De Soto Discovers The Mississippi

Author:      Abbott, John S. C.

 

De Soto Discovers The Mississippi

 

1541

 

 

 

     From the eastern coast of Florida the Spaniards made early explorations

of the interior until they reached the Mississippi River.  Florida, which was

discovered by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513, was soon visited by other voyagers,

and in 1528 Panfilo Narvaez made a disastrous march into the forests.  One

survivor of his party, Cabaca de Vaca, afterward crossed the Mississippi, near

the site of Memphis, and made his way to the Spanish settlements in Mexico.

 

     Still the vast Florida region was unexplored, but in 1539 Hernando de

Soto, the companion of Pizarro in the conquest of Peru (1532) landed, with

upward of six hundred men, at what is now called Tampa Bay, on the west coast,

in search of the fabulous wealth believed to await him.  "For month after

month and year after year the procession of priests and cavaliers,

cross-bowmen, arquebusiers, and Indian captives laden with the baggage,

wandered on through wild and boundless wastes, lured hither and thither by the

ignis fatuus of their hopes." Through untold hardships, increased by fierce

battles with the Indians, they traversed wide regions now embraced in Georgia,

Alabama, and Mississippi, reaching the great river probably in the spring of

1541, and still looking for the "phantom El Dorado."

 

     De Soto directed his footsteps in a westerly direction, carefully

avoiding an approach to the sea, lest his troops should rise in mutiny, send

for the ships, and escape from the ill-starred enterprise.  This certainly

indicates, under the circumstances, an unsound, if not a deranged, mind.  For

four days the troops toiled along through a dismal region, uninhabited, and

encumbered with tangled forests and almost impassable swamps.

 

     At length they came to a small village called Chisca, upon the banks of

the most majestic stream they had yet discovered.  Sublimely the mighty flood,

a mile and a half in width, rolled by them.  The current was rapid and bore

upon its bosom a vast amount of trees, logs, and driftwood, showing that its

sources must be hundreds of leagues far away in the unknown interior. This was

the mighty Mississippi, the "Father of Waters." The Indians at that point

called it Chucagua.  Its source and its embouchure were alike unknown to De

Soto.  Little was he then aware of the magnitude of the discovery he had made.

 

     "De Soto," says Irving, "was the first European who looked out upon the

turbid waters of this magnificent river; and that event has more surely

enrolled his name among those who will ever live in American history than if

he had discovered mines of silver and gold."

 

     The Spaniards had reached the river after a four days' march through an

unpeopled wilderness.  The Indians of Chisca knew nothing of their approach,

and probably had never heard of their being in the country.  The tribe

inhabiting the region of which Chisca was the metropolis was by no means as

formidable as many whom they had already encountered.  The dwelling of the

cacique stood on a large artificial mound from eighteen to twenty feet in

height.  It was ascended by two ladders, which could of course be easily drawn

up, leaving the royal family thus quite isolated from the people below.

 

     Chisca, the chieftain, was far advanced in years, a feeble, emaciated old

man of very diminutive stature.  In the days of his prime he had been a

renowned warrior.  Hearing of the arrival of the Spaniards he was disposed to

regard them as enemies, and, seizing his tomahawk, he was eager to descend

from his castle and lead his warriors to battle.

 

     The contradictory statements are made that De Soto, weary of the

harassing warfare of the winter, was very anxious to secure the friendship of

these Indians.  Unless he were crazed, it must have been so; for there was

absolutely nothing to be gained, but everything to be imperilled, by war.  On

the other hand, it is said that the moment the Spaniards descried the village

they rushed into it, plundering the houses, seizing men and women as captives.

Both statements may have been partially true.  It is not improbable that the

disorderly troops of De Soto, to his great regret, were guilty of some

outrages, while he personally might have been intensely anxious to repress

this violence and cultivate only friendly relations with the natives.

 

     But, whatever may have been the hostile or friendly attitude assumed by

the Spaniards, it is admitted that the cacique was disposed to wage war

against the new-comers.  The more prudent of his warriors urged that he should

delay his attack upon them until he had made such preparations as would secure

successful results.

 

     "It will be best first," said they, "to assemble all the warriors of our

nation, for these men are well armed.  In the mean time let us pretend

friendship, and not provoke an attack until we are strong enough to be sure of

victory."

 

     The irascible old chief was willing only partially to listen to this

advice.  He delayed the conflict, but did not disguise his hostility.  De Soto

sent to him a very kindly message declaring that he came in peace, and wished

only for an unmolested march through his country.  The cacique returned an

angry reply refusing all courteous intercourse.

 

     The Spaniards had been but three hours in the village when, to their

surprise, they perceived an army of four thousand warriors, thoroughly

prepared for battle, gathered around the mound upon which was reared the

dwelling of their chief.  If so many warriors could be assembled in so short a

time, they feared there must be a large number in reserve who could soon be

drawn in.  The Spaniards, in their long marches and many battles, had dwindled

away to less than five hundred men.  Four thousand against five hundred were

fearful odds; and yet the number of their foes might speedily be doubled or

even quadrupled.  In addition to this, the plains around the city were

exceedingly unfavorable for the movements of the Spanish army, while they

presented great advantages to the nimble-footed natives; for their region was

covered with forests, sluggish streams, and bogs.

