In 1539, Spaniard Hernando DeSoto landed on the Florida coast with a fleet of vessels, a contingent of over 600 men, 300 horses, a herd of pigs, some mules, bloodhounds, many weapons, and a large store of supplies.  His goal was to conquer and settle the territory of the Gulf States.  The army spent the winter near Tallahassee, Florida, then set off on a journey which, for him, ended at the Mississippi River.  This expedition marked the first entry of Europeans into the interior of the Southeastern United States.

The four accounts written during and after the expedition by Ranjel, Garcilaso de la Vega, Biedma, and the "Gentleman of Elvas" are often the basis for arguments concerning DeSoto's route.  However, they also provide the first sketches of the countryside and shed the earliest historic light on the native people of the interior Southeast.  


Upon arriving in La Florida, the expedition was without an interpreter and guide.  DeSoto sent two groups of heavily armed men to capture Indians to serve this purpose.  One of these forces came upon ten or eleven Indians in an open field.  To their surprise they found that one of them was actually a Spaniard, almost naked and sun-burned, his arms tattooed after the manner of the Indians.

With great rejoicing, the horsemen took the man back to camp where they learned that his name was Juan Ortiz, a native of Savilla and of noble parentage.  He had first gone into the country with Panphilo de Narvaez, then returned at the request of the Governor of Cuba's wife.  He and his men made port in sight of an Indian town. No sooner had he and a few men got ashore, when many natives came out of the houses and captured them.  Those remaining on the ship returned to Cuba without him.

The other men were killed, but he was taken before a chief named Ucita.  By command, he was bound hand and foot to four stakes, and laid upon scaffolding, beneath which a fire was kindled, that he might be burned; but a daughter of the Chief entreated that he might be spared; to which the father acceded, directing his injuries to be healed.  When Ortiz got well, he was, according to the Gentleman of Elvas, "put to watching a temple, that the wolves, in the night-time, might not carry off the dead there."  Ortiz had lived among the Indians for twelve years before he was found and joined the expedition.


Crossing the future state of Florida, the expedition ran low on provisions and there was little corn to be found.  Elvas says, "Where there were inhabitants, some water-cresses could be found, which they who arrived first would gather, and, cooking them in water with salt, ate them without other thing; and they who could get none, would seize the stalks of maize and eat them, the ear, being young, as yet containing no grain.  Having come to the river... they got cabbage from the low palmetto growing there."  

At the abandoned town of Cale, they found a great deal of maize.  DeSoto ordered all of the ripe grain in the fields, enough for three months, to be secured.

The chroniclers gave the first insight into native economy.  Corn, kidney beans, and various sorts of pumpkins and squashes were said to have been cultivated.  These crops, especially corn (maize), made the expedition possible since DeSoto and his men appropriated the Indians' stores at each town they passed through. The corn was put away dried on the cob and large quantities were ground and preserved.  Elvas stated that they "beat out the maize in log mortars with a one-handed pestle of wood."

From nature the Indians gathered, two kinds of plums, persimmons, grapes (including muscadines), mulberries, strawberries, walnuts (including hickory nuts), chestnuts, chinquapins, acorns, and "bunches of young onions just like those of Castile, as big as the end of the thumb and larger."  The plums and persimmons were dried, and dried persimmons, made into cakes or bricks of 'bread,' as it is often called, were a staple.  The grapes they found growing on the Tallapoosa River were the best they tasted anywhere. A sort of bread was made out of chestnuts, and oil was extracted from walnuts (hickory nuts) and acorns. Biedma remembers that somewhere in Arkansas "we found a little walnut of the country, which is much better than that here in Spain."

At Canasagua, twenty men came out from the town, each laden with a basket of mulberries.  Elvas notes: "This fruit is abundant and good... as are the walnuts and the amexa; the trees growing about over the country, without planting or pruning, of the size and luxuriance they would have were they cultivated in orchards, by hoeing and irrigation."

DeSoto's men reported deer, dried venison and deer hides in use across the entire area. Drying was the usual method of preserving meat,  including bison and bear. Garcilaso and Elvas noted the use of bearskins and Elvas mentions "an abundance of butter in gourds, in melted form like olive oil," which the inhabitants said was bear's grease.

In probable reference to bison, Garcilaso wrote that the Spaniards with

DeSoto found "cow horns" at a town near the Savannah River and adds:  "They were unable to learn where the Indians could have got these, because in all the places these Spaniards when in La Florida they never found cattle and though it is true that in some places they found fresh beef they never saw the cattle, nor were they able by cajolery or threats to get the Indians to tell them where they were." Ranjel saw "breastplates and head-pieces of rawhide" in the temple of Talimeco also in the Savannah River area. At the town of Chiaha, two messengers sent toward the north returned with a cowskin as soft as the skin of a kid. References to these "cattle" become more frequent as they neared the Plains.

