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Holocaust in the Sixteenth Century: De Soto's Invasion of North America, 1539-1542

Mark has a BA from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

Hernando de Soto

A young de Soto only in his teens would lead a band of conquistadors to riches in South America. He played an important role in Francisco Pizarro's conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru in 1532.

A young de Soto only in his teens would lead a band of conquistadors to riches in South America. He played an important role in Francisco Pizarro's conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru in 1532.

Hernando de Soto: The Quintessential Conquistador

On a cool October morning in 1540, Hernando de Soto rode into Mabila, a walled town in what is now central Alabama. Short and muscular, with a clipped beard and dark eyes, de Soto was dazzling in his Renaissance armor and beaming with self-confidence as he led his army in search of new gold mines such as he found in the mountains of South America.

A year earlier he had embarked from Cuba carrying a writ from King Charles I of Spain and ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, to conquer what was then known as La Florida, which is what the Spaniards called the southeastern region of North America.

Since then, his small army of 650 men, equipped with 240 horses, steel swords, lances, crossbows, and arquebus muskets, cut a 2,000-mile swath through several pre-Columbian kingdoms of Indians ruled by powerful chieftains who fielded bands of warriors that numbered in the thousands. The mere sight of de Soto's heavily armed cavalry and foot soldiers was enough to intimidate many of these native warriors and prompt them to lay down their longbows and spears.

Even the great Indian chief Tascalusa, whom one of the expedition chroniclers described as "lord of many lands and many peoples," surrendered without a fight and was now being carted in chains to Mabila. There he promised to provide food, women, and servants to de Soto and his men.

A fearless risk-taker who relentlessly pursued wealth, fame, and glory even when the odds seemed overwhelmingly against him de Soto was the quintessential conquistador. In the 25 years before his arrival to the Americas, he had grown dependent on the fame from his success as a treasure hunter and warrior with the Pizarro brothers, which also resulted in his downfall.

The same mindset was shared by two of de Soto's Spanish contemporaries, Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of the Aztecs in Mexico, who died discredited and deeply in debt after self-financing too many failed expeditions, and Francisco Pizarro, the man he helped conquer the Incan Empire in Peru, who was eventually assassinated by a young rival. Like de Soto, each ignored the wisdom of consolidating his gains, and each failed to establish a lasting empire.

The Conquistador

De Soto in his conquistador armor. He would die on the banks of the Mississippi River on May 21,1542 near present day Ferriday, Louisiana.

De Soto in his conquistador armor. He would die on the banks of the Mississippi River on May 21,1542 near present day Ferriday, Louisiana.

Tascalusa's Trap

When de Soto rode into Mabila with a small advance guard from his army, he was assured that he was in total control of the situation, due to the fact they had the local chieftain, Tascalusa, in shackles, on a packhorse at his side.

Never in his wildest dreams did it occur to him that Tascalusa was luring him into a trap. Instead of resting a few days, the Spaniards found themselves engaged in one of the bloodiest battles ever fought between American Indians and Europeans. The battle was the beginning of the end of de Soto's remarkable string of triumphs as a conquistador.

By the time de Soto had set out to conquer La Florida he had already become a legend in the Spanish Conquista of the New World. At the age of 19, he would cross the isthmus of Panama and view the Atlantic Ocean possibly the first European to do so up to that put in history. This gave him an aura of invincibility, which spurred him on to even greater risks and, he assumed, more triumphs.

De Soto mastered the Conquista strategy of systematic ruthlessness to subdue natives.

From the beginning, he was driven by insatiable ambition. Born on the bleak hills of Extremadura in western Spain, probably in 1500, as the son of an impoverished lesser noble, de Soto believed with complete certainty in his own superiority as a Spaniard, Christian warrior. Mostly his vision derived from Spain's recent victory over the Islamic Moors after nearly eight centuries of warfare, a turning point that unleashed legions of young Spaniards eager to seek wealth and glory through the conquest of other infidels in the Americas.

Leaving home at the age of fourteen, de Soto rose rapidly even as a teenager in Panama. Spain's first mainland colony. By the age of nineteen, he was a captain, having saved a Spanish squadron from ambush by mounting a surprise charge against a larger native army.

Before long, de Soto began to amass a personal fortune from his share of plunder and estates, and from trading slaves.

De Soto also mastered the Conquista strategy of systematic ruthlessness to crush and subdue the natives he encountered. The sixteenth-century historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo chronicled the savage tendencies of Spanish invaders as they fanned out in search of gold and silver as well as slaves to carry their booty and supplies.

