Portrait of a Conquistador: It Wasn't Pretty

Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas

By David Ewing Duncan

Crown Publishers

570 pp., $40

Hernando de Soto and his ilk were lionized for centuries after their exploits. Drawing on documents from de Soto's own times and filling in with well-informed, scholarly speculation, David Ewing Duncan in "Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas," gives a more rounded picture.

As Duncan points out, primarily the positive side of de Soto's life was remembered. The author seeks to correct this paradox. The most lasting impression of the life he sketches, inevitably, is of an all-consuming, dehumanizing lust for riches - one of history's darker chapters.

To give the conquistadors their due, they had peerless courage and determination. With an audacity bordering on foolishness, they braved incredible odds and brought down Indian empires that had developed over centuries.

As Duncan makes clear in this chronicle of one of the most successful of the breed, the marauding Spaniards had certain advantages. They had armor, which made Indian arrows and wooden lances effective only when meticulously aimed. They had steel blades and other weaponry for mowing down the foe. They had horses. But most of all, perhaps, they had surprise and a single-minded ruthlessness that rarely failed to overwhelm the shocked and unsure native forces.

Thus de Soto and his cohorts were able, time and again, to rout much larger, and often highly disciplined, Indian armies. Duncan traces these gory adventures from Central America, where de Soto marched out on his earliest entradas; to the conquest of Peru, where he and Francisco Pizarro humbled the mighty Incas and became fabulously wealthy; to his last great foray into the uncharted New World, the invasion of Florida.

"Florida," in the mid 16th century, included virtually the whole of the southern United States. De Soto (whom Duncan refers to as "Soto" throughout the book) landed on the west coast of the Florida peninsula proper and drove inland. His motive there, as everywhere, was treasure. North America was a continent made irresistible by rumored cities of gold. The few Spaniards who had wandered its vastness, the human flotsam from shipwrecks and ill-fated earlier expeditions, perpetuated and enhanced these myths, as did Indians, who often tantalized de Soto and others with reports of wealthy towns and much "yellow metal" farther to the north or west. The Indians, of course, were usually just trying to get the vexing strangers out of their own neighborhoods.

In Florida, de Soto's record of hitting the jackpot came to an end. The "Governor," as he was then called, having been granted the highest post in Cuba, began his conquest with a force of some 600 soldiers, aides, and porters. About half that many straggled onto the shores of Mexico three or four years later.

They had endured dozens of battles with Indians, freezing winters, near starvation (the Spaniards' primary means of gathering provisions was stealing the food stored up by any tribe they happened upon), and the death of their relentless leader, whose spirit and health finally ebbed as the ragged army made yet another winter camp on the shores of the Mississippi River.

No gold was to be had in North America, at least not by those who wanted it in easily plundered form. De Soto was forced to face the terrible reality of failure.

Meanwhile, he had destroyed yet another advanced Indian culture, the Mississippian civilization that once thrived throughout the South. It was a civilization that may have been teetering anyway, Duncan explains.

Some of the cities in the region, notable for their great mounds which elevated royal houses and places of worship, had already been decimated by tribal fighting and disease. But de Soto hastened the process, causing populations to flee, disrupting food distribution, abducting rulers, rounding up slave labor, and, of course, freely wielding the sword. The Indians often fought. One aggressive and physically imposing chief, Tascalusa, turned the tables on the Spaniards, luring them into a trap and attacking a greatly outnumbered advance party, including de Soto himself. It was a short-lived triumph.

When the conquistadors finally regrouped, they again prevailed. The Spaniards lost 20 or so men and a few dozen horses; the Mississippian dead were in the hundreds, if not thousands. Tascalusa and his kingdom virtually vanished from the earth. But de Soto's army had received a wound it never fully recovered from.

One can't read this account of de Soto's life without wondering, again, at the curious, jumbled mosaic of human nature. Duncan observes, "[De Soto] was a colossal paradox of a man in an age of contradictions: grim and engaging, fascinating and contemptible, pious and hypocritical, prudent and reckless, at once enterprising, destructive, arrogant, bold, and savage."

*Keith Henderson is a Monitor editorial writer.

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