Other animal foods mentioned were turkey and rabbit. The accounts state that the rabbits were often trapped.  Mention is made in a general way of the use of birds other than turkeys as food, and turkeys were, of course, eaten in all sections.  Turkeys may have been at least semi- domesticated. In the Province of Chelaque, Elvas reported: "Turkeys were abundant; in one town they presented seven hundred, and in others brought him what they had and could procure."

There were many dogs in some of the towns. Ethnographer John Swanton writes: "In the Appalachian country 'barkless dogs' are said to have been eaten, and by some these are supposed to have been opossums, but this is probably an error, and there is also reason to believe that the one chronicler who reports Indian fondness for dog flesh was wrong or has been misinterpreted.  Among some of the tribes it was customary for warriors about to set out upon an expedition to feast upon a dog, but this was exceptional and seems to have been accompanied by a strict taboo of dog meat at other times.  However, from various parts of North America we have notices of the use of a small variety of dog as food and cannot ignore the possibility that the custom may have extended to the South."

At the town of Guaxule, Elvas said: "The Christians being seen to go after dogs, for their flesh, which the Indians do not eat, they gave them three hundred of those animals."

Prior to the landing of the first Spaniards, the Southeastern Indians were not acquainted with horses.  According to Ranjel, the people of Mabila "held horses in the greatest terror" and killed all of them that fell into their hands. In 1543 when the remnant of DeSoto's army were ready to leave for Mexico, they killed all of their remaining horses except four or five, and these were probable destroyed later by the Indians.

The Indians accepted the Spaniard's hogs much more readily.  Elvas said that upon their return from their unsuccessful attempt to reach Mexico overland, the Indians of Guachoya on the Mississippi presented them swine descended from some that had escaped from the Spaniards the year before.

In the DeSoto narratives, fishing is primarily referenced in the Apalachee country of northern Florida, where there was said to be good fishing near the sea and in ponds all year round, and the Mississippi River region. In the latter area, fish were among presents sent by native chiefs.  A rock fish weir was reported for catching rays in the Gulf. Nets and fishhooks were also reported.  

The Gentleman of Elvas mentioned a kind of fish (probably catfish) taken in the Mississippi River and its tributaries near the mouth of the Arkansas:

"There was a fish called 'bagre,' a third of which was head; and it had large spines like a sharp shoemaker's awl at either side of its throat and along the sides.  Those of them which were in the water were as large as a 'pico.' In the river, there were some of one hundred and one hundred and fifty pounds. Many of them were caught with the hook."  

The account also described other fish caught by the Indians.  It is difficult to know for certain since Elvas could only compare them to other species with which he was familiar; however, experts believe he referred to black bass, sturgeon, sucker, shad, tarpon, and white perch or "drum."

Elvas noted that at the town of Chiaha: "There was also found considerable walnut oil... and a pot of bee's honey; which before or after was not seen in all the land - neither honey nor bees."  Ranjel also  states, "...they found in the trunk of a tree as good honey and even better than could be had in Spain." These comments has created controversy since honeybees were supposedly unknown north of Mexico until much later.

At the town of Cofitachequi (probably near the Savannah River) the Spaniards found quantities of salt, but later it could not be found.  In what is now central Alabama the Indians taught them to "burn a certain herb of which they knew and made lye with the ashes.  They dipped what they ate in it as if it were a sauce and with this they saved themselves from rotting away and dying, like the Spaniards."

In Arkansas, Garcilaso reported:  "Seeing the great necessity for salt that his people were experiencing, for they were dying for lack of it, the adelantado made thorough inquires of the curacas and their Indians in that province of Capaha in order to learn where he could get some.  In the course of this questioning he found eight Indians in the hands of the Spaniards who had been captured the day they entered that peublo, and were not natives of it, but strangers and merchants who had traversed many provinces with their goods, and among other things they were accustomed to bring salt to sell.  Being brought before the governor they told him that in some mountains forty leagues away there was a great deal of very good salt, and to the repeated questions they asked them they replied that there was also in that country much of the yellow metal which they asked for."

Two Spaniards with an escort of Indians were sent with the merchants to find these things, "and at the end of the eleven days that they spent on their fourney they returned with six loads of rock-salt crystals, not made artificially, but found in this state." They also found a metal that was evidently copper.

Still in Arkansas, Elvas mentioned the use of large pots for salt extraction. Later, the expedition encountered salt springs and Elvas wrote:  "The Indians carry it thence to other regions to exchange it for skins and blankets.  They gather it along the river, which leaves it on top of the sand when the water falls.  And since they can not gather it without more sand being mixed with it, they put it into certain baskets which they have for this purpose, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom.  They hang the baskets to a pole in the air and put water in them, and they place a basin underneath into which the water falls.  After being strained and set on the fire to boil, as the water becomes less, the salt is left on the bottom of the pot."

In addition to this use of baskets, at Cofitachequi, Ranjel told of "baskets covered with leather and likewise ready to be so covered with their lids, for carrying clothes or whatever they wanted to."

