The Hernando de Soto Expedition: History, Historiography, and "Discovery" in the Southeast

By Patricia Galloway | Go to book overview

Robert S. Weddle


Soto's Problems of Orientation: Maps, Navigation, and Instruments in the Florida Expedition

He thought that experience in the South was sufficient to show him what to do in the North, and he was deceived as history will tell.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, discussing Hernando de Soto, in Edward Gaylord Bourne , ed., Narratives of the Career of Hernando de Soto

Like many another New World explorer, Hernando de Soto embarked on his Florida venture with a set of preconceived notions that later proved false and that ultimately contributed to his failure. Problems that stemmed from lack of prior knowledge of the territory to be explored were common to all the early conquistadors. These included, primarily, the lack of maps and firsthand accounts to guide them, and the primitive state of navigational technology. Soto's problems, however, were compounded by his poor judgment.

Soto's first and most obvious miscalculation was basing his expectations of La Florida and the means of its subjection upon his experience in Peru. There, Pizarro's army was fortunate enough to discover an Inca faction willing to guide and help it. Perhaps for this reason, while gathering the best soldiers, supplies, and equipment for his inland march, Soto failed to include in his company any person capable of instrument navigation on land. He was thus often at the mercy of Indian guides, who had their own reasons for giving him false information. When they failed him, Soto had to fall back on instinct, hasty reconnaissance, or pure guesswork. All of this accounts for the lack in the Soto chronicles of geographical data that would guide present-day students of his route. Like his predecessor Pánfilo de Narváez, Soto viewed the problem of orienting himself all too simplistically.

Soto's third error--again like Narváez--lay in his failure to coordinate land and sea movements, which ultimately led to his cutting himself off from his ships altogether. But most damaging of all was his great pride, which got in the way of his making rational decisions at critical moments.

When Soto embarked from Sanlúcar de Barrameda on 7 April 1538, the maps in his possession offered only vague information about Florida. Exactly

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