DeSoto's Conquest 

by Donald E. Sheppard   ©2011
Fast Facts   Cabeza de Vaca   References
1st Published in The Florida Anthropologist

Spanish Conquistadors wrote the oldest history we have of America, but told a different story than the one we learned in school. Fresh documents make it possible for us to track and study the Hernando DeSoto Expedition, Spain's longest journey into Native America. This Site traces their trails, highways today, to villages which became our cities in Fourteen States.

The DeSoto Chronicles* were published by 3 Expedition Officers
Direct observations by the King's Agent, FernŠndez de Biedma, DeSoto's Personal Secretary, Rodrigo Rangel, and those of a central Portuguese Officer who modestly called himself A Gentleman of Elvas were used to study and track DeSoto for this report. Garcilaso de la Vega, herein called "Inca," published a book based on interviews with, among others, one of DeSoto's Thirty Lancers. Inca's writings were also used despite his eventual place sequence confusion. All of these translations are indexed by City and State herein.

*These works were collected in The Desoto Chronicles, the Expedition of Hernando DeSoto to North America 1539-1543, by Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight, Jr. and Edward C. Moore of the University of Alabama. They were used for this report and are simply abbreviated "Clayton 1993" throughout.

None of DeSoto's maps or field notes is known to exist today. His chroniclers, however, accurately described his movements and works; usually calling him "Governor". He is referred to as "DeSoto" throughout this paper, that being common vernacular in this country, although "Soto" is proper. I believe that each chronicler reported some of what he saw or understood, but that each saw and heard things from different vantage points, especially when they were on the move. In the confusion of unexplored wilderness, they and their informants were among tribes who spoke languages so alien to their own that recorded location names varied among the chroniclers.

Archeology was once thought to be the key to finding Conquest Trails (Brain 1985:xvi-xxiii References), but that science has failed to do so in the seventy-odd years since ethnologists and historians surrendered that study to them. Little evidence of conquest has been found, mostly in Florida, all leading archeologists to very suspicious conclusions (1951, Ripley P. Bullen).

Moon phases and coasts were important during conquest. The King's agent with Hernando de Soto (and Cabeza de Vaca with Narvaez) described their trails through Florida in relation to the coast (Biedma in Clayton 1993:I:226, Vaca in his narration). To the King of Spain and all professional seamen everywhere, the word "coast" meant navigable water nearest to land; a functional sea lane (the King in Clayton 1993:I:360). Scholars have used the shoreline of our shallow Gulf of Mexico for reference in placing Vaca and DeSoto's trails, but that shoreline lies at least fifteen miles inland of Florida's real "coast". "Definitive" Conquest trails have, therefore, been placed about that distance inland of their actual trail (both used many of the same trails through Florida).

The only complete description of DeSoto's and Vaca's main trail through Florida was made when DeSoto's Thirty Lancers rode back down his trail after guiding him to north Florida. The length of their reported ride, however, has been discredited and shortened by scholars by an amount believed by them to have been exaggerated by a sixteenth century transcriber of their journal (Swanton 1939:151). The Thirty Lancers rode on Harvest Moon at journey's mid-way, unknown to scholars until the advent of powerful computers, enabling the Lancers well lit over-night passages between places confused by scholars until now.

Tides are also affected by the moon (Katzeff 1981:93). Certain Florida harbors were impassable to large Spanish Galleons except on particular moon phases (Inca in Clayton 1993:II:73). "Spring Tides", which only occur near new and full moon in Florida, increase the tide's amplitudes, making particular harbor channels navigable for large ships. DeSoto's and Vaca's biggest mistakes in approaching Florida arose from ignoring that fact. It cost them dearly during their landings, as we shall learn (see Vaca's Landing for details of his and Narvaez' Florida landing mishaps). The moon's phase, from then on, would be taken into account on every tactical decision DeSoto made. Precise lunar intelligence of the early sixteenth century became available with the advent of atomic time measure, radar telescopes and digital computers (the data used herein was provided by Mammana 1994). Only now can we focus on DeSoto's genius and folly.

The Florida Trail MapDistance-measurement, in Leagues, and pasture land location were important to Conquest Navigators and Captains. To most of us, distance traveled is the mileage we read on an odometer. To early sixteenth century colonizers, however, it meant the actual distance between places, along a straight line, measured in Spanish judicial leagues by pacers and plotted by cartographers for eventual land title. There are 2.6 "legal" statute miles per Spanish judicial league; so 1 league = 2.6 miles, or "legua legal" (same measure, 1 league = 2.6 American miles; see "Columbus's League" by Keith A. Pickering; or Blake 1988; Brain 1985:xvi; Chardon 1980:295; Hodge 1907:22 footnote 2; Swanton 1939:104 in References). All of Florida's land, even today, is titled in reference to a grid similar to the one DeSoto planned, with statute miles our units of "legal" measure. That land titling concept was inherited from the Romans (King 1990:99). DeSoto's people knew that he could only claim lands inland of two hundred leagues of coast for his colony, and that they could claim homesteads only within the boundaries of that colony (the King in Clayton 1993:I:360). Accordingly, they kept track of desirable locations, some in their personal journals, and described the army's movements in the process. Modern detailed maps allow us to follow their directions with precision.