In the Apalachee country of north Florida, Garcilaso spoke of meeting a young man who had traveled far into the interior with traders.  He stated that at Cofitachequi they obtained a yellow metal (copper?) which was carried long distances as a trade item.  When they reached Cofitachequi, Elvas describes hatchets made of copper said to have a mixture of gold. These must have been used ceremonial, since they would have been too soft to have been practical for serious cutting.  Here, the Spaniards also heard rumors of copper mines at Chisca to the north and of a highly colored yellow metal which they thought was gold.

At the temple of Cofitachequi, Garcilaso's informants also saw "great wooden boxes without locks" containing the bones of the dead. These were so well-made that they were astonished that the Indians could have made them without tools. "Besides these great boxes, they had smaller ones, and cane baskets very well made. These last boxes were filled with clothing of men and women, and the baskets with pearls of all sorts.


Garcilaso's informants stated that the people of Florida "go about naked except for some garments of chamois skin of various colors almost like short breeches, which cover them decently, as much as necessary, before and behind." Elvas remarks that the men "have their privies covered with a truss of deerskin resembling the breechclouts formerly worn in Spain."  Animal skin was also worn by women.

Garcilaso described clothing made from the skins of cats of different kinds, deer, bear and other  animals. Ranjel reported blankets of wildcat pelts at Cofitachequi and the narratives are authorities for the wide use of cloaks and robes worn by the upper classes made from an animal called "marten" or "sable," which could have been muskrat. He also noted, "They make hose and moccasins and leggings with ties of white leather, although the leggings are black and with fringes or edgings of colored leather as they would have done in Spain."  

Elvas:  "The skins were well tanned and are given the color that is desired; and so perfectly that if the color is vermillion, it seems to be very fine grained cloth, and that colored black is splendid. And of this same they make shoes." "They wear mantles clasped at the throat which reach half- way down the leg; they are of extremely fine marten skins which give off the odor of musk... They also make them of small skins of various animals, such as several kinds of cat, fallow deer, red deer, bears, lions, and of skins of cattle (buffalo). These hides they dress to such an extreme of perfection that the skins of a cow or bear, with the hair on it, they prepare in a manner that leaves it so pliant and soft that it can be worn as a cloak, and it serves them for bed-covering at night."  

Clothing made of plant fibers was also mentioned.  Skirts and cloaks were often woven of the inner fiber of the mulberry tree.  For a headdress, Garcilaso says of one group, "...they wear a thick skein of thread in whatever color they desire which they wind about their heads and tie the ends over the forehead in two half-knots, so that one end hangs down over either temple as far as the ears."

Elvas described "native blankets resembling shawls, made of plant fibers. He adds that the women wore two such blankets, the men only one. Ranjel gives a fuller descriptions:

"Indian men and women came forth (from Ichisi) to receive them, and the women were clothed in white and made a fine appearance... The white clothes with which the Indian women were clothed were mantles, apparently of homespun linen and some of them were very thin. They make the thread of them from the bark of the mulberry tree, not the outside, but the intermediate layers; and they know how to make use of it and to spin it, and to dress it as well and to weave it. They make very fine mantles, and they wear one from the girdle down and another fastened on one side with the end over the shoulders like those Bohemians or gypsies, who wander sometimes through Spain; and the thread is of such a quality that... the women spin it from that mulberry bark and make it as good as the best thread from Portugal that women can get in Spain for their work, and finer and somewhat like it and stronger."

The chiefs of the various towns were treated with great respect.  These leaders enjoyed special privileges and trappings befitting their rank.

When DeSoto and his army approached the town of Cofitachequi, somewhere in the Georgia/South Carolina area, they were officially welcomed by a woman.  This chieftainess was carried to the river on a litter covered with delicate, white cloth and taken across to the Spaniards in a large, ornate dugout canoe.  

Biedma gave this description: "An awning was spread over the stern, and in the bottom lay extended a mat where were two cushions, one above the other, upon which she sat; and she was  accompanied by her chief men, in other canoes, in other canoes, with Indians."  One of the Indians carried a special stool for her to sit on as she talked with DeSoto, and a Spaniard of the expedition romantically compared her to Cleopatra, noting that she was 'brown but well proportioned.'

"Drawing from over her head a necklace of five or six strings of pearls," Biedma said, she placed them around DeSoto's neck.  In a ossuary in the same town they found many bodies, the breasts, bellies, necks, arms, and legs of which were covered with pearls, and they took away a quantity estimated by different chroniclers to weigh from 165 to 350 pounds.  According to Elvas, there were figures of babies and birds made of them, perhaps as ornaments for leather or textiles.

Also in the storehouses at Cofitachequi were "feather mantles (white, gray, vermilion, and yellow), made according to their custom, elegant and suitable for winter." Garcilaso indicated that feathers were used as a sign of rank. Feather cloaks were worn for ornamentation as much as for warmth and the commonest type of headband was decorated with feathers.  

Elvas reported that at the town of Coca:  "The Cacique came out to receive him (Soto)... borne in a litter on the shoulders of his principal men, seated on a cushion, and covered with a mantle of marten skins, of the size and shape of a woman's shawl; on his head he wore a diadem of plumes, and he was surrounded by many attendants playing upon flutes and singling."

