Hernando de Soto, famed explorer and Spanish conquistador landed near what is now known as Tampa Bay in Florida on this day in 1538.
De Soto was born in 1500 in Spain to an honorable but impoverished family. As fate would have it, however, a generous Spaniard named Pedro Arias Davila volunteered to pay for the young man’s education. His family had high hopes of de Soto’s entry into the legal profession, but alas, he was stricken with a severe case of wanderlust as were so many young men of the day. He dreamed of the fame and fortune found on foreign soil.
In 1514, his dream was realized as he was asked to join a crew bound for the West Indies. He handily proved his worth as both a skilled equestrian as well as a deft trader with the natives. Almost 20 years after the first expedition, the now-seasoned explorer was instrumental in the Spanish conquest of Peru. As a result, de Soto became a very wealthy man.
Finally, on April 6, 1538, Hernando de Soto led an expedition of 700 crew members sailing on 10 ships across the ocean to the fabled shores of North America. After stopping to lend aid to Havana, Cuba after it was pillaged by the French, de Soto and his crew once again set sail and anchored soon thereafter in Florida. For the three years that followed the landing at Tampa Bay, he and his crew extensively explored the south east region of the continent, including forays into what are now the states of Georgia and Alabama. It is believed that they made it as far as the Chattahoochee River in north Georgia.
Unfortunately, de Soto was known to have had a cruel demeanor when dealing with the host of tribes native to Florida, but he and his fellow explorers quickly came to the terrifying realization that many of the more skillful warriors of the tribes could draw back and shoot an arrow more quickly than they were able to load and shoot a gun!
Perhaps the most notable discovery made by de Soto and his men occurred when they stumbled upon the mighty Mississippi River delta. They are believed to be the first explorers from Europe to use the river for travel.
Hernando de Soto died of fever in Louisiana in 1542. As was only fitting, his body was ceremoniously placed in the rushing waters of none other than the famed Mississippi River.