de Soto

A statue of de Soto in Bradenton, Florida

The explorer Hernando de Soto changed the world — there is no denying that.

To go where he and his men went, you have to go all over the southeastern United States.

De Soto first stepped foot on the North American continent on the west coast of Florida. From here, he and his army headed north, passing through the present-day states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

De Soto then died, in 1542, and the remainder of his men built rafts and floated downstream, through present-day Louisiana, to the Gulf of Mexico.

The De Soto National Memorial is in Bradenton, Florida, which is near Tampa. This is on the west coast of Florida, facing the Gulf of Mexico.

The De Soto National Memorial

Is the memorial located at the exact place de Soto landed? Probably not. Because de Soto landed so long ago, no one is certain exactly where he came ashore. But we know it was near here based on what some of the people with him wrote at the time.

As we venture in de Soto’s footsteps, we are going to make seven points about de Soto. If you remember those seven points then you will have learned a lot. If you want more detail or want to do a report on de Soto, getting more information won’t be hard. Ask your teacher or librarian where you can find more about de Soto.


A reproduction of a Spanish colonial
base at the De Soto National Memorial

POINT NUMERO UNO (let’s count in Spanish!): De Soto was from Spain.

When he arrived in this part of the world in 1539, people were still reeling over Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. European countries such as Spain, England and France were only beginning to explore the New World and claim parts of it as theirs. Not only was it unclear which nations would colonize which parts of America, no one knew how big America was or what it consisted of.


This film, shown at the memorial,
shows what de Soto’s landing
might have looked like.

POINT NUMERO DOS: De Soto was not alone.

De Soto was the organizer and leader of what is probably best described as an army of 600. They included professional soldiers, mercenaries (which are soldiers for hire), tradesmen, slaves, adventurers, farmers, priests and people from other walks of life.

This army was well armed, with muskets and crossbows, and brought horses, cattle and pigs with it (the first domestic animals ever on the American continent).






The terrain at the De Soto National Monument is completely different than Tennessee. Click on this photo to see how swampy the land is.

POINT NUMERO TRES: De Soto and his army weren’t looking to start a colony, and they weren’t necessarily that interested in mapping the New World. They were looking for GOLD.

They looked and looked and didn’t find any.

(We now know, by the way, that de Soto’s army went right through a part of Northern Georgia where gold was discovered much later, in the 1830s.)





POINT NUMERO CUATRO: De Soto and his army believed that the Native Americans that they found were subhuman and treated them that way.

A de Soto marker in Tallahassee, Florida
PHOTO: Fred Griffin

During their journey across the American continent there were many battles between de Soto’s army and Native Americans. The better equipped Spaniards generally won these battles and took Native Americans as slaves, using them as guides or as laborers.

(A film shown by the National Park Service at the De Soto National Memorial does a great job talking about this. You can obtain a DVD of this film by calling the memorial’s bookstore at 941-792-0458. Ask for the DVD of the NEW MOVIE, not the VHS of the OLD MOVIE. And be advised that this film is not appropriate for small children. Eighth graders? Yes. Fourth graders? No.)


This map by Charles Hudson is a “best guess”
as to de Soto’s route, based on written accounts and archaeological discoveries

POINT NUMERO CINCO: De Soto’s army wandered the continent for four years, and in general they had a miserable time.

Along the way they encountered oppressive heat, disease, hostile natives, physical barriers, but no gold. About half of them died along the way. De Soto never gave up, even though his men often wanted to turn back. And de Soto himself died three years into the expedition.


POINT NUMERO SEIS: Archaeologists have found things left behind by de Soto’s army in two Florida locations.

A copper coin found near Ocala, Florida, which is believed to have been left behind by one of de Soto’s men
PHOTO: Ashley White

Both of these discoveries were relatively recent. In 1986 an archaeologist found de Soto artifacts at a site in Tallahassee — click here to read more about this. And since 2005, an archaeologist named Ashley White has found more than 100 medieval coins on his property near Ocala, Florida, that appear to have been left behind by de Soto’s men.








POINT NUMERO SIETE: De Soto and his army appear to have penetrated Tennessee soil twice.

“Discovery of the Mississippi,” a painting by William Powell

They traveled through what is now southeast Tennessee and rested near the present-day location of Chattanooga for three weeks. From what we can tell this was a pleasant and peaceful time.

Then, several months later, after a horrible and bloody battle with Native Americans in present-day Alabama, de Soto found the river we now call the Mississippi.

Some people believe he did this in the present-day city of Memphis. Others believe that he was actually south of Memphis, in present-day Mississippi.


The de Soto marker in Memphis

In any case there is a cross and marker in Memphis commemorating where de Soto and his army might have found the river.

After de Soto died, his men tied rocks to his body and sank it in the river. We believe that they did this because they were trying to conceal his death from the Native Americans — some of whom had been told that de Soto was a god.