Ranjel stated:  "The chief came out to receive the Governor in a litter covered with the white mantles of the country, and the litter was born on the shoulders of sixty or seventy of his principal subjects, with no plebeian or common Indian among them; and those that bore him took turns by relays with great ceremonies after their manner."

At Mabila in what is now Alabama, DeSoto was granted an audience with powerful chief Tascalusa.  Elvas described the meeting:  

"The Cacique was at home, in a piazza.  Before his dwelling, on a high place, was spread a mat for him, upon which two cushions were placed, one above another, to which he went and sat down, his men placing themselves around, some way removed, so that an open circle was formed about him, the Indians of the highest rank being nearest to his person.  One of them shaded him from the sun with a circular  umbrella, spread wide, the size of a target, with a small stem, and having deer-skin extended over cross-sticks, quartered with red and white, which at a distance made it look of taffeta, the colours were so very perfect.  It formed the standard of the Chief, which he carried into battle.  His appearance was full of dignity: he was tall of person, muscular, lean and symmetrical.  He was the suzerain of many territories, and of a numerous people, being equally feared by his vassals and the neighboring nations.  The Field Marshal, after he had spoken to him, advanced with his company, their steeds leaping from side to side, and at times toward the Chief, when he, with great gravity, and seemingly with  indifference, now and then would raise his eyes and look on as in contempt."

Other chroniclers noted that Tascalusa "was seated upon a wooden chair about two feet high, without back or arms, and all of one piece."  He wore "a pelote, or mantle of feathers down to his feet."  On his head was a kind of turban "like a Moor's which gave him an aspect of authority. Held over his head by a servant was a device described by Biedma as "a fly-brush of plumes, so large as to afford his person shelter from the sun." Ranjel says:

"Before this chief there stood always an Indian of graceful mien holding a parasol on a hurdle  something like a round and very large fly fan, with a cross similar to that of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Rhodes, in the middle of a black field, and the cross was white."

Garcilaso said that near the chair on which Tascalusa sat "there was an Indian with an ensign of chamois skin traversed by three azure bars of the shape of a cavalry ensign."  He continues:  "Our people were surprised at it, for they had not yet seen flags among the Indians."   Farther west, they found Indians with many white "flags" and when they approached the Mississippi River they were barred from crossing by Indians who carried "banners." When the survivors of the expedition were descending the river, they made a last stop at a village where Garcilaso says they found, "one piece of marten's skin about eight ells long by three wide.  This piece was double, alike on both sides and decorated in places with clusters of seed pearls. They believed that it was used as a standard by the Indians in their festivals; for according to appearances it could not be destined to any other use."

"Head flattening," purposefully caused by binding a baby's head to a cradleboard, is mentioned only once during the narratives.  Garcilaso said of a group in Arkansas:  "Both men and women have ugly faces, and though they are well proportioned they deform themselves by deliberate distortion of their persons. Their heads are incredibly long and tapering on top, being made thus artificially by binding them up from birth to the age of nine or ten years.



At Ucita where DeSoto landed, there was both a chief's house and a temple. They were located at opposite ends of the town.  Later, Elvas reported that in the province of Toalli  "the houses of this town were different from those behind, which were covered with dry grass; thenceforward they were roofed with cane, after the fashion of tile.  They are kept very clean: some have their sides so made of clay as to look like tapia."  

He went on to provide a good general idea of many proto-historic houses in the Southeast:  "Throughout the cold lands each of the Indians has his house for the winter plastered inside and out. They shut the very small door at night and build a fire inside the house so that it gets as hot as an oven, and stays so all night long so that there is no need of clothing.  Besides those houses they have others for summer with kitchens near by where they build their fires and bake their bread... The difference between the houses of the lords or principal men and the others is that besides being larger they have large balconies in front and below seats resembling benches made of canes; and round about many large barbacoas in which they gather together the tribute paid them by their Indians, which consists of maize and deerskins and native blankets resembling shawls, some being made of the inner bark of trees and some from a plant like daffodils which when pounded remains like flax."

As the expedition moved north through what is now Georgia, Biedma noted "a change in the habitations which were now in the earth like caves; heretofore they were covered with palm leaves and with grass."  

Elvas recorded, "They have barbacoas in which they keep their maize. These are houses raised up on four posts, timbered like a loft, and the floor of canes." Other items were stored in these structures for he noted that near the town of Cofitachique "were large vacant towns, grown up in grass, that appeared as if no people had lived in them for a long time. The Indians said that, two years before, there had been a pest in the land, and the inhabitants had moved away to other towns.  In the barbacoas were large quantities of clothing, shawls of thread, made from the bark of trees, and others of feathers, white, gray, vermilion, and yellow, rich and proper for winter. There were also many well-dressed deer-skins, of colors drawn over with designs, of which had been made shoes, stockings, and hose."

