Hernando de Soto (1500?-1542?), Spanish explorer who explored much of the state of Florida. De Soto was born in Barcarrota, Spain. In 1514 he went to Darien, in present-day Panama, as an aide to the governor, and between 1519 and 1530, he explored Central America.
In 1530 he joined another adventurer, Francisco Pizarro, in the conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru. He was the first European to meet the ruler, Inca Atahualpa, whom Pizarro had imprisoned and then executed. De Soto deplored Pizarro’s cruelty but still accepted his share of the Inca treasure. He returned to Spain in 1536 with a fortune in gold.
In 1537 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also king of Spain, named de Soto governor of Cuba and Florida. This was a meaningless title unless de Soto could colonize part of the largely unknown land of Florida. He had authority to explore and conquer it for Spain. He expected it to be rich in gold and other minerals, perhaps as rich as Peru.
In May 1539 de Soto sailed from Havana, Cuba, for Florida with a force of about 600. They landed near Tampa Bay and marched north along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. For four years, de Soto and his soldiers explored some 906,000 sq km (350,000 sq mi) in what is now the southeastern United States of America. They went as far west as Texas and as far north as the northern boundary of Arkansas. In May 1541 they became the first Europeans to see the Mississippi River, probably near the site of Memphis, Tennessee.
De Soto made enemies of the indigenous people by seizing grain, burning villages, and enslaving villagers. The cost was high, as many of de Soto’s soldiers were lost in battles and ambushes. The army spent the winter of 1541 to 1542 near the junction of the Canadian and Arkansas rivers in Oklahoma. In the spring they returned to the Mississippi, where de Soto died of a fever on May 21. His aide, Luis de Moscoso, sank de Soto’s body in the river to keep his death a secret. Moscoso did not want the local people to find out that de Soto was not immortal, as he had claimed to be. He may also have been afraid of retaliation by the townspeople of nearby Anilco, where de Soto had ordered a massacre from his deathbed.
Moscoso and his soldiers built barges and sailed down the river to the Gulf of Mexico, then southwest along the coast until they reached Pánuco, Mexico, in September 1543. Only about half of the expedition survived. They had found no gold or treasure except a chest of poor-quality pearls, and even that they lost. They left behind them many dead comrades and some deserters. More important, they left behind European diseases that were new to the western hemisphere and killed many of the indigenous people, who lacked resistance to them.
The De Soto National Memorial, established in 1948 near Saint Petersburg, commemorates the explorer’s landing in Florida.