De Soto's Search for El Dorado

ALL Spain was astonished to hear from the lips of Cabeza de Vaca, his story of the great world of North America, over which four castaways had roamed eight years. Spanish imagination ran riot with the fancy that hidden somewhere in those immense spaces was more loot than either Peru or Mexico had yielded; a country where gold was so plentiful that its king was smeared every morning with gum and then covered with a powder of the precious yellow metal, which was washed off at night.

This golden land—El Dorado—vainly had been sought in South America, and Hernando de Soto now resolved to seek it in the northern continent. As gallant a cavalier as ever drew a sword, De Soto had come back from Peru disappointed with his share of the spoils of the Incas and aflame with ambition to outdo Pizarro. Castles in Spain were forsaken for this castle in the air. Nobles sold their estates and merchants their shops to join in that first of American get-rich-quick schemes.

All bent on a merry frolic with fortune, a brave array of 600 lancers, targeteers, crossbowmen and arquebusiers, with more than 200 horses and a pack of man-hunting dogs, landed on or near the shore of Tampa Bay in May of the year 1539. De Soto himself was attended by "a steward, a gentleman usher, pages, a gentleman of the horse, a chamberlain, lackeys and all other officers that the house of a nobleman requireth." But the fun was over after the first night was passed, when the "sharp-nailed Floridans" fell upon the sleeping camp. Thenceforth every step of the expedition was dogged by a savage foe in a savage wilderness.

Among the first captives taken by the Spanish, De Soto was amazed to see a miserable creature making a sign of the cross and to hear him cry, "Sevilla! Sevilla!" The prisoner proved to be a white man and a Spaniard, although he had almost lost the use of his mother tongue. This Juan Ortez was one more and the fifth survivor of the Narvaez expedition of 1528. He had been captured by the Indians but spared, at the pleading of a chieftain's daughter, and had lived with his captors 12 years.

With Ortez for his guide and interpreter, De Soto advanced upon his dreamland — El Dorado. Through desolate wilds and across what are now the States of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and probably into Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma, he drew a bloody trail. Burning villages and seizing tribal chiefs for hostages; enslaving and chaining; slashing off ears and noses; loosing murderous dogs who had been "fleshed" by a taste of the blood of red men, the commander of the expedition showed himself "very fond of the sport of killing Indians," as a Spanish historian remarked.

Not meekly did the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Creeks and other tribes endure that campaign of frightfulness. They raided and captured and destroyed horses and dogs, the munitions and even the clothes of the invaders, who had to cover themselves against the Winter with the skins of wild animals. Red slaves, though loaded down with chains and collars, smashed their irons with stones and killed their keepers. De Soto himself was laid low by a blow that put his teeth out of commission and reduced him to a diet of hash for 20 days.

After two floundering, grueling years, the battered, tattered searchers for El Dorado were halted by a river so wide that "if a man stood still on the other side, it could not be seen whether no he was a man." Although De Soto's name has been immortalized as that of the reputed discoverer of the Mississippi, he himself looked upon that mighty stream only as a hurdle in his race to El Dorado. Contriving to cross it, he plunged on into the snows of another Winter, after which, in bitter disappointment, he retreated to the banks of the river.

Dismissing the delusion of a golden kingdom, the indomitable leader now dreamed of opening a great empire for Spain in the Mississippi Valley. Even while he was building boats to be dispatched down the river and to Cuba for supplies, the conqueror himself was conquered by malaria.

The first anxiety of the leaderless survivors was to hide their great loss from the vengeful Indians, who must not know that this miracle working "Child of the Sun" had gone the way of all flesh. In the hollowed log of a giant oak, silently by night, they buried him and drove horses over the grave to trample down the telltale mound. Although they explained his absence by saying that he was only on a visit to his home in the sky, they grew fearful that the keen-eyed red men were not deceived. Under the cover of another night and to the muffled chant of the priests, they disinterred the body of their chieftain and buried it deep in the bosom of the Father of Waters.

The expedition, after three years of terrible hardships, was now reduced one-half. That wretched remnant of a gay and splendid company floated down the river to the Gulf, showered all the way by parting shots from the pursuing canoes of the triumphant Indians.

While De Soto still was searching for El Dorado, and in Arkansas, a painted Indian woman ran into his camp and told him that she had fled from other bearded, pale-faced men like himself, who were only nine days away. Another made chase after the phantom kingdom of gold really was in progress on the great plains of the West.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 8, 1927, p. 14