By KENNETH BRIDGES | For The Arkadelphian
Hernando de Soto was a veteran explorer of the New World by 1539. Based on his fortune, influence with the King of Spain, and his past successes in South America, he had amassed an army of 600 men all determined to claim gold and glory on his latest expedition. Sailing to Florida from Cuba in May 1539, de Soto and his men embarked on a fateful, three-year journey that would take them to Arkansas.
The conquistadors landed in the Tampa Bay region of western Florida near the landing site of the disastrous Panfilo de Narvaez expedition of 1528. They traveled northward through Florida and into Georgia and eventually into North Carolina, trading with tribes along the way. As they pushed deeper into what would become the American Southeast, conflict with local tribes escalated and many bitter battles ensued.
After crossing into Tennessee, de Soto and his men were increasingly frustrated by their inability to find anything of value. On June 28, 1541, his party crossed the Mississippi River near what is now Memphis, becoming the first Europeans in Arkansas.
He first encountered the community of Casqui at the Parkin Site in Cross County. De Soto, however, decided to portray himself as a god to the tribe, claiming he was the “son of the Sun” and demanded the tribe erect a cross and provide provisions. Being told there was gold elsewhere, the Spaniards quickly left and began raiding nearby communities, ransacking them for anything of value. Finding none, they moved on. Raids became increasingly violent, with torture and death filling their frenzied quest for gold.
They would spend most of the next year traveling as far north as Batesville and then along the Arkansas River, before turning west again and reaching Caddo Gap in Montgomery County before turning toward Hot Springs.
In 1542, they traveled southeast down the Ouachita River near the present-day communities of Arkadelphia, Camden, Champagnolle, and Calion before briefly traveling into Louisiana. Increasingly, angry local tribes attacked de Soto’s men in hit-and-run raids.
De Soto had gambled everything on this venture – his money, reputation, property, and power – and it was all slipping away. He was fighting a losing war across Arkansas, and he could no longer even be sure of his own survival. His obsession had driven him to ruin. His health failing, he tried his “son of the Sun” appeal again to a local chief, Quigualtam, demanding provisions. The clever chief instead demanded de Soto show his power by drying up the Mississippi River, humiliating him.
Hernando de Soto died shortly after one last battle from an unidentified fever. Archaeologists believe that de Soto died near what is now Lake Village on May 31, 1542. Fearful that the body would be desecrated, his fellow conquistadors buried the body in the Mississippi River.
The survivors, trapped and lost, spent the next year desperately looking for an escape. Traveling as far west as Texas, the men returned to the Mississippi River, fashioned a few crude boats, and sailed south to the Gulf of Mexico. By the time these tattered few returned to the safety of Spanish territory, only half of the original group of 600 was left alive.
While the Spanish had laid claim to Arkansas through the expedition, they were so discouraged by the disaster that they never sent another expedition. The tribes in Arkansas were so devastated by de Soto and the continuing droughts that the next group of Europeans to even venture into area, a party of French explorers in 1673, found an entirely different population of tribes than what the Spanish had encountered a century before.
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