Three or four miles from the town of Cofitachique, was a town which may have been the religious and, perhaps, political center of the province.  The town called Talomico was also deserted, possibly because of depopulation caused by the epidemic describe to them by the Lady of Cofitachique.  The town was said to contain five hundred houses built on a bluff overlooking a river gorge.  The buildings were large and carefully constructed.  

The chief's house at Talomico, Ranjel noted, "was very large, high and broad, all decorated above and below with very fine handsome mats, arranged so skillfully that all these mats appeared to be a single one; and, marvelous as it seems, there was not a cabin that was not covered with mats."

Opposite the chief's house was the main temple situated on a high mound.  It was 100 feet long by 40 feet wide with a high roof covered with finely made cane mats.  The roof was decorated n the exterior and interior with conch shells and strings of fresh-water pearls. Inside, guarding he door, Garcilaso describes six pairs of giant wooden statues set in pairs, one on each side of he entrance:

"The first two on each side, which were the largest, each held a club and the last quarter of which was embellished with a diamond-shaped point and bands made of that copper. They were so exactly like those clubs which are described as belonging to Hercules that it seemed that either might have been copied from the other.

"The second on either side... had broadswords made of wood in the same form that they make hem in Spin of iron and steel.

"The third had sticks different from the clubs which resembled the swingles used to brake flax, a fathom and a half long, the first two-thirds being thick and the last gradually becoming narrower nd having a shovel-shaped end.

"The fourth in order had large battle axes corresponding in size to the stature of the giants. One f them had a brass head, the blade being large and very well made and the other end having  our-sided point a handbreadth in length. The other axe had a head exactly like this, with its lade and point, but for greater variety and curiosity it was made of flint...

"The fifth held bows and arrows.

"The sixth and last figures had very large and handsome pikes with copper heads."

He goes on to describe a room full of "pikes... All were very long and very well made, with heads of brass, which because it was so highly colored looked like gold. All were adorned with strings of ordinary pearls and seed pearls having three or four turns, placed at intervals along the pikes. Many were covered in the middle (where they would rest on the shoulder) with strips of colored deerskin and along both the upper and lower edges of this strip were borders of vari-colored threads with three, four, five, or six rows of ordinary pearls or seed pearls which embellished them greatly.

"In the second room there were only clubs such as those that we said the first giant figures held, which were at the door of the  temple, except that those in the room being arms which were among the lord's equipment were decorated with rings of ordinary pearls and seed pearls and orders of colored thread placed at intervals so that the colors were blended with one another and all were intermingled with the pearls. The other (clubs?) which the giants held had no ornamentation whatever.

"In another room, which was the third, there was nothing but axes like those we said the giants had who were fourth in order at the door of the temple. They had copper heads with a blade on one side and  diamond-shaped point on the other, six inches and a hand's breadth long. Many of them had flint heads fastened solidly to the handles with copper bands. These axes also had on their handles rings of ordinary pearls and seed pearls and borders of colored thread.

"In another room, which was the fourth, there were broadswords made of various kinds of hard woods such as those that the giants second in order had, but decorated with their rings of ordinary pearls and seed pearls and colored borders all along the handles and on to the first third of the blades.

"The fifth room contained only staffs such as those we said the giants of the third order had, but decorated with their rings of ordinary pearls and seed pearls and colored borders all along the handles to where the shovel-shaped end began.

"The sixth room had (of course) bows ad arrows."

In another of the eight rooms around the temple, Garcilaso said that on the walls there hung "round and oblong shields, large ad small, made of cane so strongly woven that they could turn a dart shot from a cross-bow, though an harquebuce-shot penetrated more than did the dart." He also describes "large numbers of round shields made of wood and of cow-hide, both brought from distant countries."


According to Elvas, the bows of the Floridians were "very long" and "the arrows are made of certain reeds, like canes, very heavy, and so tough that a sharpened cane passes through a shield.  Some are pointed with a fish bone, as sharp as an awl, and others with a certain stone like a diamond point.  Garcilaso gives further detail:

"The arms which these Indians carry are bow and arrow, and although it is true that they are skillful in the use of the other weapons which they have... they do not (ordinarily) use any other arms except the bow and arrow, because for those who carry them they are the greatest embellishment and ornament... For all these reasons, and because of the effectiveness of these arms which are superior to all others at both short and long range, in retreating or attacking, in fighting in battle or in the recreation of the chase, these Indians carry them, and these arms are much used throughout the New World.

"The bows are of the same height as he who carries them, and as the Indians of La Florida are generally of tall stature, their bows are more than two varas in length and thick in proportion. They make them of oak and of various other hard and very heavy woods which they have. They are so hard to bend that no Spaniard, however much he might try, was able to pull the cord back so that his hand touched his face, but the Indians through their long experience and skill drew back the cord with the greatest of ease to a point behind the ear and made such terrible and wonderful shots as we shall see presently.

