HERNANDO DE SOTO: Hero or Villain of Two Continents?

In completing the sixth and final novel of THE PEOPLE OF THE STONE saga--CHILDREN OF THE CIRCLE--the choice of including the historical figure of Hernando de Soto as a central focal point for the time period and locale of this story that details the end of Native American prehistory, especially in the eastern U.S., was not a difficult one to make.  Rarely do such clear cut historical events provide an identifiable marker for a major turning point as does the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in North America in the 1530's.  The virtually contemporary and equally fascinating journeys of De Soto in the southeastern U.S. and Coronado's in the American southwest have long been pointed to as the major events in the changing of North America's past from a native to a European-oriented direction.  That the journey of Coronado is the one with which most Americans today are more familiar is probably mainly a function of location and the more deeply-rooted Spanish culture that resulted there than the actual impact either of these two fascinating men had on the native populations they encountered.  Without a doubt, the overall cultural impact of the amazing four year journey of De Soto's army through most of the current states of the southeast, beginning in 1539, affected far more native peoples and cultures than did Coronado's more limited incursion into the broader area of the Southwest--at least at the time and soon after their initial journeys.  Still, outside of the immediate area of the southeastern states, this far more interesting and impactful journey of one of the most gifted of all the major Spanish conquistadors of that spectacular era--De Soto--remains one of the least studied events and personages of major importance, at least outside of select professional circles.


In beginning my research on De Soto in preparation for ending my six part book series detailing the spread of Native American cultures from the end of the Ice Age to the arrival of the first Europeans, it immediately became apparent that he must have been one of the most complex personalities among all those few men for whom history has created such a special niche. As such, I quickly altered my original plan in order to give the historical De Soto a much more prominent role in the story I had planned, including beginning the narrative the night before he was to step onto North American soil for the first time.  As the novel progressed I found myself weaving his character and invading army into a more direct role in the plotline that was developing.  Part of this was due, no doubt, to the abundant amount of good, historical information on his amazing journey, and part was simply because he was too interesting a character to ignore.  Like him or hate him for what he and his contemporaries did, it became impossible to ignore him and his role in bringing about the end of prehistoric American culture.  Still, the names of Cortez, Pizarro, Balboa, Coronado, and Ponce de Leon usually ring out before the name of De Soto pops up.  Again, this is due more to the enduring influence of the Spanish culture in all its attributes, from language to religion, that has remained over the centuries in those areas with which these other men's names are synonymous.  The casual student, however, would most likely not be familiar with just how many other important places there were in Central and South America in which De Soto was also a major player.  Few, if any, of the important conquistadors had his own hand in as many of those powerful adventures and events of the first half of the Sixteenth Century in the then New World as did Hernando de Soto.  By best estimates he arrived there as a teenager and, through hard work and good fortune no doubt, quickly earned a name for himself as a competent soldier and leader of men often much older than himself.  Let's take a brief look at his background in order to better understand the seminal importance of this unusual man's place in Native American history.

De Soto came from a specific area of Spain, Extremadura, unique at the time for producing most of the conquistadors who would make such huge names for themselves in the New World.  Much might be made of the commonality of the background and militant personalities of these men, many of whom knew each other personally or were even related.  They came from families in that part of the relatively new nation of Spain with lifetimes of experience fighting against the Moors and other non-Christian peoples.  (De Soto, for example, was a business partner with one of the de Leon brothers when he began his Florida incursion.)  Hernando "made his bones" so-to-speak in Panama (now Nicaragua) early on as a fast-rising soldier there under one of the most brutal and least known of the early conquistadors, a man named Pararia.  Later, having missed out on the Cortez and Balboa expeditions, he still found his way to Mexico and was serving there when he found out about Francisco Pizarro's upcoming invasion of what would soon become Peru.

  De Soto was in command of a small but efficient force of about twenty when he offered his services to the Pizarro brothers for their secretive and highly risky adventure.  Recognizing both his skill as a soldier and the critical importance of his additional mounted troop strength to their own ridiculously small force, the Pizarros immediately made him one of their most trusted captains.  It would be De Soto, along with perhaps the most competent of the four Pizarro brothers, Hernando Pizarro, who rode alone together to make the critical first face-to-face confrontation with the Inca emperor, Atahuallpa.  This confrontation would lead, almost incomprehensibly, to the total conquest of the great Inca empire in such a remarkably short time by a force of much less than two hundred determined men.  De Soto's own critical role in the success of that conquest has often been overlooked, not the least for the reason that he survived the many intrigues and murders that followed the Pizarros and their equally forgotten partner Almagro soon afterwards.  It was while in Peru myself last year that I became intrigued with the story of these incredible (albeit exceptionally cruel) men, especially De Soto, realizing that I might soon have to allot him a more pivotal role in my upcoming final novel on prehistoric native America, CHILDREN OF THE CIRCLE.  After much reading about his life and his truly amazing adventure in North America it soon became even more clear that his story must be intertwined with any attempt to deal with the abrupt ending of Native North American prehistory.  De Soto's massive incursion into the southeastern U.S came after he had returned to Spain from Peru and used his Inca gold to buy the governorship of Cuba and the unexplored lands of La Florida.  It was at this time that I became even more intrigued by what must have been a very complex man, despite the more obvious moral and character flaws regarding his treatment of native peoples.