DeSoto's army had over two-hundred horses, each requiring adequate food every day (Biedma in Clayton 1993:I:225). Horses were so important to his mission that pasture lands or Indian villages with stored food were always his intermediate destinations. But American Indians had no horses or cattle, so their lifestyles were not accommodating to DeSoto's (Inca in Clayton 1993:II:69, 146). To make allowance for this, DeSoto marched his army in six divisions (Elvas in Clayton 1993:I:58), and each camped separately on Florida's small fields and Indian villages. DeSoto's army was strewn across the landscape as it advanced, their campsites often at great interval. Horsemen provided DeSoto with intelligence for selecting desirable campsites for each, then "posted" his marching orders accordingly. Horses were kept fit and Captains were kept aware of the proximity of other divisions in case of attack. Accurate distance measure was DeSoto's key to these ends, and would serve as the foundation of land title once his planned colony was selected. DeSoto trail seekers have tended to ignore precedent land title, equestrian lifestyle, nautical terminology and colonial lunar concept.

Florida's 130,000 acre rock phosphate ridge and its giant pebble phosphate fields are almost forgotten today. Most were mined-out well before many of us were born. The phosphate from them was ground into fertilizer for America's crops. In DeSoto's time, however, Florida's phosphate ridges and fields were the centers of life on peninsular Florida's west side and afforded large enough pastures and sufficient maize to support his entire army and its livestock. DeSoto's army rested on them until the food ran out due to consumption or packing for the road ahead. Unfortunately, archaeologists will never get to study most of them as surface mining has destroyed most.

Detailed satellite photographs, accurate lunar tables and laser-defined topography did not exist until recently. For that matter, neither did effective mosquito repellant, reliable all-terrain vehicles, snake bite antivenins or affordable deep-probe metal detectors to use in locating sites. Today we have the benefit of these tools plus newly-annotated translations of The DeSoto Chronicles.

If we are to find DeSoto's trail and learn more about the places he visited, then surely we must begin by understanding and applying what these people wrote. This works-in-progress is an attempt to do just that; it varies substantially from previously published works, however. What follows is my version of the events, circumstances, and geographic locations involved in the DeSoto landing and entrada through North America. Explorations and conquests of America's Gulf Coast, immediately preceding DeSoto's, are also included. I have done my best to use all of the DeSoto Chronicles, without bias from other published route reconstructions. I have attempted to match the geographic descriptions provided by DeSoto's Chroniclers with existing locations in America's geography. Today's place names are used in many cases to facilitate identification of sites which may not otherwise be known to those less familiar with Early American History.

During my research, I, Donald E. Sheppard, have visited every site mentioned in this report to verify my interpretations of source data. My interest is purely avocational, however. I have helped scientists find things over the years (quarters, transportation, scholarship, friendly volunteer diggers, favorable publicity and significant sites) using historic documentation and dogged persistence. In the process, I have learned a few things about my beloved country, and a lot about how difficult it is to trudge the many swamps DeSoto was supposed, by Official Trail Seekers, to have crossed.

I have studied trails and places on America's pioneer maps for thirty years, searched for those sites, surveyed them, surfaced collected them, dug a few, and turned over everything I have ever found to the proper public custodian. I owe Florida my education: two Master's Degrees, one in Science from the University of West Florida, the other in Arts from the University of Florida, a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the University of South Florida, an Associate in Arts from the St. Petersburg Junior College, and a high school diploma from Clearwater High School. I am an airplane pilot and a Commissioned Officer in the U.S. Navy, but still a Boy Scout at heart. For thirty years I have sailed Florida's coasts and flown its skies. My family has lived in Central Florida for five generations.


The study of DeSoto's conquest is inseparable from that of PŠnphilo de NarvŠez. Both were Spanish conquistadors who are known to have entered and exited Florida near the same locations, within a dozen years of each other. NarvŠez failed utterly. DeSoto followed and partially succeeded here. DeSoto's army became aware of native aversion to Spaniards, provoked by NarvŠez and coastal slave hunters, shortly after landing in Florida. Ńlvar NuŮez Cabeza de Vaca provides us with the only extant Narrative of the NarvŠez Entrada, which was poorly executed and scantily recorded. DeSoto's chroniclers, who wrote their perceptions of NarvŠez and described the place where he built his boats for escape, are relied upon here for additional intelligence of his "conquest."

Once DeSoto marched to Apalache and established his winter quarters, he dispatched his Thirty Lancers to ride back down his trail to bring forward all troops and ships left at port in south Florida. The Lancer's journal, questionably understood but factually related by Inca, is used here to establish distances between places which the chroniclers failed to record in their personal journals when they blazed that trail. Inca's account of the Thirty Lancers journey will, therefore, be discussed, at times, before we discuss DeSoto's arrival at Apalache. I know of no other way to substantiate this incredible journey as it unfolds.


