went in America.

America's Great River BasinDeSoto's army journeyed for 4 years and 4,000 miles before abandoning their effort to Conquer this large continent. In the process of exploring America's Great River basin, including Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas, DeSoto's army encountered 100's of 1,000's of Indians living where our cities are today. The Spaniards described their journey between our landmarks - mountains, rivers, plains, forests, shores and, yes, our cities - in order to return to desirable places to homestead them once DeSoto founded his colony. The best places for them to do that were Indian villages, just as those places were best for French and English Pioneers to settle a century later when they arrived.


Two MenIndian villages were pillaged by DeSoto's people while collecting valuables to attract more Spaniards to America. Indians were not treated as humans; they were chained around the neck and forced to gather and carry food and clothing for the Spaniards. Indian women were raped, their children were abused; all were infected by foreign diseases. Indians had never seen horses ridden before, and vicious dogs, the likes of which they had never seen, became their worst enemies. DeSoto had honed his Indian fighting skills in South America; North American Indians, with slings, spears and arrows, never stood a chance of stopping him.

Perhaps we have not understood this part of America's history before because we did not believe what DeSoto's people wrote. We did not know, until recently, that millions of Indians died due to foreign diseases brought by DeSoto's army. DeSoto died before founding his colony and his army never found the gold they sought to attract more of their kind to North America. The Spaniards failed to colonize America but others would be influenced by their reports of our land, resources and natives. But America changed very fast after the Spaniards arrived; it became almost impossible to find the places Spaniards described because Indian cities were abandoned by the time our Pilgrims landed. Things in America were so different from what the Spaniards saw that Pioneers did not believe their writings, neither did our parents, teachers or scholars.

DeSoto's Trail MapToday it is even harder to visualize what DeSoto's people described here - forests have been cut down, rivers diverted, animals removed, and land cleared for huge farms - but America has withstood "civilization" enough for us to use modern maps to track DeSoto's army using their directions. Desirable homesteads, which were Indian Villages when DeSoto was here, are American Cities today. Our pioneers settled those places to grow the same foods, trade the same furs and travel the same rivers and roads which Indians did for centuries before Whites and Blacks settled them; just as various Indian tribes had done in Central and South America before Spain displaced those Indians. Spanish records described Indians living along our great rivers in large cities; they did not describe Indians riding horses seeking refuge, as Pioneers typically described them. Pioneers saw Indians after Spanish Conquest; Indians had moved away by then. Their Nations had been destroyed by diseases...

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