DeSoto's Florida Landing

by Donald E. Sheppard

Original DeSoto Landing CHRONICLES, by:  Biedma,  Rangel,  Elvas,  Inca

On orders from the King, seven deep draft vessels, bound ultimately for Vera Cruz, New Spain (Mexico), were used to transport DeSoto's stores, animals, six-hundred forty men, their servants and women from Cuba to Florida (Clayton 1993:I:252-253). Those ships would then be on their way to Mexico. Two shallow draft vessels, owned by DeSoto, carried a number of the force. They set sail from Havana on May 18, 1539. DeSoto's object was to land his horses, his precious cargo (Hoffman in Clayton 1993:I:442), as soon as possible; lengthy sea passages were known to cause broken legs and thereby attrition among the horses.

Juan Ponce de León had explored Florida's nearby coast and discovered Charlotte Harbor in 1513 but died from wounds received somewhere between it and the Bay of Juan Ponce on his return to colonize in 1521 (Davis 1935:41-43; Lawson 1946:55; Morison 1974:510; Wiecknieski 1962:39; Williams 1986:41-46). The Bay of Juan Ponce is located sixty miles northeast of Key West, above Cape Sable.

In 1528, Panfilo de Narváez (with Cabeza de Vaca), on a much smaller scale than Desoto, aimed to colonize Charlotte Harbor but a storm kept him from first stopping at Havana to procure needed provisions (Vaca in Hodge 1907:18). Narváez' fleet was blown into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving one ship behind. He found Florida several days later (Ibid.), but with a critical food shortage, Narváez was forced to disembark his army between breaker islands (ibid.:19-23). He dispatched his ships to Havana for supplies with orders to meet him further up the coast where they all surmised Juan Ponce's good harbor to be located (ibid.:23). They had been blown further north than they realized, however, and the captains of the vessels reported finding the harbor just five leagues south of his disembarkation point (ibid.:125). Stump Pass, at today's Englewood on Lemon Bay, was exactly that distance from the mouth of Charlotte Harbor on the Florida Township survey of 1896; Narvaez had disembarked there.

Since on their return Narváez and his army could not be found, the captains of the vessels searched the shoreline for him, but to no avail. The next year, rescuers sent to find Narváez also found Charlotte Harbor, thinking he would have settled there by that time. He had been there but had a skirmish with that harbor's chief, Hirrihigua, and led his army away (Inca in Clayton 1993:II:101). The rescuers noticed a sheet of paper on a stick at the head of the harbor, which they thought Narváez had left for them (Elvas in Clayton 1993:I:60-61). When some of the men disembarked to read the note they were captured by Chief Hirrihigua (Inca in Clayton 1993:II:101-102), whose nose had been cut off by Narváez.

One of the rescuers, a boy named Juan Ortiz, spent several years of captivity and torture by Chief Hirrihigua, who understandably had much enmity of Spaniards (ibid.:102-115; Elvas in Clayton 1993:I:60-62). Ortiz survived, however, and learned the chief's language in the process; the other captured men were killed. Ortiz would finally escape, with help from Chief Hirrihigua's daughter, to her fiancée's nearby village (ibid.). He was given safe refuge by her fiancée, Chief Mococo, and learned that chief's language during years of hospitable captivity (ibid.). DeSoto's scouts, in the luckiest stroke of the entire campaign, would find Ortiz shortly after their landing (ibid.; DeSoto in Clayton 1993:I:376; Rangel in Clayton 1993:I:255). He would serve DeSoto's army as guide and chief interpreter for the rest of his life. DeSoto's people would reward the good Chief Mococo with excess Spanish armor when the port was finally abandoned. Florida's early pioneers would find that armor and call Chief Mococo's abandoned village site "Old Spanish Fields", as we shall see.

Landfall and Landing

The King's Comptroller, Juan de Añasco, was dispatched from Cuba to explore Florida's coast during the year before DeSoto sailed from Havana (Inca in Clayton 1993:II:89). Añasco found Ponce de León's Charlotte Harbor and took four Indians from among Chief Hirrihigua's people (Elvas and Rangel in Clayton 1993:I:58, 251-254). Añasco was licensed by the King to barter with them (the King in Clayton 1993:I:365). Those people trapped fish near there and traded them with inland Indian villages. Añasco envisioned developing that trade with Havana. The captives knew the shoreline and could locate their home port, Charlotte Harbor, on their return with the fleet. Their village, Ucita, at the head of that harbor, would ultimately become DeSoto's base of operations (DeSoto in Clayton 1993:I:375). Narváez (with Cabeza de Vaca) had been through that village, cut off Chief Hirrihigua's nose, then proceded inland. Juan Ortiz had been there and had fled for his life. Hirrihigua's gigantic stone fishing enclosure (Inca in Clayton 1993:II:231) is still there, however, hooked southward into Muddy Cove at the head of Charlotte Harbor, and is clearly visible (pictured at left). It is, possibly, the oldest historic structure in the United States.

