Hernando de Soto
Hernando de Soto, from 1881 Young Peoples' Cyclopedia of Persons and Places

On May 28, 1539, the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto landed with an army of 620 men and 223 horses in Florida, probably not far from Tampa Bay. These were not the first Europeans to visit the North American mainland, but as far as is known they were the first destined to visit our Loess Hills.

When de Soto landed, he was still uncertain as to whether Florida was just another swampy island of the type the Spanish had found so many in the Caribbean, or whether it might not be, as rumor suggested, a land of wealthy Indian cultures ripe for being robbed of prodigious quantities of gold, silver, and jewels. More than anything, de Soto wanted to be like his fellow Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who had enriched himself ravishing the Aztec capital at Mexico City in 1521, and Francisco Pizarro, who through treachery and barbarism had robbed the riches of the Peruvian Incas just seven years earlier, in 1532.

However, the main riches de Soto and his army would find as they marched north through Florida, and then for the next three years wandered through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas -- was a rich mosaic of Indian cultures. They would fight and bluster their way through a land of fairly prosperous farmers and hunters, a land thickly populated with fair-sized Indian cities with impressive temples and traditions. In other words, the Indians seem to have been doing fairly well for themselves.

The Indians reacted to the aggressive, demanding army in various ways. Sometimes they tried to be friendly, more often as not getting rid of their unwanted visitors by insisting that just a bit beyond their own land there were far richer Indians. Some Indian nations resisted the Europeans with all their might, at least for a while, before yielding to the Spaniards' superior technology -- the Indians' spears and arrows were arrayed against the soldiers' guns and horses. During the expedition's worst fight, at Mabila, north of Mobile, Alabama, in 1540, one chronicler reported over 3,000 Indians slain, with eighteen Spaniards and twelve horses killed.

In the spring of 1541 the band fought desperate battles in northeastern Mississippi's Chickasaw country at Chicaca and Alabamo. Then the next significant event recorded by the chroniclers was their entry into the Indian town of Quiz-Quiz, in northwestern Mississippi. If this was the same Quiz-Quiz the ruins of which today lie within the city limits of Clarksdale, then just before entering Quiz-Quiz de Soto and his band must have traversed our Loess Hills.

However, the expedition's chroniclers wrote not a word about changes in vegetation reflecting the ever deeper loess beneath their feet, or the deep, steep-walled ravines, or any precipitous drop into the swampy lowlands. Perhaps they can be forgiven for this omission, for at this point de Soto and his band were in bad shape after so many battles. Recently they had lost most of their clothing and weapons in a fire set by the Indians.

"The half-naked, wild-looking, foul-smelling Europeans with their battered and makeshift weapons must have seemed to be monstrous caricatures of human beings to the well-fed, well-clothed, civilized residents of the province of Quiz-Quiz," suggests historian Mary Ann Wells in her book Native Land: Mississippi 1540-1798.

From Quiz-Quiz, de Soto and his band headed northwest where on May 8, 1541, a few miles downriver from present-day Memphis, they "discovered" the Mississippi River, which the Indians had lead them to. The army crossed the river and continued wandering, de Soto died farther downriver in 1542, and the remnants of de Soto's army never found gold.

What were the lasting effects of de Soto's march? Surely there was a profound one, and that was that a trail of disease was left wherever the Spaniards had passed. A better planned campaign of "germ warfare" against America's native people could not have been better put into action by the Europeans. North American Indians did not possess natural immunities for the diseases the Europeans brought with them. When the next wave of Europeans entered our area, they found an Indian world much reduced from de Soto's days and, though still impressive, often showing signs of social decay.

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