Heritage, Volume 9, Number 4, Fall 1991 Page: 12
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Soldiers of Misfortune:
The de Soto Expedition Through Texas
By James E. Bruseth and Nancy A. Kenmotsu
T he year was 1543. Three hundred
and eleven Spaniards, dressed only in
deerskins and sailing in crude boats, entered
the Panuco River of New Spain (Mexico)
from the Gulf of Mexico. They were all
that remained of the ill-fated de Soto expedition
that had wandered for more than
four years through La Florida-today's
Southeastern United States. Two hundred
and eighty-nine members of the expedition
had died including de Soto himself. Although
they failed to find the riches and
glory of Cortez's conquest of Mexico or
Pizarro's overthrow of Peru, the surviving
members had experienced one of the most
remarkable explorations of all time into
the North American continent.
For centuries scholars have labored to
identify de Soto's route through the U.S.
An accurate placement would have many
benefits. If the Indian tribes encountered
by the expedition could be plotted, anthropologists
and historians could trace
their subsequent movements and ultimate
fates. It would also achieve an understanding
of the geography of the southern
U.S. continent in the 16th century-just
50 years after Columbus' discovery. And
finally, local communities across the
Southeastern U.S. could verify their claims
that "de Soto stayed here." The tourism
potential could be significant for those
communities that could legitimize their
Nearly all reconstructions of the route
bring the army through Texas. Once in the
state, however, the routes diverge dramatically.
Some routes move the expedition
across northern Texas into the
Rolling Plains west of Abilene. Others
bring the Spaniards into the state near
Nacogdoches and move them westward
through eastern Texas. And still others
take them from the Nacogdoches area
through San Antonio and onto the Rio
Grande of southern Texas.
During the past decade, a number of
route of the
Texas in 16th century.
scholars have begun reinvestigating the
evidence for the de Soto route. Archaeological
excavations in the Southeastern
U.S. have provided a major source of new
information unavailable to previous
scholars. Coupled with this is an improved
ability to identify early Spanish artifacts.
Today we have several "marker" types that
only date to the 16th century and can be
used to trace the route of de Soto.
For the past two years the authors of this
article have been working on reconstructing
the de Soto expedition through Texas.
We both are professional archaeologists
and have relied heavily upon our knowledge
and experience with the archaeology of
eastern Texas. We have traveled extensively
through the eastern portions of the
state viewing excavations and artifacts, and
have developed a good understanding of
the archaeological record of this region as
it relates to the 16th century. Part of our
experience includes first-hand observations
of several artifacts reported to be from the
de Soto expedition that have been found
during the past 40 years in various parts of
eastern Texas (see page 15).
Armed with this new archaeological
information, we critically examined the
route of de Soto through Texas (see map on
page 13). Our sources are the survivors'
accounts of the expedition. An anonymous
member of the expedition referred to as a
Gentleman of Elvas has left a detailed
account. Another narrative by Lus
Hernandez de Biedma, also a member of
the expedition, is useful but brief and omits
portions of the expedition. And finally
there is a major treatise on the expedition
produced by Garcilaso de la Vega. This
work is based on other written accounts
that do not survive today and by stories told
to him by members of the expedition.
We begin our reconstruction of the route
while the expedition was still in what is
today Arkansas. In the summer of 1542,
three years after de Soto's initial landing
near Tampa Bay, Florida, the expedition
marched to the Indian province of
Guachoya. This Indian town was located
somewhere near the confluence of the
Mississippi and the Arkansas rivers. To the
horror of the expedition members, their
leader Hernando de Soto died of illness.
He was secretly buried to prevent the Indians
from recovering his body. Luis de
Moscoso assumed command and polled the
soldiers about what course should be pursued.
They considered heading down the
Mississippi and going back to New Spain
by open water, but decided instead to travel
southwest across land that is today Texas
and northern Mexico to reach other
Spanish settlements. They felt that travel
across land was more reliable and offered
one more opportunity to find the elusive
riches of the New World.
The expedition encountered several
Indian provinces during the journey
through southern Arkansas. At the town
of Aguacay, Biedma recorded that "...a
considerable quantity of salt was being
made." From this reference we can place
the expedition in southwestern Arkansas
where several salt springs are known to
exist. The Spaniards then changed theii
direction to the southwest, since they were
told by local Indians that they would see nc
more villages if they moved west. Traveling
south, they would encounter large towns
12 HERITAGE * FALL 1991
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 9, Number 4, Fall 1991, periodical, Autumn 1991; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45425/m1/12/: accessed March 19, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.