De Soto’s North American Expedition

De Soto led the first European journey into the interior of North America, with severe and lasting consequences for American Indians. Also, the largest sixteenth century battle on the continent between Europeans and American Indians took place during the expedition in 1540.

Summary of Event

Hernando de Soto was a veteran of early Spanish campaigns in the New World, having served in Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru. As Francisco Pizarro’s lieutenant, de Soto helped to topple the Incan Empire, acquiring a share of their treasure, which made him a wealthy man. He returned to Spain in 1537, where his drive for more riches led to his appointment as governor of Cuba and adelantado of Florida. This gave him Spain’s permission to conquer coastal territories from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. Exploration and colonization;Spain of North America
Soto, Hernando de
Moscoso Alvarado, Luis de
Ortiz, Juan
Pizarro, Francisco
Narváez, Pánfilo de
Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez
Vásquez de Ayllón, Lucas
Moscoso Alvarado, Luis de
Luna y Arellano, Tristán de

On May 28, 1539, de Soto landed near Tampa Bay with 622 soldiers, more than 200 horses, and many slaves. They encountered the indigenous town of Ucita, a well-organized compound with the chief’s house on an earthen mound at one end and a temple guarded by a gilded-eyed bird at the other. They destroyed these and made camp.

On June 8, a Spanish patrol found Juan Ortiz, a shipwrecked survivor of the ill-fated Pánfilo de Narváez and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca expedition (1528-1536). Ortiz had escaped death at the hands of Chief Hirrihugua of Ucita when the chief’s daughter Ulele interceded on his behalf. Many believe that Captain John Smith was inspired to invent his own salvation from Powhatan by Pocahontas (which he did not report until some twenty years after the event) after reading Ortiz’s story in the 1600’. Ortiz’s abilities as translator proved invaluable to de Soto.

On July 15, the main army left Ucita in pursuit of gold. Living off native maize, they traversed northern Timucuan territories in late summer. They were continually harassed by ambushes, and a major uprising occurred at Napituca under the leadership of Vitachuco. On September 15, the deaths of hundreds of indigenous peoples made apparent the advantages of Spanish horses, muskets, and war hounds.

Turning west, the entourage arrived at the principal Apalachee town of Anhaica on October 6. Near what is now Tallahassee, this horticultural center of 250 houses and more than one thousand people had rich stores of food, and de Soto decided to winter there. It was there that de Soto’s party heard rumors of a golden kingdom to the northeast ruled by a cacica (female chief), and on March 3, 1540, they crossed over into what is now Georgia to find it. Although delayed by pitched battles, the Spaniards extracted directions to the chiefdom of Cofitachequi from reluctant informants after burning some of them alive. De Soto used both negotiating and cruelty as political tools, resorting to kidnapping, murder, torture, and mutilation as a policy of intimidation.

Reaching Cofitachequi, de Soto received a gift of pearls from the chieftain, and her temples produced hundreds of pounds more. She directed the party to nearby Talomeco, where her ancestors were interred. The five hundred houses of Talomeco had been abandoned as a result of pestilence, possibly caused by the 1526 slave-raiding foray of Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón along the Carolina coast. Talomeco’s mound temple was still intact, a 140-foot structure housing bodies of the elite, fine clothes, artworks, weapons, and chests of pearls. Many of de Soto’s men wanted to stay in the abundance of Cofitachequi, but when demands for gold and silver produced only copper and sheet mica, de Soto left on May 3, 1540, to continue his treasure quest. Although she later escaped, he kidnapped the cacica to serve as guide.

During the summer of 1540, de Soto marched through the Carolinas and Tennessee, into the southern Appalachians and the Blue Ridge Mountains. He contacted the Cherokees Cherokees at Xuala and Guasili, and then proceeded to the Creek frontier at Chiaha in northern Georgia. When the usual demands for treasure, food, bearers, and women were made, the Chiaha chief told de Soto that riches were to be found farther south, so the expedition continued.

The group passed through western Georgia in mid-July, briefly imprisoning the Coosa chief. It then passed through Itaba and Talisi, reaching Choctaw Choctaws country in Alabama in early October. Here, the great Tascalusa chief by the same name was taken prisoner. Pressed for four hundred bearers and one hundred women, the chief provided bearers and promised that the women would be available at his town of Mabila. On October 18, 1540, Tascalusa led de Soto into an ambush now called the Battle of Mabila, Mabila, Battle of (1540) considered the time’s bloodiest battle of the North American continent.

Between four thousand and five thousand warriors attacked the Spaniards, of whom twenty were killed and 150 wounded, including de Soto. Most of their goods—including the Cofitachequi pearls—were lost in the ensuing fire, but Mabila was destroyed and indigenous losses may have been more than three thousand. This loss affected indigenous communities perhaps all the way to Coosa.

