The Island of Florida - Press for Details Native American Conquest
History For Teens
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BACKGROUND TO SPANISH CONQUEST

Hernando de Soto's Conquest of America

Hernando de Soto, one of the richest men in the world, came to America in 1539. His goal was NOT to find gold here, as some have suggested. He was super-rich from Incan gold and wanted to colonize America. He believed this continent was an island. He planned to control it by controlling its Great River, the Mississippi, from the Gulf of Mexico northward to what he thought was the Pacific Ocean. The prospect of opening a New World trade route to China lured DeSoto deep into America.

DeSoto knew that a Great Circle of Earth drawn from Havana, Spain's stronghold in the New World, to China runs up America's Great River and crosses the Indians' Northern Sea. Coastal Indians had told previous Spaniards about the Northern Sea. DeSoto believed that settlers, first attracted to America by gold, would colonize the banks of America's Great River once the Indians were removed to the gold mines of Mexico. Settlers could then build ships at a port on the Northern Sea, about where Chicago is today, then sail that sea to China.

DeSoto Eyewitness Reports:  Biedma,  Rangel,  Elvas,  Inca

Island of FloridaThe Mississippi River, with all of its giant tributaries, was called "The Great River" by America's Indians and DeSoto's people. It served as the network for commerce between large Indian Provinces and discharged into Spain's shipping lanes. The Great River was well known to the early Spaniards who sailed between Cuba and Mexico. It was the largest freshwater discharge in Spain's Gulf of Mexico and a source of drinking water for its coastal seamen.

Its mouth, however, with hundreds of shallow rivulets flowing over broad flats, was difficult to locate. A deep water port near its mouth, Mobile Bay, was selected by DeSoto to fortify in order to mark the mouth of the Great River and protect it from pirates and foreign invaders. Mobile Bay, according to DeSoto's thinking, would become his home and Spain's mainland headquarters in North America. DeSoto's march from South Florida, where he landed in order to protect his horses from injury at sea on his way to the Great River, was interrupted, however, above Panama City, Florida, by a young Indian boy's report that gold could be found near there.

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DeSoto's biggest mistakes in America were in believing the Indians and underestimating the size of this continent. The pearls he would gather from Carolina Indian tombs would be lost in battle his second year in America while approaching his supply ships at Mobile Bay. DeSoto would force-march his army away from his ships to keep the news of his failure to find gold from reaching Spain. He led his army across the Tennessee River to keep them from escaping to the ships. After Wintering in Tennessee, DeSoto headed north, down the Tennessee River, searching for gold during the Summer of 1541; he believed that river flowed to the north shore of this "Island of Florida."

DeSoto halted his army for one full month before crossing the Ohio River at Henderson, Kentucky; a place he called "Quisquis." That name had come from the Incan warrior DeSoto had defeated just before entering Peru's City of Gold. Victory over Quisquis had won great fortune and fame for DeSoto in Peru and throughout Europe; all of his people knew that. Once beyond that Great River, DeSoto erected a cross atop the giant Indian mound of Vincennes, Indiana, then camped at Terre Haute, a place the Spaniards described which natives called Capaha (like Chippewa in Spanish). DeSoto's scouts discovered Lake Michigan, under the full moon, eight days later at Chicago on July 8, 1541, at the end of their trail. That lake, which had been described as an ocean by Southern Indians, had no ocean tides or salt in it. Perceiving that at once, DeSoto's scouts reported that they could find "no road to traverse to the other sea" across it, meaning that no sea-level passage to China could exist across it. DeSoto found nothing to further his interest in America. His hopes were crushed in Indiana. Spain's conquest of the New World had ended at Chicago.

Distraught with reality, DeSoto turned his army around and led them back down the Great River. Epidemics, caused by the world's viruses having been introduced to the Indians by DeSoto's army, had already ravaged the Mississippi River's east bank villages from Florida to Chicago. DeSoto led his people across Illinois to "Quiguate," the largest town they found in America; at the center of Native America's World. Our Great Rivers all led to that place. News of riches in the mountains to the northwest led DeSoto to the first and last buffalo he ever saw at Kaskaskia; but no gold was found. His army crossed the Mississippi River there, just below St. Louis, on September 6, 1541, under the Full Moon, then entered the mountains of Missouri.

Native American Citizens - Press for MoreDeSoto's people found salt along their way, then searched Arkansas' St. Francis Mountains in a reckless attempt to find enough gold to entice other Spaniards to colonize America, the job the King had sent DeSoto to do in the first place. Failing that, and losing his best Indian interpreter to sickness that winter, DeSoto died in the Spring of 1542. His body was placed in Lake Chicot, a fork of the Mississippi River at that time; today's Lake Village, Arkansas. His army, confused, not knowing why he had led them so far and so long without settling, made their escape toward Mexico City, Spain's nearest outpost on this continent.

They passed through Louisiana to Shreveport, then followed the Old San Antonio Trail through Mission Tejas (that's where Texas got its name), then west to Austin. Scouts found impassable deserts beyond San Antonio (the Alamo) so the army marched back to the Great River for food. The villages they had contaminated along their way were avoided while back-tracking 410 miles to Arkansas. They built boats near Pine Bluff that winter then drifted down the Great River on the July Ozark Mountain floods of 1543. Half of the army would survive further attacks at Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi, pass through Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, then sail along the Gulf of Mexico to a Spanish outpost.

A Native American - todays Devil

The after-effects of DeSoto's invasion are obvious once his history is put in perspective. His accounts were published throughout Europe and served to entice others to America. Those accounts were the only source of intelligence of America until French explorations much later. DeSoto accounts of the splendor of America were celebrated in Europe for centuries. Most important, however, is that the DeSoto accounts set the pattern for later relations with Indians. DeSoto's people blamed Native Americans for their failure to colonize. European doctrine would immediately place Native Americans in the same category that DeSoto did: Indians were Devil's, not deserving friendship, land ownership or civil treatment. Beginning with news of the Great Hernando de Soto's death in America, today's image of the Devil arose throughout Spain; our tall, red-skinned, spear-carrying American Indians became symbols of evil. American Indians were called "Red Devils" by many of the Europeans who settled in America. That image, born in Spanish Conquest and adopted by others, survives to this day. It varies so much from all previous "Devil" concepts that its use beginning with news of DeSoto's death is indisputable.


Native American Boy - Press for More ImagesWhy has it taken so long for Americans to realize the profound effect DeSoto had on us? The answer is simple. People could not believe the DeSoto records, even shortly after the fact, because things had changed so much in America just after he arrived here. Indians fled from diseased cities and farms. Their Provinces no longer existed when France and England explored America. The DeSoto records were thought to be lies. DeSoto's landing place in Florida was not even identified until 1994, and the Indian trails he followed could be located only by following his people's directions between landmarks starting at their landing place. Spanish directions, to make matters worse, were written in terms unfamiliar to English speaking, non-seafaring, non-military scholars. But DeSoto landed at the best possible place he could to save his horses from the ravages of a long sea passage from Cuba to the Great River, and he did follow Indian trails, between Indian Villages, while he was here. He was not the wandering fool portrayed in today's text books and encyclopedias. Likewise, American Indians were not the people we learned about in school. They have never been credited with developing a wonderful culture in places which are American Cities today.

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