Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

How the Mississippi was Crossed


The fatal night of the fire was on March 4, 1541. That evening, after making his rounds, the governor had proclaimed aloud to his men: "To-night is an Indian night. I shall sleep armed and have my horse saddled; and do all ye cavaliers the same." It was well that he did so, and would have been better for all had they followed his example; but, by the plight in which the fire left them, they paid dearly for their carelessness.

"If by good luck any had been able to save a garment until then," says the Fidalgo, "it was there destroyed. Many remained naked, not having had time to catch up their skin dresses. And in that place they suffered greatly from cold, the only relief being in great fires, and they passed the long night in turning, without the power to sleep; for as one side of a man would warm, the other would freeze. Some contrived mats of dried grass, sewed together; and many who laughed at this expedient were afterwards compelled to do the like. The Christians, in fact, were left so broken up that, what with the want of saddles and arms which had been destroyed, had the Indians returned the second night they might, with little effort, have been overpowered."

"And that you may know, reader," wrote Oviedo, the historian, "what sort of a life these Spaniards led, Rodrigo Ranjel, an eye-witness, says that among many others who were enduring great hardships in this undertaking, he saw a knight, one Don Antonio Osorio, brother of the lord marquis of Astorga, wearing a short garment made of the blankets [buffalo-hides] of that country, torn at the sides, his skin showing, bare-headed, barefooted, without hose or shoes, a buckler at his back, a naked sword in his hand. And the stuff of which he was made, and his illustrious lineage, made him endure this toil, amid heavy frosts and cold, without laments such as many others made; for there was no one who could help him, although he was the man he was, and had in Spain two thousand ducats of income through the Church. And that day this gentleman saw him he did not believe he had eaten more than a mouthful, and that he had to dig up with his nails!

"I could hardly help laughing when I heard that this knight had left the Church and the income mentioned, to go in search of such a life as this, at the sound of the words of De Soto; because I knew Soto very well, and although he was a man of worth, I did not suppose he was so winning a talker, or so clever, as to delude such persons. Forsooth, what was it that a man like him wanted, of a land unexplored and unknown?"

What, forsooth? Many were asking themselves this question the morning after the fire, and could find no satisfactory answer. The Indians did not cease to attack them, by night and by day, so that constant vigilance was demanded of all, and few of the wearied soldiers secured the rest they greatly needed; though provisions were abundant, the foraging-parties always returning with great quantities of dried fruits and maize.

They removed to a plain a little distance off, and there set up a forge, with bellows of bear-skin, by which they retempered their swords, injured by the fire. They made lances and saddle-trees of ash-wood, shields of buffalo-hide, blankets of flexible grasses, and in a week were ready to march on again; but they remained in their temporary huts during the month of March, and the last week of April resumed their wanderings. The Spaniards had hoped for a cessation of hostilities after leaving Chicaza (the province in which they had suffered so terribly); but three days from the frontier they came upon a palisadoed fortress filled with Indians, "who looked like devils rather than men." How these "red devils" appeared to the astonished eye-witnesses let one of them tell, for of a truth his description cannot be improved upon, and it brings them vividly before us. They were naked, but seemed to be clothed, for "their bodies, legs, and arms were painted and ochred with red, black, white, and vermilion stripes, so that they appeared to have on stockings and doublet. Some wore feathers and others great horns on their heads, their faces blackened, and eyes encircled with vermilion, to heighten their fierce aspect. So soon as they saw us draw nigh, they beat their drums, and, with loud yells, in great fury came forth to greet us . . . . All in our sight they made a great fire, and, taking an Indian by the head and feet, pretended to give him many blows, and cast him into the flames; signifying in this way what they would do with the Christians."

When it was reported to De Soto that the Indians defied him, he cast caution to the winds, as usual, during that sullen mood which then possessed him, and replied to Juan de Afiasco, who had led the reconnoissance: "What, devils—did you say? Sooth, then, we cannot pass them by. Nothing yet, in shape of men, have we seen and have not vanquished. At them—at the diablos!"

