Around 1500, Hernando de Soto was born to a family who intended him for a career in law. But all of Spain spoke of the discoveries, adventures, and conquests in South America, and de Soto decided to become a conquistador instead.
As a teenager, de Soto trained with Spanish captains in Latin America, where he learned the arts of war. He traveled in the advance guard of Pizarro’s army when it entered South America and conquered the Incans. De Soto returned to Spain, wealthy and honored, but his desire for glory was still unsatisfied.
In May 1539, de Soto led ten ships filled with 1,000 men and 350 horses from Havana, Cuba, on an expedition to conquer the territory of La Florida in North America. De Soto hoped to discover a civilization as rich and powerful as those of the Aztecs and Incans.
After almost two weeks at sea, de Soto and his men landed near what is now Tampa, on the western side of the Florida peninsula. They built a base and moved north. If any Indians acted unfriendly, de Soto destroyed their village and either massacred or enslaved the inhabitants.
The Indians told de Soto of a rich, gold-filled empire to the north called Cofitachequi. The Spanish marched northeast into present-day Georgia and Tennessee. Still, the men discovered no gold. Local Indians, however, hoping to get rid of the Spanish as soon as possible, insisted that the wealthy empire they sought was nearby. The expedition moved into Alabama and northern Mississippi.
On May 8, 1541, the expedition reached the Mississippi River, becoming the first Europeans to see the great river. By then, de Soto’s men were exhausted and low on both food and ammunition. They traveled, during a brutal summer drought, down to Arkansas.
After winter, the Spanish traveled into Louisiana. There, de Soto fell ill with a fever and died on May 21, 1542. The men weighted his body with stones and sank him in a river, so the local Indians would not discover his death. The survivors built boats and sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, finally reaching Spanish colonists in Tampico, Mexico, in September 1543. They had traveled more than 4,000 miles.
Hernando de Soto’s 1 539-1 543 travels through North America are clearly marked on this 1898 map. De Soto’s 4,000-mile march was grueling to his men and disastrous to the Indians they encountered, but it helped enable the Spanish Empire to gain control of the area.