Before his return to Cuba, Añasco carefully sounded the harbor, noted the tide's effect on it, then measured the distance back to Havana via Dry Tortuga; 75 or 80 leagues, as reported to his officers in Havana (Clayton 1993:I:373). He advised DeSoto to sail on May 25th to catch the Full Moon and Spring Tides at arrival, but DeSoto chose to sail on favorable winds instead, one week early (DeSoto in Clayton 1993:I:375). The men sighted Florida to the north on May 25th, ten leagues west of the Bay of Juan Ponce, but the transport captains would go no closer than one or two leagues from land until sighting the harbor entrance (Elvas and Rangel in Clayton 1993:57,252-254). They reported the coast in four brazas water (twenty-two feet deep) on a northern landfall (ibid.:252), and dropped anchor 4 or 5 leagues below the port (DeSoto in Clayton 1993:I:375). That depth of water, that close to land, 75 or 80 leagues north of Havana, ten leagues west of the Bay of Juan Ponce, on a northern landfall, 4 or 5 leagues below a port, occurs at only one place in Florida: Sanibel Island (Brain 1985:xvi, l note 2; Schell 1966:16; Wilkinson 1960; Williams 1986:74, 174).

DeSoto, his guard, Añasco and the captives were transferred into DeSoto's smaller brigs to find the harbor that evening, leaving the cumbersome transport ships at anchor (DeSoto in Clayton 1993:I:375). If the fleet over-shot the harbor the large ships could not tack back to it against the high southerly winds, which were reported, to enter the harbor's pass. To preclude that, DeSoto coasted downwind, northward, in his small, maneuverable brigs, advancing to where he thought the harbor's entrance was located (Rangel in Clayton 1993:I:252). He sailed out of sight of the fleet, however, which had moved out into deeper water for safe overnight anchorage (ibid. :253). That evening DeSoto found Charlotte Harbor's entrance at Boca Grande Pass, but was kept from returning to the fleet by darkness and wind (ibid.:252). DeSoto spent the night at a deserted Indian village (probably on Useppa Island), much to the chagrin of his people (ibid.:253).

The next morning, DeSoto sailed back out the pass to explore the enormous sand bar at the harbor's entrance and to summon the fleet. He was spotted four leagues downwind of the fleet's anchorage as he tacked across the high winds (ibid.). The fleet advanced downwind between vessels DeSoto stationed on either side of the narrow channel to guide the fleet into the harbor (ibid.:253-254). Two of the fleet's ships scraped sandy bottom as they entered (ibid.).

Since they had left Havana a week earlier than Añasco had advised, DeSoto's fleet could not cross the harbor's shallow channel just south of Cape Haze, despite efforts to do so (ibid.; Desoto in Clayton 1993:I:375). They were forced to anchor two leagues inside the pass, in deep water (Inca in Clayton 1993:II:99), to wait for Spring Tides. Those tides were five days away, so while they waited the men comforted the horses with fresh foliage and berries from the islands and bays west of Cape Haze, just to the north of their anchorage (ibid.). Twenty horses perished before they were landed, however, and Añasco was publicly scolded for the delay which may have contributed to their injuries (Rangel in Clayton 1993:I:254). Añasco had warned DeSoto about the harbor's shallows before leaving Havana, however, thereby establishing May 25th as the proposed departure date to hit Spring Tides on arrival; a date formally acknowledged by DeSoto (in Clayton 1993:I:375).

The horses were finally disembarked with the other livestock onto Cape Haze (Elvas and Rangel in Clayton 1993:I:57, 254). On the night of May 30th (on the tides, as we now realize), DeSoto's guards sailed up to the head of the harbor and Ucita was taken in a dawn raid (ibid.; DeSoto in Clayton 1993:I:375). The Indians, having been aware of the ships for nearly a week, had fled, much to DeSoto's disappointment. His style of capturing the chief and enslaving the citizens had been thwarted by delay. Hostages were not to be taken en masse from Ucita, setting off a series of mishaps which would disrupt the campaign for months. Without forced labor, the men would have to perform all the menial tasks associated with landing and carrying supplies overland on their departure, and the transport captains would get but few captives to take with them (Rangel in Clayton 1993:I:258).

The next day, on the Spring Tides, the fleet sailed up the harbor to within a mile of Locust Point, the closest mainland to the channel at the head of the bay, where the men were disembarked (ibid.:254; DeSoto: ibid.). They made their way through the marshes toward the village of Ucita, two leagues from where they landed (Elvas in Clayton 1993:I:57; Inca in Clayton 1993:II:101). In the meantime, the horsemen driving the livestock made their way toward Ucita, a twelve league trip (Rangel in Clayton 1993:I:254), as it is today around the cape's swamps and over the Myakka River at the head of the harbor. That moonlit trip would be the entire cavalry's longest non-stop "ride" in Florida.

Very late that night, the horsemen finally arrived near Ucita, exhausted from their journey (ibid.). They had trudged through the swamps and over the mouth of the Myakka River, although Spring Tides dramatically shallow that fording place near midnight. They found themselves on the opposite side of Tippecanoe Bay from the men, however, and, exhausted, slept where they were (ibid.), on today's El Jobean. The men, having been misled for hours by Añasco's four captives (ibid.), watched the horsemen's campfires from the opposite bank of Tippecanoe Bay, neither group realizing they were separated by only one league of hard ground. The next day, the horsemen found the passage around the lagoon at the head of the bay and reassembled with the men (ibid.:255). On June third, with all the dignitaries and necessary paraphernalia ashore, DeSoto took formal possession of La Florida.

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