(Note:  For interested readers, the books of Charles Hudson are by far the most thorough and current on the De Soto expedition in the Southeast.  Dr. Hudson has spent many years tracking the exact route of the long expedition across several states, where every small town seems to claim a de Soto connection.  Hudson's books are also rich in the anthropology of the peoples the expedition affected and the archeology of recovery that still continues in its path.  I highly recommend his books.)

                                   The Death of De Soto and How It Has Affected His Legacy

   Perhaps one of the reasons that De Soto has often been overlooked or under appreciated as a person of great historical impact was the somewhat mysterious, even ignominious, death he found.  Unlike those other conquistadors who returned with their massive wealth to Spain to carve out great estates, or even like Cortez who did so in Mexico, De Soto squandered his on what was viewed at the time as a massively failed enterprise.  He left no surviving children to carry on and fight for his legacy, only a young widow he had barely come to know and who was herself beset by countless lawsuits against his remaining estate, to preserve his name.  Then, too, the survivors of his great expedition had a vested interest in telling their own side of the story, casting further dark clouds over the legacy of de Soto.  Others, like the Pizarro brothers and Almagro in Peru, met various famous deaths in battle, or by assassination, or even by execution for rebelling against higher authority at approximately the same time as De Soto's more obscure end.  Even the much less gifted Coronado achieved a lasting fame with the legends of Cibola and the Seven Ciites of Gold still perpetuated by his equally failed expedition, along with the many place names he bestowed still surviving in an area that still highly honors its Spanish heritage.  De Soto's end came, probably due to a common fever, along the banks of the Mississippi River over a year before the actual end of the expedition that bore his name.  That nearly half of his army of more than six hundred managed to survive and tell the tale of his many failures after four years of endless wandering in what to them was a vast wasteland without the riches of gold and silver--the true measure of success in those days-- undoubtedly led to the further tarnishing of his historical image.  This was especially true in a region where the larger English, and even French, heritage soon after superseded both the earlier, even though important, native and Spanish ones.  Even in Florida, where the Spanish influence remained a more lasting one, the name of Ponce de Leon, has achieved the mythical status De Soto earned, and with much less real impact and from a far more minor historical figure.

As a writer of fiction, I must confess that at the outset of beginning CHILDREN OF THE CIRCLE with the intention of including De Soto as a character with more of an "on stage" role than I had originally anticipated for him, it initially gave me some measure of satisfaction to contemplate "killing him off"  for his many crimes as part of the inevitable conclusion of the Native American story in the eastern U.S.  Like many others who have felt this way, no doubt, an extensive reading of the events and people of this critical time period throughout the Americas cannot help but leave one with a vast emptiness and a larger sadness for what was lost in the destruction of native peoples that followed, as well as the cruelties of the men and the arrogant religious culture which initiated many of those tragic events.  And as surely as De Soto played a huge role in bringing about that destruction, he alone cannot be blamed for the end result--only for the misguided cruelties and injustices he helped to perpetuate.   This was a time in history when it has been shown time and again--and on a universal basis--that mankind in general, and western civilization in particular, had arrived at technological, spiritual and cultural crossroads that virtually no one then alive was prepared to deal with in a rational manner, which the clarity of hindsight (and the enlightenment these critical events) had begun to unfold.  The writer Felipe Fernando Armesto, in his excellent book 1492, has called that year "the year the world began".  As such, like any birth or rebirth, there is a great deal of confusion, pain, injustice, and wrong doing of every kind.  This is not to excuse a man like De Soto, but it is necessary to put him in his historical context in a way that is both fair to him, his victims, and the history he lived and created for others.  This was the challenge of putting an actual historical character into a work of fiction, and this writer--at least--gained a measure of respect for others who work so successfully in this enjoyable genre.

