Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

The Trackless Wilderness


The scenery of Apalachee province was varied and beautiful, and its agricultural resources so great that the Spaniards had subsisted for five months upon the country in their immediate vicinity without foraging more than five miles from their camp. But of gold, the real object of their quest, they had found no trace. There was none in the country, though in a province which lay to the north and east, some Indians told De Soto, there was "great store" of the precious metal.

The easy credulity of the Spaniards and the eagerness with which they seized upon any chance bit of gossip relating to gold, we find quaintly set forth in the narrative of the Portuguese member of their company styled the "Fidalgo." "Of the Indians taken in Napetuca," he states, "the treasurer, Juan de Gaytan, brought a youth with him who said that he did not belong to that country, but to one afar, in the direction of the sun's rising, from which he had been a long time absent, visiting other lands. That its name was Yupaha, and was governed by a woman, the town she lived in being of astonishing size, and many neighboring lords her tributaries, some of whom gave her clothing, others gold in quantity.

"He showed how the metal was taken from the earth, melted, and refined, exactly as though he had seen it all done; or else the devil had taught him how it was; and they who knew aught of such matters declared it impossible that he could give that account without having been an eye-witness, and they who beheld the signs he made credited all that was understood as certain."

This valuable information was conveyed entirely by signs, for the interpreter, Juan Ortiz, did not understand the speech of this youth who had come from the land of the sunrise; but, on the strength of this vague assurance of gold existing somewhere beyond the wilderness, the governor issued orders for the expedition to march. Refreshed by the long stay in a land of plenty, with most of the soldiers in fine fettle, and the horses in good condition, the army was once more set in motion, and another chapter was opened in that book of horrors with its letters written in blood.

That the winter had not passed without other tragedies than those we have recorded is shown by a casual remark of the narrator already referred to, who says: "The governor ordered his men to go provided with maize for a march through sixty leagues of desert. The cavalry carried their grain on the horses, and the infantry theirs on the back; because the Indians they brought with them for service, being naked and in chains, had perished, in great part, during the winter."

After a short stay at a place called Capachiqui, the march was resumed, with De Soto in the advance, at the head of his horsemen. He was anxious to reach the golden country, and, impatient with the plodding foot-soldiers, laden as they were with packs of provisions, in addition to their heavy weapons and armor, he dashed off in the direction of the wilderness. In the province of Atapaha, the name of which is still borne by a river of that region, he found a town, called by some Toalli, and by others Achese, which was the best-built of any he had seen. The huts, or houses, had their walls plastered with clay, while the roofs were covered with cane, "after the fashion of tile." Every Indian of prominence, he found, had a hut for summer-time, as well as for winter, and the latter was plastered inside and out. It had a very small door, which was closed at night in cold weather, and when a fire was started the room became so warm that the inmates slept without any clothing.

As to the costumes of these people: while the women wore finely dressed deerskins and shawls made of grass, the men considered themselves in "full dress" with a breech-cloth and a blanket, the latter cast over the shoulder, "after the manner of the gypsies." The warriors were an independent band of braves, who at once demanded of De Soto whence he came, why he came, and what he wanted. He replied that he came in peace, that his object was to convert them to his religion, and that he sought for gold.

"He told the cacique that he was going about the country seeking for the greatest prince there and the richest province." The cacique rejoined that he was the greatest prince, but that the richest province lay far to the northward and eastward. Still, he had an abundance of supplies, such as wild turkeys, partridges, conies, and native dogs, which he gave the Spaniards on request.

The dogs were especially appreciated, their meat being tender and finely flavored. Though the Spaniards had thus far been able to subsist on such vegetable food as they could forage in the Indian fields, they were famishing for meat. "On this account, the dogs were as much esteemed by the Christians as though they had been fat sheep," and many an invalid soldier, when sinking from debility, would say, "Now, if I had but a slice of meat, or only a few lumps of salt, I should not thus die!"

The Indians never lacked for meat in this country so plentifully supplied with wild game, as they were very skillful in shooting and snaring it; while the soldiers not only were unskilled, but dared not, when in the forests, stray from the line of march. "Such was the craving for meat," says one of them, "that when the six hundred men who followed Soto arrived at a town, and found there twenty or thirty dogs, he who could get sight of one and kill it thought he had done no little; and he who proved himself so active, if his captain knew of it, and he forgot to send him a quarter, would show his displeasure and make him feel it in the night watches."

Besides provisions, the cacique gave De Soto the services of four hundred carriers, who were to carry his luggage into the adjoining province, the ruler of which was one Patofa, a mighty man of war. Before De Soto parted from his hospitable friend, he made him a present of the one piece of ordnance, probably a falconet, that he had thus far brought with him from Espiritu Santo. It had been hauled all the way, by great exertions, and, so far as the records show, had never been fired in battle. As even the arquebuses were too slow of fire, and cumbersome, when opposed to the Indian archers (who could send from their bows at least a dozen arrows to one discharge of the fire-arm), the cannon had been found of little use. So the governor gave it to the cacique, who was filled with delight, and when it was fired, shattering an oak-tree with its heavy ball, he was overwhelmed with amazement and terror.

It is doubtful if that cannon was ever discharged again, as the Indians had no powder, and knew not how to load and fire it if they had. Nor, so far as we can tell, was it seen again by civilized man, after the soldiers of De Soto filed through the forest trails on their way to the next province. As the gift of his white friend, the "Son of the Sun," it was carefully guarded by the cacique, and, as a potent engine of destruction possessed of mysterious powers, it may have been sacredly cherished, even revered as a god, by those pagans of the Floridian forests.

