Location: Bradenton, Florida
Webpage: National Park
General Description: De Soto National Monument is located at the approximate site of Hernando De Soto’s original landing on the west coast of Florida near present day Tampa. Following a successful career as a conquistador in Central America including the conquest of Nicaragua under Cordoba and the conquest of Peru under Pizarro, he returned to Spain in 1536 with an enormous share of the riches from Peru. De Soto petitioned King Charles for the government of Guatemala, he was granted governorship of Cuba instead with the expectation of creating colonies in North America. However, driven by the stories of Ponce de Leon and Cabeza de Vaca, he was convinced there were riches to be found in North America that would rival those from Central and South America. Self financing the expedition, he left Spain with nine ships, 620 soldiers, heavy equipment, and over 500 livestock including horses, pigs, and war dogs. In May 1539, he made landfall on the west coast of Florida somewhere in Tampa Bay. The exact location is not known, but the National Monument is located at the most likely location and is recognized by most historians. On a scouting expedition, de Soto found Juan Ortiz, a Spainard living with the Mocoso Indians. He had been captured by the Uzita while searching for the lost Narvaez expedition. Since he knew the Timucua language he served as de Soto’s interpreter and the expedition had a good start. However, there had already been many expeditions in to Florida by the Spanish by this time and the Indians were aware that the Spaniards were interested only in gold and other treasures. Therefore, de Soto was told time and again that there was treasure but it was always in the next village. Although de Soto was suppose to be finding locations and establishing colonies, his only interest was in finding treasure, for which he used brutal tactics to force information from the local tribes. He would routinely capture the chiefs and force them to provide not only information, but slaves to act as bearers and guides. Over the next 4 years, De Soto traveled up into Georgia, South and North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas before dying in 1542 of a fever on the banks of the Mississippi without ever finding any “treasure”. Half of the men had also perished by this time along with most of the horses. They first attempted to make for a Spanish settlement in Mexico overland through east Texas, but as the land became drier the Indian populations became less meaning there were fewer Indian villages to plunder for food and the force was too large to exist by forage alone. Therefore, they retreated back the way they came to the Mississippi and built seven boats over the winter of 1542. The trip down the Mississippi took over two weeks and they were constantly under attack from hostile Indians the entire route. Eventually reaching the Gulf they stayed along the coast to the Spanish settlement in Panuco in Mexico. While the expedition was a failure from the Spanish point of view since they did not find any treasure or establish any colonies, the expedition had a number of far reaching consequences. First, the hogs that escaped from the Spanish flourished in the New World becoming the razorbacks of the Southeast. Second, the brutal nature of the expedition forever changed the relationships between North American Indians and the Spanish. Most importantly, was the introduction of European diseases that over the next 250 years totally destroyed Indian culture throughout the Southeast.
1) The National Memorial is not very large since it covers only the possible landing site and initial camp of De Soto. The Visitor Center has a few excellent exhibits about the expedition and its consequences. The movie they have about De Soto is excellent and should not be missed.
2) There is a short 1/5 mile nature walk along the shore that winds through the mangrove forest. If you extend the walk to the south you can also visit the old De Soto Monument and Holy Eucharist Cross. It was interesting to find out that the old monument use to have a bronze statue of De Soto, which was stolen and later recovered. However, instead of replacing it, it is today in a museum.
3) They have reconstructed part of the small camp that would have been used by De Soto with a couple of simple buildings and palisade. They use the area for presentations by National Park rangers dressed in period clothes. While the presentations are different throughout the day, the one we saw about the impacts of the expedition was outstanding. The Ranger talked about the importance of the pigs, horses, and war dogs brought by the Spaniards. He also explained the impact the spread of European diseases would have had on the Indian culture and why there is very little oral history available before the 17th century!!
4) We spent about 4 hours at the Memorial and saw everything they had to offer. It was well worth the trip if you are ever in the Tampa Bay area.