"They make the cords of the bows from deerskin, taking a strip two finger-breadths in width from the hide, running from the tip of the tail to the head. After removing the hair they dampen and twist it tightly; one end they tie to the branch of a tree and from the other they hang a weight of four or five arrobas, and they leave it thus until it becomes about the thickness of the larger strings of a bass-viol. These cords are extremely strong. In order to shoot safely in such a manner that when the cord springs back it may not injure the left arm, they wear as a protection on the inner side a half-bracer, which covers them from the wrist to the part of the arm that is usually bled (sangradura). It is made of thick feathers and attached to the arm with a deerskin cord which they give seven or eight turns at the place where the cord springs back most strongly."

Swanton believed that Garcilaso exaggerated when he gave the following account of the force of Indian arrows:

"In one of the first skirmishes which the Spaniards had with the Indians of Appalachia the mae se de cam po Louis de Moscow received an arrow wound in the right side (the arrow) passing through a buckskin jacket and a coat of mail that he wore beneath it, which because it was so highly burnished had a cost a hundred and fifty ducats in Spain. The rich men had brought many of these, because they were very highly regarded. The arrow also passed through a quilted doublet and wounded him in such  a manner that, entering obliquely, it did not kill him. Amazed at such an unusual shot the Spaniards wished to see just what their highly burnished coats of mail upon which they depended so much could withstand. On arriving at the pueblo they set up in the plaza one of the baskets which the Indians make of reeds, resembling vintage-baskets, and having chosen the best coat of mail that they had they put it over the basket, which was very firmly woven. Taking off the chains of one of the Appalachia Indians they gave him a bow and an darrowarrow and ordered him to shoot at the coat of mail, which was fifty paces away.

"The Indian, having shaken his arms with his fists closed in order to call up his strength, shot the arrow, which passed through the coat of mail and the basket so clean and with such force that if a man had been on the other side it would have transfixed him also. Seeing the little or no protection that one coat of mail gave against an arrow, the Spaniards wished to see what two two wouldwould do. Thus they ordered another very fine one to be put on over the one on the basket, and giving the Indian another arrow they told him to shoot through both of them.

"The Indian, again shaking his arms as if he were gathering new strength, for the defense against him was now doubled, discharged the arrow. He struck the coats of mail and the basket through the center and the arrow passed through the four thicknesses of steel and lodged there, half-way through. When the Indian saw that it had not come out clean on the other side he showed great annoyance, and said to the Spaniards: 'Let me shoot another, and if it does not pass clear through both sides as the first one did, hang me here and now. The second arrow did not leave the bow as I wished it to and therefore did not pass through the coats of mail like the first one.'

"The Spaniards were unwilling the grant the Indian's request because they did not want their coats of mail further maltreated, and thenceforth they were undeceived with regard to the little defense that their much esteemed coats of mail afforded against arrows. Thus the owners themselves made fun of them, calling them linen from Flanders, and in place of them they made loose quilted jackets three or four finger breadths in thickness with long skirts which would cover the breasts and haunches of the horses. These jackets made from blankets would resist the arrows better than any other defensive armament, and the thick and unpolished coats of mail which were not much valued, with some other protection which they put under them, were a better defense against arrows than the very elegant and highly burnished ones."

At Coheir, Garcilaso described the arrows belonging to a certain chief:  "They were all made of reeds; some had heads made of the points of deers'deer antlers finished to extreme perfection with four corners like the points of a diamond; others had fish-bones for heads, marvelously fashioned for use as arrows. There were others with heads made of palm wood and of other strong and durable timber that grows in that country. These arrowheads had tow or three barbs as perfectly made in the wood, as if they had been of iron or steel."

In speaking of the armory at Thalamic (see previous section), Garcilaso further described the bows and arrows of the Southeast, though in this case they are obviously decorated for special use:

"For arrowheads they used points of wood, of the bones of land and sea animals, and of flint, as we told in connection with the Indian noble who killed himself. Besides these kinds of arrowheads made of copper, such as those which we put on darts in Spain, there were others with harpoons, also made of copper, and in the form of small chisels, lances, and Moorish darts, which looked as if they had been made in Ca stile. They noted also that the arrows with flint tips had different kinds of heads; some were in the form of a harpoon, others of small chisels, others were rounded like punch, and others had two edges like the tip of a dagger.

"The Spaniards examined all these curiously and wondered that they could fashion such things out of a material as resistant as flint, though in view of what Mexican history says about the broadswords and other arms which the Indians of that land made of flint, a part of this wonderment of ours will be lost. The bows were handsomely made and enameled in various colors, which they did with a certain cement that gives them such a luster that one can see himself in them... Not satisfied with this lustrous finish, they put on the bows many circles of ordinary pearls and seed pearls placed at intervals, these circles or rings beginning at the handles and going in order to the tips in such manner that the first circles were of large peals and made seven or eight turns, the second were of smaller pearls and had fewer turns, and thus they went on on decreasingdecreasing to the last ones, which were near the tips and were very small seed peals. The arrows also had circles of seed peals at intervals, but not of (the larger) peals, there being seed pearls

The use of pikes or lances in war is not mentioned until the army reached what is now western  Arkansas.  Swan ton suggests: "We are here approaching the Plains and along with the Plains evidences of bison hunting on a large scale in which lances were usefully employed. Garcilaso tells us several times that the Indians on and near the lower Mississippi were in the habit of putting the heads of their enemies on the heads of lances stuck up at the entrances of their temples, but these may have been on 'pickets' instead of 'lances' for the French a century and a half later found these Indians using pickets in this way."

