Spaniards in the Mississippi Valley

Cabeza de Vaca

Americanist History, George Bancroft: History of the United States

Volume I, Chapter 3: Spaniards in the Mississippi Valley

THE expedition from Mexico had not been begun, when, in 1537, Cabeza de Vaca, landing in Spain, addressed to the imperial Catholic king a narrative of his adventures; and the tales of “the Columbus of the continent” quickened the belief that the country between the river Palmas and the Atlantic was the richest in the world.

The assertion was received even by those who had seen Mexico and Peru. To no one was this faith more disastrous than to Ferdinand de Soto, of Xeres. He had been the favorite companion of Pizarro, and at the storming of Cusco had surpassed his companions in arms. He assisted in arresting the unhappy Atahualpa, and shared in the immense ransom with which the credulous Inca purchased the promise of freedom. Perceiving the angry jealousies of the conquerors of Peru, Soto had seasonably withdrawn, to display his opulence in Spain, and to solicit advancement. His reception was triumphant; success of all kinds awaited him. The daughter of the distinguished nobleman under whom he had first served as a poor adventurer became his wife; and the special favor of Charles V invited him to prefer a large request. It had been believed that the recesses of the continent at the north concealed cities as magnificent and temples as richly endowed as any which had yet been plundered within the tropics. Soto desired to rival Cortes in glory, and surpass Pizarro in wealth. Blinded by avarice and the love of power, he repaired to Valladolid, and demanded permission to conquer Florida at his own cost; and Charles V readily conceded to so renowned a commander the government of Cuba, with absolute power over the immense territory to which the name of Florida was still vaguely applied.

No sooner was the design of the new armament published in Spain than the wildest hopes were indulged. How brilliant must be the prospect, since the conqueror of Peru was willing to hazard his fortune and the greatness of his name! Adventurers assembled as volunteers, many of them people of noble birth and good estates. Houses and vineyards, lands for tillage, and rows of olive-trees in the Ajarrafe of Seville, were sold, as in the times of the crusades, to obtain the means of military equipments. The port of San Lucar of Barrameda was crowded with those who hastened to solicit permission to share in the undertaking. Even soldiers of Portugal desired to be enrolled for the service. A muster was held: the Portuguese glittered in burnished armor; and the Castilians were “very gallant with silk upon silk.” From the numerous aspirants, Soto selected for his companions six hundred men in the bloom of life, the flower of the peninsula.

The fleet sailed as gayly as if on a holiday excursion. From Cuba the precaution had been taken to send vessels to Florida to explore a harbor; and two Indians, brought captives to Havana, invented such falsehoods as they perceived would be acceptable. They conversed by signs; and the signs were interpreted as affirming that Florida abounded in gold. The news spread great contentment; Soto and his troops restlessly longed for the hour of their departure to the conquest of “the richest country which had yet been discovered.” The infection spread in Cuba; and Vasco Porcallo, an aged and a wealthy man, lavished his fortune in magnificent preparations.

Soto had been welcomed in Cuba by long and brilliant festivals and rejoicings. In May, 1539, all preparations were completed; leaving his wife to govern the island, he and his company, full of unbounded expectations, embarked for Florida; and in about a fortnight his fleet anchored in the bay of Spiritu Santo. The soldiers went on shore; the horses, between two and three hundred in number, were disembarked. Soto would listen to no augury but of success; and, like Cortes, he refused to retain his ships, lest they should tempt to a retreat. Most of them were sent to Havana. Porcallo grew alarmed. It had been a principal object with him to obtain slaves for his estates and mines in Cuba; despairing of success, he sailed for the island after the first skirmish. Soto was indignant at the desertion, but concealed his anger.

