Hernando de Soto was a Spanish explorer who led an expedition to the southern United States. He and his soldiers were the first Europeans to set foot in what is now Arkansas. four written accounts of the expedition provide details of his journey through the state.
de soto was born in the extremadura region of western spain around 1500, but the exact date is uncertain. He was probably born in the town of Jerez de los Caballeros. Second son of Francisco Méndez de Soto and Leonor Arias Tinoco, he had at least two younger sisters and one older brother. Although the family was of noble descent, De Soto was poor and borrowed money to travel to the New World in 1514.
He became a soldier, participating in raids and expeditions in Panama, Nicaragua and Peru. By 1536, he had gained fame as a ruthless but successful military leader in conquering groups of Native Americans in Central and South America and had grown rich from his involvement in the sale of indigenous slaves.
Returning to Spain in 1536, he married Isabel de Bobadilla in Valladolid in November of that year. He petitioned King Carlos V for a governorship in Central America, but after complicated negotiations, the King offered him the opportunity to explore and conquer Florida, which consisted of what is now the southern United States. In addition, De Soto was appointed Governor of Cuba, which would serve as the basis for the conquest. in 1537, he began gathering supplies and recruiting a paid army to participate in the expedition.
in may 1539, de soto left cuba with about 600 men, plus horses, pigs, and equipment. His contract with the king required him to explore the region and establish settlements and forts. After landing on the southwestern coast of Florida, the crew traveled southeast before crossing the Mississippi River into what is now Arkansas on June 28, 1541 (June 18 on the Julian calendar, in use at the time).
The explorers were the first Europeans to set foot in Arkansas. the four known accounts of the expedition describe the Indians they encountered over the next two years. scholars have long debated the actual route, but archaeologists have discovered small bronze bells and other Spanish artifacts at some archaeological sites, evidence of the expedition.
Three detailed accounts of the expedition were written by survivors Rodrigo Ranjel, Luys Hernández de Biedma, and an anonymous Portuguese soldier. the fourth was written forty or fifty years later by garcilaso de la vega from interviews with survivors and appears to have many fictitious additions. although these accounts are skewed, together they give a fairly complete picture of de soto.
The most valuable aspect of the accounts is the portrayal of the indigenous groups encountered by the expedition. Up to the time of De Soto’s death in 1542, accounts mention the following names of Arkansas Indian chiefs, towns, and provinces: Aquixo, Casqui, Pacaha, Quiguate, Coligua, Calpista, Palisema, Quixila, Tutilcoya, Tanico, Cayase, Tula, Guipana, Autiamque, Anoixi, Quitamaya, Anilco, Ayays, Tutelpinco, Tianto, Nilco and Guachoya. Explorers typically used the same name to refer to a chief, the town where the chief lived, and the region under his control. because the names were unfamiliar to Spanish-speaking explorers, their spellings vary in different accounts, but are assumed to be reasonable approximations of the names spoken by the Indians. They are the first recorded names of anyone living in Arkansas.
Relations with most Arkansas Indians were relatively cordial, but De Soto and his soldiers did not think to torture and kill those who refused to cooperate. His main goal was to obtain wealth, and today’s Indians in Arkansas and other southern states see him as a murderer.
after traveling across the state for nearly a year, de soto led his expedition back to the mississippi river, somewhere in southeast arkansas. by this time, he and most of his entourage were disillusioned and weary from the difficult journey and battles with the Indians during the last three years. The gold and other riches they sought were not found, and about half of the original 600 men had died since they landed in Florida. None were more disappointed than De Soto, and he sent a scouting party up the Mississippi to see if it was feasible to build ships and sail to Mexico. When the men returned a week later, having been unable to find the Gulf of Mexico, De Soto fell ill. he apparently suffered from some kind of fever and died in a place called guachoya, probably present-day lake town (Chicot County), on May 31, 1542 (May 21, 1542, Julian calendar).
De Soto’s death presented difficulties for the members of the expedition, in part because he had convinced the local Indians that he was an immortal “son of the sun.” the soldiers explained that he had risen to heaven and then buried his body under cover of darkness. within days, it was obvious that the Indians had noticed the newly excavated earth and were suspicious. Fearing the desecration of his corpse and the consequences if the Indians confirmed De Soto’s death, the soldiers dug up the body at night, weighed it, and threw it into the Mississippi River from a canoe. A little over a year later, the survivors built barges and sailed up the Mississippi, after attempting to travel to Mexico by land.
De Soto’s expedition was ultimately a failure. When he arrived in Arkansas, he still saw himself as a conquering gallant, but, at the time of his death, his spirit was broken.
for additional information: childs, h. Terry and Charles H. mcnutt. Hernando de Soto’s Route from Chicaca through Northeast Arkansas: A Suggestion. Southeastern Archeology 28 (Winter 2009): 165-183.
Clayton, Lawrence A., Vernon James Knight Jr. and Edward C. Moore, eds. The Chronicles of Soto: Hernando de Soto’s Expedition to North America in 1539-1543. 2 vols. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.
duncan, david ewing. Hernando de Soto: A Wild Quest in the Americas. Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1997.
hudson, charles. Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the Ancient Chiefdoms of the South. Athens: Georgia University Press, 1997.
schaeffer, kelly. “Y de Soto Disease: A Bioarchaeological Approach to the Introduction of Malaria to the Southeastern United States”. ma thesis, university of arkansas, fayetteville, 2019. online at https://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/3173/ (accessed July 6, 2022).
young, glory a. and Michael P. Hoffman, eds. Hernando de Soto’s Expedition West of the Mississippi, 1541-1543. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
jeffrey m. mitchem arkansas archaeological survey
This entry, originally posted on arkansas biographie: a collection of remarkable lives, appears in the arkansas cals encyclopedia in an altered form. arkansas biography is available from the university of arkansas press.