In addition to the shields at the temple of Thalamic mentioned in the previous section, the expedition encountered cane shields again on the Mississippi River where the Indians who came out in two hundred or more canoes to dispute the army's passage all "had shields made of canes joined, so strong and so closely interwoven with much thread that a cross-bow could hardly pierce them." These are mentioned by both Biedma and Elvas.  It is later mentioned that "shields shields mademade of raw cowhide" were found at Pac aha.

According to Garcilaso, during one attack the Indians brought fire in earthen pots. They employed fire-arrows and he also describes "flambeaux" which they carried in their hands.  "These torches, which seemed to be of wax because they illuminated well, were made of a certain herb which grows in that country, which when it is twisted and lighted, preserves the fire like a wick, and shaken emits a very brilliant flame."  The use of smoke signals is reported as a means of long distance communication.

Garcilaso mentioned fortified towns in the Appalachia country of north Florida, but these seem to have been temporarily constructed to resist the Spaniards. He  says concerning the stronghold of the Appalachia chief:

"The Indians had fortified it in the following manner. In the middle of a very large and very dense forest they had cleared a space where the Curacy and his Indians had their lodgings.  As an entrance to this plaza they had opened through the same woods a narrow alley more than half a league in length. All along this alley at intervals of a hundred paces they had made strong palisades with thick logs which command the passage."

Further north, stockade towns are noted by Biedma and Ranjel.  They also appeared in what is now Alabama at what were apparently towns belonging to the Upper Creek Indians.  Ranjel described an old and abandoned town on or near the Alabama River that:  "had two fences and good towers, and these walls are after this fashion: They drive many thick stakes tall and straight close to one another.  These are then interlaced with long witches, and then overlaid with clay within and without. They make loopholes at intervals and they make their towers and turrets separated by the curtain and parts of the wall as seem best.  And at a distance it looks like a fine wall or rampart and such stockades are very strong."

The greatest losses suffered by the Spaniards occurred during a battle at the town called Mabila.  De Soto took the powerful chief Tascalusa from his own town.  When they reached the town of Mabila, ruled by one of Tascalusa's vassals, he asked de Soto to allow him to remain there.  When de Soto refused, Tascalusa warned him to leave the town, then withdrew to another room, and refused to talk further.  A lesser chief was asked to intercede, but he would not.  One of the Spaniards, according to Elvas, "seized him by the cloak of marten-skins that he had on, drew it off over his head, and left it in his hands; whereupon, the Indians all beginning to rise, he gave him a stroke with a cutlass, that laid open his back, when they, with loud yells, came out of the houses, discharging their bows.  

The town of Mabila was described by Garcilaso as:  "on a very fine plain and had an enclosure three estados (about 16.5 feet) high which was made of logs as thick as oxen. They were driven into the ground so close together that they touched one another. Other beams, longer and not so thick, were placed crosswise on the outside and inside and attached with split canes and strong cords.  On top they were daubed with a great deal of mud packed down with long straw, which mixture filled all the cracks and open spaces between the logs and their fastenings in such manner that it really looked like a wall finished with a mason's trowel. At intervals of fifty paces around this enclosure were towers capable of holding seven or eight men who could fight in them. The lower part of the enclosure, to 'the hight of an estado' (5.55 feet), was full of loopholes for shooting arrows at those on the outside.  The pueblo had only two gates, one on the east and the other on the west. In the middle of the pueblo was a spacious plaza around which were the largest and most important houses."

The Spaniards barely escaped from the well-fortified town. The Indians closed the gates and "beating their drums, they raised flags, with great shouting."  De Soto determined to attack the town and in the battle that followed, Elvas records: "The Indians fought with so great spirit that they many times drove our people back out of the town. The struggle lasted so long that many Christians, weary and very thirsty, went to drink at a pond near by, tinged with the blood of the killed, and returned to the combat."

De Soto had his men set fire to the town, then by Elvas account, "breaking in upon the Indians and beating them down, they fled out of the place, the cavalry and infantry driving them back through the  gates, where losing the hope of escape they fought valiantly; and the Christians getting among them with cutlasses, they found themselves met on all sides by their strokes, when many, dashing headlong into the flaming houses, were smothered, and, heaped one upon another, burned to death.

They who perished there were in all two thousand five hundred, a few more or less: of the Christians there fell two hundred... Of the living, one hundred and fifty Christians had received seven hundred wounds..."  Elvas noted later that four hundred hogs died in the conflagration.