And now began the nomadic march of horsemen and infantry, completely armed; a force exceeding in numbers and equipments the famous partisans who triumphed over the empires of Mexico and Peru. Everything was provided that experience in former invasions could suggest: chains for captives, and the instruments of a forge; weapons of all kinds then in use, and blood-hounds as auxiliaries against the natives; ample stores of food, and, as a last resort, a drove of hogs, which would soon swarm in the favoring climate where the forests and maize furnished them abundant sustenance. It was a roving company of gallant freebooters in quest of a fortune; a romantic stroll of men whom avarice rendered ferocious, through unexplored regions, over unknown paths, wherever rumor might point to the residence of some chieftain with more than Peruvian wealth, or the ill-interpreted signs of the ignorant natives might seem to promise gold. Often, at the resting-places, groups of listless adventurers clustered together to enjoy the excitement of desperate gaming. Religious zeal was also united with avarice: twelve priests, besides other ecclesiastics, accompanied the expedition. Ornaments for the service of mass were provided; every festival was to be kept, every religious practice to be observed. As the troop marched through the wilderness, the solemn processions, which the church enjoined, were scrupulously instituted. Florida was to become Catholic during scenes of robbery and carnage.

Hernando de Soto

The movements of the first season, from June to the end of October, brought the company from the bay of Spiritu Santo to the home of the Appalachians, east of the Flint river, and not far from the head of the bay of Appalachee. The names of the intermediate places cannot be identified. The march was tedious and full of dangers. The Indians were always hostile; the two captives of the former expedition escaped; a Spaniard, who had been kept in slavery from the time of Narvaez, could give no accounts of any land where there was silver or gold. The guides would purposely lead the Castilians astray, and involve them in morasses; even though death under the fangs of the blood-hounds was the certain punishment. The company grew dispirited, and desired the governor to return, since the region opened no brilliant prospects. “I will not turn back,” said Soto, “till I have seen the poverty of the country with my own eyes.” The hostile Indians who were taken prisoners were in part put to death, in part enslaved. These were led in chains, with iron collars about their necks; their service was to grind the maize and to carry the baggage. An exploring party discovered Ochus, the harbor of Pensacola; and a message was transmitted to Cuba, desiring that in the ensuing year supplies might be sent to that place.

In March, 1540, the wanderers renewed their march, with an Indian guide, who promised to lead the way to a country governed, it was said, by a woman, and where gold so abounded that the art of melting and refining it was understood. He described the process so well that the credulous Spaniards took heart. The Indian appears to have pointed toward the gold region of North Carolina. The adventurers, therefore, eagerly hastened to the north-east; they passed the Alatamaha; they admired the fertile valleys of Georgia, rich, productive, and full of good rivers. They crossed a northern tributary of the Alatamaha and a southern branch of the Ogeechee; and, at length, came upon the Ogeechee itself, which, in April, flowed with a full channel and a strong current. Much of the time the Spaniards were in wild solitudes; they suffered for want of salt and of meat. Their Indian guide affected madness; but “they said a gospel over him, and the fit left him.” Again he involved them in pathless wilds; and then he would have been torn to pieces by the dogs if he had not still been needed to assist the interpreter. Of four Indian captives, who were questioned, one bluntly answered, he knew no country such as they described; the governor ordered him to be burnt, for what was esteemed his falsehood. The sight of the execution quickened the invention of his companions; and the Spaniards made their way to the small Indian settlement of Cutifa-Chiqui. A dagger and a rosary were found here; the story of the Indians traced them to the expedition of Vasquez de Ayllon; and a two days’ journey would reach, it was believed, the harbor of St. Helena. The soldiers thought of home, and desired either to make a settlement on the fruitful soil around them, or to return. The governor was “a stern man, and of few words.” Willingly hearing the opinions of others, he was inflexible when he had once declared his own mind; and all his followers “condescended to his will.”

In May the direction of the march was to the north; to the comparatively sterile country of the Cherokees, and in part through a district in which gold is now found. The inhabitants were poor, but gentle; they offered such presents as their habits of life permitted—deerskins and wild hens. Soto could hardly have crossed the mountains so as to enter the basin of the Tennessee river; it seems, rather, that he passed from the head-waters of the Savannah or the Chattahoochee to the head-waters of the Coosa. The name of Canasauga, a village at which he halted, is still given to a branch of the latter stream. For several months the Spaniards were in the valleys which send their waters to the bay of Mobile. Chiaha was an island distant about a hundred miles from Canasauga. An exploring party which was sent to the north were appalled by the aspect of the Appalachian chain, and pronounced the mountains impassable. They had looked for mines of copper and gold; and their only plunder was a buffalo robe.

