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America First—100 Stories from Our History by  Lawton B. Evans

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DE SOTO DISCOVERS THE MISSISSIPPI

HERNANDO DE SOTO had been with Pizarro in Peru, and had seen there the temples all plated with gold. He was eager for conquests and wealth of his own, and called for volunteers to follow him into the unexplored lands which lay northward. Hundreds of warriors flocked to his standard, thirsting for gold and adventure. It was always so with the Spaniards of those days!

In May, 1539, De Soto, with six or seven hundred followers, landed at Tampa, in Florida. He carried blood-hounds to hunt the Indians and chains to fetter them. A drove of hogs was brought along for fresh meat. The men were provided with horses, fire-arms, cannon, and steel armor. It was a gay and cruel band, bent on war and on finding gold.

They had not gone far before out of the forests [19] there stepped a white man, named Juan Ortiz, who had been captive among the Indians for ten years. He knew the Indian language well, and joined the adventurers as guide and interpreter.

The band marched northward, everywhere robbing the villages of food, and terrifying the Indians. A year passed, and there was no gold. Fear alone made the Indians meet them with peace, but this was repaid by the Spaniards with many brutal deeds. At last they came to the banks of the Savannah River, where they were met by a beautiful Indian Princess. As they neared the village, she came out to meet them and welcome them, hoping thus to make friends with them. She was borne on a litter by four of her subjects. She alighted before De Soto, and made signs of peace and friendship. Taking a double string of pearls, which she wore, she hung it around the neck of De Soto and bade him follow her into the village.

Here the party rested for awhile, entertained by the Princess and her people. But De Soto ill repaid her kindness. On leaving, he and his men robbed the village of all the valuables they could find, and took the Princess captive. They made her follow them into the wilderness. But De Soto gained little by this cruelty, for, after a few days' [20] marching, the Princess escaped, taking with her a large box of pearls, which De Soto had prized very highly.

They now marched westward and then southward, until they came to the town of Mavila, where Mobile, Alabama, now stands. The Indian Chief met De Soto with a great show of friendship, and begged him and a few of his soldiers to enter the palisade which protected the village. No sooner had they done so than the Chief shouted a word of insult and ran into one of the houses. In a moment a cloud of arrows swept from the houses, and many of the Spaniards fell dead. Only De Soto and a few of them escaped. Enraged by this treatment, the Spaniards assaulted the town, and a terrible battle followed, lasting nine hours. In the end the Spaniards won, but they lost many men, and nearly all of their property was destroyed. The town was burned and hosts of Indians killed, but De Soto could ill afford to lose anything more, for his men were few and the natives were many.

A year and over had now passed, and the adventurers were tired of their journey. They had found no gold, but had experienced only hardship and battle and danger. They clamored to go home, but De Soto would not hear of it. He made [21] them again take up their journey northward and westward.

It was now a strange-looking army. The uniforms with which they had started had worn out, and were replaced by skins, and mats made of rushes and bark. Their hair and beards had grown until they looked like wild men. All the hogs had long since been eaten, or had died on the march. The Indians, forced to go along and carry the baggage, often escaped at night, taking with them or destroying before they left whatever they could. The remaining horses were gaunt and haggard. There was no longer any medicine, and but little ammunition for the guns. These men were sick at heart and sorely discouraged.

Onward they trudged, day by day, avoiding the Indians as much as they could. Two years passed, and again it was May. One morning they marched out of the thick undergrowth, and stood on the banks of a great river. It was the Mississippi, the Father of Waters, gazed upon for the first time by the eyes of a white man. It was a noble and imposing sight, as the vast volume of water rolled majestically before them on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Little, however, did De Soto care for the majesty or beauty of this river. In his heart still [22] burned the desire for gold. He cried to his men: "Let us hasten and build boats that we may cross. It was a hard task for his enfeebled followers, but they undertook the labor, that they and their few horses might get to the other side. Once over, they began the fruitless search, but always with the same result.

For another year they wandered over the country, west of the Mississippi. Sometimes they had to fight the Indians, always losing a few men and shortening their ammunition supply. Sometimes they were kindly treated, and rested in the villages. At one place the Indians thought De Soto was a god, and brought to him the sick to be healed and the blind to be cured. They were sorely disappointed at the result.

De Soto was now weary, emaciated and ill. He had at last lost his dreams, and the time had come for him to die. He had caught a fever from camping in a swampy place, and he knew his final hours were at hand. Calling his men around him, he begged their forgiveness for the perils and suffering he had made them endure, and appointed one among them to be his successor. The next day he died, and was buried near the camp.

His followers, however, feared the Indians would attack them, should they discover that De Soto [23] was dead, or find his body. For all along he had pretended that he was immortal and could neither die nor be slain. Therefore, at night, his body was taken up, wrapped in clothes filled with sand and stones, and carried to the middle of the river, where it was dropped into the keeping of the mighty current he had discovered.

What was left of the band of adventurers fashioned a few boats of rough material, and embarked on the river to make their way out of the wilderness. For many days and weeks they sailed and toiled, until at last a ragged remnant reached a settlement in Mexico, where they told the sad story of their wanderings and misfortunes.


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