First Encounter

de Soto Meets the Chickasaws

by Tom Phillps, Copyright 1995

In December of 1540, the Chickasaws experienced their FIRST ENCOUNTER with invaders from Europe which led to the eventual destruction of their way of life.
 
Hernando de Soto was with Pizarro in South America and had acquired a personal fortune in gold from the destruction of the mighty Inca civilization. De Soto heard many rumors of golden cities in the fabled region knows as Florida, which consisted generally of the Gulf region of the present United States. Thinking he could parlay his wealth into an even greater fortune, de Soto financed a military expedition to find and loot the golden cities. In 1539, de Soto's expedition landed at the bay of present-day Pensacola with 660 men, 300 horses, and much equipment. They proceeded through the Gulf area taking hostages, enslaving men to carry their baggage, raping, and murdering, but they found no substantial gold. In November, 1540, the invaders reached the town of Mabila, not far from the coast where they could have reboarded their ships, but de Soto wouldn't give up. Instead, he turned his men north, following the Tombigbee River to its headwaters and entered the province of "Chickaza" in present day northern Mississippi.
 
As the Spaniards moved north along the east bank of the river, they could see thousands of Indians lining the opposite bank, shooting arrows across and shouting warnings. In the night, the Chickasaws crossed over in their dougout canoes and attacked the soldiers while they slept.
 
De Soto ordered landing rafts to be constructed several leagues back from the river so that the Indians couldn't detect them. When finished, the soldiers carried the rafts during the night to a point on the river a league upstream from their encampment, intending to take the Indians by surprise. But they made too much noise, and the Chickasaws detected them and 500 warriors sprang up to defend their country.
 
Near sunrise, the Conquistadors loaded each raft with five or six horsemen and 30 to 40 foot soldiers and cast off. The horses were ridden aboard, and the horsemen remained mounted while crossing.
 
The Chickasaws filled the air with arrows so that most of the soldiers were wounded on the way across. The first raft was driven off and drifted downstream. The second raft fought its way in and finally managed to get two horses disembarded.
 
Together the two cavalarymen charged the Indians, driving them back 200 paces, and then charging back to the landing place to provide cover for further landings. They continued to charge and fall back until more horses and men were unloaded, and a permanent beachhead was established.
 
The Indians were stunned by the Spaniards' use of horses. At first they were terrified and thought the horse and rider were one demonic animal. After overcoming this initial reaction, the Indians still had no experience defending from attack from above with steel weapons. When the horsemen charged directly into them, the Indians had no effective defense. The Chickasaws withdrew.
 
The Spaniards drove their army through the well-populated countryside of farms and villages. In four days, they reached the principal city called Chickaza, from which the whole province took its name.
 
The city was abandoned in advance of the approaching army, and, since it was December, de Soto decided to winter there. There was plenty of food in the storehouses. De Soto made overtures to the chiefs who reluctantly agreed to furnish the invaders with some additional supplies.
 
In the spring, the Spaniards sent word to the Chickasaw chiefs to furnish them with 200 warriors to be bearers for their equipment. This was insulting and could not be tolerated.
 
The Chickasaws slipped past the Spanish guards in the middle of the night, and stole into the compound carrying live coals in clay pots. They wrapped their arrows with extremely combustible cord. Igniting the arrows from the coals, they shot flaming arrows into the thatched roof houses, causing them to spring into flame. The wind whipped the flames into a raging inferno.
 
The Chickasaws shot arrows at the Spanish soldiers as they came running out of the flaming houses, naked or in their night clothes. At least a dozen soldiers and 55 horses were lost.
 
De Soto came out without his armor, but dressed, as he slept with his clothes on to always be prepared for battle. He bounded to his horse and screamed orders to his men as they struggled to escape from the fires.
 
The Spaniards fled to a small village to the north where they found respite. Later, the surviving soldiers salvaged their weapons from the embers of the city, but the swords had lost their tempered sharpness. Their equipment, supplies and clothing, including shoes, belts, straps, scabbards, etc. were destroyed.
 
The foreigners holed up in the village, making clothing from animal skins and sandals from Indian baskets. They fashioned makeshift bellows so their blacksmiths could re-temper the swords. When they finally pulled out, they looked like a very ragtag bunch. The Spaniards left the Chickasaw Nation as soon as they could, and never returned.
 
De Soto with his army went on west where they "discovered" the Mississippi River. They continued to wander randomly through what is now Louisiana and Arkansas for another year, reaching a point near the mouth of the Red River. After failing to find the riches he expected, de Soto sickened and died on May 23, 1542. A destitute remnant of his army made it back to Spain after nearly five years of roving aimlessly about in the "New World".
 
Although the Chickasaws lost their FIRST ENCOUNTER with the bearded invaders at the Tombigbee River, within a few months they chased the conquistadors completely out of their country.
 

Bibliography

Narrative of the Expedition of Hernando de Soto, by the Gentleman of Elvas, Ed. Theodore H. Lewis, Spanish Expolorers in the Southern United States, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907.

Lawrence A. Clayton, editor, "Hernando de Soto to N. America in 1539-1543".

La Florida, by Garcilaso de la Vega, The Inca, translated by Charmion Shelley, from the 1935 U.S. de Soto Expedition Commission.

Miguel Albornoz, Hernando de Soto, Knight of the Americas, translated by Bruce Boeglin, Franklin Watts, New York, Toronto, 1986.

The Chickasaws, Arrell M. Gibson: Norman and London, University of Oklahoma Press.

The Concise and Natural History of the East and West Florida, by Bernard Romans, Gainesville, 1962, University of Florida Press.

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