In the latter part of July the Spaniards were at Coosa. In the course of the season they had occasion to praise the wild grape of the country, the same, perhaps, which has since been thought worthy of culture, and to admire the luxuriant growth of maize, which was springing from the fertile plains of Alabama. A southerly direction led the train to Tuscaloosa; on the eighteenth of October the wanderers reached a considerable town on the Alabama, above the junction of the Tombigbee, and about one hundred miles, or six days’ journey, from Pensacola. The village was called Mavilla, or Mobile, a name which is now applied not to the bay only, but to the river, after the union of its numerous tributaries. The Spaniards, tired of lodging in the fields, desired to occupy the cabins; the Indians, with desperate courage, rose against their invaders. A battle ensued; the terrors of cavalry gave the victory to the Spaniards. The town was set on fire; and a witness of the scene, in a greatly exaggerated account, relates that two thousand five hundred Indians were slain, suffocated, or burnt. “Of the Christians, eighteen died;” one hundred and fifty were wounded with arrows; twelve horses were slain, and seventy hurt. The baggage of the Spaniards was within the town, and was entirely consumed.

Meanwhile, ships from Cuba had arrived at Ochus, now Pensacola. Soto had made no important discoveries; he had gathered no tempting stores of silver and gold; the fires of Mobile had consumed his curious collections; with resolute pride he determined to send no news of himself, until, like Cortes, he had found some rich country.

The region above the mouth of the Mobile was populous and hostile, and yet too poor to promise plunder. In the middle of November, Soto retreated toward the north, his troops already reduced, by sickness and warfare, to five hundred men. A month passed away before he reached winter-quarters at Chicaca, a small town in the country of the Chickasaws, in the upper part of the state of Mississippi, probably on the western bank of the Yazoo. Snow fell, but maize was yet standing in the open fields. The Spaniards were able to gather a supply of food, and the deserted town, with such rude cabins as they added, afforded them shelter through the winter. Yet no mines were discovered; no ornaments of gold adorned the savages; their wealth was the harvest of corn, and wigwams were their only palaces; they were poor and independent; they were hardy and loved freedom.

When the spring of 1541 began to open, Soto, as he had usually done with other tribes, demanded of the chieftain of the Chickasaws two hundred men to carry the burdens of his company. The Indians hesitated; and, in the dead of night, deceiving the sentinels, set fire to their own village, in which the Castilians were encamped. On a sudden, half the houses were in flames; and the loudest notes of the war-whoop rung through the air. The Indians, could they have acted with calm bravery, might have gained a victory; but they trembled at their own success, and feared the unequal battle against weapons of steel. Many of the horses had broken loose; others perished in the stables; most of the swine were consumed; eleven of the Christians were burnt, or lost their lives in the tumult. The clothes which had been saved from the fires of Mobile were destroyed, and the Spaniards, now as naked as the natives, suffered from the cold. Weapons and equipments were consumed or spoiled. But, in a respite of a week, forges were erected, swords newly tempered, and good ashen lances were made, equal to the best of Biscay. When, on the fifteenth of March, the Indians attacked the camp, they found “the Christians” prepared.

The disasters which had been encountered served only to confirm the obstinacy of the governor. Should he, who had promised greater booty than Mexico or Peru had yielded, now return as a defeated fugitive, so naked that his troops were clad only in skins and mats of ivy? In April the search for some wealthy region was renewed; the caravan marched still farther to the west. For seven days it struggled through a wilderness of forests and marshes, and at length came to Indian settlements in the vicinity of the Mississippi. It was then described as more than a mile broad, flowing with a strong current, and by its weight forcing a channel of great depth. In the water, which was always muddy, trees were continually floating down.

The Spaniards were guided by natives to one of the usual crossing-places, probably at the lowest Chickasaw bluff, not far from the thirty-fifth parallel of latitude. The arrival of the strangers awakened curiosity and fear. A multitude of people from the other side of the river, painted and gayly decorated with great plumes of white feathers, the warriors standing in rows with bow and arrows in their hands, the chieftains sitting under awnings as magnificent as the artless manufactures of the natives could weave, came rowing down the stream in a fleet of two hundred canoes seeming to the admiring Spaniards like a fair army of galleys.” They brought gifts of fish, and loaves made of the fruit of the persimmon. The boats of the natives were too weak to transport horse; almost a month expired before barges, large enough to hold three horsemen each, were constructed for crossing the river. At length, at the end of May, the Spaniards embarked upon the Mississippi, and were borne to its western bank.

