9 December 2012
9 December 2012
The Journals of Hernando de Soto’s Florida Expedition
The relationships between Native Americans and Christians, specifically Spaniards, have always been difficult; no matter how hard both parties try. The divide between the two cultures plays a significant impact on the strained relationships, and they usually surround one party unwilling to bend and accept the other. In the mid-1500s, though, cultural differences and complicated relationships were not something new. Explorers were finally seeing what was outside of their own borders, discovering new lands, and interacting more and more with Native Americans in North America. Looking at the diary of Luys Hernandez de Biedma, who was assigned to travel with Hernando de Soto in order to conquer the New World, details the time spent traveling across Florida in, “Relation of the Conquest of Florida Presented by Luys Hernandez de Biedma in the Year 1544 to the King of Spain in Council.” Evidence through this diary shows the complex relationship between the Spaniards and the Native Americans as the two endure hardships, war, and uneasy peace.
Hernando de Soto was born in Extremadura, Spain. At a young age he participated in the conquest of Panama and Nicaragua, and later played a large role in the takeover of Peru from the Incas (Nystorm par. 1). Around 1539-1543, the Spanish King funds Hernando de Soto’s travel to the New World, specifically Florida and the surrounding region all the way to Texas. The purpose of this travel had been to “conquer” the land, according to American Journey article, “Not knowing the size of North America, the King gave Soto four years to conquer America and locate riches that would entice the Spanish settlers and investors to follow” (“The King of Spain” par. 1). From his previous campaigns among the Incas in Peru, de Soto has earned “a reputation for killing Indians as sport, and his North American expedition was among the most savage on record” (par. 2). In the journals that were written by Luys Hernandez de Biedma, who was the King’s factor, he chronicles the events that took place in the expedition.
In the obtained set of journals Hernandez chronicles the events that took place when the de Soto expedition landed in Florida, from Cuba, as they would begin to conquer the Americas for Spain. When the men arrive, interactions between Native Americans occur, some which are peaceful, but most which result in bloodshed. The significance of the interactions establishes what is known as “first-contact,” an important idea introduced by Cynthia Radding about what happens when first meetings between two cultures take place and how in those first few moments can determine the relationship. As Radding states, “First-contact chronicles, as in the case of the de Soto narratives, are both valuable and problematic” (774). The importance of why a good relationship is needed in the first place comes from the fact that de Soto was one of the first few explorers to have reached and explored Florida (Alchin par. 1). Before de Soto, European contact was limited, and as these two cultures first begin to know each other. The importance of the journals and why they belong in the canon is because they establish relationships between the first Europeans and the Natives. These instances foreshadow conflicts for later explorers to come.
de Soto, like many other explorers at the time, had a difficult time establishing good relationships with the Natives. One of these encounters that had a very negative impact for the Native Americans who captured the Cacique, or chief of the tribe, “He promised we should have interpreters and guides; but, as he did not give them, we had to take him along with us. With the intent of wresting him from us, at the close of six or seven days’ march there came upon us about three hundred and fifty warriors, with bows and arrows, of whom we killed some and captured the remainder” (par. 4). According to Cynthia Radding, bloody encounters like these were very common, she states, “Their destructive impact on the landscapes and cultures through which they passed was irreversible, due to pillage, rape, warfare, enslavement, and disease” (768). This relationship begins to show the hostile nature between the two, complicating relationships from the start. As one researcher from the University of South Florida summarized about the event, “He [the Chief] let it be known that he would not let anyone stand in his way [of abusing his people]. De Soto enslaved, mutilated, and executed the natives, often without provocation” (“Hernando de Soto” par. 7). When considering first-contact, this has direct negative influence that strains the relationships between the Natives and the Spaniards. This event is significant because it shows how destructive de Soto is and how this event will have negative impacts for both sides as they travel deeper into the wilds of Florida.
Lack of cultural understanding plays significant role in how first-contact plays out between both Native Americans and the Spaniards. When the tribe declares their own principles, as Hernandez records, “After we asked him for Indians to carry our burdens, he answered that he was not accustomed to serving any one, but it was rather for others all to serve him” (par. 19). The cultural divide clashes as both parties try to get their way: the Spaniards with their commanding nature and with the Natives trying to avoid them. But, what it comes down to, as well, is how they first appear. As seen in the chronicles, lives get lost and in danger when poor first-contact is establish. This idea, which has been expressed repeatedly, can change and shift relationships drastically. Radding brings forth an argument from scholar, Charles Hudson, who argues that “the de Soto expedition in particular altered the demographic and political configuration of the mound cultures irrevocably” (770). The impact of the de Soto expedition left such a mark among the Native Americans that the effects of it could still be felt years and years afterwards. This highlights the importance of de Soto among early Native Americans, and later reflect as more and more explorers come into Florida.