 

     By great exertions, De Soto succeeded in effecting a sort of compromise.

The cacique consented to allow the Spaniards to remain for six days in the

village to nurse the sick and the wounded.  Food was to be furnished them by

the cacique.  At the end of six days the Spaniards were to leave, abstaining

entirely from pillage, from injuring the crops, and from all other acts of

violence.

 

     The cacique and all the inhabitants of the village abandoned the place,

leaving it to the sole occupancy of the Spaniards.  April, in that sunny

clime, was mild as genial summer.  The natives, with their simple habits,

probably found little inconvenience in encamping in the groves around.  On the

last day of his stay, De Soto obtained permission to visit the cacique. He

thanked the chief cordially for his hospitality, and, taking an affectionate

leave, continued his journey into the unknown regions beyond.

 

     Ascending the tortuous windings of the river on the eastern bank, the

Spaniards found themselves, for four days, in almost impenetrable thickets,

where there were no signs of inhabitants.  At length they came to quite an

opening in the forest.  A treeless plain, waving with grass, spread far and

wide around them.  The Mississippi River here was about half a league in

width.  On the opposite bank large numbers of Indians were seen, many of them

warriors in battle array, while a fleet of canoes lined the shore.

 

     De Soto decided, for some unexplained reason, to cross the river at that

point, though it was evident that the Indians had in some way received tidings

of his approach, and were assembled there to dispute his passage. The natives

could easily cross the river in their canoes, but they would hardly venture to

attack the Spaniards upon the open plain, where there was such a fine

opportunity for the charges of their cavalry.

 

     Here De Soto encamped for twenty days, while all who could handle tools

were employed in building four large flat-boats for the transportation of the

troops across the stream.  On the second day of the encampment several natives

from some tribe disposed to be friendly, on the eastern side of the river,

visited the Spaniards.  With very much ceremony of bowing and semibarbaric

parade they approached De Soto and informed him that they were commissioned by

their chief to bid him welcome to his territory, and to assure him of his

friendly services.  De Soto, much gratified by this message, received the

envoys with the greatest kindness, and dismissed them highly pleased with

their reception.

 

     Though this chief sent De Soto repeated messages of kindness, he did not

himself visit the Spanish camp, the alleged reason being - and perhaps the

true one - that he was on a sick-bed.  He, however, sent large numbers of his

subjects with supplies of food, and to assist the Spaniards in drawing the

timber to construct their barges.  The hostile Indians on the opposite bank

frequently crossed in their canoes, and, attacking small bands of workmen,

showered upon them volleys of arrows, and fled again to their boats.

 

     One day the Spaniards, while at work, saw two hundred canoes filled with

natives, in one united squadron, descending the river.  It was a beautiful

sight to witness this fleet, crowded with decorated and plumed warriors, their

paddles, ornaments, and burnished weapons flashing in the sunlight. They came

in true military style; several warriors standing at the bow and stern of each

boat, with large shields of buffalo-hide on their left arms, and with bows and

arrows in their hands.  De Soto advanced to the shore to meet them, where he

stood surrounded by his staff.  The royal barge containing the chief paddled

within a few rods of the bank.  The cacique then rose, and addressed De Soto

in words which, translated by the interpreter, were as follows: "I am informed

that you are the envoy of the most powerful monarch of the globe.  I have come

to proffer to you friendship and homage, and to assure you of my assistance in

any way in which I can be of service."

 

     De Soto thanked him heartily for his offer and entreated him to land,

assuring him that he should meet only with the kindest reception.  The boats

immediately returned for another load.  Rapidly they passed to and fro, and

the whole army was transported to the western bank of Mississippi.  The point

where De Soto and his army crossed, it is supposed, was at what is called the

lowest Chickasaw Bluff.

 

     "The river in this place," says the Portuguese narrative, "was a mile and

a half in breadth, so that a man standing still could scarcely be discerned

from the opposite shore.  It was of great depth, of wonderful rapidity, and

very turbid, and was always filled with floating trees and timber carried down

by the force of the current."

 

     The army having all crossed, the boats were broken up, as usual, to

preserve the nails.  It would seem that the hostile Indians had all vanished,

for the Spaniards advanced four days in a westerly direction, through an

uninhabited wilderness, encountering no opposition.  On the fifth day they

toiled up a heavy swell of land, from whose summit they discerned, in a valley

on the other side, a large village of about four hundred dwellings. It was

situated on the fertile banks of a stream which is supposed to have been the

St. Francis.

 

     The extended valley, watered by this river, presented a lovely view as

far as the eye could reach, with luxuriant fields of Indian corn and with

groves of fruit and trees.  The natives had received some intimation of the

approach of the Spaniards, and in friendly crowds gathered around them,

offering food and the occupancy of their houses.  Two of the highest

chieftains subordinate to the cacique soon came, with an imposing train of

warriors, bearing a welcome from their chief and the offer of his services.

