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

By Patricia Galloway | Go to book overview

Ross Hassig


Leagues in Mexico versus Leagues in Florida: How Good Were Estimates?

This chapter examines the general problems entailed in reconstructing the route of Hernando de Soto by viewing his trek in the light of a similar journey by Hernán Cortés during the conquest of Mexico in 1519-21, the latter being perhaps the best known and documented entrada of the period and one that presents similar difficulties in reconstruction. Accordingly, a closer examination of this journey may be suggestive as to the accuracy of early Spanish explorers' measures of distance in general and specifically in the Southeast.

The reconstruction of Spanish journeys through unexplored parts of the New World is important for our understanding of the Spaniards as well as of indigenous societies. Frequently this has involved retracing the probable routes based on the recorded distances traveled, assuming that such measures can be accurately reconstructed. However, this assumption is not at all certain. Henry R. Wagner's study is probably the most detailed assessment of Cortés's route to Tenochtitlan, but even this exhaustive study fails to achieve consensus, and the conclusions it does reach depend on disregarding some accounts and privileging others.1


Cortés's Trek

Cortés's trek into central Mexico in 1519 is perhaps the best documented and analyzed of all Spanish entradas in the sixteenth-century New World. Although its general outlines are fairly well known, many of its specifics remain in question. One potential source of bias in these accounts is their manifestly political purpose.

The extant accounts of the Spanish entrance into and conquest of Mexico were not written as dispassionate histories. Instead, they were all written with political purposes in mind, most of them long after the fact, for the purpose of securing additional favors or privileges from the king of Spain. (For the comparable motivations of the Soto chroniclers, see the papers in Part 1 of this volume.) Even Cortés's account, written during and immediately after

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