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Ponce De Leon and [Hernando] De Soto

Highways and Byways of Florida


Among the sturdy New World explorers of the sixteenth century was Ponce De Leon, who, as a companion of Columbus on his second voyage to the Western Hemisphere, proved himself to be a brave and gallant officer. Most of his time for many years afterward was spent in the New World, exploring, seeking gold, governing provinces, and parleying with the Indians, or fighting them. By the time he was fifty he had amassed wealth enough to make him independent, and he returned to Spain.

At length this bold mariner felt the infirmities of age and the shadows of the decline of life hanging over him, and he willingly credited the tale that in the mysterious land beyond the sea there existed a spring whose waters could efface the marks of time and confer immortal youth on whoever bathed in it. The spring was said to be in a region which abounded in gold and all manner of desirable things. A considerable number of Cuban Indians had gone north from their island in search of this delectable country and its magic spring. They had never returned. No doubt they had succeeded in their quest, and had preferred to remain in their rejuvenated state to enjoy the felicities of that land.

So the gallant cavalier, Ponce De Leon, sailed from Spain to Porto Rico, where he fitted out three vessels and embarked in them to seek the fountain of youth. March 27, 1513, he came within sight of Florida, and after hovering along the coast for a fortnight he went on shore a little south of the mouth of the St. Johns River. There a cross was planted, the royal banner was thrown to the breeze, and he took possession of the country for the Spanish crown. He called it Terra de Pascua Florida, Land of Easter Flowers. The name is supposed to refer in part to the time of his discovery, and in part to the abounding spring flowers that he saw and scented.

For a month and a half after landing, Ponce De Leon engaged in an earnest search for the magic fountain. There are a score of springs in Florida which, might impress an ignorant or credulous observer with the idea of supernatural virtues. But none of the springs in which the gallant cavalier bathed served his purpose, and he finally sailed away without having grown either younger or handsomer. However, though he failed to find the fountain of youth, he gave Florida its name and perpetuated his own by his romantic quest.

In the year 1521 Ponce De Leon again voyaged to Florida. His fancy had been stirred by the brilliant exploits of [Hernando] Cortes in Mexico, and it seemed to him not unlikely that Florida might contain vast unknown regions of marvelous wealth in its bosom which would yield their discoverer fame and riches. About four hundred men accompanied him in two ships, and he carried along a number of sheep, cattle, and horses. He wanted to learn whether Florida was an island, as he was inclined to believe, and he planned to establish a settlement. It is probable that he explored the west coast northward, and that stops were made at various places. But no sooner did he and his men begin to build habitations than they were assailed by the Indians with remarkable valor. Several of the Spaniards were slain, and Ponce De Leon was wounded in the thigh by a flint arrow. He was borne on board his ship, and the two vessels sailed to Cuba, where he died soon afterward. His body was carried to Porto Rico and entombed in one of the churches of the city of San Juan. The epitaph inscribed on his tomb was to the purport that "In this sepulcher rest the bones of a man who was a lion by name and still more by nature."

In 1539 the conquest of the Florida peninsula was attempted by [Hernando] De Soto, who had taken a leading part with Pizarro in conquering Peru. He went to Peru a needy adventurer, but his exploits had made him famous and rich. When it was known that he was to engage in this Florida enterprise, cavaliers, soldiers, peasants, and artisans hastened to volunteer their services. Many sold or mortgaged their estates to buy an interest in the expedition. Some had seen with their own eyes the shiploads of gold and silver that had been brought from the New World, and no one seemed to doubt that success was assured. The seven large ships and three caravels that presently sailed away toward the setting sun made the finest fleet that ever left Spain to cross the Atlantic.

De Soto went first to Cuba, where he added two more ships to his squadron, then turned northward, and on the 25th day of June sailed into Tampa Bay and dropped anchor. He had with him six hundred and twenty men, gallant and well equipped, eager in purpose, and audacious in hope. De Soto declared that the enterprise was undertaken for God alone. Certainly this devout marauder did not neglect the spiritual welfare of the Indians whom he had come to plunder; for besides fetters to bind them and bloodhounds to hunt them, he brought priests and monks to save their souls.