But the "devils" were strongly intrenched; nor did their looks belie their character. Their fortress was an involved labyrinth of palisados, considered by them impregnable, yet they sallied forth to meet the invaders with ferocious yells and discharges of arrows. Several soldiers were mortally wounded at the first fire; but, with the governor in his accustomed place, at the forefront of battle, leading the cavalry, the Spaniards charged upon and drove them within the portals of the fort. There they became so jammed within the narrow entrance-ways that the attacking troopers cut them down in heaps with their good swords, and when they had finally gained the interior, and the infantry gave their support, the carnage was horrible.

The savages fought with desperation and to the last gasp, but many escaped from the fort, and, swimming a deep stream on the banks of which it was built, gathered on a plain, where, undismayed by their fearful losses, they continued their cries of defiance. Wrought to a fever-heat by the action, and his anger inflamed by a blow he had received on the head, which "made him see stars," De Soto forded the stream and pursued the Indians for more than a league, night alone putting a stop to the dreadful slaughter.

This stronghold of the Indians was called by them Alibamo, and was probably situated on the Yazoo River, from which, four days after the battle, De Soto set forth, still in a northerly direction, to avoid the sea-coast, and in eight days reached the bank of a mightier stream. It was nearly half a league in width, so that "a man standing on the farther shore could not be told whether he were a man or not." Its current was swift, a turbulent flood, and on its surface were great trees and masses of drift-wood, telling of its tremendous force and the distant sources of its waters.

The Indian name of the river, at this point, was Chucagua; but, as it was the largest the Spaniards had seen in "Florida," De Soto called it the Rio Grande, or Great River.

It was, of course, none other than the Mississippi, our wonderful "Father of Waters," "De Soto was the first European," says Mr. Irving in his Conquest of Florida, "who looked 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 gold and silver."

De Soto at the Mississippi


Still, De Soto, at that time, would rather have found the mines of which he was in search; and, like Columbus, who discovered a new continent without being aware of the fact, was ignorant of the magnitude of his own discovery. It is doubtful if he could have appreciated its value had he been informed of it when, approaching the mighty stream, through tangled swamp and flooded lowlands, he looked anxiously across its vast expanse to the distant shore which he was so desirous of attaining. It was, to him, merely an obstacle in his march, "another wide river to cross," and he cast about at once for the means to accomplish his task.

"He went to look at the river," says the Fidalgo, "and saw that near it there was much good timber, of which pirogues might be made, and a good situation in which a camp might be placed. He directly moved, built houses, and settled on a plain a cross-bow-shot from the water, bringing together there all the maize of the towns behind him, that at once they might go to work and cut down trees for sawing out planks."

The nearest town to the Great River was called Quizquiz, which was the name borne by a chieftain in the Inca's armies; but whether De Soto was reminded by this of his adventures in Peru, and thereby constrained to draw a contrast between his former glorious career and his present pitiful state, does not appear. The contrast is obvious, for he was now not only broken in fortune, but to some extent in spirit. Instead of seeking further conquests, he desired only peace, and permission from the cacique of Quizquiz to build his pirogues and cross the Great River. This the cacique was himself disposed to grant; but he told De Soto that he was subject to a greater cacique, who would be angry if he did not oppose his progress, and so felt compelled to assemble his warriors, which he did, to the number of more than four thousand. He lived in a hut on the summit of a large artificial mound, and around it gathered his warriors, the while brandishing his spear and haranguing them as though about to lead on to an overwhelming victory.

Though with difficulty restraining his anger, De Soto held his men in hand, ready for the emergency of battle, and at last succeeded in pacifying the excited chieftain and securing his permission to remain for a while, provided his men abstained from ravaging the province. "The next day," according to the Fidalgo, "the great cacique arrived, with two hundred canoes, filled with warriors having weapons. The warriors were painted with ochre, wearing great bunches of plumes in many colors, having feathered shields in their hands, with which they sheltered the oarsmen on either side; standing erect, from bow to stern, holding bows and arrows.

