De Soto Expedition - 1539 - 1542 CE

Wood engraving black and white print portrait of Hernando De Soto
Hernando De Soto (1500-1542)

Library of Congress

Spanish and Portuguese "discovery" and exploration of the New World in late 1400's and early 1500's brought new and unforeseen opportunities to expand power and influence and to increase wealth and resources. Endless forests and woodlands of valuable trees and vast amounts of silver and gold were to be found in South America, and thoughts of equally rich lands north of "la Florida" led the conquistadors into what is now the southeastern United States and contact with the native peoples of the area.

While gold certainly could be found in what is today Georgia and North Carolina, it was not found in quantities anywhere close to that of South America. Believing the indiginous peoples to be hiding their wealth, the conquistadors used a variety of tactics to discover the source of the yellow metal they so eagerly sought. Trade items, such as glass beads, trinkets, and metal tools, were rewards for tribes willing to cooperate. Tribes not willing to cooperate were often faced with threats and acts of violence, important tribal members being held hostage, and outright slaughter were the outcome.

The route de Soto's expedition took through Alabama is still a matter of dispute, with some scholars believing the conquistadors followed the Coosa River down past the Canyon Mouth Park area of Little River Canyon National Preserve, and others believing they passed north of Lookout Mountain along the Tennessee River and into Alabama (the current theory most accepted by archaeologists and historians). Nearby De Soto State Park, part of the Alabama State Park system, in named from a disputed legend that members of the de Soto expedition passed through the area.
Color art of Spanish conquistadors burning the fortified Mobilian city of Mabila.
De Soto Burns Mabila - the conquistadors burned the fortified city of Mabila, a Moblilian tribe city led by chief Tuskaloosa, leaving 200 Spaniards dead and another 150 wounded, and 2,000-6,000 native warriors dead.

Creative Commons

De Soto's expedition spent a month within the Coosa Chiefdom before entering what is now Alabama. Battling their way through Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas in 1541-1542, de Soto met his death at the age of 42 from a fever along the Mississippi in either Arkansas or Louisiana. The remainder of his expedition, having lost most of their horses and nearly half their men (many of whom were sick or injured) without having found the riches they sought, nor a place to settle, decided to end their journey and return to Spanish-held lands. Trekking first into what is today Texas but finding no means of supporting the army, they backtracked to the Mississippi River, and followed it to the Gulf of Mexico, dodging attacks as they went.

Of the 700 participants of the expedition, roughly 311 survived.

This period of the American national story is preserved at De Soto National Memorial in Florida, where Hernando de Soto and his conquistadors first set foot on North American soil

Last updated: May 18, 2021

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4322 Little River Trail NE Ste 100
Fort Payne, AL 35967


256 845-9605 x201
Main phone number for Little River Canyon National Preserve.

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