Dakota tribes then occupied the country south-west of the Missouri; Soto had heard its praises; he believed in its vicinity to mineral wealth, and determined to visit its towns. In ascending the Mississippi the party was often obliged to wade through morasses; in June they came, as it would seem, upon the district of Little Prairie, and the dry and elevated lands which extend toward New Madrid. Here the Spaniards were adored as children of the sun, and the blind were brought into their presence to be healed by the sons of light. “Pray only to God, who is in heaven, for whatsoever ye need,” said Soto in reply. The wild fruits of that region were abundant; the pecan nut, the mulberry, and two kinds of wild plums, furnished food to the natives. At Pacaha, the northernmost point which Soto reached near the Mississippi, he remained forty days, till near the end of July. The spot cannot be identified; but the accounts of the amusements of the Spaniards confirm the truth of the narrative of their ramblings. The spade-fish, the most whimsical production of the muddy streams of the west, so rare that it is hardly to be found in any museum, is accurately described by the best historian of the expedition.

A party which was sent to examine the regions to the north reported that they were almost a desert. The country nearer the Missouri was said by the Indians to be thinly inhabited; the bison abounded there so much that no maize could be cultivated, and the few inhabitants were hunters. In August, Soto turned, therefore, to the west and north-west, and plunged still more deeply into the interior of the continent. The highlands of White river, more than two hundred miles from the Mississippi, were probably the limit of his march in this direction. The mountains offered neither gems nor gold, and the disappointed explorers marched to the south. They passed through a succession of towns, of which the position cannot be fixed, till at length we find them among the Tunicas, near the hot springs and saline tributaries of the Washita. It was at Autiamque, a town on the same river, that they passed the winter; they had arrived at the settlement through the country of the Kappaws.

The native tribes, everywhere on the route, were found in a state of civilization beyond that of nomadic hordes. They were an agricultural people, with fixed places of abode, and subsisted upon the produce of the fields more than upon the chase. Ignorant of the arts of life they could offer no resistance to their unwelcome visitors; the bow and arrow were the most effective weapons with which they were acquainted. They seem not to have been turbulent or quarrelsome; but, as the population was moderate and the earth fruitful, the tribes were not accustomed to contend with each other for the possession of territories. Their dress was, in part, mats wrought of ivy and bulrushes, of the bark and lint of trees; in cold weather they wore mantles woven of feathers. The settlements were by tribes; each tribe occupied what the Spaniards called a province; their villages were generally near together, but were composed of few habitations. The Spaniards treated them with no other forbearance than their own selfishness demanded, and enslaved such as offended, employing them as porters and guides. On a slight suspicion they would cut off the hands of numbers of the natives for punishment or intimidation; the young cavaliers from desire of seeming valiant, took delight in cruelties and carnage. The guide who was unsuccessful, or who purposely led them away from the settlements of his tribe, would be seized and thrown to the hounds. Sometimes a native was condemned to the flames. Any trifling consideration of safety would induce the governor to set fire to a hamlet. The happiness, the life, and the rights of the Indians were held of no account. The approach of the Spaniards was heard with dismay, and their departure hastened by the suggestion of wealthier lands at a distance.

