When the renowned Hernando De Soto, who had been in close attendance on Pizarro throughout his romantic career in Peru, asked for and obtained permission from Ferdinand of Spain to take possession of Florida in his name, hundreds of volunteers of every rank flocked to his standard. Narvaez had failed for want of knowledge as to how to deal with the natives; doubtless the land of gold could yet be found by those who knew how to wrest the secret of its position from the sons of the soil; and so once more a gallant company set forth from Spain to measure their strength against the craft of the poor Indians of Florida.
De Soto, who was in the first place appointed governor of Cuba that he might turn to account the resources of that wealthy island, sailed from Havana with a fleet of nine vessels and a force of some six or seven hundred men on the 18th May, 1539, and cast anchor in Tampa Bay on the 30th of the same month. Landing his forces at once, the leader gave orders that they should start for the interior immediately, by the same route as that taken by his unfortunate predecessor; and the men were eagerly ploughing their way through the sandy, marshy districts immediately beyond the beach, driving the natives who opposed their progress before them, when one of those romantic incidents occurred in which the early history of the New World is so remarkably rich.
A white man on horseback rode forward from amongst the dusky savages, who hailed the approach of the troops with wild gestures of delight, and turned out to be a Spaniard named Juan Ortiz, who had belonged to the Narvaez expedition and had been unable to escape with his comrades. In his captivity amongst the Indians he had acquired a thorough knowledge of their language, and his services alike as a mediator and a guide were soon found to be invaluable.
Led by Ortiz, the exploring army wandered through the unknown land of Florida until the ensuing spring, when the march was resumed under the guidance of a native who said he would take the white men to a distant country, governed by a woman, and abounding in a yellow metal, which the Spaniards naturally took to be gold, but which proved to be copper. After wandering to the southern slope of the Appalachian range, marking their course by pillage and bloodshed, and finding the land of gold ever receding before them, they reached the dominions of an Indian queen, who hastened to welcome them, perhaps with the desire of conciliating her dreaded visitors.
Very touching is the account given by the old chroniclers of the meeting between the poor cacica and De Soto. Alighting from the litter in which she had travelled, carried by four of her subjects, the dusky princess came forward with gestures expressive of pleasure at the arrival of her guest, and taking from her own neck a heavy double string of pearls, she hung it on that of the Spaniard. Bowing with courtly grace, De Soto accepted the gift, and for a short time he kept up the semblance of friendship; but having obtained from the queen all the information he wanted, he made her his prisoner, and robbed her and her people of all the valuables they possessed, including large numbers of pearls, found chiefly in the graves of natives of distinction. We are glad to be able to add that the poor queen effected her escape from her guards, taking with her a box of pearls which she had managed to regain and on which De Soto had set especial store.
The home of the cacica appears to have been situated close to the Atlantic seaboard, and to have been amongst the villages visited by De Ayllon twenty years previously, the natives having in their possession a dagger and a string of beads, probably a rosary, which they said had belonged to the white men. Unwilling to go over old ground, the Spaniards now determined to alter their course, and, taking a northwesterly direction, they reached, in the course of a few months, the first spurs of the lofty Appalachian range, the formidable aspect of which so damped their courage that they turned back and wandered into the lowlands of what is now Alabama, ignorant that in the very mountains they so much dreaded were hidden large quantities of that yellow metal they had sought so long and so vainly.
The autumn of 1540 found the party, their numbers greatly diminished, at a large village called Mavilla, close to the site of the modern Mobile, where the natives were gathered in considerable force; and it soon became evident that an attempt would be made to exact vengeance for the long course of oppression of which the white intruders had been guilty in their two years' wanderings.
Intending to take possession of Mavilla in his usual high-handed manner, De Soto and a few of his men entered the palisades forming its defences, accompanied by the cacique, who, meek enough until he was within reach of his warriors, then turned upon his guests with some insulting speech and disappeared in a neighboring house. A dispute then ensued between a minor chief and one of the Spaniards. The latter enforced his view of the matter at issue by a blow with his cutlass, and in an instant the town was in a commotion. From every house poured showers of arrows, and in a few minutes nearly all the Christians were slain. De Soto and a few others escaped, and, calling his forces together, the Spanish governor quickly invested the town.
A terrible conflict, lasting nine hours, ensued, in which, as was almost inevitable, the white men were finally victorious, though not until they had lost many valuable lives and nearly all their property. Mavilla was burnt to ashes; and when the battle was over, the Spaniards found themselves in an awful situations, - at a distance from their ships, without food or medicines, and surrounded on all sides by enemies rendered desperate by defeat. The common soldiers, too, had by this time had enough of exploration, and were eager to return to the coast, there to await the return of the vessels which had been sent to Cuba for supplies. Evading the poor fellows' questions as to his plans, however, De Soto, who had received secret intelligence that his fleet was even now awaiting him in' the Bay of Pensacola, but six days' journey from Mavilla, determined to make one more effort to redeem his honor by a discovery of importance. With this end in view he led his disheartened forces northward, and in December reached a small village, belonging to Chickasaw Indians, in the State of Mississippi, supposed to have been situated about N. lat. 32 deg 53', W. long 90 deg 23'.
In spite of constant petty hostilities with the Indians, the winter, which was severe enough for snow to fall, passed over peaceably; but with the beginning of spring the usual arbitrary proceedings were resorted to by De Soto for procuring porters to carry his baggage in his next trip, and this led to a second terrible fight, in which the Spaniards were worsted and narrowly escaped extermination. Had the Indians followed up their victory, not a white man would have escaped to tell the tale; but they seem to have been frightened at their own success, and to have drawn back just as they had their persecutors at their feet.
Rallying the remnant of his forces, and supplying the place of the uniforms which had been carried off by the enemy with skins and mats of ivy leaves, De Soto now led his strangely-transformed followers in a north-westerly direction, and, completely crossing the modern State of Mississippi, arrived in May on the banks of the mighty river from which it takes its name, in about N. lat. 35 deg.
Thus took place the discovery of the great Father of Waters, rolling by in unconscious majesty on its way from its distanct birthplace in Minnesota to its final home in the Gulf of Mexico. To De Soto, however, it was no geographical phenomenon, inviting him to trace its course and solve the secret of its origin, but a sheet of water, "half a league over," impeding his progress, and his first care was to obtain boats to get to the other side.
But on resuming his researches in the ensuing spring, though worn out by continual wanderings and warfare, and deprived by death of his chief helper, Juan Ortiz, the indomitable explorer now endeavored to win over the Indians by claiming supernatural powers and declaring himself immortal; but it was too late to inaugurate a new policy. The spot chosen for encampment turned out to be unhealthy; the white men began to succumb to disease; scouts sent out to explore the neighborhood for a more favorable situation brought back rumors of howling wildernesses, impenetrable woods, and, worst of all, of stealthy bands of Indians creeping up from every side to hem in and destroy the little knot of white men.
Thus driven to bay, De Soto, who was now himself either attacked by disease or broken down by all he had undergone, determined at least to die like a man, and, calling the survivors of his once gallant company about him, he asked pardon for the evils he had brought upon those who had trusted in him, and named Luis Moscoso de Alvaredo as his successor.
On the following day, May 21, 1542, the unfortunate hero breathed his last, and was almost immediately buried secretly without the gates of the camp, Alvaredo fearing an immediate onslaught from the natives should the death of the hero who had claimed immortality be discovered. The newly-made grave, however, excited suspicion, and, finding it impossible to prevent it from being rifled by the inquisitive savages, Alvaredo had the corpse of his predecessor removed from it in the night, wrapped in cloths made heavy with sand, and dropped from a boat into the Mississippi.
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