Exploring De Soto's Path into `Sun' of New World

By West, Woody | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 31, 1997 | Go to article overview

Exploring De Soto's Path into `Sun' of New World


West, Woody, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Charles Hudson, professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia, reckoned it would take four years to research and write "Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun." Fourteen years later . . .

The investment is manifest. This is an eminently readable account of Hernando de Soto's four-year exploration of "La Florida" - which would become in due time the American Southeast - and of the European discovery of the Mississippi River.

The book is also a masterly combination of history, geology and archaeology, of ethnology and ecology. In addition to a tightly woven narrative and a detailed recounting of De Soto's route (so far as it has been established and about which learned argument continues), the book exhaustively explicates what is known of the native cultures. It is rich in detail of the explorers' equipment, weapons, tactics and customs. It also tells what they ate, how they sheltered themselves and what they believed.

"The chiefdoms of the Southeast were small, intricately structured, self-contained worlds," Mr. Hudson writes of the people among whom the Spaniards disconcertingly appeared in the 16th century. Readers, he warns, "will be disabused of any notion of De Soto as a romantic hero. He was a man of the age in which he lived, and a cruel age it was."

Routinely he took hostages and concentrated their attention by putting iron collars and chains on them. He burned recalcitrant natives at the stake or turned his war dogs on them to the death. He frequently cut off the hands and noses of natives who stole from his band - or, for that matter, who annoyed him. (The Indians were imaginatively punitive as well: In intertribal warfare, for instance, they would cut one hamstring of captives so that they could walk but not run.)

From the spring of 1539, when De Soto's expedition sailed from Cuba and landed near Tampa Bay, to the fall of 1543 when the approximately 300 to 350 survivors of the original 650 to 750 men (and one of the six women) managed to reach Mexico, the band covered thousands of miles making up about a quarter of the current United States.

Mr. Hudson emphasizes that "De Soto and his followers were not relativists. It seemed quite reasonable to them to measure people in terms of the degree to which they lived like Spaniards," and thus troublesome Indians were reckoned to be "savage, barbarous."

It's worth noting, too, for cluck-clucking presentists, that Isabella in 1500 prohibited enslaving New World natives, though the queen of Castile's injunction was widely disregarded. In 1542, slavery of Indians was banned by a royal decree that went beyond hers. "But this," the author reports, "came too late to soften De Soto's treatment of Indians."

De Soto arrived in the New World in 1514 when he was about 14. "As such, he was an entering freshman in an exceedingly hard school," Mr. Hudson dryly notes. He was with Pizarro in Peru, and a partner of Ponce de Leon in the conquest of Panama and Nicaragua, becoming a thoroughly seasoned conquistador - "long on courage, short on prudence," ambitious and burning for riches.

To sensibilities fashioned by modern comfort and televised legend, it is nearly inconceivable that so small a group of people would venture into utterly unknown territory, trusting only their discipline, acquisitiveness and faith. …

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