One such negative effect on the Natives that de Soto had ordered dealt with an interaction between a Native tribe that ended with a battle. After leaving Baya Honda, de Soto and his company encountered Native American tribes ready to strike, when the Governor (de Soto) encountered a Native who refused to give the Spaniards help (par. 21). When the men tried to restrain the man, his tribe reacted, “With the blow they all began to shoot arrows at us, some from with the houses, through the many loopholes they had arranged, and some from without. As we were so wholly unprepared, having considered ourselves on a foot of peace, we were obliged, from the great injuries we were sustaining, to flee from the town” (par. 22). This is one of the first shows of hostility from the Native people. “We entered the town and set it on fire, whereby a number of Indians were burned, and all that we had was consumed, so that there remained not a thing. We fought that day until nightfall, without a single Indian having surrendered to us – they fighting bravely like lions. We killed them all” (par. 23). This moment shows just how important first contact is and just how poorly the Spaniards have handled situations, which now leads to war. As the University South Florida researcher states, “The Spaniards were now under constant attack by the natives” (par. 11). By setting up a negative relationship, the Spaniards have put themselves in constant danger. This shows both the importance of a good first-contact and what happens when there is a lack of it.
Something important to also highlight about the Natives and de Soto’s company is that not all encounters involved war, murder or enslavement. As Hernandez wrote in the journals when coming to a Native village, the chief’s daughter comes forward with gifts, “She likewise sent the Governor a necklace of five or six strings of pearls. We were furnished with canoes in which to pass over the river, and the Lady gave us one-half of the town” (par. 16). This encounter between the daughter and de Soto called attention to that on some level, not all encounters needed to end badly. Neither side had to draw a weapon or shed blood in order for them to get heard. And it was not just this moment that brought new information to the men, they also learned that not all natives are out to kill them, as seen when they encounter Native Americans who were watching them sleep, observing their methods of guarding (par. 26). This event shows that there was peace that could be achieved with the Natives. This marks one moment for de Soto and his company, as well as shows just what happens when first-contact goes right. The significance of how this tribe and de Soto and his company behaved with one another helps understand how later relations can play out. They can either be blood thirsty battles or they can be of mutual understanding.
de Soto failed in his mission to do as the King ask, even leading to his own death during one of the many battles with the Native Americans. While the relationships between the two were never perfect, they play a significant role in early American history. These journals establish what first-contact looked like. It shows the poor start that both parties received when they were attempting to know each other, and it shows how both parties really were not trying to understand each other. The de Soto expedition shows what happens when two cultures conflict with each other and just how these two parties can establish themselves around or near one another. While the expedition failed, leading to the death of de Soto, it does show early evidence of how the Native Americans reacted to the Old World before the pilgrims arrived. The importance of a document like this one, first-hand accounts about cultural interactions, belongs in the canon to be remembered.
Alchin, Linda. "Hernando De Soto." Elizabethan Era. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
Erwin, Charles. "Testing the De Soto Chronicles." The Journal of Southwest Georgia History 14 (1999): 27. Web. 25 Nov. 2012
Radding, Cynthia. "Conquest, Chronicles, and Cultural Encounters: The Spanish Borderlands of North America." Ethnohistory 47.3/4 (200): 768-774. Web. 25 Nov. 2012
Hernández De Biedma, Luys. "Relation of the Conquest of Florida Presented by Luys Hernández De Biedma in the Year 1544 to the King of Spain in Council." (n.d.): n. pag. Early Americas Digital Archive. University of Maryland, 2003. Web. 3 Nov. 2012
"Hernando De Soto Arrives and Explores Florida." Exploring Florida. University of South Florida, 2002. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.
"Relation of the Conquest of Florida Presented by Luys Hernández De Biedma in the Year 1544 to the King of Spain in Council." (n.d.): n. pag. American Journeys. Wisconsin Historical Society. Web. 3 Nov. 2012