Oviedo called the early years of Panama under Governor Pedrarias Davila the Monteria infernal, the "monstrous hunting." He said the young de Soto had been "instructed in the school of Pedraries Davila in the dissipation and devastation of the Indians."

Time and again de Soto gave locals he had subdued two choices: surrender and provide his army with food and scores of servants to carry their gear or face annihilation. Those who surrendered, however, didn't fare much better than those who fought back. Enslaved servants typically died from mistreatment within weeks, and the settlements where they were seized were devastated by the loss of able-bodied young men and women and critical food stores as well as the execution or public humiliation of rulers and religious leaders.

Francisco Pizarro and the Conquest Peru 1531-1533

Offset by de Soto's brutal treatment of Indians was his ability to command the loyalty of his soldiers. In his twenties, he played an important role in the conquest of Nicaragua, where he became a wealthy landowner and the leader of a powerful faction of men in the fractious politics of that embryonic Spanish colony.

In 1531 he joined the Pizarro brothers' expeditionary force in Peru, bringing one hundred of his own men from Nicaragua and serving as a strategist and captain of the vanguard in the Spanish conquest of the Incas. The loyalty of his men during the Peruvian campaign provided de Soto a strong base for his ambition as he maneuvered for political advantage over Pizarro and his brothers. This obviously caused friction during the invasion, although the Pizarros needed the headstrong young captain and his men to prevail over the Incas.

In particular, Pizarro depended on a tactic de Soto had perfected as a teenager in Panama that became devastatingly effective in Peru which was speed and surprise.

No one in the Conquista had mastered the art of quick and decisive thrust into the midst of an Indian band of warriors like De Soto. He did this countless times during the Inca campaign, leading a few dozen men on horseback far ahead of Pizarro's main army to rush past Inca sentries and guards who were on foot. The Americas had no horses yet, moving so swiftly that the invaders could rush the headquarters of Inca generals and commanders and kill and capture them before their forces could be rallied against them.

Above all, de Soto's success as a conquistador was rooted in the same absolute belief in himself that he had brought with him from Spain. The best example of his lofty self-confidence was the devious manner in which he helped engineer the defeat of Inca Emperor Atahualpa.

In 1532, de Soto and Pizarro led 168 Spaniards into the heart of an Atahualpa's imperial army. They invited Atahualpa to dine in the Andes resort town of Cajamarca, a walled city provided for the Spaniards by the Incas, and they captured the emperor in a surprise attack on his royal guard.

The Spanish held Atahualpa captive in Cajamarca for months while his subjects paid a ransom by filling a room once with gold and twice with silver. Pizarro then puts the emperor to death, violating his agreement to free him once the ransom was paid, an act that de Soto opposed and that King Charles of Spain later condemned.

Spearheaded by de Soto's daring thrust in advance of the expeditionary force Pizarro launched a successful campaign to capture the Inca capital, Cuzco, which was taken with just a few hundred men. In 1536, when the Inca campaign was over, de Soto distanced himself from Pizarro and his brothers, and returned triumphantly to Spain, needing nine ships to carry all his gold and silver. He was now 36 and wealthy beyond his dreams.

De Soto's Invasion of La Florida Begins

De Soto's fatal weakness was that he was unable to be content with his success. He had heard rumors of cities overflowing with gold in the territory of La Florida, wild stories told by formerly shipwrecked Spaniards and others. So, he set out in 1539 on a quest that proved to be the road to his downfall.

The stories of sophisticated inland cities in La Florida paved in gold an "El Dorado" had been circulating since Ponce de Leon discovered Florida on April 2, 1513, on a quest for the "Fountain of Youth," a fabled water source that was said to bring eternal youth. Because he believed the peninsula to be an island, he named it "La Florida" since his discovery came during the time of the Easter feast, or Pascua Florida.

The Indians de Soto would encounter as he made his way north were collectively known as the Mississippians. Dominating river valleys from the Gulf of Mexico to the Carolinas and Illinois, they established settlements with up to several thousand people, a size comparable to all but the largest cities in Europe at the time. Over the centuries the Mississippians had developed agriculture, artistry, and building. They had established trade routes as far away as the Aztec Empire in southern Mexico and a hierarchy of rulers, priests, merchants, and artisans.

Yet these Mississippian tribes were no match for de Soto and his small army. Once de Soto and his army thrust into the interior of southeastern North America, they consistently overwhelmed the bands of native warriors they encountered, winning as much with shrewd tactics and bravado as with their advanced weaponry.