After several days spent in exploring the waterways of the vicinity three hundred soldiers landed and raised the Spanish flag and royal arms on the beach. At nightfall, when supper had been eaten, the soldiers stretched themselves on the ground around the standard of their king and slept. But just before the gray hour of dawn there burst from the silent black forest a tumult of cries and yells, leaping savage forms, and a flight of arrows. The Spaniards, overwhelmed and confused, ran in helpless terror down the beach and out into the water, whence their trumpets sent clamorous calls to the ships for aid. Barges quickly brought reinforcements, and the savages were driven back into the forest.

The Indians made no further demonstration, and a few days later the Spaniards marched ten miles to a deserted native village on the site of the present city of Tampa. The village consisted of a single row of low wooden cabins, thatched with palmetto. On a mound at one end was the cabin of the chief, and opposite, on another mound, was a temple bearing the wooden effigy of a fowl. De Soto with his staff took possession of the chief's cabin, the officers established themselves in the other cabins, and the soldiers tore down the temple and combined the fragments with brush to make rude shelters for themselves. The ground was cleared of trees and shrubbery for the distance of a crossbow shot on every side, sentinels were posted, and horsemen were ordered to make regular rounds.

Scouting squads captured a few straggling natives to serve the expedition for guides, but the captives were of little use without interpreters. Gradually, however, De Soto managed to understand from them that he was in the village of their chief, Hirrihigua, and that they had all taken refuge in the forest at the approach of the Spaniards. The captives were sent to the chief with friendly messages and presents, but he railed at them for bringing him fair words and gifts from Christians. He told them to bring him the Spaniards' heads instead.

De Soto learned from his captives that the chief's enmity had its origin ten years back when a Spanish expedition led by Panfilo de Narvaez landed there. The relations of the strangers and the natives were at first friendly, but trouble soon developed because of the Spaniards' arrogance and treachery. The chief was seized, and vilely mutilated by cutting off his nose, and his old mother was thrown to the dogs and devoured by them before his eyes. A few years later a Spanish ship had sailed into the bay seeking tidings of Narvaez and his men, who had marched into the Florida forests and had not been heard from since. Hirrihigua divined the purpose of the voyagers, and he indicated by signs that Narvaez had left papers there to be given to Christians who would come for them. In proof, old letters found in the Spanish camp, were tied to sticks and held up on the beach. The ship's people were suspicious and feared to trust themselves on shore. Then Hirrihigua sent four of his warriors to remain on the vessel as hostages, whereupon four Spaniards paddled to land in the Indians' canoe. But it had barely touched ground when the four warriors sprang from the ship into the water, and swam away like fish. The four white men were dragged off in triumph to the forest. Three were tortured and killed, but the fourth was still dwelling among the savages.

Two detachments of cavalry and crossbowmen were at once sent by De Soto in different directions with orders to spend a week, if necessary, searching for the captive Spaniard. The route of one of these lay through bogs and swamps where the horses traveled with difficulty, but where the Indians moved about freely. A soldier said of the savages: "Warlike and nimble, when we charge they run away; and as soon as we turn our backs they are at us again. They never keep still, but are always running about, so that no crossbow nor arquebuse can be aimed at them, and before a man of us makes one shot they make six." This detachment returned at the end of its time bringing one man mortally wounded, and several others with minor hurts, and nothing gained except four frightened squaw captives.

The other detachment started out briskly with an Indian to guide it. But after a time he became uncertain in his conduct and led the troop aimlessly through the forest from one bypath to another. At length the Spaniards discovered his treachery. They arrived where the woods were thin enough to allow a distant view, and saw the masts of the ships in the bay. Then they knew that they had been traveling in a circle, and they scared the Indian into guiding them aright. Not long afterward they turned into an open plain and encountered face to face a small band of savages. The troopers, all eagerness to fight, spurred forward at full speed, with lances set, and the Indians darted into the leafy covers of the forest. Only two of the fugitives were overtaken. One was wounded and captured. The other turned, warded off with his bow the lance thrust at him, made the sign of the cross in the air, and shouted to his pursuers in Spanish. He was Juan Ortiz, the man whom they were seeking, and they returned to camp with him.

