HERNANDO DE SOTO: A Savage Quest in the Americas
By David Ewing Duncan
Crown. 570 pp. $40

Go to the First Chapter of Hernando de Soto

Go to Chapter One

Across the Wide Mississippi

By Peggy Liss
Sunday, March 10, 1996

Hernando de Soto is Our Mississippi Discoverer, although in fact other Europeans sighted the river before he did. They did not actually discover it either, for it was there all along, as the locals well knew -- the people of the communities now referred to as chiefdoms of Mississippi culture. And for that matter De Soto was not De Soto but Soto: He was a Spaniard, and the Spanish do not use the "de" in surnames. And though that nondiscovery has immortalized him in our histories, to him encountering the Mississippi meant mostly the bother of building flatboats to ferry 400 bedraggled conquerors, numerous horses and 100 pigs across a wide and swiftly flowing river that was patrolled daily by armed Native Americans in war canoes.

In bringing up all these qualifiers, David Ewing Duncan is not writing funny history, but it leaves a peculiar impression. Why? Because Duncan tries valiantly to update the old Epic of Discovery. This is different from a balanced account, though it is an attempt at one. It reads as if the author is first carried away by Spanish daring, then slaps his own wrist, lays out Soto's ruthlessness and, for good measure, goes into archaeological information on indigenous peoples.

Hernando de Soto deserves both the admiration and condemnation Duncan gives him. And Soto's story lends itself to epic, although he comes closer to Don Quixote in the end. Soto was born within a decade of Christian Spain's conquest of Muslim Granada, in the frontier province of Extremadura, where fighting Moors or fellow-Christians had long been a way of life. He came to another frontier, America, in his teens, in 1513 or 1514. By then, Spaniards had established bases in the Caribbean and on its mainland coasts. Soto relentlessly pursued the usual conquistador goals -- wealth and glory. Proving a fine swordsman and horseman, in the 1520s he explored Central America, hoping to replicate the deeds just done and the huge fortune made by Hernando Cortes in overpowering the Aztec empire.

Although he shifted his allegiance among factional leaders as seemed politic, Soto formed an enduring business partnership with one Hernan Ponce. By 1531 Soto possessed gold mines, lands with Indian labor attached and ships trading goods and slaves among Spanish enclaves. To Soto these were means, not ends. He took ships and men to join Francisco Pizarro in Peru. Soto was with Pizarro when he, with 167 Spaniards, captured the Inca leader Atahualpa and killed thousands of his retainers, then collected a roomful of treasure for Atahualpa's ransom, executed him, took and looted Cuzco and founded Lima.

Soto, tremendously wealthy, returned to Spain, bought a place and married well. But, overshadowed by Cortes and Pizarro and determined to out-conquer them, with his own funds and others perhaps borrowed from Genoese bankers, he outfitted a massive expedition to La Florida, today's southern United States. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who had wandered for seven years from Florida to Mexico and just returned to Spain, did not flat-out tell him there was no gold nor Aztecs nor Incas. Soto heard what he wanted to and knew he had competition. Francisco Vazquez de Coronado set off from Mexico northward the same year on the same quest -- which was to prove futile.

Here Duncan's account comes alive. This is plainly the story he feels impelled to tell. He has retraced the expedition's route. He threads his way through scholarly disputes and conflicting sources. He relates how Soto led 600 Spaniards through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, across the Appalachians, back to Alabama. They marched or slogged from village to village. They commandeered corn, translators, men as porters, and women for cooking, laundry and sex. Spanish numbers, horses, attire and bearing usually discouraged resistance by the far-from-docile but not foolhardy residents. Certainty and impressive appearance were powerful weapons while they lasted.

The tables turned in the well-fortified town of Mabila -- near present-day Selma, Ala. -- when on order of the chief, Tascalusa, several thousand warriors rushed Soto and a small band of his men in the town square. Soto and most of the Spaniards cut their way out, roused the main force and, counterattacking again and again, breached the palisades. Fire, begun in a thatched roof, consumed the town. Twenty or so Spaniards were killed and several hundred wounded. Every Indian warrior in the region died fighting, or in the fire, or cut down by the Spaniards, or by suicide.

Yet Mabila was Soto's undoing, for his conscripted bearers had joined the attackers in town, taking the baggage with them. Spanish weapons, clothing, provisions and equipment were lost in the fire. Soto could, at this point, have marched to the ships awaiting him in Mobile harbor and either sailed off or reprovisioned, or he might have established a base settlement. Instead, he decided to continue northwestward to search for golden kingdoms. It was a ragtag company that reached the impeding Mississippi on May 8, 1541. They built boats, crossed stealthily at night, and moved on -- into Arkansas, then back and north, to the edge of the Great Plains. There, a year later, after three years of finding only what he was not seeking, Soto was felled by fever and died within days. Poisoned by men who wanted out? Or done in by the recognition that he had reached a dead end, a loss of will? We know only that 311 men, about half of his expedition, survived to reach Mexico by way of the Mississippi.

Clearly it is Soto in La Florida who fascinates Duncan. He enjoys sorting out Soto's route and letting us know that Europeans encountered well-organized and prosperous societies in our South. Still, in these pages Spanish conquistadores are epic hot-blooded individuals -- audacious, ambitious, greedy and ruthless yet somehow heroic -- and the Native Americans, though Duncan takes a stab at retrieving individual people and chiefdoms, come across as clinically described composite entities. And questions arise. Is this book after all, as the title indicates, a biography of Soto? Then the Spanish background is too weak and the focus on Soto in La Florida too strong. Or is it about Soto's importance to our history? Then we should be told more about why he has mattered and still matters to us.

Soto now matters, Duncan notes, to people along his supposed route, to touring Americans and to the National Park Service. Duncan links fascination with Soto to romanticism, possibly having in mind once-popular 19th-century depictions of stalwart conquerors on horseback, in burnished armor, their eyes on the horizon. He might have connected interest in Soto as well to the value attached throughout much of our national history to making an inventory of the physical and material world, to the pursuit of natural science, to exploration and expansion. To many Americans, however, De Soto the Explorer is now De Soto Who? And, given the current emphasis on diverse cultures in American history, the European Explorer may in fact be verging on extinction, along with the entire old Epic Of Discovery. But even dinosaurs have a history, and we think of dinosaurs as an indelible part of our past. Whether he is a dinosaur or not, Soto's story has two aspects, insufficiently disentangled in this book. One is his life and world, the other his subsequent reputation -- how he came to matter, and may still matter, in our sense of who we are as a nation.

That said, Duncan's book is a generally readable account of Soto's life, weakest on Soto's Spain and strongest on narrating his years in La Florida, assessing his route, and conveying recent findings on the people who then lived there.

Peggy Liss's most recent book is "Isabel the Queen."

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

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