From Atapaha, where De Soto had been so generously entertained, he passed to the province of Cofaqui, the cacique of which, already informed of his coming, met him on the frontier, with a retinue of richly costumed warriors. He desired to detain the Spaniards in his territory, but De Soto was intent upon seeing with his own eyes the province of Cofachiqui, in which were the mines of gold, and where lived the fair cacica, or female cacique. He would not tarry, therefore, longer than was necessary to rest his men and prepare for the crossing of the intervening desert, which was reported to be a seven days' journey in extent. As few living things existed there by which life might be sustained on the way, all supplies must be carried along, and the cacique ordered his subjects to gather vast quantities of walnuts, acorns, dried plums, and grapes. These Indians had no dogs, and were not so expert at snaring game as their neighbors, so the Spaniards looked forward, perforce, to a vegetarian diet, at which they grumbled greatly.

Four thousand warriors were quickly assembled by Cacique Patofa, and four thousand carriers to transport the supplies. When De Soto expressed surprise at the gathering of such a host, and intimated that the warriors, at least, might be left behind to advantage, the cacique replied that a perpetual enmity had existed between his tribe and the Cofachiquis, and as they were stronger than his people, he was going to avail himself of the protection afforded by the Spaniards to wreak vengeance on his enemies.

This frank admission somewhat perplexed the governor, whose general policy was to conciliate the natives rather than incense them, and he especially desired to cultivate the friendship of the Cofachiquis, in whose keeping was the treasure he had been seeking so long. But Cacique Patofa was a living presence, while Cofachiqui was a far country, which he could only reach, if at all, by the assistance of his savage friend. So he remained silent, though revolving in his mind how he should rid himself of such troublesome allies when they were no longer necessary.

He was not long left in doubt as to the actual intentions of Patofa, who, in order to impress his white friend with his prowess, threw aside his rich mantle of marten skin, which served him as a royal toga, and, seizing a great wooden broadsword, cut and thrust with it at an imaginary enemy, and so skilfully as to elicit De Soto's admiration. Addressing his warriors and the assembled Spaniards, he then said, "I have pledged my word that, with the assistance of these strangers, now our friends, I will avenge the insults, the deaths, and the losses our fathers have sustained from the Cofachiquis. And my vengeance shall be such that the memory of past defeats shall be wiped away forever."

Believing it best to dissemble his real feelings, De Soto made no reply to the cacique's boastful speech, but gave him a cap of yellow satin, a shirt, and a silver plume, at the same time directing him to reverence the cross, which he had set up on a mound in the village, and make his devotions before it. This the cacique promised to do, and, holding the ornament aloft, he said, "You are from heaven, and this plume of yours, which you have given me: I can eat with it, I shall sleep with it, and I shall go to war with it!"

"That is so," replied the governor, "you can do all that." Then the two embraced, and all present repaired to tables set beneath the trees, where they feasted and made merry; the Spaniards in their shining armor and the savages in their breech-clouts and blankets of deerskin.

They were to start on the following morning, but were delayed somewhat by an untoward event—namely, the strange conduct of their guide, a young lad named Perico, whom they had brought from Apalachee. He was to lead them to Cofachiqui, but, perhaps repenting of his promise, suddenly went mad, frothing at the mouth, and raving like a maniac.

He had chosen the hour of midnight for his outbreak, and, fearing the treachery of their host, whose warriors outnumbered them ten to one, the soldiery were in a panic. "To arms! To arms!" sounded the trumpets. Helmets and breastplates were donned in haste, and weapons seized, the first that came to hand.

When Perico's hut was entered, he was found trembling in affright, and so weak he could not stand. Commanded to tell what had occurred, he declared that he had been assailed by a demon—a most frightful monster, with a host of little imps in his train, who had beaten him until he fainted. The moment the Spaniards appeared, however, they promptly vanished, from which circumstance he was convinced it was the devil that had attacked him, and, to guard against future visits, he desired to become a Christian and be baptized. A priest who was standing by, one Friar John, solemnly shook his head and said it was even so; the youth was certainly possessed of a devil, and he would exorcise the arch fiend at once. This he did by the laying on of hands, and the afflicted boy recovered so quickly that all beholding were amazed.

The desert, or wilderness, proved to be so, merely, in the sense of being uninhabited, or despoblado, as the Spaniards termed it. It really comprised a beautiful country, with tree-crowned hills and rugged mountains, grassy glades and foaming rivers. A great deal of game was captured by the Indian hunters, but on the seventh day out the provisions became entirely exhausted, for there were nearly nine thousand mouths to feed. To add to the perplexity of the commanders, the broad road, or well-defined trail, which they had been following, abruptly terminated, and they found themselves confronted with an apparently impenetrable forest.

Both commanders became quite testy, and their men suffered in consequence, for they insisted upon the strictest discipline being maintained, even though their followers were on the verge of starvation. One of the Spaniards, a young man named Cadena, lost or misplaced his sword, and the governor ordered him to be hanged at once. He finally escaped the dread penalty through the intervention of his captain; but an Indian who had been made prisoner, and who refused to reveal the road to Cofachiqui, was, by order of De Soto, burned at the stake.

Not to be behind his rival in respect to discipline, Cacique Patofa made an example of a warrior who had deserted, by inflicting a peculiar punishment. He had him stripped and thrown down upon the bank of a small stream that flowed through his camp. Then, while two Indians stood over him with clubs, he was ordered to drink the streamlet dry. The poor wretch did his best; but still the stream flowed on, and whenever he ceased, from inability to perform the hopeless task, he was cruelly belabored by the Indians with their clubs. Patofa declared that he should dry up the stream or drink till he died; but the sympathies of De Soto were enlisted, and he interceded so effectually that the warrior was released.