In the spring of 1542 Soto determined to descend the Washita to its junction, and to get tidings of the sea. As he advanced, he was soon lost amidst the bayous and marshes which are found along the Red river and its tributaries. Near the Mississippi he came upon the country of Nilco, which was well peopled. The river was there larger than the Guadalquivir at Seville. In the middle of April he arrived at the province where the Washita, already united with the Red river, enters the Mississippi. The province was called Guachoya. Soto anxiously inquired the distance to the sea; the chieftain of Guachoya could not tell. Were there settlements extending along the river to its mouth? It was answered that its lower banks were an uninhabited waste. Unwilling to believe so disheartening a tale, Soto sent one of his men, with eight horsemen, to descend the banks of the Mississippi, and explore the country. They travelled eight days, and were able to advance not much more than thirty miles, they were so delayed by the frequent bayous, impassable canebrakes, and the dense woods. The governor received the intelligence with gloom. His horses and men were dying around him; the natives were becoming dangerous enemies. He attempted to overawe a tribe of Indians near Natchez by claiming a supernatural birth, and demanding obedience and tribute. “You say you are the child of the sun,” replied the undaunted chief; “dry up the river and I will believe you. Do you desire to see me? Visit the town where I dwell. If you come in peace, I will receive you with special good-will; if in war, I will not shrink one foot back.” But Soto was no longer able to abate the confidence or punish the temerity of the natives. His stubborn pride was changed by long disappointments into a wasting melancholy. A malignant fever ensued, during which he had little comfort, and was neither visited nor attended as the last hours of life demand. Believing his death near at hand, on the twentieth of May he held a last interview with his followers; and, yielding to the wishes of his companions, who obeyed him to the end, he named a successor. On the next day he died. Thus perished Ferdinand de Soto, the governor of Cuba, the successful associate of Pizarro. His miserable end was the more observed from the greatness of his former prosperity. His soldiers pronounced his eulogy by grieving for their loss; the priests chanted over his body the first requiems that were ever heard on the waters of the Mississippi. To conceal his death, his body was wrapped in a mantle, and in the stillness of midnight was sunk in the middle of the stream.

No longer sustained by the energy and pride of Soto, the company resolved on reaching New Spain without delay. To do this they must either descend the river in such frail boats as they could put together, or attempt the long pathway to Mexico through the forests. They were unanimous in the opinion that it was less dangerous to go by land; the hope was still cherished that some wealthy state, some opulent city, might yet be discovered, and all fatigues be forgotten in the midst of victory and spoils. Again they penetrated the western wilderness; in July they found themselves in the country of the Natchitoches; but the Red river was so swollen that it could not be crossed by them. The Indian guides purposely led them astray; “they went up and down through very great woods,” without making any progress. The wilderness, into which they had at last wandered, was sterile and scarcely inhabited; they had now reached the great buffalo prairies of the west, the hunting-grounds of the Pawnees and Comanches, the migratory tribes on the confines of Mexico. The Spaniards believed themselves to be at least one hundred and fifty leagues west of the Mississippi. Desperate as the resolution seemed, it was determined to return once more to its banks, and follow its current to the sea. There were not wanting men, whose hopes and whose courage were not yet exhausted, who wished rather to die in the wilderness than to leave it in poverty; but Moscoso, the new governor, had long “desired to see himself in a place where he might sleep his full sleep.”

In December t The Indians whom they had enslaved died in great numbers; in Minoya the Christians were attacked by a dangerous epidemic, and many died.

Nor was their labor yet at an end; it took the first five months of 1543 for men in their condition to build brigantines. Erecting a forge, they struck off the fetters from the slaves; and, gathering every scrap of iron in the camp, they wrought it into nails. Timber was sawed by hand with a large saw, which they had always carried with them. They calked their vessels with a weed like hemp; barrels, capable of holding water, were with difficulty made; to obtain supplies of provision, all the hogs and even the horses were killed, and their flesh preserved by drying; and the neighboring townships of Indians were so plundered of their food that the miserable inhabitants would come about the Spaniards begging for a few kernels of their own maize, and often died from weakness and want of food. The rising of the Mississippi assisted the launching of the seven brigantines; they were frail barks, which had no decks; and as, from the want of iron, the nails were of necessity short, they were constructed of very thin planks, so that any severe shock would have broken them in pieces. Thus provided, after a passage of seventeen days, the fugitives, on the eighteenth of July, reached the Gulf of Mexico; the distance seemed to them two hundred and fifty leagues, and was not much less than five hundred miles. Like Cabeza, they observed that for some distance from the mouth of the Mississippi the sea is not salt, so great is the volume of fresh water which the river discharges. Following for the most part the coast, it was more than fifty days before the men who finally escaped, now no more than three hundred and eleven in number, on the tenth of September entered the river Panuco.


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