That without Columbus, there would be no United States is a common perception and a reason to celebrate. Yet, this “discovery” compels us to think critically about how we make sense of the past, which offers a very different telling of history—one that celebrates years of Indigenous survival against seemingly impossible odds.
Let’s focus on Hernando de Soto’s entrada through the Southeast to understand how Natives and newcomers attempted to pull each other into their worlds on terms of their own in the 16th century.
What Formed the Native Land?
Ranging from the mid-Atlantic to the lower Mississippi Valley, the Southeast encompasses a large swath of coastal plains. West across the Appalachian Mountains lies another rich agricultural zone along the lower Mississippi Valley. And further south, along the Eastern Seaboard, are the subtropical Everglades.
Very few natural barriers to travel exist in the region, and extensive trade networks linked the Southeast to the plains, the Southwest, and even to the Caribbean and parts of Mesoamerica.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Hernando de Soto’s Inglorious Death
Imagine the scene. On 21 May, 1542, the conquistador died of a fever somewhere near the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. His soldiers—a bedraggled group—paddled his body to the middle of the Mississippi and sent it to the bottom.
A few years earlier, Soto, 600 soldiers, 24 priests, 100 African and Mexican slaves, 220 horses, 300 hogs, and a number of ferocious Irish wolfhounds had blundered and plundered their way through present-day Florida and Georgia in search of riches equal to those found in Mexico and Peru. All along the way, they killed, kidnapped, raped, and enslaved, sending shockwaves through surrounding areas.
Surely, this is not the way Soto envisioned his death. Here is a mighty conquistador, a captain in the conquest of the Incas of Peru, so unglamorously sunk. So, what explains his fate?
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The Chiefdom of Cofitachequi
Throughout the Southeast, there were several simple chiefdoms that were clusters of four to seven neighboring villages that had, in the aggregate, a population of 2,800–5,400 people. A paramount chiefdom consisted of an alliance among several of these simple chiefdoms.
The capital of the chiefdom of Cofitachequi was located along the Wateree River near present-day Camden, South Carolina. It was probably the principal town within what is called a paramount chiefdom.
The Lady of Cofitachequi
In May 1540, the niece of the paramount chief, a woman the Spanish called the Lady of Cofitachequi, ceremoniously received Hernando de Soto and his band of Spanish newcomers. By that time, the Cofitachequi already possessed Spanish trade goods, and the Lady had assuredly heard the stories that traveled with them.
The Lady of Cofitachequi also knew that these men were not the only danger stalking the land. The newcomers brought strange sicknesses with them—plagues that led to the abandonment of several nearby towns.
So when the Lady of Cofitachequi crossed the river to greet the bearded warrior with gifts of pearls, blankets, skins, and food, she was attempting to incorporate him into a Cofitachequi world on Cofitachequi terms. But she was surely doing it with caution.
De Soto Meets Lady of Cofitachequi
Probably already knowing the answer, the Lady of Cofitachequi began by asking Soto whether he intended peace or war. Acting like a conqueror rather than the potential ally that Cofitachequi hoped for, Soto proceeded to make a list of demands, including the source of the pearls she had given him.
The Lady told him that two years prior to his arrival, a pestilence had driven the inhabitants of several nearby villages away. She told him to go there to find the riches he sought.
Soto and his men did exactly that. They plundered a mortuary temple and took pounds of pearls off the bodies of the dead, as well as European trade items like glass beads, crucifixes, and metal tools.
Unsatisfied, the Spaniards returned to Cofitachequi and took captives and hostages—including the Lady—before continuing on into present-day North Carolina.
De Soto Reaches Tennessee
Moving to the South and West, Soto and his men proceeded into Tennessee and northern Georgia, where they spent days plundering and terrorizing Coosa, another wealthy paramount chiefdom that influenced a vast area.
In Alabama and Tennessee, the Spaniards proceeded to attack virtually all of the palisaded towns they encountered. As had happened previously, news of the invaders traveled ahead of them, and it shaped the approaches Native people adopted.
The Battle of Mabila
In October 1540, the Tuscaloosa in Mabila—a chiefdom near modern-day Selma, Alabama—welcomed the Spaniards much like the Lady of Cofitachequi.
But this time, the ceremonies and giving of gifts weren’t an invitation to forge an alliance but the laying of a trap. This time, several thousand warriors concealed themselves in Mabila houses, and when the Tuscaloosa struck, they struck hard.
The Spaniards recovered and delivered a devastating counterattack, slaughtering thousands of Tuscaloosas and burning the town to the ground. In the ashes they planted Christian crosses as ceremonies of possession.
De Soto’s Route of Plunder
The destruction continued in present-day Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas where some chiefdoms were forced to surrender their corn to the invaders, bringing hunger and starvation to Indigenous people.
In May of 1541, two years into the expedition, Soto’s men crossed the Mississippi. Now, their mission turned from seeking cities of gold to an increasingly desperate search for a route home.
De Soto’s Desperation and One Last Attack
In the Arkansas River Valley, during the winter of 1541–1542, Soto’s desperation deepened. Gravely ill, down the Arkansas the expedition went. On the brink of death, the conquistador ordered one last assault on a town the Spaniards called Anlico. On foot and horseback, with wolfhounds by their side, they slaughtered over 100 people.
So now we have the context we need to understand the inglorious death of Hernando de Soto.
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The Conquistador’s Unwillingness to Integrate
Rather than honoring Indigenous expectations of kinship, alliance, and reciprocity, Soto and his men killed, enslaved, raped, and stole.
What must the Native peoples of the Southeast have thought of this conquistador? Thousands of them died at the end of Spanish blades, in the jaws of wolfhounds, and from the wasting effects of starvation and disease.
That Soto’s men sank his body to the depth of the Mississippi where it could never be found speaks volumes with regard to what they knew they had done. Life, indeed, did come a full circle for the conquistador.
Common Questions about Hernando de Soto’s Invasion
The Lady of Cofitachequi,the niece of the paramount chief, received Hernando de Soto and his band of Spanish newcomers in May 1540.
On 21 May 1542, the Hernando de Soto died of a fever. His soldiers paddled his body to the middle of the Mississippi and sent it to the bottom.
In October 1540, the Tuscaloosa chiefdom in Mabila—near modern-day Selma, Alabama—fought the Spaniards led by Hernando de Soto.