Juan's three comrades had been killed shortly after their capture at a great tribal feast in Hirrihigua's village. He, then a boy of eighteen, was spared at the request of the chief's wife and daughters—spared to labor as a slave fetching wood and water, scantily fed, and constantly buffeted and cudgeled. On every feast day he furnished amusement for the people by being chased, and pelted with blunt arrows from sunrise to sunset. At the day's end, when he lay panting and exhausted on the ground, the chief's wife and daughters would bring him food and speak soft words to him.

Once Hirrihigua attempted to burn him alive, and would have succeeded but for the timely intervention of the lad's friends in the chief's family. After that he was set to guard the burial-place of the village. This was a lonely open field in the depths of the forest. The bodies were laid in wooden boxes resting flat on the ground. Beasts of prey would come prowling among the boxes at night, and sometimes contrived to force one open and carry off a corpse. Hirrihigua armed Juan with four darts and told him that if he allowed a body to be carried off, death should be his punishment.

For a time Juan got along very well, but at last he went to sleep one night just before dawn. The noise of a falling box cover awoke him, and he hurried to the burial chests. The body of a child brought there two days before was gone. Juan listened and heard a noise in the woods like the crunching of bones. He crept softly in that direction till he came to a clump of bushes. Beyond these he dimly perceived the figure of a crouching animal. "May God help me!" he muttered, and threw one of his darts with all his strength.

The animal neither moved nor uttered a sound, and when daylight came he saw that his missile had pierced its heart, and it lay there dead. He took up the body of the child and ran back to the burial-place, where he restored it to its box. Then he grasped the brute by one of its feet and dragged it to the village. The Indians praised him for what he had done, and Hirrihigua gave him other employment. For a time things went better, but the chief's old malice returned, and at last Hirrihigua's eldest daughter smuggled Juan away to the protection of a young neighboring chief who wanted her to be his wife.

He was still with this chief when news came that a strong Spanish force had established itself in Hirrihigua's village. Juan, with an escort of warriors, was dispatched thither to tell the Christian commander how kindly he had been treated by the young chief, and to beg in return that the chief and his people should not be harmed. It was while Juan was on this errand that he met the Spaniards.

After reaching the camp of his countrymen and telling his story, De Soto gave him a doublet and hose of fine black velvet, and other clothing, but from long habit of having no covering except a cloth around his waist, it was several weeks before he could bear anything more on his skin than the loosest linen garment.

The fleet had been unloaded, and the nine ships sent back to Havana. Pedro Calderon was now appointed commander of a small garrison to be left in charge of the village and the three caravels. The rest of the force marched away inland, startling the ancient forest with clangor of trumpets, the neighing of horses, the fluttering of pennons, and the glittering of helmets and lances. Presently they entered the territory of Urrebarricuxi, but he kept in hiding and would not be tempted out either for peace or war.

Farther on they pushed through a swamp that they were two days in crossing, and the scouts reported another swamp ahead that made the crossing of the one just passed seem like child's play. The vast region of this "mother swamp," as they called it, was so miry as to be impassable. De Soto himself went forth scouting with a troop of horsemen looking for an opening, or a footpath used by the Indians. No footpath was found, though the Indians infested the region like mosquitoes. Again and again they swarmed forth with sudden fury, shot a volley of arrows, and disappeared. However, the arrows did little harm to the armor-protected horsemen. A few captives were taken and forced to act as guides, but they led their captors astray. De Soto had four of them thrown to the dogs, several of which were taken along on every reconnoissance. The dogs' appetites were kept keen by starvation, and they soon made an end of the four Indians. A fifth, in dread of a like fate, offered to guide the whites faithfully, and he led them around the swamp.

The next country to which they came was that of the chief Acuera. As soon as some captives had been secured, they were sent with greetings and presents to their chief. He was invited to meet the Spaniards in peace and friendship. But Acuera responded that from other Spaniards in years gone by he had become well aware what manner of folk they were. They went wandering round like vagabonds from country to country, robbing people who had done them no harm whatever. With such persons he wished no kind of peace and friendship, but never-ending war. He would fight them as long as they remained in his land, and he warned them that he had ordered his people to bring him two Christian heads each week.

The chief proved to be a man of his word. During the twenty days that the invaders lingered in his territory he assailed them unceasingly, and his people brought him more than twice the quota of heads he had requested. A Spaniard could not wander a hundred yards from camp, unarmed, without being spitted by an arrow, and his comrades were rarely so quick to the rescue but that they found a headless corpse awaiting them.

