Hernando de Soto was an important figure in the Spanish conquest of the New World in the 1500s. In this lesson, we'll discuss his triumphs in Central and South America, and his ultimate failure in North America.
Early Life and Background
The Spanish were so successful in their conquest of Mexico, Central, and South America that many believed that all of North America would be under their control just as quickly. Hernando de Soto was one of those people, and he set out to put North America under Spanish control. An explorer and conquistador, or conqueror, he may have been the first European to see the Mississippi River. Unfortunately for de Soto, he also may have been the first European to die at the Mississippi River, as his conquest did not go according to his plan.
De Soto was born in either 1496 or 1498 in the province of Extremadura, Spain, near Portugal. The Spanish had just encountered the New World and were in the process of figuring out how best to exploit the wealth they had found. They had also just finished a nearly 800-year war against Muslim occupants, called Reconquista, and the country was unified for the first time under Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand.
In addition, the Spanish economy was in chaos because the King and Queen had expelled all of the Jewish and Muslim people who would not convert to Christianity from Spain. More than 200,000 people were forced to go into exile, and this crippled the Spanish economy. These were the circumstances young people like de Soto found themselves in growing up in early sixteenth-century Spain. While his family were a minor nobility, there was little money and even fewer opportunities at home for the young man. As you can imagine, this was a turbulent time in Spain.
Becoming a Conquistador
Would you have stayed in Spain or gone to America? De Soto chose America. By the 1510s, the Spanish had settled most of the Caribbean islands and were now seeking to conquer the mainland. While still a teenager, de Soto was able to apprentice on a ship bound for the New World and quickly became an expert sailor. Indeed, by the 1520s, he was made a governor in a Central American colony in what is now Nicaragua.
As you know, it can be tough to accomplish so much at an early age. De Soto was captivated by the wealth he saw all around him and schemed to accomplish even more. By all accounts, he was an excellent leader, but he was also very cruel and used any means necessary to gain gold and power.
In 1533, De Soto joined Francisco Pizarro's major expedition of conquest to South America and quickly became one of his most trusted captains. When they found the massive civilization of the Inca, it was De Soto who was first sent to meet with their leaders. He gained the trust of the Inca leader, Atahualpa, but then betrayed him to Pizarro. By 1536, De Soto returned to Spain as a very wealthy man.
While in Spain, de Soto got married and associated with some of the most important members of the Spanish aristocracy. Most people would be happy with their life at this point, but not de Soto. He sought to achieve his own glory. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a member of a failed expedition to Florida who had spent nearly a decade lost and captured in present day Texas and Mexico, had recently returned to Spain. His stories convinced de Soto that he would be able to conquer North America.
We cannot be certain that de Soto heard those stories correctly; if he had waited to read Cabeza de Vaca's 1542 book, La Relación, which was about the bad decisions made on the expedition and the troubles he faced, de Soto may have done things differently. De Soto convinced King Charles that he would be able to conquer North America quickly, and the king rewarded him with the governorship of Cuba and financial assistance.
De Soto returned to America and by 1539 had formed an invasion force of more than 600 men to sail for Florida. Arriving in May of that year around what is now Tampa, Florida, de Soto began a route that would take him through present day Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. He was convinced that he would find lots of gold. Native American groups seized upon the greed of the would-be conquerors by telling de Soto stories of cities of gold far away from their own settlements.
Throughout 1539 and 1540, de Soto continued to search in vain for vast riches and civilizations to conquer. His group was continuously ambushed by Native Americans and suffered large casualties; indeed, they made many of the same mistakes Cabeza de Vaca's group made!
In 1541 de Soto's men finally encountered the Mississippi River, the largest river in North America, but de Soto was eager to move on. He had invested everything in this mission, and it was falling apart around him. Increasingly despondent over his failure, de Soto would finally die of fever in 1542, somewhere around the Mississippi River. While some speculate that his body was sunk in the river to convince Native American groups that de Soto was a god who couldn't die, no one really knows where he was buried.
Hernando de Soto was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who achieved great success during the conquests of Central and South America in the 1520s and 1530s. In spite of his riches, he dreamed of individual glory and set out to conquer North America in 1539 after hearing the stories of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a member of a failed expedition to Florida. In 1541, de Soto's men encountered the Mississippi River, the largest river in North America. His expedition was a total failure, however, and he died of disease in 1542.