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 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.
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.
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.
CLICK THE IMAGES BELOW TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE DE SOTO MET AT TAMPA BAY
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