Hernando de Soto was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who led the first European expedition deep into the territory of the modern-day United States (Florida, Georgia, Alabama and most likely Arkansas), and the first documented European to have crossed the Mississippi River. A vast undertaking, de Soto's North American expedition ranged throughout the southeastern United States searching for gold, and a passage to China. De Soto died in 1542 on the banks of the Mississippi River in what is now Guachoya, Arkansas or Ferriday, Louisiana.
Historians have worked to trace the route of de Soto's expedition in North America, a controversial process over the years. Local politicians vied to have their localities associated with the expedition. The most widely used version of "De Soto's Trail" comes from a study commissioned by the Congress of the United States, The Final Report of the United States De Soto Expedition Commission, published in 1939.
In May 1539, de Soto landed nine ships with over 620 men and 220 horses in south Tampa Bay. He named it Espíritu Santo after the Holy Spirit. The ships brought priests, craftsmen, engineers, farmers, and merchants; some with their families, some from Cuba, most from Europe and Africa. Few had traveled before outside of Spain, or even their home villages.
The expedition traveled north, exploring Florida's West Coast, encountering native ambushes and conflicts along the way. De Soto's first winter encampment was at Anhaica, the capital of the Apalachee. It is one of the few places on the route where archaeologists have found physical traces of the expedition. It was described as being near the "Bay of Horses". The bay was named for where the starving members of the preceding Narváez expedition killed and ate their horses while building boats for escape.
From their winter location in the western panhandle of Florida, having heard of gold being mined "toward the sun's rising," the expedition turned north-east through what is now the modern state of Georgia. De Soto headed north into the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, where he spent a month resting the horses while his men searched for gold. De Soto next entered eastern Tennessee. At this point, De Soto either continued along the Tennessee River to enter Alabama from the north, or turned south and entered northern Georgia.
De Soto's expedition spent another month in the Coosa chiefdom before turning south toward the Gulf of Mexico to meet two ships bearing fresh supplies from Havana. Along the way, de Soto was led into Mauvila (or Mabila), a fortified city in southern Alabama. The Mobilian tribe, under Chief Tuskaloosa, ambushed de Soto's army. Other sources suggest de Soto's men were attacked after attempting to force their way into a cabin occupied by Tuskaloosa. The Spaniards fought their way out, and retaliated by burning the town to the ground. During the nine-hour encounter, about 200 Spaniards died, and 150 more were badly wounded. Twenty more died during the next few weeks. They killed an estimated 2,000-6,000 warriors at Mabila, making the battle one of the bloodiest in recorded North American history.
The Spaniards won a Pyrrhic victory, as they had lost most of their possessions and nearly one-quarter of their horses. The Spaniards were wounded and sickened, surrounded by enemies and without equipment in an unknown territory. Fearing that word of this would reach Spain if his men reached the ships at Mobile Bay, de Soto led them away from the Gulf Coast, into Mississippi, most likely near present-day Tupelo, where they spent the winter.
In the spring of 1541, de Soto demanded 200 men as porters from the Chickasaw. They refused his demand and attacked the Spanish camp during the night. The Spaniards lost about 40 men and the remainder of their limited equipment. According to participating chroniclers, the expedition could have been destroyed at this point, but the Chickasaw let them go.
On May 8, 1541, de Soto's troops reached the Mississippi River. De Soto was less interested in the river. In his view it was, first of all, an obstacle to his mission. He and 400 men had to cross the broad river, which was constantly patrolled by hostile natives. After about one month, and the construction of several floats, they finally crossed the Mississippi at or near Memphis, Tennessee and continued their travels westward through modern-day Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. They wintered in Autiamique, on the Arkansas River.
In 1541, the expedition became the first Europeans to see what Native Americans referred to as the Valley of the Vapors, now called Hot Springs, Arkansas. De Soto and his men stayed just long enough to claim the area for Spain. After a harsh winter, the Spanish expedition decamped and moved on more erratically. Their interpreter Juan Ortiz had died, making it more difficult for them to get directions and food sources, and generally to communicate with the Natives. The expedition went as far inward as the Caddo River, where they clashed with a Native American tribe called the Tula in October 1541. The Spaniards characterized them as the most skilled and dangerous warriors they had encountered. This may have happened in the area of present-day Caddo Gap, Arkansas. Eventually, the Spaniards returned to the Mississippi River.
De Soto died of a fever on May 21, 1542, in the native village of Guachoya on the western banks of the Mississippi. Before his death, de Soto chose his former maestro de campo (or field commander) Luis de Moscoso Alvarado to assume command of the expedition.
De Soto's expedition had explored La Florida for three years without finding the expected treasures or a hospitable site for colonization efforts. They had lost nearly half their men, most of the horses had been killed, the soldiers wore animal skins for clothing, and many were injured and in poor health. The leaders came to a consensus (although not total) to abort the expedition and try to find a way home, either down the Mississippi River, or overland across Texas to the Spanish colony of Mexico.
They decided that building boats would be too difficult and time-consuming, and that navigating the Gulf of Mexico too risky, so they headed overland to the southwest. Eventually they reached a region in present-day Texas that was dry. The native populations had thinned out to subsistence hunter-gatherers. There were no villages for the soldiers to raid for food and the army was too large to live off the land. They were forced to backtrack to the more developed agricultural regions along the Mississippi. They began building seven bergantínes, or brigantines. They melted down all the iron, including horse tackle and slave shackles, to make nails for the boats. Winter came and went, and the spring floods delayed them another two months, but by July they set off down the Mississippi for the coast.
On reaching the mouth of the Mississippi, they stayed close to the Gulf shore heading south and west. After about 50 days, they made it to the Pánuco River and the Spanish frontier town of Pánuco. There they rested for about a month. During this time many of the Spaniards, having safely returned and reflecting on their accomplishments, decided they had left La Florida too soon. However, after they reached Mexico City and Viceroy Don Antonio de Mendoza offered to lead another expedition to La Florida, few of the survivors volunteered. Of the initial 700 participants, between 300 and 350 survived. Most of the men stayed in the New World, settling in Mexico, Peru, Cuba and other Spanish colonies.