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

By Patricia Galloway | Go to book overview

Lawrence J. Goodman

John R. Wunder


Law, Legitimacy, and the Legacy of Hernando de Soto

Sick with fever and no longer able to support himself on his own two feet, on 16 May 1542 the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto summoned his personal secretary to record his final will and testament, the last document he would ever author. Destined to die only five days later, Soto in his will tried to bring to a fitting and proper Christian end his wildly adventurous life, and, in his own words, to "pay the price" of salvation.1 If it was through his will that the adelantado hoped to attain expiation, he achieved it, almost. Soto remembered his wife in Spain, his long-time partner Hernán Ponce de León, to whom he had once promised half of his fortune, and he even provided generously for the two illegitimate children he had fathered in Panama and Nicaragua. But to the bastard daughter he had sired in Peru by an Inca princess, Soto, for unknown reasons, left nothing. Twenty years later, this daughter, doña Leonor de Soto, would begin a twenty-five year legal process demanding compensation, her rightful inheritance share, for her father's fateful sin of omission.2


The Legal Setting

Doña Leonor's legal battle began on 20 June 1562 when she and her husband, public notary Garcia Carrillo, presented their opening statement to the Audiencia of Lima in Peru. The nature of their case, the types and content of the briefs they submitted, and the procedure they followed all attest to the peculiar condition of the Spanish legal system in the sixteenth century.

In the sixteenth century two different visions of the role of the Spanish monarchy competed for supremacy, and the tension between the two explains much about both the strengths and the weaknesses of Spain's legal system at the time. The first of these, a holdover from the Middle Ages, envisioned the Spanish monarch as a personal sovereign. It was an image that had been reinforced over many years by virtue of the Iberian rulers' frequent travels throughout their realms. With the king or queen regularly present, at least in spirit, in every Spanish town or municipality, Spanish subjects coun

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