As de Soto continued westward, they were often opposed by the Indians.  After spending the night in a small town called Alimamu by Elvas, an advance force found a staked fort where the Indians were awaiting them.  "Many were armed, walking upon it, with their bodies, legs, and arms painted and ochred, red, black, white, yellow, and vermilion in stripes, so that they appeared to have on stockings and doublet.  Some wore feathers, and others horns on the head, the face blackened, and the eyes encircled with vermilion, to heighten their fierce aspect.  So soon as they saw the Christians draw nigh they beat drums, and, with loud yells, in great fury came forth to meet them."  DeSoto's men retreated quickly from the enclosure, but later the full army attacked it.

Garcilaso gave a very elaborate account of an Alabama fort which Biedma thought was built to block the passage of the Spaniards:  "It was a square, with four equal curtains made of embedded logs, the curtain of each wall being four hundred paces long.  Inside this square were two other curtains of wood which crossed the fort from one wall to the other.  The front curtain had three small doors, so low that a mounted man could not go through them... In line with these three doors there were three others in each curtain, so that if the Spaniards should take the first ones, the Indians could defend themselves at those of the second curtain, and of the third and the fourth.

The doors of the last curtain opened on a river which passed behind the fort. Though narrow, this river was very deep and had such steep banks that one could go up and down them only with difficulty on foot, and not at all on horseback. This was the intention of the Indians, to make a fort in which they could be sure that the Castillians would not attack them with the horses by entering through the doors or by crossing the river, but would fight on foot like themselves, for as we have said already on other occasions they had no fear whatever of the infantry, as it seemed to them that they were equal or even superior to them. They had bridges over the river made of wood, but so shaky and ruinous that they could hardly pass over them. There were no doors at all on the sides of the fort."

At a place called Piachi in what is now Alabama, De Soto was told that the Indians had no canoes, but they were furnished rafts of cane and dry wood with which to cross a river. Use of canoes in warfare was mentioned on the Mississippi River where over two hundred canoes blocked the army's passage.  Garcilaso says, "the boats of the fleet were painted within and without, yellow, blue, white, green, red, or some other color, according to the fancy of him to whom the vessel belonged."

Elvas described how De Soto and his men watched from the river bank as a cacique (Great Chief) named Aquixo arrived with two hundred canoes filled with armed men: "They were painted with ochre, wearing great bunches of white and other plumes of many colours, having feathered shields in their hands, with which they sheltered the oarsmen on either side, the warriors standing erect from bow to stern, holding bows and arrows.  The barge in which the Cacique came had an awning at the poop, under which he sat; and the like had the barges of their chiefs: and there, from under the canopy, where the chief man was, the course was directed and orders issued to the rest..."  

They brought a great quantity of fish, and "loaves like bricks, made of the pulp of ameixas," but Elvas believed this was a pretext to discover if they could attack. "Finding the Governor and his people on their guard, the Cacique began to draw off from the shore, when the crossbow-men, who were in readiness, with loud cries shot at the Indians, and struck down five or six of them.  They retired with great order, not one leaving the oar, even though the one next to him might have fallen, and covering themselves, they withdrew.  

Afterward they came many times and landed: when approached, they would go back to their barges.  They were fine-looking men, very large and well formed; and what with the awnings, the plumes, and the shields, the pennons, and the number of people in the fleet, it appeared like a famous armada of galleys."  

At Pacaha in Arkansas there was both a moat and a palisade.  The inhabitants retreated before the Spaniards to a fortified island in the Mississippi where there was a triple palisade.  Attacks were sometimes accompanied by the playing of drums and "trumpet," probably made of conch shells.  The playing of "flutes" (flageolets?) were "their sign by which they make known that they come in peace."  As the expedition neared its conclusion, such signs of peace became ever less frequent.  

After finding no passage to the west, the survivors returned to the Mississippi River. The expedition ended in tragedy for de Soto who died and was quietly buried in the great river.  Over the winter, expedition members built several small boats.  After setting off down the river, they were harassed for over a week by a fleet of forty or fifty canoes. Finally, they reached the Gulf of Mexico where they fended off an attack by people who used spear-throwers (atlatls) to hurl six-foot javelins.  About three hundred survivors eventually reached Mexico.



Many encounters along the expeditions route were marked by violence, even when its members were treated with courtesy and consideration by the natives.  The "Lady of Cofitachique," for instance, was taken prisoner and forced to accompany the expedition.  The Gentleman of Elvas wrote: "...the Governor (De Soto) ordered that she should be placed under guard, and took her with him.  This treatment, which was not a proper return for the hospitable welcome he had received, makes true the adage, For well doing...; and thus was she carried away on foot, with her female servants."  She managed to escape after a few days and, hopefully, returned to her people.  Scores of other people were not so fortunate.

In the expedition's aftermath, many Southeastern towns were left with little, if any, food.  Old World diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, decimated their populations.   Contact with a foreign culture caused social disruption which altered the Indians' way of live forever.  Narratives written by survivors of  De Soto's entrada  are the earliest precious snapshots of  Southeastern Indian culture.
                                                                                                                                                       Text by Sylvia Flowers

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