The captive Indians spoke of a province called Ocali, farther along to the northeast, where the people wore ornaments of gold. This decided De Soto to direct his march thither, but he found only little groups of deserted cabins, and storehouses well filled with corn and pumpkins, dried plums and grapes, and nuts. He saw no evidence of gold. Before leaving Ocali he captured thirty Indians for slaves.

The country beyond was ruled by three brothers; five-tenths by the eldest, three-tenths by the second, and two-tenths by the youngest. One morning before daylight De Soto surprised and captured the youngest brother's village with the chief and all his warriors in it. However, only the young chief was retained a prisoner. The rest were liberated. The captive was flattered and treated with honor, and by this means was persuaded to send messages to his brothers advising their submission to the invaders. The second brother promptly came in state escorted by his best warriors and made peace with the Spaniards. But the eldest brother declared that if the white men entered his territory he would roast half of them, and boil alive the other half. Every day two of his heralds would approach the camp, sounding their horns, and proclaiming defiance with great bravado. His brothers finally came and made a personal appeal to him. Then he pretended to be won by their persuasion, the Spaniards were invited to march into his domain, and he made ready for a grand reception and for a grand massacre afterward.

The strangers were entertained in the chief's village, where a great store of food was provided for them and their horses. There were two hundred well-built cabins in the place, and a fringe of smaller and poorer ones on the outskirts. De Soto and his staff were lodged in the chief's big cabin. The chief planned to slaughter his visitors at the end of three days of feasting, but his purpose was betrayed to Juan Ortiz by one of the native interpreters. His warriors were to assemble on a nearby plain with their weapons hidden in the grass at their feet, and the Spaniards were to be invited to see what a fine troop they made. When the proper moment came, the chief was to give a signal, and they were to destroy the strangers.

De Soto learned of this scheme through Juan Ortiz, and he went to the plain with his men in battle array prepared to attack first. He led a charge of his horsemen on the Indian squadrons. The Spaniards trampled and overthrew the savages, and slew them with their swords right and left. It was armor against naked skins, steel blades against bows and arrows. Many Indians were slain, and hundreds were captured, including the chief. His warriors were compelled to do the camp drudgery as slaves, but he was treated more like a guest. Even yet he fancied that a final triumph was possible, and he sent secret word to his warrior slaves that at noon on a certain day each was to be ready to kill the master to whom he had been allotted. He would give a war whoop as a signal for action, and he promised it would be loud enough to be heard from one end of the village to the other.

The appointed day came, and just after the midday meal the chief suddenly seized De Soto by the collar with his left hand, and dealt him such a blow in the face with his right fist as knocked him senseless. The chief flung him down, jumped on him with both feet, and shouted the war whoop. It was his last call. Ten or twelve Spanish officers were close at hand. They drew their swords and plunged them into his body, and he fell dead on the unconcious De Soto. The entire camp was in commotion, for every Indian had rushed on his master with whatever utensil or missile he could lay hold of. Several whites were killed and many were bruised and maimed; but after the first moment of surprise the Spaniards caught up their weapons, and they ceased not to use them until not one unbound Indian was left alive. Then those who were in chains were brought into the public square where platoons of halberdiers slew them.

This was done by DeSoto's order. He had soon recovered from his swoon, but for twenty days his swollen face was kept in plasters and bandages. Meanwhile the Spaniards had resumed their march. They advanced seventy-five miles through a perfect hornet's nest of assailing Indians to the village of the next province. Maddened by the attacks, the Spaniards chased the Indians like wild hogs, stuck their lances through them, and took no prisoners. Now that they were at the village, which, as usual, was deserted, they ambushed some natives to replace the slaves they had lost in the last village. These were taken along with iron collars about their necks, and to the collars were attached chains that at the other end were fastened to the belts of the troopers. It was a matter of complaint that sometimes, when in the forest, getting wood, the slaves killed their troopers and ran away with their chains; or that at night they broke their chains with stones and so escaped.