"All the canoes came down together, and arrived within a stone's-cast of the ravine, whence the cacique said to the governor, who was standing on the river-bank, with others who bore him company, that he had come to visit, serve, and obey him; for he had heard that he was the greatest of lords, the most powerful on earth, and that he must see what he would have him to do. The governor expressed his pleasure, and besought him to land, that they might the better confer; but the chief gave no reply, ordering three barges to draw near, wherein was great quantity of fish, and loaves like bricks, made of the pulp of persimmons, which De Soto receiving, gave him thanks, and again entreated him to land.

"Making the gift had been a pretext to discover if any harm might be done; but, finding the governor and his people on their guard, the cacique began to draw away from the shore, when the cross-bow-men, who were in readiness, with loud cries shot at the Indians, and struck down five or six. Still, they retired in good order, not one leaving the oar, even though the one next to him might have fallen. Afterwards they came many times and landed; but when approached they would go back to their barges. They were fine-looking men, very large and well-formed; and, what with the awnings, their plumes, their shields, the pennons, and the great number of people in the fleet, it appeared like a famous armada of galleys."

It was on a day in the second or third week of May, 1541, that De Soto first looked on the Mississippi, which appeared to him and his men "larger than the Danube"—as it really was—and on Saturday, June 18th, "the whole force crossed this great river in the four barges they had built, and gave thanks to God because, in His good pleasure, nothing more difficult could confront them."

"On the other side of the river," wrote De Soto's secretary, Ranjel, "about seven thousand Indians had got together to defend the passage. All of them had shields made of canes, so strong and so closely interwoven with thread that a cross-bow could hardly pierce them. The arrows came raining down so that the air was full of them, and their yells were something fearful. But when they saw that the work on the barges did not relax on their account, they said that Pehaca, whose men they were, ordered them to withdraw, and so they left the passage free."

These Indians, large of stature, and with their shields of buffalo-hide, were probably the warlike Sioux, and the place of crossing is thought to have been the lower Chickasaw Bluff, which had been an Indian landmark from time immemorial. The western bank of the river was occupied by the army at sunset, and the next day, after the boats had been broken up (for their nails and bolts, which were preserved for another occasion), the interrupted march was resumed. The route lay through a populous and fertile country, and the third week in June they entered the dominions of Lord Casqui, whose village of about four hundred houses was situated in the centre of vast cornfields and on the banks of a pleasant stream. This cacique welcomed them warmly, and placed his house, which was built upon a terraced mound, at the governor's disposal. Bowers were constructed for the soldiers, in which they reposed during the daytime, as well as by night; for the heat was oppressive, and the Indians so friendly that patrols and sentinels were hardly necessary.

This lord of Casqui, says the chronicler, was the first Indian the Spaniards had met in many months to show himself amenable to their religion. One day he came to De Soto, having in his company two blind men. "He said, that inasmuch as the governor was the son of the sun, he begged him to restore sight to those Indians; whereupon the blind men arose, and very earnestly entreated him to do so. De Soto answered them that in the heavens above there was One who had the power to make them whole and do whatever they could ask of Him, whose servant he was; that this great Lord made the sky and the earth, and man after His image; that he suffered on the tree of the true cross, to save the human race, and rose from the grave the third day, what there was man of Him dying, what of divinity being immortal; and that, having ascended into heaven, He was there with open arms to receive all that would be converted to Him.

"He then ordered a lofty cross to be made and set up in the highest part of the town, declaring to the cacique that the Christians worshipped that, in the form and memory of the one on which Christ suffered. He placed himself with his people before it, on their knees, which the Indians did likewise; and he told them that from that time henceforth they should thus worship the Lord, of whom he had spoken to them, that was in the skies, asking Him for whatsoever they stood in need."

One version of this incident is that the cacique asked the governor to request his God to send him rain, and that thereupon De Soto erected the great cross, amid the prayers and anthems of the army and in the presence of thousands of adoring Indians.