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Thursday, February 27, 2014

“Hernando De Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas” by David Ewing Duncan

570 pages, Crown Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-0517582220

David Duncan has written a full and detailed account of the life of Hernando De Soto, and although the Florida expedition that consumed the last few years of his life is what he is best (only?) remembered for, it’s interesting to see the man during his earlier life and how it made him what he was. Born in Spain in 1500, little is known about his childhood: he went to Panama as a teenaged soldier and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a leader in the conquest of Nicaragua (one chronicler has stated that De Soto had great skill in “slaying Indians”); he went with Pizarro to Peru to conquer the Incas and then returned to Spain a very wealthy man which enabled him to attain the governorship of Cuba and the right to claim Florida where, with 600 men, he landed somewhere near Tampa Bay and began his conquest of what would later become the southeastern area of the United States.

De Soto’s methods were brutal (thus the word “Savage” in the title), though typical of the Spanish conquistadors. Natives were either a means to material riches or would be slaughtered; best would be first the one, then the other. Anyway, the expedition wandered north through Florida to the panhandle (Tallahassee is the only sure place anyone knows with certainty that De Soto actually visited, thanks to archeological finds made a few blocks from the state house) and then through the heart of Georgia and South Carolina, west through North Carolina, south through Alabama to near Montgomery, then west again through Mississippi, where on May 8, 1541, he discovered the Mississippi River, perhaps just west of present-day Walls or near Friars Point (the mouth of the river had actually been discovered and mapped by unnamed sailors decades earlier). For the next year the expedition roamed through Arkansas before turning back to the Mississippi, where De Soto died (perhaps poisoned, though Duncan admits the evidence is skimpy to non-existent) on May 21, 1542, and was entombed in the river. (In a half-page epilogue, Duncan brings the expedition, reduced by then to 300 men, safely to Mexico 18 months later.)

The tragedy of this expedition, as Duncan makes clear, is not that the “material riches” so long sought after were never found, but that so many “real riches” (the rich, fertile land in particular) went unappreciated. Duncan believes that De Soto wasn’t interested in gold by then anyway (he was already fabulously wealthy); what really drove him was an insatiable ambition to be the greatest conquistador of them all. Duncan’s biography is interesting and vibrant, and offers the reader a clear picture of the man and his times. The research is thorough and wide-ranging and includes official documents and first-hand accounts. The book cleverly incorporates maps, charts, paintings, and other graphics into the text; furthermore, although it may be tempting to skip the footnotes due to the length of the text, the reader is well advised not to do so. Buried in these footnotes are clever thoughts, insights and explanations.

Duncan sees De Soto as neither a hero nor a villain, only a man consumed by the need to succeed. And in that he certainly wasn’t a unique individual in the annals of history.

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