One of de Soto's most successful gambits was to take powerful chieftains hostage to gain passage through hostile territory. But he underestimated the willingness of one proud Mississippian king, Tascalusa, who knew de Soto was coming and had decided to fight. He even formed a loose alliance with nearby kingdoms to fight the Spaniards, like the Shawnee chief Tecumseh attempted to do almost three hundred years later. He realized, however, that it would be suicidal to attack de Soto directly, so he devised a strategy of deceit and surprise to defeat his new enemy.

There were also war dogs, great greyhounds and mastiffs fitted out in armor, and a herd of several hundred pigs. Imagine what these indigenous people thought when they set sight on the Spaniards as they marched into their settlements.

The Indians had never seen Europeans, horses, or pigs, nor heard the sound of firearms or felt their power. They knew dogs, but not of such horrific size, and not armored and trained to attack and disembowel humans. And they never had experienced the audacity of conquistadors, who seemed to be afraid of no one, not even the representatives on earth of the divine power of the sun.

The high chiefs on the mounds believed themselves to be such representatives, and so did their people believe it, who gave them corn and other valued commodities. The corn was put in public storehouses and later redistributed by the chief, who was regarded in their generosity as true givers of life.

Not only was de Soto unafraid of the high chiefs, but he searched them out precisely because of their control over the public granaries. His army needed food. The Spaniards were not skilled at hunting and gathering wild food from the forest, and even if they had been, there were too many of them for the forest to support. They needed large stores of corn to continue their march in the quest for gold.

The Arquebus

De Soto Crosses the Mississippi

The plan unfolded when de Soto arrived in Tascalusa's capital of Atahachi in central Alabama. Expedition chroniclers describe the king as greeting the Spaniards from a balcony built into an earthen mound, surrounded by servants, including one who held a large, dyed deerskin parasol above the king.

Despite his peaceful welcome, de Soto seized the king as a guarantee that servants and supplies would be delivered to his army as promised. He then took Tascalusa to Mabila with a vanguard force while the main Spanish army waited in the countryside. At one point during the march, scouts got word to de Soto that native warriors seemed to be amassing at Mabila. He ignored their warnings.

On October 18, 1540, de Soto and his advance group entered Mabila with Tascalusa for a morning of rest and relaxation. A few hours later a long line of native servants arrived with the expedition's store of weapons and equipment. Most of the army lingered behind.

That afternoon, the natives launched an ambush on de Soto's army as it rested. Warriors hiding in wooden houses and other structures burst out and attacked de Soto and his group. Incredibly, most of de Soto's troops survived and fought their way out of town, where the alarm was sent out to the main army.

As de Soto waited for his main army to come forward, the native servants broke free and carried the Spaniards' extra weapons and equipment into Mabila. Tascalusa's men pulled apart de Soto's packs and triumphantly waved clothes and weapons from the tops of their ramparts. Once de Soto's main force was mustered, he attacked Mabila from four sides.

For the rest of the day and into the night a fierce battle raged. In the end, the Spanish prevailed by breaching the town's wood and mud walls and setting the buildings inside on fire. The fires killed hundreds of defenders, including Tascalusa.

It was a costly victory for de Soto and his army. Some twenty-five Spaniards were killed, and dozens were wounded, but the loss of the expedition's weapons, helmets, lances, saddles, tents, and clothing would prove disastrous. It would greatly diminish the combat effectiveness of his army going forward.

The flames also consumed a stash of freshwater pearls the soldiers had seized in the Carolinas. De Soto made things even worse because he was unwilling to connect with the Spanish fleet at anchor in nearby Mobile Bay. More than a year earlier de Soto had ordered the captain of the fleet to return from Cuba and meet the expedition off the coast of Alabama.

A smart leader would have rendezvoused with this fleet and come back in the spring with a fresh re-equipped army. Mortified that he had little treasure to show for all his troubles since landing in La Florida, de Soto decided to camp near Mabila for the winter and then press further onward. He spent the next two years leading his increasingly desperate expedition across North America's interior for another 1,500 miles, marching west to the shores of the Mississippi territory, which he crossed in the spring of 1541.

De Soto then pushed his army onto the eastern edge of the Great Plains. When he realized that he had left the Mississippian territory, where he thought he was most likely to find gold, so he decided to double back to what is present-day Arkansas. Along the way, he fought a battle with a kingdom called the Chicasa in western Mississippi and suffered through another fire that burned what was left of his army's equipment.

Spring of 1542 and the End

By April of 1542, the expedition was encamped on the Mississippi River just south of the Arkansas River confluence. De Soto and his army had spent the winter in what is today Arkansas eating catfish and living off what else they could find, that winter proved to be especially harsh the snow began in August 1541 as the area endured a mini-ice age.