At last the expedition came to a swamp so vast that the Spanish ever afterward called it simply the "Great Swamp." Only one narrow opening could be discovered, and the Spaniards followed its winding course that would admit no more than two men abreast. Often they had to wade, and much of the way they had to fight the natives; but they persisted till the last stretch of jungle was passed. They were now in open woodland. Here the Indians had blocked the path with felled trees and with vines tied across the trail. However, the adventurers finally reached the cultivated lands of Apalachee, which were famed throughout Florida for their fertility, and a few days more of marching brought them to the chief village of the country. This is believed to have been in the neighborhood of Tallahassee. There they spent the winter.

A troop which was sent south to seek the sea came out on the shore of the spacious bay of Apalachee and retraced its way to camp to report. Then De Soto dispatched thirty cavaliers to make the one hundred and fifty league journey to Hirrihigua's village and order Calderon's garrison to join him. They departed several hours before daybreak on the 20th of October, lightly equipped with helmets and coats of mail, and each carrying a lance and a small wallet of food. They proposed to travel rapidly and to kill every Indian they met, so no alarm would get ahead of them that would result in their being ambushed.

The first day they went thirty-three miles and killed two Indians. Some days they made as much as fifty miles. They suffered from cold, they had to cross swollen streams, partly by swimming, partly on rude rafts they made, and there were many narrow escapes from the Indians. One of the men sickened and died in his saddle, and his comrades dug a grave with their hatchets and buried him. That night in camp another man died with the same mysterious suddenness. The others fell on their knees and prayed for the dead; but no one would touch the body, for all persisted that the man had died of the plague.

At the end of the twelth day they reached the headquarters of Calderon. One of the caravels was sent to Havana, where DeSoto's wife was staying, to carry her a report of the expedition and a present of slaves. The cavaliers sailed in the other two caravels for the Bay of Apalachee, while the garrison made the march by land. Late in December the caravels arrived in the bay, and within a week Calderon's force marched into DeSoto's camp after daily skirmishing with the Indians on all the hard journey. The caravels later voyaged along the coast and discovered the harbor of Pensacola, and soon afterward sailed to Cuba.

The Spaniards in their winter camp could scarcely venture outside the village without danger of death or wounds, and De Soto determined to put an end to the warfare by getting the Apalachee chief into his power. He learned that this chief had hidden in the center of an extensive forest amid the canebrakes of a swamp about twenty-five miles distant. De Soto, with a company of men, some mounted and some on foot, assailed this forest stronghold. There was a short fierce battle, and then the chief surrendered. The Spaniards gazed in wonder at him. He was too fat to walk. He could not even stand upright on his feet. In public he was carried. In private he crawled about on his hands and knees.

The Spanish commander received him affably and returned with him to camp, but, contrary to DeSoto's expectations, the Indians became more persistent than ever in their ambushes. The chief said this was because his people suspected that he was being badly treated, and he begged to be sent to them as a messenger of peace.

This plan was accepted, and a company of cavalry and one of infantry were detailed to go with the chief. They traveled all day far into the forest to a spot the chief selected. There he began to shout and call, and soon ten or twelve warriors stood before him to receive his commands. He ordered them to have all the Indians in the forest gather there on the morrow. Darkness closed in over the forest, and after sentinels had been posted, the rest of the tired Spaniards betook themselves to sleep, well satisfied that on the next day they would return triumphantly to camp escorting the whole of the chief's tribe in docile submission. But when daylight came they found that the chief had disappeared. Evidently the sentinels had failed to keep awake, and he had crawled away to his lurking warriors, who had hoisted him on their shoulders and borne him beyond the reach of his enemies. The Spaniards beat the forest in vain in search of him and went back to De Soto ashamed and discomfited.

The Indian prowlers continued to haunt the woodland roundabout the camp. They showed wonderful dexterity in the use of bow and arrow, though this was but natural considering their training. According to the Spaniards, Indian babies of three years or less, as soon as they could stand on their feet, were given tiny bows and arrows, with which they hunted the beetles and other insects crawling round their cabins. They would watch for hours before the hole of a mouse or a lizard, waiting to shoot the creature when it came forth. If there was no larger game available, they sped their arrows at the flies on the cabin walls.

In March, De Soto and his dwindling force journeyed northeasterly from Apalachee. They were soon beyond the confines of what is now Florida, and we will not follow them farther in their strange and tragic adventures.

Excerpt from "Ponce De Leon and [Hernando] De Soto" Highways and Byways of Florida, 1918.


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