 

     De Soto received them with the utmost courtesy, and, in the interchange

of these friendly offices, both Spaniards and natives became alike pleased

with each other.  The adventurers remained in this village for six days,

finding abundant food for themselves and their horses, and experiencing, in

the friendship and hospitality of the natives, joys which certainly never were

found in the horrors of war.  The province was called by the name of Kaski,

and was probably the same as that occupied by the Kaskaskia Indians.

 

     Upon commencing anew their march they passed through a populous and

well-cultivated country, where peace, prosperity, and abundance seemed to

reign.  In two days, having journeyed about twenty miles up the western bank

of the Mississippi, they approached the chief town of the province, where the

cacique lived.  It was situated, as is supposed, in the region now called

Little Prairie, in the extreme southern part of the State of Missouri, not far

from New Madrid.  Here they found the hospitable hands of the cacique and his

people extended to greet them.

 

     The residence of the chief stood upon a broad artificial mound,

sufficiently capacious for twelve or thirteen houses, which were occupied by

his numerous family and attendants.  He made De Soto a present of a rich fur

mantle, and invited him, with his suite, to occupy the royal dwellings for

their residence.  De Soto politely declined this offer, as he was unwilling

thus to incommode his kind entertainer.  He, however, accepted the

accommodation of several houses in the village.  The remainder of the army

were lodged in exceedingly pleasant bowers, skilfully and very expeditiously

constructed by the natives of bark and the green boughs of trees, outside the

village.

 

     It was now the month of May.  The weather was intensely hot, and these

rustic bowers were found to be refreshingly cool and grateful.  The name of

the friendly chief was Casquin.  Here the army remained for three days,

without a ripple of unfriendly feeling arising between the Spaniards and the

natives.

 

     It was a season of unusual drouth in the country, and, on the fourth day

following, an extraordinary incident occurred.  Casquin, accompanied by quite

an imposing retinue of his most distinguished men, came into the presence of

De Soto, and stepping forward with great solemnity of manner, said to him:

"Senor, as you are superior to us in prowess and surpass us in arms, we

likewise believe that your God is better than our God.  These you behold

before you are the chief warriors of my dominions.  We supplicate you to pray

to your God to send us rain, for our fields are parched for the want of

water." De Soto, who was a reflective man, of pensive temperament and devoutly

inclined, responded: "We are all alike sinners, but we will pray to God, the

Father of Mercies, to show his kindness to you."

 

     He then ordered the carpenter to cut down one of the tallest pine trees

in the vicinity.  Its was carefully trimmed and formed into a perfect but

gigantic cross.  It dimensions were such that it required the strength of one

hundred men to raise and plant it in the ground.  Two days were employed in

this operation.  The cross stood upon a bluff on the western bank of the

Mississippi.  The next morning after it was reared the whole Spanish army was

called out to celebrate the erection of the cross by a solemn religious

procession.  A large number of the natives, with apparent devoutness, joined

in the festival.  Casquin and De Soto took the lead, walking side by side. The

Spanish soldiers and the native warriors, composing a procession of more than

a thousand persons, walked harmoniously along as brothers to commemorate the

erection of the cross - the symbol of the Christian's faith.

 

     The cross!  It should be the emblem of peace on earth and good-will among

men.  Alas! how often has it been the badge of cruelty and crime!

 

     The priests - for there were several in the army - chanted their

Christian hymns and offered fervent prayers.  The Mississippi at this point is

not very broad, and it is said that upon the opposite bank twenty thousand

natives were assembled, watching with intensest interest the imposing

ceremony, and apparently at times taking part in the exercises.  When the

priests raised their hands in prayer, they too extended their arms and raised

their eyes, as if imploring the aid of the God of heaven and earth.

 

     Occasionally a low moan was heard wafted across the river - a wailing

cry, as if woe-stricken children were imploring the aid of an almighty father.

The spirit of De Soto was deeply moved to tenderness and sympathy as he

witnessed this benighted people paying such homage to the emblem of man's

redemption.  After several prayers were offered, the whole procession, slowly

advancing two by two, knelt before the cross, as if in brief ejaculatory

prayer, and kissed it.  All then returned with the same solemnity to the

village, the priests chanting the grand anthem, Te Deum Laudamus.

 

     Thus more than three hundred years ago the cross, significant of the

religion of Jesus, was planted upon the banks of the Mississippi, and the

melody of Christian hymns was wafted across the silent waters and blended with

the sighing of the breeze through the tree-tops.  It is sad to reflect how

little of the spirit of that religion has since been manifested in those

realms in man's treatment of his brother-man.

 

     It is worthy of especial notice that upon the night succeeding this

eventful day clouds gathered, and the long-looked-for rain fell abundantly.

The devout Las Casas writes: "God, in his mercy, willing to show these heathen

that he listeneth to those who call upon him in truth, sent down in the middle

of the ensuing night a plenteous rain, to the great joy of the Indians."

 

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