In May 1539, Conquistador Hernando de Soto’s army of soldiers, hired mercenaries, craftsmen, and clergy made landfall somewhere along the shores of Tampa Bay.
THE STARTING PLACE OF AN EPIC JOURNEY INTO THE NEW WORLD
The Spanish were met with fierce resistance by the indigenous people protecting their homelands. De Soto’s four year quest for gold and glory became a 4,000 mile odyssey of warfare, disease, and discovery, that would vastly contribute to the history of North America.
THE JOURNEY TOOK THE DE SOTO EXPEDITION AS FAR NORTH AS THE TENNESSEE-OHIO VALLEY AND AS FAR WEST AS THE TEXAS-ARKANSAS DESERTS
Hernando de Soto was born c. 1496/97 in Jerez de los Caballeros, Badajoz, Spain, and died May 21, 1542 along the Mississippi River [in present-day Louisiana, U.S.]. In 1514, while still in his teens, he told his father of his desire to go to the Indies, and he left for Seville. Despite his youth, De Soto’s zeal and his prowess as a horseman helped gain him a place on the 1514 expedition of Pedro Arias de Ávila to the West Indies. In Panama, De Soto quickly made his mark as a trader and expeditioner. By 1520 he had accumulated considerable capital through his slave trading in Nicaragua and Panama.
In 1530, Francisco Pizarro called on Hernando de Soto to lend horse cavalry and ships for an expedition to Peru. In exchange for his services, De Soto would be named second-in-command of the expedition and receive a lion's share of the spoils of conquest. As the expedition’s captain of horse, De Soto was the driving force in the Spaniards’ defeat of the Incas at Cajamarca, and he was the first European to make contact with the Inca emperor Atahuallpa. Dissatisfied with Pizarro’s leadership and coveting a governorship of his own, De Soto returned to Spain in 1536.
He grew restless in Spain, however, and in 1537 sought permission to conquer Ecuador, with special rights to the Amazon River basin. Instead, he was commissioned by the Spanish crown to conquer "La Florida". In addition, he was made governor of Cuba. De Soto departed Spain in September 1537 to travel to Cuba where he would claim his title of governor and begin forming his expedition. De Soto selected over 600 Spanish and Portuguese soldiers and volunteers to accompany him to colonize North America. To feed and shelter these men was an entourage of "blacks of African and Moorish descent", and an unknown number of servant women of young age. In total, the expedition numbered around 1,000 people. They embarked from Havana on seven of the King's ships and two caravels of De Soto's with supplies for their planned four-year continental expedition. This included tons of heavy armour and weaponry equipment, including several hundred "dogs of war" to be used in hunting and controlling the indigenous peoples. They travelled with several hundred horses, and also carried more than 600 livestock animals, like nearly 300 pigs, which was their first introduction into North America. By late May 1539, Hernando de Soto landed somewhere along the central Gulf of Mexico coast of La Florida, near present day Tampa Bay, and began the expedition that would cost him his fortune and his life.
European expeditions to the west coast of La Florida, began in the early 16th century. The initial contact was with the Narváez expedition in 1528. Pánfilo de Narváez landed in upper Tampa Bay with 300 men after experiencing hurricanes and desertions on the journey. His expedition only reached as far as Apalachicola, where he attempted to return to Tampa by four rafts, two of which were shipwrecked. In the end only five men survived his expedition. Among the survivors was the expedition's treasurer and sheriff, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who wrote a book detailing his eight year journey which is the first written account of North America and the indigenous people living in the southeast and along the Gulf of Mexico.
It was the fantastic story of Cabeza de Vaca that encouraged the king of Spain to send De Soto to colonize the region. When De Soto arrived in 1539, and began exploring the Tampa Bay area, he found a Spaniard named Juan Ortiz, living amongst the Mocoso tribe. Ortiz had been captured by the Uzita while searching for the lost Narváez expedition; he later escaped to Mocoso. He was a shipwrecked survivor of the Narváez expedition. Chief Hirrihigua of the Uzita, whose nose had been cut off by order of Narváez, had spared Ortiz’s life at the urging of his daughter. When De Soto encountered Juan Ortiz, he was not recognized as a Spaniard. He dressed like an Indian, and spoke only halting Spanish after 12 years among the natives. Ortiz eventually became the expedition's lead guide as he could speak various tribal dialects including Timucua. He had learned the language from the Mocoso, who were not part of the Safety Harbor or Tocobaga cultures of the Tampa Bay area, and they were also not related to the Calusa of the south.
After a two week sea voyage from Cuba, De Soto's ships entered Tampa Bay by a channel between Anna Maria Island and Egmont Key. Several of his largest ships would run aground in the shallow channel and would have to be dragged through by a process called kegging. His fleet, finding a deep channel north would sail and make landfall at the site of the present day Port of Manatee, a natural deepwater harbor. On May 30th De Soto himself would come on shore and in official ceremony take possession of the land known as La Florida. Though scholars have debated some small details of the route, it is generally accepted that the De Soto Expedition journeyed north through Florida, then proceeded to traverse the southeast and headed west. De Soto enslaved Indians and their chiefs from villages along the way and took them on his journey to carry supplies, help navigate and act as interpreters.
DE SOTO NATIONAL MEMORIAL interprets the landing of Hernando de Soto in “La Florida”. The park gives visitors an idea of how the geographic region would have looked during that time and the impact the Spanish arrival had on Florida’s native peoples.
The primary indigenous peoples the De Soto Expedition encountered at the southern Tampa Bay site of the De Soto National Memorial, were the Uzita. Therefore, the park today interprets both Spanish and Indian lifeways. Camp Uzita is set up during these months for visitors to experience life in the 16th Century. The Living History Camp is opened December through April . Rangers and volunteers dressed in period clothing present talks on a variety of historical topics related to the De Soto Expedition and Florida's Native Americans. Visitors can watch blacksmithing, cooking demonstrations, archery contests and hear the roar of an arquebus, as well as native crafts and stories. Uzita Camp's season closes in April with the popular De Soto landing event. Living History Rangers and volunteers re-enact the historic landing of Hernando de Soto on the beaches of Tampa Bay.
Historical re-enactments are a way to teach our history by connecting today's park visitors with the real people of the past. In showing how people of the past lived, parks and museums make their stories real, and create a better understanding of past events, be they tragic or uplifting. Living History performers come from all walks of life and generations. They provide as vital an educational service as do static exhibits. De Soto National Memorial is a key place to experience their unique way of telling the story of Florida.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE DE SOTO MET AT TAMPA BAY
PLAN YOUR VISIT
8300 Desoto Memorial Hwy
Bradenton, Florida, FL 34209
P.O. Box 15390
Bradenton, FL 34280
PHONE: (941) 792-0458 x105
HOURS: The Visitor Center is open daily, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Park grounds are open dawn to dusk, but the parking lot gates close at 5:00 p.m.
page information credit: The National Park Service, Florida Museum of Natural History, Encyclopedia Britannica (online 2017), The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando De Soto to North America 1539-1543 by Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight, Jr., Edward C. Moore (1994) University of Alabama Press, Florida Department of Historical Resources, and previous Trail website content
photos from the sources listed above, as well as publicly posted online sites with thanks to the contributors, special thanks to Hermann Trappman, and Marjie Lambert