Hernando de Soto, the explorer who became a myth
Hernando de Soto could have stayed in Spain to spend his fortune. Instead, he preferred to invest it in a vast undertaking: an expedition that ranged throughout the south-eastern United States – 6000 kilometres from Florida to the banks of the Mississippi River, which De Soto was the first European to cross on 8 May 1541.
This ambitious adventure – a sum of epic feats, historical milestones, brave deeds and legends – earned De Soto a place in the history of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas and in our country’s role in the early development of the United States. His name and deeds are honoured in multiple monuments there.
On the occasion of the 475th anniversary of De Soto’s death, the think tank The Hispanic Council prepared a report, ‘La sombra de Hernando de Soto: entre el misterio y la leyenda‘ (In the Shadow of Hernando de Soto: Between Mystery and Legend). It was written by Borja Cardelús, a historian specialising in the so-called Age of Conquistadors, and presented at Casa de América in Madrid.
‘De Soto could have led an affluent life in Seville. Instead, he chose to risk it all, set sails and explore the complex territory that is Florida today. He never gave up,’ the author said, unable to hide his admiration for the explorer born in Extremadura.
Almost five centuries after his death, south-eastern USA is full of memorials in his honour. Among them we can mention his portrait in the United States Capitol rotunda, the De Soto National Memorial, the counties named after him in Florida and Mississippi, and even a brand of vintage cars!
In addition, several events evoking him are held throughout the year, such as the De Soto Heritage Festival, which has been held for almost 80 years.
Key Spanish figures in American history
Hernando de Soto is one of several lesser-known explorers and conquistadors who played a key role on the history of the United States. Like him, Juan Ponce de León, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca or Francisco Vázquez de Coronado had a brief, sometimes legendary, appearance in history but are much remembered by Americans.
At the presentation, attended by The Hispanic Council Chairman Daniel Ureña, experts discussed De Soto’s two expeditions – an endeavour that cost him both his fortune and his life.
Cardelús highlighted some of De Soto’s most amazing deeds, such as how Inca ruler Atahualpa marvelled at his horse-riding skills in Peru.
De Soto died of a fever on the western bank of the Mississippi River in May 1542. The actual site of his burial is unknown. According to one source, his men hid his corpse in blankets weighted with sand and sank it in the middle of the river during the night.
‘Over the past few years, historians have begun to follow in the footsteps of Spanish conquistadors in the United States, a country where they left deep marks,’ Ureña remarked.