De Soto was seriously ill with fever and faced another powerful coalition of Mississippians massing to attack from land and large war canoes on the river. Though he was near death and his army was in tatters, de Soto had lost none of his arrogance. He demanded that the natives surrender, declaring himself a god. The local chieftain reacted with disdain, challenging de Soto to "dry up the great river."

But de Soto's worsening condition prevented any response, he died soon after, on May 21, 1542, he was 46 years of age. His men stuffed his body into a hollow tree and secretly dumped it in the river so the Indians wouldn't know that the supposed god had perished.

After another year of fighting and hardship, 311 survivors of de Soto's army built seven medium-sized sailing vessels to make their way down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico. Finally reaching northern Mexico in September 1543, they stunned residents of a small Spanish settlement when they revealed that they were members of an expedition everyone had given up for lost.

De Soto's obsessive desire to achieve even more victories, and his romantic quest for more gold, had not only doomed his expedition but also played a role in the apocalyptic collapse of the Mississippian culture.

De Soto's brutal tactics, including the murder or emasculation of leaders with the knowledge and authority to maintain the culture, added to the chaos in kingdoms that in the following decades were decimated by disease and probably famine. Exactly how the cultural apocalypse unfolded remains largely a mystery because the Mississippians had no written language.

However, by the time British and French settlers arrived more than a century later, descendants of the once-proud kingdoms had abandoned their towns and farmland as well as the great earthen mounds that had been built in the South and upper Midwest for religious ceremonies and housing for the elites. These scattered peoples could only conjure dim memories of their once illustrious past.

The effects de Soto's expedition on the native peoples of the American southeast had been debated over time. It is commonly agreed that de Soto's men are said to have spread disease, which destroyed the demographic fabric of the societies he visited, causing the disintegration of the Mississippian culture. He was a kind of holocaust sweeping through the land. De Soto was single-mindedly obsessed with gathering loot and glory.

By May 1541, Soto's men were painfully aware that La Florida was no Peru, even as Soto clung stubbornly to his quest. The great irony about Hernando de Soto is that he had already discovered North America's "Eldorado" and didn't know it.

North America was a country where nature itself was the greatest treasure, one where the game was so plentiful and fearless that early French explorers later killed deer and bear with swords. Its forest teemed with panthers, cougars, beavers, muskrats, opossums, turkeys, partridges, and waterfowl so numerous that William Bartram, an eighteenth-century explorer, and naturalist, described them as a "vast dark thunderstorm" when they flew overhead.

It's not to be said that de Soto's men shared his disregard for this natural treasure. Most of them had grown up in rural Spain close to the soil and understood the value of good land. This is why at times his men begged their governor-general to stop and establish a colony where they could build plantations, and enslave the local inhabitants as laborers.

That would not take place for another hundred years and only after the native Americans were either killed or moved westward into what would become the state of Oklahoma as we know it today. De Soto would write the sixteenth-century historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, who criticized him for failing to colonize North America, "never halted or settled anywhere: saying that it wasn't his goal to neither populate nor to conquer, but rather to disturb and devastate the land."

Legacy of the Razorback

The pigs de Soto brought to America are descendants of the Eurasian wild boar. With offspring in at least thirty-nine states, the wild pig is officially recognized as an invasive species.

There were no pigs in North America before de Soto decided to conquer La Florida. He brought along a small herd of swine, mainly as an emergency food supply for his men. Some were traded with natives and others escaped into the wild, where they spawned an ever-growing population of feral hogs, also known as Razorbacks. Like de Soto and his army, these hogs wreak havoc wherever they go.

United States agricultural officials estimate that there are four million wild hogs in America, concentrated in the South, they devour crops, spread disease, destroy plants and drive off other wildlife. It is fitting that the de Soto died in what is today Arkansas, where the state university football team is called the Razorbacks, an Americanized term for wild boars.


Clayton Lawrence A. The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando De Soto to North America in 1539-1543, The University of Alabama Press Tuscaloosa & London. Volume I & 2 1993.

Duncan David Ewing. Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. 201 East 50 Street New York, New York 10022. 1996

Hudson Joyce Rockwood. A Search Through the South for the Spaniard's Trail, The University of Georgia Press, Athens & London. Athens Georgia 30602. 1993.

Young Gloria A. The Expedition of Hernando de Soto: West of the Mississippi 1541-1543, The University of Arkansas Press. Fayetteville USA 1993