A short hour drive from where we’re now staying in Tampa is another of our fine National Park Units. De Soto National Memorial remembers the life of Hernando de Soto, a Spanish Conquistador who came to La Florida in 1539 under an agreement with the ruler of the Spanish Empire, Charles V, to “explore, exploit, and colonize Florida, bearing all costs.” If successful, de Soto would get to share in the riches he plundered** and he would get to govern this new colony.
De Soto arrived in Havana, Cuba, in June 1538, then added to his expedition’s ranks with enslaved followers including several women, artisans and priests, 200 horses, a herd of pigs, and fierce hunting dogs which were used as weapons against the Native Americans who crossed him. He and his five ships landed near what today is Tampa in May 1539, and left a temporary colony of 100 men here while he and his army spent the next four arduous years exploring the interior of the American Southeast.
A replica of the base camp that de Soto set up when he arrived here, Camp Uzita, serves as this National Memorial’s primary exhibit, and as is par for the course at these wonderful national park units, the exhibits on the property were outstanding, and the lessons to be learned here remain relevant. We were treated to a movie in the Visitor Center which told of de Soto’s doings and reenacted his journey, and the resident NPS ranger gave a living history lesson about de Soto and why it’s important to know about and commemorate his activities, even as he was a ferocious brute!
Coming back to de Soto’s story… motivated by glory and wealth and looking to claim additional land for their kingdom, de Soto’s army soon found themselves dependent on the local Indians to guide them on their trails and help them survive off the land. But as de Soto became more impatient for the gold he was seeking [that the Indians kept promising was just a bit farther away to move this brazen army further afield], his journey became more difficult. Indians, catching on to the explorers’ brutality and not wanting to assist de Soto in these efforts, inflicted great damage to de Soto’s troops, and in May 1542, the exploratory journey was over. De Soto was dead by fever, and the remains of his army aborted their plans. They buried their former leader in the Mississippi River, spent one more winter on the riverbanks, then built boats, abandoned some 500 Indian ‘slaves’ in alien country, and in July 1543 they floated down the river to the Gulf of Mexico.
In all, de Soto’s army traveled some 4,000 miles in the southern United States – from Florida north through the Carolinas, then westward to Texas. His expedition was the first of any Europeans to go as far west as the Mississippi River.
De Soto’s chroniclers recorded their observations about the landscapes and societies of this New World. Published in four narratives, these recordings, along with archaeological artifacts, helped scholars retrace de Soto’s route and gain an understanding of the now-obliterated native populations that once flourished here. A nice guy he was not as he and his vicious army killed and enslaved thousands of Indians in their relentless pursuit of gold and riches. Interesting to note, as well – the pigs that were introduced in this land carried diseases to which the natives were not immune, and this, too, contributed to the decimation of the Native American people.
In the end, de Soto found no gold, nor did he establish any colonies, so his expedition turned out to be inconsequential for Spain. And it was disastrous for the Indians it encountered, leaving behind disease and social dislocation. De Soto’s acts of inhumanity are not celebrated here, but the chronicles created by his men are a rich store of information about the American land and its first people, and in this is the value of remembering de Soto at the De Soto National Memorial.
** De Soto had already had a taste for plundered riches. For those familiar with the history of the Inca empire, it was brought down by another Spanish Conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, and none other than a young Hernando de Soto assisted Pizarro. De Soto used his wealth from that pillage to to finance his journey to La Florida. Isn’t history awesome…?!?