On this date… May 21, 1542… Mississippi River

On this date in 1542, Hernando De Soto, the explorer, the invader, the pillager, the rapist, died somewhere along the Mississippi River.  Fearing his grave would be desecrated, his body, bedecked in armor, was released into the current to sink slowly to the bottom of the great river.  The surviving Spaniards, less than half of their original army, fled downstream, eating their horses as they went.  They were pursued by the Natchez of Quigualtam in armadas of canoes, up to a hundred strong and carrying sixty men apiece.  It would be over a hundred years before they saw another white man. 

In school textbooks today, the story of De Soto’s “journey” is invariably placed in a chapter entitled, “The Age of Exploration”.  De Soto is described as “an explorer” who “explored” the southeast United States.  He “discovered” the Mississippi River.  Today, there are counties, towns, parks, elementary and high schools, and various other public places named after him.
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In reality, in village after village, town after town, though Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, this is what really happened.  Local Indians would see hundreds of armed Spaniards traveling through the forest, many riding horses.  The villagers would also see that they were herding pigs and had very large dogs of war.  In their company were other Indians, in clanking chains with neck collars.  In fear, the leaders of the village would send emissaries offering gifts.  These would be received graciously by De Soto, and a meeting with the chief would be arranged.  At the meeting, the village chief would invariably be taken and chained.  In exchange for his release, De Soto would demand food, servants to carry their gear, and women to be delivered to their camp.  But he would never release the chief until his army had departed far from the village.  As for captured Indians who refused to reveal the location of their village, De Soto ordered their hands or noses cut off, or he would burn them alive or have them torn apart by the dogs, one at a time, to extract information.  As for the Indians, they seem to have lived so well that a trickle of De Soto’s men regularly deserted him and ran off to live with them. 

This information is readily available, and could easily be included in any textbook.  De Soto traveled with a personal secretary, Rodrigo Ranjel, who wrote it all down.  Here is Ranjel (speaking in the third person):  

The historian [Ranjel] asked a very intelligent gentleman who was with this Governor [De Soto], and who went with him through his whole expedition in this northern country, why, at every place they came to, this Governor and his army asked for those tamemes or Indian carriers, and why they took so many women and these not old nor the most ugly; and why, after having given them what they had, they held the chiefs and principal men; and why they never tarried nor settled in any region they came to, adding that such a course was not settlement or conquest, but rather disturbing and ravaging the land and depriving the natives of their liberty without converting or making a single Indian either a Christian or a friend.

He replied and said: That they took these carriers or tamemes to keep them as slaves or servants to carry the loads of supplies which they secured by plunder or gift, and that some died, and others ran away or were tired out, so that it was necessary to replenish their numbers and to take more; and the women they desired both as servants and for their foul uses and lewdness, and that they had them baptized more on account of carnal intercourse with them than to teach them the faith; and that if they held the chiefs and principal men captive, it was because it would keep their subjects quiet, so that they would not molest them when foraging, or doing what they wished in their country; and that whither they were going neither the Governor nor the others knew, but that his purpose was to find some land rich enough to satiate his greed and to get knowledge of the great secrets this Governor said he had heard in regard to those regions according to much information he had received; and as for stirring up the country and not settling it, nothing else could be done until they found a site that was satisfactory.

Oh, wicked men! Oh, devilish greed! Oh, bad consciences! Oh, unfortunate soldiers! that ye should not have understood the perils ye were to encounter, and how wasted would be your lives, and without rest your souls!

Give ear, then, Catholic reader, and do not lament the conquered Indians less than their Christian conquerors or slayers of themselves, as well as others, and follow the adventures of this Governor, ill governed, taught in the School of Pedrarias de Avila, in the scattering and wasting of the Indians of Castilla del Oro; a graduate in the killing of the natives of Nicaragua and canonized in Peru as a member of the order of the Pizarros; and then, after being delivered from all those paths of Hell and having come to Spain loaded with gold, neither a bachelor nor married, knew not how nor was able to rest without returning to the Indies to shed human blood, not content with what he had spilled…

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