As a young Spaniard in Central America, DeSoto was profoundly influenced by three men: Juan Ponce de Leůn, Vasco NķŮez de Balboa and Ferdinand Magellan. The first two became famous for exploring the new world: Juan Ponce for discovering Florida (a title used by the Spaniards for ALL of America north of Mexico, which they called New Spain), and Balboa for discovering the Pacific Ocean beyond Panama. Magellan would sail that ocean to the Orient. DeSoto's ambitions in life would be governed, to a large extent, by their discoveries.

Born at the turn of the sixteenth century of a noble family in Spain, and raised in the new colony of Panama, DeSoto became acutely aware of possession, land title, and legal remedy (Hoffman in Clayton 1993:I:421-446). Juan Ponce, who first came to America with Columbus, and Balboa made their discoveries, North America and the Pacific Ocean, when DeSoto was thirteen years old (Lockhart 1972; Goza 1984:2). DeSoto learned the cunning of his mentors, shortly thereafter, while on "missions" with Balboa in Nicaragua. Vicious dogs, fast horses, and extortion became his hallmark. He enjoyed the title "Child of the Sun" (Elvas in Clayton 1993:I:77) for conducting dawn raids on unsuspecting villages, usually capturing the village chief and thereby subjugating its citizens to menial servitude. Women became objects of barter. Before his eighteenth birthday DeSoto formed a lifetime partnership with HernŠn Ponce de Leůn to assure equal estate for both in life (Hoffman in Clayton 1993:I:425, 446-455).

HernŠn Ponce's relationship, if any, with Juan Ponce, the explorer, has never been known, but events in DeSoto's later life would indicate some eagerness on his part to out-do Juan Ponce in the same area of Florida where his colony had failed. Balboa was put to death by a jealous Panamanian dictator, DeSoto's patron, in 1518. Balboa had over-stepped his bounds without the strength of a personal army to hold his ground. DeSoto, made wise by that act, signed on as a Captain with Francisco Pizarro to enter the Peruvian mountains and plunder Incan treasure with an army of his own. Kidnap brought huge ransoms for DeSoto's personal army, and Indian captivity brought intelligence of villages further ahead. Spectacular brutality became DeSoto's way of life (Clayton 1993:I: 256-257). He amassed great fortune before Pizarro discharged him from Peru (Inca in Clayton 1993:II: 61; Goza 1984:4).

DeSoto returned to Spain to seek recognition at Court, but was not accepted there as a peer. NarvŠez and another conquistador had recently disappeared while attempting to colonize North America at two different places, thus tarnishing the reputation of New World Conquistadors in general but setting the stage for DeSoto's attempt to establish his own name. He married Isabel de Bobadilla, whose family held power at court (Hoffman in Clayton 1993:I:449-450). About that time, Cabeza de Vaca, a survivor of the NarvŠez Expedition, stirred the European population with astonishing stories of great wealth in North America (Elvas in Clayton 1993:I:48). The King, despite DeSoto's petition for lands elsewhere (DeSoto in Clayton 1993:I:358), fittingly granted this trusted soldier of the cross a four year commission to colonize and hold North America (La Florida) instead (see the King's Concession to DeSoto in Clayton 1993:I:359-365). The King assigned DeSoto the Governorship of Cuba from which to stage his invasion of the eastern half of today's United States; land once "owned" by Juan Ponce, NarvŠez and the other failed conquistador. Francisco VŠzquez de Coronado was dispatched from Mexico to explore and conquer the western part of North America at about the same time (Inca in Clayton 1993:II:63-66).

DeSoto selected eager volunteers from Spain and Portugal, many of African descent; farmers, soldiers, traders, accountants, ship builders, carpenters, clergymen and tailors (Elvas and Hoffman in Clayton 1993:I:49-50, 451, 453). They averaged 24 years of age; some had been in the new world before, some with DeSoto. Lawyers were prohibited by act of the King, however, from joining DeSoto; they were known to cause trouble over land title and the division of crown spoils (Clayton 1993:I:363). Some investors provided their own weapons, horses, greyhounds, servants and equipment (Inca in Clayton 1993:II:72-79, 86, 88, 130). Some brought their wives. They sailed to Cuba, at DeSoto's expense - with stores of clothing, trade goods, shields, armor, helmets, cross-bows, guns, black powder, nails, tools, seeds and plows - for exploration and long term settlement on our mainland. More animals and food (hardtack, Irish blood hounds, long legged Spanish herding pigs and mules) were bartered from, or provided by, Cuban plantation owners (Clayton 1993:I:373). DeSoto's livestock count came to over five hundred, including at least two hundred and thirty-seven horses (ibid.; Rangel in Clayton 1993:I:254).

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