No Spanish expedition has received so much attention from government agencies and anthropologists alike as Hernando de Soto's Florida venture. Its purposes, organization, and financing, however, have yet to be studied in the same detail as have other expeditions of that time. This paper attempts to fill that void and to clarify certain previously distorted or ignored aspects of Soto's expedition.
The Spanish conquest, having won the main Caribbean Islands by the beginning of the sixteenth century, thrust toward the continent in two main drives, one to Panama and a second to Mexico. The thrust into Mexico vanquished the Aztec empire and then continued south into Central America, later moving north to California and beyond. The drive into Panama expanded into other areas of Central America and south to the South Sea, culminating in the subjugation of the Inca empire in 1532. The immensely profitable Peruvian conquest led to the explorations of Chile, Quito, and Popayán, and indirectly to the exploration, but not to the conquest, of Florida. Other private ventures organized in Spain in the 1520s and 1530s were intended to control the northern coast of South America, arching from northwest of the Amazon to the Gulf of Darién.
Most of the expeditions launched after the conquests of Peru and Mexico had common purposes. Aside from the obvious temptation to explore the areas adjacent to already vanquished territories, the men leading those explorations hoped to find a water passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, a short land route from the Atlantic coast of South America to Peru, and, most importantly, an expedient means of reaching the gold veins which supposedly grew under the earth in profusion around the equator, just as silver veins were thought to proliferate close to the two tropics.1 The conquest of the various provinces of Venezuela and the New Kingdom of Granada, parts of Central America, and even Tucumán and Paraguay, resulted from those aims. In contrast, the purposes of the Florida exploration are not so apparent.
Hernando de Soto, future leader of the most thorough Florida exploration