De Soto was within reach of his ships in the Gulf of Mexico, but he refused to quit. He turned the battered expedition northwest to invade Chickasaw territory at Apafalaya and Chicaca. They spent a cold winter in 1540-1541 near the Yazoo River in Mississippi. On March 3, 1541, two Chickasaw attacks killed twelve soldiers, sixty horses, and many pigs, and destroyed most of the supplies that had survived at Mabila.

Despite this setback, de Soto continued his spring march to the northwest, reaching the Mississippi River about 10 miles south of what is now Memphis, Tennessee. Crossing in dugout canoes on May 8, 1541, the expedition reached the chiefdom of Casqui in Arkansas. De Soto allied with the Casqui chief to jointly attack the rival chiefdom of Pacaha. They stripped the storehouses clean and scattered the bones of the Pacaha elite resting in the sacred mound temples.

De Soto then pressed up the Arkansas River to the very edge of the Great Plains, where he heard of great buffalo herds but little corn and, more important, no gold. Circling back to Casqui, de Soto and his group sought a place to spend the winter, settling at Autiamque, near Little Rock, on November 2, 1541. It was there that Juan Ortiz died, depriving de Soto of invaluable assistance, and the adelantado began to show signs of illness and despair.

The spring campaign of 1542 yielded more resistance and few successes, and at Guachoya, on the Mississippi River, de Soto became feverish. He gave his men a repentant speech about his shortcomings and died of what was probably a European illness on May 21, 1542. Luis de Moscoso Alvarado took command and buried de Soto in the swirling waters of the great river Europeans would credit him with discovering.

Moscoso, after trying an unsuccessful overland trek through Texas, returned to the Mississippi River to attempt a watery route home. His small flotilla set out for the Gulf of Mexico on July 2, 1543. Before he reached the gulf, 700 miles and two weeks later, constant attacks by the indigenous claimed many more lives on both sides. The 311 bedraggled survivors made landfall at Panuco on Mexico’s Gulf coast on September 10, 1543.


De Soto’s precise route is not as important as the lasting impact his expedition had on indigenous cultures, which started their decline soon after de Soto’s journey.

Archaeologists have uncovered mass burials and skeletons bearing cuts from European weapons. Razing the mound temples, extinguishing sacred fires, scattering royal ancestral remains, and disrupting the leadership of elite rulers claiming direct descent from the Sun all may have undermined the religious and political fabric of these large and prosperous chiefdoms, sending them into chaos. Tristán de Luna y Arellano, in the 1560’, and Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, in 1682, found only scattered villages where de Soto had described large populations.

The void was so complete that by the 1800’, no one remembered who had built the thousands of earth mounds dotting the waterways of eastern North America. A popular myth attributed them to a “lost race” of mound builders, thereby denying North American Indians their authorship. The Smithsonian scientist Cyrus Thomas disproved this in 1894, citing de Soto’s observations and archaeological findings to prove the contrary.

Further Reading

  • Ewen, Charles R., and John H. Hann. Hernando de Soto Among the Apalachee: The Archaeology of the First Winter Encampment. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. Narrative of the discovery, excavation, and interpretation of the only known de Soto camp site. Provides historical background, detailed description of the site and what was learned from it, and new translations of the portions of sixteenth century travel narratives.
  • Galloway, Patricia, ed. The Hernando de Soto Expedition: History, Historiography, and “Discovery” in the Southeast. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Anthology that seeks to expand traditional studies of de Soto’s expedition to discuss its broad cultural implications, focusing on specific details such as the daily routine and health of its members.
  • Garcilaso de La Vega. The Florida of the Inca. Translated by John Grier Varner and Jeannette Johnson Varner. 1605. Reprint. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988. An early secondhand account based on the experiences of three expedition members.
  • Hudson, Charles. Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. Study of the disastrous impact of de Soto’s expedition on the North American Indian civilizations he encountered.
  • Swanton, John R. Final Report of the United States De Soto Expedition Commission. 1939. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985. Classic analysis of de Soto’s route and the ethnohistorical sources. Contains a new foreword and introduction.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

1493-1521: Ponce de León’s Voyages

Apr., 1519-Aug., 1521: Cortés Conquers Aztecs in Mexico

1527-1547: Maya Resist Spanish Incursions in Yucatán

1528-1536: Narváez’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s Expeditions

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

Sept., 1565: St. Augustine Is Founded

July 4, 1584-1590: Lost Colony of Roanoke

Jan., 1598-Feb., 1599: Oñate’s New Mexico Expedition