Among the men who had been with Pizarro in Peru was Ferdinand de Soto, a bold and dashing Spanish cavalier.
De Soto was appointed governor of Cuba in 1537, and at the same time received permission from the Spanish king to conquer Florida. This permission to conquer Florida was received by De Soto with great delight. He felt certain that in the interior of Florida there were cities as large and as wealthy as those of Peru. To conquer these cities, obtain their treasure, and win for himself riches and fame, was the dream of De Soto.
Strange as it may seem to you, De Soto was also anxious to convert the natives to his own religion. He intended to take from them all their possessions, but he meant to save their souls, if possible.
So, leaving his young and beautiful wife Isabella to rule over Cuba in his absence, De Soto, in May, 1539, started from Havana with nine vessels, about six hundred men, and two hundred and twenty-three horses.
After a safe voyage, the expedition landed on the coast of Florida, at Tampa Bay. Before starting on the march to the interior of the country, De Soto sent all the vessels back to Cuba. In this way he cut off all hope of retreat, in case the men should become discouraged. But no one thought of wanting to return now. Everybody was in high spirits.
The soldiers wore brilliant uniforms, their caps were adorned with waving plumes, and their polished armor glistened and sparkled in the sunshine.
In the company were twelve priests, who were expected to convert the prisoners which De Soto meant to capture. The Spaniards carried with them chains to secure these prisoners, and bloodhounds to track them in case any escaped.
It was a gay company which marched off into the interior of Florida with prancing horses, waving flags and banners, and beating drums.
At first De Soto marched directly north, plunging into a wilderness which proved to be almost impassable. The country was full of swamps, through which the horses could scarcely travel. The large trees were bound together by tangled vines; and their roots, which protruded from the earth, were like traps, catching the feet of the travelers and throwing them to the ground.
Besides all this, the heavy baggage which the men and horses carried weighed them down and made the journey almost impossible.
De Soto, however, kept bravely on, encouraging his men as best he could, and at last reached the Savannah River. Here he changed his course to westward, hoping to find gold in that direction.
Week after week, month after month, the Spaniards traveled on through a dense wilderness, enduring great hardships and finding nothing but tribes of hostile Indians.
De Soto asked one of these Indian chiefs to give him slaves enough to carry his baggage through the forest. The chief refused; whereupon De Soto and his men attacked the tribe and took many prisoners. These prisoners De Soto caused to be chained together and placed in front of the expedition, where they were made to act as guides as well as slaves.
Then De Soto asked the Indians where the great cities with gold and silver treasures were. One Indian said he did not know of any. At this reply De Soto caused the Indian to be put to death with frightful torture. This made the Indians untruthful, and they told De Soto many different stories of places where they thought gold might be found.
So the expedition wandered on, searching for the gold which they never found; and the men grew discouraged and heartsick, and longed for home.
The Indian tribes, angry at the cruel treatment of the Spaniards, attacked them frequently, and De Soto and his men scarcely ever enjoyed a peaceful rest at night. The Spaniards were unused to Indian warfare, and were no match for the quick, nimble savages, who glided through the forests silently and swiftly. These Indians never came to open battle, but hid themselves behind rocks and trees, and were scarcely ever seen. Two or three would suddenly appear, send a shower of arrows at the Spaniards, and then dart away again into the woods. The Indians scarcely ever missed their aim, and the Spaniards never knew when they were near.
One day De Soto captured some Indians who said that they knew where gold was to be found and that they would show the way to the place. De Soto only half trusted them, but he allowed them to lead the way. The cunning savages led the Spaniards into an ambush, where other Indians attacked them fiercely, killing their horses and many of their men.
As punishment for this act, De Soto ordered that these Indians should be torn to pieces by the bloodhounds.
Sometimes the Spaniards, in their wanderings, passed camps where the Indians were gathered round huge bonfires, singing, dancing, yelling, and shouting the terrible Indian war whoop. Under shelter of this noise the Spaniards would steal quietly away and avoid the Indians for a time.
At length, after wandering for two years, De Soto came, in 1541, to the shore of a large river. This river was wide and muddy, and had a strong current which carried much driftwood along with it. De Soto learned from the Indians that it was called Mississippi, or the "Father of Waters."
He had reached it near the spot where the city of Memphis now stands, and here his company halted and camped.
At this place the Spaniards built rafts, striking the fetters from their captives in order to use the iron for nails, and so crossed the river. They hoped in this way to escape from their savage foes; but on the other side of the river they found Indians who were just as fierce.
So the Spaniards traveled south, hoping by following the course of the river to reach the sea. This De Soto soon found to be impossible, as the country was a wilderness of tangled vines and roots, and his followers could not cross the many creeks and small rivers which flowed into the Mississippi. The horses traveled through this country with difficulty, often being up to their girths in water. Each day saw the little band grow less in numbers.
At length they returned to the banks of the river, being guided back by their horses. The men lost their way in the dreadful forest, but the instinct of the noble animals directed them aright.
Food was growing scarce, and De Soto himself was taken ill. He knew that unless something should be done soon to make the Indians help them, all would perish. So he sent word to an Indian chief saying that he was the child of the sun, and that all men obeyed him. He then declared that he wanted the chief's friendship, and ordered him to bring him food.
The chief sent back word that if De Soto would cause the river to dry up he would believe him. This, of course, De Soto could not do.
He was disappointed and discouraged at not being able to get food. The illness from which he was suffering grew worse, and he died soon afterwards.
His followers were anxious to hide his death from the natives, who were very much afraid of him. So they placed his body in the hollow of a scooped out tree, and sunk it at midnight in the water.
Those of his followers who were left decided to try to reach home by following the river to its mouth. These men were in a wretched condition. Their clothing was nearly all gone. Few of them had shoes, and many had only the skins of animals and mats made of wild vines to keep them warm. They built seven frail barks and sailed down the Mississippi, avoiding Indians all the way, and in seventeen days they came to the Gulf of Mexico.
In fifty days more they succeeded in reaching a Spanish settlement on the coast of Mexico, where they were received with much joy.
Of the gay company of six hundred and twenty who had set out with such high hopes, only three hundred and eleven men returned.