3 June 1539

Hernando de Soto claims Florida for Spain.

In 1537 de Soto appealed to the King of Spain to be granted control of the New World territorial province that stretched from Rio de Las Palmas in South America to Florida. De Soto won his claim and was also granted the governorship of Cuba. However, his appointment stipulated that, within a year, he had to personally re-conquer and occupy Spanish Florida at his own expense. Previous ventures to South America with Pizarro had earned de Soto tremendous wealth and prestige; as a result, he found several willing financial partners for the venture, some of who accompanied de Soto on the actual voyage. He assembled and armada of 10 ships and 600 men. In April of 1538 his fleet departed from the port of San Lucar, Spain, for the shores of the New World. He landed in Cuba, remaining on the island for a few months to gather supplies, rest his men, and plan his expedition in Florida.

De Soto landed in Florida in May of 1539 and claimed formal possession of the land on June 3 despite ongoing hostility between his men and some of the neighboring Indian tribes. Welcomed by one local Native American chief, de Soto and his crew wintered in the village of Apalache before beginning their expedition. De Soto supposed that great indigenous civilizations, like those he encountered on voyages to South America, lay in the region’s interior. Determined to garner further plunder for both his own interests and for the Spanish court, de Soto and his men headed northward through present-day Georgia. Once reaching the Piedmont, or the Appalachian foothills, de Soto turned his forces westward, exploring the Carolinas and Tennessee. Though he located the Tennessee River, de Soto had failed to find the material wealth and plunder after which he sought.

Disappointed and weary, in 1540 de Soto attempted to head south to Mobile Bay in Alabama to rendezvous with his ships. Two hundred miles south of the Tennessee River, de Soto and his men encountered a warrior band led by Chief Tuscaloosa. The Native American forces were ill equipped to fight the Spaniards, and the ensuring battle proved disastrous for Tuscaloosa’s men. The clash was perhaps the bloodiest single encounter between Native Americans and whites in American history. Crippled by the encounter with Tuscaloosa and running short on supplies, de Soto continued to head south, believing that he would not meet with further resistance. A few miles from the headwaters of Mobile Bay, however, the indigenous peoples at Mauvilia confronted de Soto’s men. The local Native Americans were decimated, and the Spanish forces were weakened severely. Losing most of his men, supplies, and plunder, de Soto rashly decided to extend his expedition and recoup his losses instead of immediately returning to Spain.

After regrouping with some of his fleet and resting for a month, de Soto again pushed northward—though this time the decision would prove fatal. His expedition was plagued by Indian attacks as they made their way through western Alabama and Mississippi. On May 21, 1541, de Soto became the first European to sight the Mississippi River. He encountered the river south of Memphis, Tennessee, and instead of following the river and charting its path to the Gulf of Mexico, de Soto crossed the river into Arkansas in search of more wealth. The expedition was fruitless and de Soto lost more of his already diminished crew to fatigue and disease. Resolved to finally reunite with his fleet and return to Spain, de Soto decided to turn back and follow the Mississippi River southward. De Soto fell ill, most likely with Yellow Fever, and died in Louisiana on May 21, 1542, exactly one year after first sighting the Mississippi River.

The surviving members of de Soto’s crew endured perhaps the most trying part of their travels after de Soto’s demise. Continuing their way southward, they were unable to return to the remnants of de Soto’s fleet. They made their way to Mexico via handmade rafts and eventually caught passage back to Spain. De Soto’s second in command, Luis de Moscoso, arrived at the Spanish court over a year and half after de Soto’s death.