 However, as I delved deeper into the man himself and took into account the time and place from which he came, some fuller appreciation--if not any actual sympathy still--began to emerge for this one unique man in particular--a man who both achieved and lost so much in such a short and eventful life.  After all, for the writer at least, the tragic figure is far more interesting than the "good man" who merely walks through life and accepts his role without fighting back against the vagaries of the everyday existence that separates us all from the greatness others manage to reach out for and achieve, even at the ultimate cost to others and to themselves.  CHILDREN OF THE CIRCLE does not end with the death of De Soto, but his appearance and journey in the southeast forces the inevitable ending in many ways of the great native American cultures, which this author has spent the last six years portraying in his books. Like the minor character that the native peoples may have mistakenly seen him as at the time, here he dies off-stage so-to-speak, and the story goes on briefly to end from the perspective of just what the De Soto expedition might have ultimately meant to the native peoples suddenly and unwillingly thrust into its amazing passage through so many of their unique lands and tribal cultures.  The more immediate and lasting impacts of the Spanish material culture--not the least of which by any means were the horses and other animals they brought with them--as well as the forceful behavior of the new religious worldview they thrust upon the native peoples, along with the impact of the new diseases they carried within them, is also explored in some detail from the native perspective primarily is explored in this final look at prehistoric America.

For those readers of the book who will wonder what happened to De Soto after we leave him in the story, I offer this brief Epilogue to the final events as portrayed in the last chapters of CHILDREN OF THE CIRCLE.

  True to his wishes, De Soto was buried secretly after his death, allegedly due to a fever, although no one can be certain, since he had enemies in his own camp by that time and slow-acting poisons are a possibility and certainly not unknown in those turbulent times, particularly if those who kept the records of the expedition were somehow involved.  When local native chiefs became suspicious and asked to see De Soto's body, it was secretly dug-up for fear that the great leader's "mortality" would be discovered.  It was then placed in a hasty wooden casket, rowed out into the Mississippi River at night, and rather unceremoniously dumped over the side to be lost forever to the mysteries of history.  This must certainly say something about how his own men viewed their leader at this point in the expedition. His remaining possessions were quickly auctioned off to his army, almost as if to erase his memory within his own surviving command.  Interestingly enough, his three surviving horses, a most valuable commodity at that point of the expedition still, brought the same amount as did his three human slaves.  The most interesting items, to this writer at least, to be sold off were the nearly seven hundred PIGS that de Soto had assiduously kept with the expedition for nearly three years, despite the many times of hunger among his men.  In fact, this herd had begun as about half that number when unloaded from the ships and had doubled in size, even with the many losses over three years.  One can only imagine the great "Barbeque" (a Caribbean word the Spanish borrowed, by the way) which must have resulted from that auction by hungry soldiers who had eyed those pigs as they had munched on parched corn and nuts for three years!  Those who won these various auctions were allowed to pay with promissory notes, all that they had to offer by that point in the expedition's time.  What a grand irony it must have been that such a great fortune as De Soto had won in Peru came to such a sad end that later his estate had to try to collect promissory notes given by common soldiers for the purchase of a single PIG!

With that ended one of the most amazing careers in the history of both exploration and military conquest on any scale.  His surviving army continued to wander westward for nearly another year before returning to the Mississippi, building boats, and fighting their way down to the Gulf of Mexico, where just over half of the original army of more than 600 eventually found their way back to Cuba, from where they had started four years before, destitute and full of anger for the man who had promised so much and delivered so little.  It is easy for anyone reading about these people to develop a severe dislike for those men, due to their many cruelties and lack of moral behavior based on more "modern" standards.  But to say that they lacked character is to ignore the times they lived in and the culture that produced them. The sheer scope of their visions, their feats of endurance in the face of overwhelming environmental and human obstacles, and their perseverance in the face of the unknown deserve some measure of credit, if not respect perhaps, at the very least.  Would many of us act so differently if placed on an alien planet with beings of strange behavior whom we were told were not even true humans by what we believed, especially if they possessed something we coveted above all else in our own culture or were seen as souls to be converted by whatever means necessary?  I wonder!  It is easy to cast these conquistadors onto the moral scrapheap of history, but men like Hernando de Soto and others did, after all, represent the "best" of their own era and culture and should be viewed as such through the ever-hazy lens of time and modern historical perspective.

  This writer sincerely hopes the reader will take the opportunity to compare and contrast one of these men, De Soto, with one of the "best and the brightest" of the native peoples, who were caught up in the vortex of those amazing and impactful events and judge the lasting impact for him or herself.  It is this human and intellectual comparison that forms the backdrop of the story for CHILDREN OF THE CIRCLE and brings to a conclusion the 12,000 year plus journey of this important book series, which I have been privileged to offer you, the reader.


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This blog will continue to explore important issues of Native American prehistory, both those reflected in the author's books and those new ones which continue to develop over time.  As always, your comments, questions, or suggestions are strongly encouraged.  You may login to this easy to access and secure website to post or visit our even more accessible FACEBOOK link to register your comments.  You may also communicate with the writer directly through his email address by clicking on Contact on the tool bar at the top of this page. 


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