Hernando de Soto

(1496 - 1542)

He is best known as the discoverer of the Mississippi River. Starting in 1519, De Soto served under the Spanish adventurer Francisco Pizarro for 13 years. Young and ambitious, he made his mark as a slave trader and built a fortune in Nicaragua and Panama through partnerships with Hernan Ponce de Leon and Francisco Campanon.
De Soto, first arrived in Panama with Pedro Arías de Avila, when he came as the new governor of Antigua and Darien in 1514. De Soto served Pedrarias well, and was with Hernandez de Cordoba in 1524 when Pedrarias sent them to Nicaragua to take care of his affairs there. Hernando de Soto, was defeated by Gil Gonzalez at Toreba, and losing 130,000 castellanos belonging to Pedrarias. When Cordoba decided to betray Pedrarias and named himself governor of Nicaragua, de Soto objected and a large battle took place. De Soto was defeated and escaped back to Natá with only 10 men. When de Soto informed Pedrarias as to what was happening in Nicaragua, Pedrarias took all of the men he could muster in Panama, stripping all of the fighting men from all of the cities in Panama, and went to Nicaragua. De Soto defeated Gil Gonzalez Davila, on of Cordobas lieutenants, to win control of Nicaragua for Pedrarias. Once Cordoba was defeated, Pedrarias had him beheaded, just like Balboa, and then proceeded to take over Honduras as well.

When de Soto learned that there was gold along the Pacific coast of South America, he joined Pizarro's expedition in the conquest of Peru in 1532, trading the use of his ships for an appointment as one of Pizarro's lieutenants. He captained part of the force that defeated the Incas and was the first European to meet the Inca emperor Atahualpa.

With the permission of the King, De Soto organized an expedition to Florida, seeking a legendary rich empire in the wilderness. Starting in 1539, De Soto's expedition traveled through Florida, South and North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. He discovered the Mississippi River in 1541 and crossed it to explore Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. However, his expedition never found the gold and treasures he was after. De Soto died on the return to Florida and was buried in the Mississippi River so that hostile natives could not mutilate his body.

Panama History Home Conquistadores

September 22, 2001
Bruce C. Ruiz