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Document Number: AJ-024
Author: Soto, Hernando de, ca. 1500-1542
Title: Letter of Hernando de Soto at Tampa Bay to the Justice and Board of Magistrates in Santiago de Cuba
Source: Bourne, Edward Gaylord (editor) and Buckingham Smith (translator). Narratives of the Career of Hernando de Soto in the Conquest of Florida as Told by a Knight of Elvas and in a Relation by Luys Hernandez de Beidma, Factor of the Expedition. Together with an Account of de Soto's Expedition Based on the Diary of Rodrigo Ranjel, His Private Secretary Translated from Oviedo's Historia General y Natural de las Indias. (New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1904). Volume 2, pages 159-165.
Pages/Illustrations: 8 / 0
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-024/

Author Note

Hernando de Soto, (ca. 1500-1542) was a Spanish conquistador active in the exploration of Central America and conquest of Peru. His career began in 1519 in Central America with Pedrarias Dávila. On completing the campaign to conquer Peru and sack Cuzco, Soto returned to Spain a wealthy man. Spanish King Charles V sent him to conquer Florida in 1539; he died in 1542 during the expedition.

Soto Expedition to Florida, the American South and Texas, 1539-1543

The King of Spain gave Hernando de Soto the funds and resources to conquer and colonize the American continent. Not knowing the size of North America, the King gave Soto four years to conquer America and locate riches that would entice Spanish settlers and investors to follow. Six-hundred-forty volunteers joined the expedition that left Cuba in 1539. Among them were expert tradesmen that might help settle a new land. Carpenters, merchants, engineers, blacksmiths, priests, and farmers were among Soto’s “army.” They carried with them all manner of military equipment, as well as seeds, nails, horses, dogs, and pigs. The massive entourage spent four years walking four-thousand miles through the interior of North America but did not establish a settlement. The Soto expedition began in Cuba and moved on to cover territory in what today are the states of Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas. For its exact route during the four-year journey, see the reference map accessible from this document’s home page.

From his campaigns against the Inca in Peru, Soto had earned a reputation for killing Indians as sport, and his North American expedition was among the most savage on record. Soto’s army brutalized and enslaved Indians they encountered all across the southeast, killing thousands and spreading disease throughout the native populations. Many nations first observed on this trip were decimated by diseases introduced during their first contact with Europeans.

Overcome with fever in the third year of the trip, Soto died in May 1542 on the banks of the Mississippi River. Before dying, he conferred command of the expedition to Luys de Moscoso. Moscoso hid Soto’s death from the local Indians because Soto had told them that he was immortal, but when Indian servants became curious about a fresh grave, Moscoso had unearthed the explorer’s body, wrapped it in cloth, weighted it with sand, and sunk it in the river.

Once in control of the expedition, Moscoso tried to discover the fastest route home. Indian guides, however, led the Spanish into the wastes of east Texas in the hope that they would be lost and then starve. Moscoso managed to find his way back to the Mississippi where the expedition built seven small ships in six months. The remaining Spaniards and their animals then set sail downriver. As they progressed, groups of Indians in large canoes attacked them. When the Spanish sent boats with soldiers to repulse these attacks, the Indians ditched the Spaniards’ boats, beat them with wooden clubs, and then drowned the armor-clad soldiers. The Indians then followed a bowshot behind the ships and patiently shot the Spaniards with arrows. Up to fifty canoes followed the Spaniards, attacking them day and night. The Spanish finally reached the mouth of the Mississippi River and headed west. They sailed into the Rio Panico, Mexico, on September 10, 1543, with only 300 men remaining from the original 640.

Letter from Soto to the Cuban Magistrates

This letter describes his departure from Cuba May 18, 1539, and his arrival in Florida in June. He recounts that when they arrived on the bay, the local Indians abandoned the region, permitting establishment of an outpost. Soto learned that a Christian held by one of the neighboring chiefs might be a helpful translator, so he tracked this person down in the Florida interior. Once acquired, the Indian became a loyal translator of the various languages and dialects spoken by the tribes in northern Florida. The letter directs the Spanish to complete the erection of a fort on Tampa Bay at Espiritu Santo, and is dated July 9, 1539.

Document Note

This document exists only in a contemporary copy found in the Archivo de las Indias in Spain. It was first published by Buckingham Smith in his Colección de varios documentos para la historia de la Florida y tierras adyacentes. Tomo I (London, 1857).

Other Internet and Reference Sources

A useful timeline of the years 1527-1547 that shows the relationships between the travels of Narváez, Núñez Cabeza da Vaca, Soto, Ulloa, and Coronado is available from the University of Arizona at http://southwest.library.arizona.edu/jour/front.1_div.4.html

More information can also be found at http://www.floridahistory.com.

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