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Hernando De Soto is famous in Latin American history as the Spanish conquistador who joined Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of the Inca Empire, but he is also a critical player in American history as the first European to discover the Mississippi River. Located on Shaw’s Point, which is the general area historians believe was the landing place of De Soto’s 1539 expedition, De Soto National Memorial commemorates De Soto’s landing in Florida and his northwestward expedition into North America. De Soto National Memorial is also an archeological site with artifacts and trails left behind by American Indians who guided De Soto’s expedition through Florida to the Mississippi.
Hernando De Soto was born in the Spanish province of Badajoz, in a town named Jerez de los Caballeros, meaning City of the Knights Templar. Given De Soto’s eventual career as a conquistador and avid horseman, it would seem fitting that he came from a town that both idolized knighthood and was also noteworthy for its distinguished equestrian training. Born soon after the expulsion of the last Muslims in 1492, De Soto was raised in an atmosphere influenced by the eight centuries of war that followed the Moorish conquest of Spain. This period, known as La Reconquista, bred a distinct class of warriors who epitomized the old medieval knighthood and fought to restore the Christian kingdom by reclaiming the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim invaders. Influenced by the military and religious crusade that defeated the Moors, and inspired by the discoveries of Christopher Columbus’ voyage, De Soto -- like many Spaniards of his generation -- became eager at a very young age to become a conquering explorer. By the time Hernando De Soto reached the age of 14, he had become a skilled equestrian and in 1519, joined the ranks of the famous conquistadores of the New World.
In 1525, following the successful expedition to Panama with Juan Ponce de Leon and Pedrarias Davila, De Soto gained control of Nicaragua and acquired a vast fortune from American Indian gold and slave trading. During this period De Soto met Francisco Pizarro, a ruthless conquistador who informed De Soto of the wealth he had heard of in the native empire that lay south of Panama. In 1531, after receiving permission from the Spanish Crown to conquer Peru, De Soto and Pizarro successfully landed on the coast of modern day Ecuador. Making their way into Peru, the conquistadores found themselves in the middle of the struggle between the Inca ruler of Quito, Atahualpa, and his half brother Huascar, the ruler of the Inca capital of Cuzco. Using the distraction of the Inca civil war, Pizarro managed to seize Peru after Atahualpa’s army defeated and executed Huascar. In 1532, Pizarro and De Soto--like Cortes in Mexico with Montezuma--captured and executed Atahualpa after he rejected the Spaniards' invitation for the Inca emperor to convert to Christianity. Learning of Atahualpa’s death, the Inca army surrendered, and the Spaniards gained control of the Inca territories and ransacked the empire’s fortune.
Following the successful conquest of the Inca Empire, De Soto returned to Spain in 1536 and sought an audience with the emperor to request permission to become governor of Quito. Since the Spanish Crown would take a year to grant his request, De Soto took advantage of his time in Spain to marry Isabel de Bobadilla, the daughter of his Panama expedition partner, Pedrarias Davila. In the same year, he became a member of the Spanish Order of Santiago, and by 1537, he reached an agreement with Carlos I of Spain to conquer Florida. Although the Spanish Crown did not grant his original petition to become governor of Quito, the emperor agreed to make De Soto the governor of Cuba if he returned victorious from his expedition through Florida. In 1539, two years after their departure from Spain, De Soto and his crew landed on the west coast of Florida in the area historians believe is the location of present day Tampa.
Expecting to find great treasures as he did on his previous expeditions to Central and South America, De Soto approached his conquest of Florida with the same mentality and techniques that Pizarro and Pedrarias applied in their conquests of Peru and Panama. When De Soto reached Florida, he found that the natives of the Coosa towns did not possess gold and could only offer the Spaniards the richness of their agricultural harvest. De Soto, convinced that he would find treasure, continued to travel northwest from one village to the next terrorizing native towns that did not cooperate by throwing natives to the dogs, burning them alive, enslaving and raping them, and cutting off their noses and hands. Those who did cooperate became servants who helped feed the Spaniards and guide them on the American Indian trails. Both the tribes and the Spaniards suffered losses caused by disease and battles, but despite losing half of his soldiers, De Soto was determined to find the treasures he sought. The journey ended in 1543, when De Soto died from a fever, having reached the Mississippi River at the time of his death. His men buried him in the river and built boats to return to Mexico by floating down to the Gulf of Mexico on the river.
De Soto never came across fortune throughout his voyage, but historians credit him with the European discovery of the Mississippi River. De Soto’s troops were the first Europeans to explore deep into North America, and the details of their travels helped future explorers of the area by offering them information about the land and the natives. By the time later explorers reached the territory De Soto had explored, however, the Florida they found was not the land that De Soto’s men encountered in 1539. When other explorers reached the area of the Coosa towns 20 years later, they found abandoned villages that demonstrated the negative impact the Spaniards had on the native people who were destroyed by raids and disease. Evidence of native life in the Southeast today from this period comes from the sites and artifacts discovered by archeologists, and the Indian trails throughout De Soto National Memorial.
In 1948, the National Park Service acquired 30 acres of Shaw’s point--the area the United States De Soto Expedition Commission declared in 1939 as De Soto’s landing point--to establish a National Memorial commemorating De Soto’s expedition in Florida and his discovery of the Mississippi River. The year 2009 marked the 470th anniversary of the Spaniard’s expedition into North America.