Explorer Hernando de Soto, commissioned by King Charles V, of Spain, took formal possession of La Florida, on June 3, 1539 — two days after landing near a native village at the head of Charlotte Harbor.
Those were among the facts offered during a talk at the Florida Pioneer Museum & Village, presented by author Charles Enloe Moore.
Moore details de Soto’s expedition, including travels through specific areas in Pasco County, in his 2020 book, “The Long Road to Mabila.”
De Soto and his men became famous as the first European expedition to explore the interior of the North American continent.
Spain’s quest for gold was a prime motivator for de Soto’s expedition, which traversed what would become 14 future states in the United States, according to the author.
Diaries kept along the 4,000-mile trek provide historians a glimpse of what life was like during the days of de Soto’s travels, Moore said.
As de Soto headed north in Florida, Moore explains, the ambitious explorers wanted to find gold as quickly as possible.
The explorer’s party included 620 men and 223 horses, as well as “knights, artisans, wives, war dogs, priests, boat builders, servants and cattle,” Moore wrote.
It is considered likely that wild pigs still found in Florida today are descendants of the large herd of pigs that were part of de Soto’s expedition, the author said.
Shortly after leaving their fleet of ships in Charlotte Harbor, the expedition encountered Juan Ortiz, a Christian native and guide, who helped them follow trails that later became major highways.
They visited places that would become future Florida cities.
For instance, the de Soto expedition passed through what is present-day Mulberry and crossed over a “Great Swamp,” now known as the Green Swamp.
In the Green Swamp, the Spaniards witnessed a vast wilderness of giant cypress trees draped with bromeliads and orchards that would remain undisturbed until the logging boom that occurred 300 years later.
The huge contingent crossed the Hillsborough River, heading in the general direction of what would become U.S. 98 and entered into an area now known as Dade City.
Averaging at least 11 miles a day — and traveling for five days at a time — the de Soto expedition took the time to rest in Dade City.
One account, chronicled in Moore’s book, recounted that the expedition was “encamped in some very beautiful valleys having large maize (corn) fields, so productive that each stalk had three or four ears…”
In another report, the book notes: “The governor (de Soto) ordered all the maize which was ripe in the fields to be taken, which was enough for three months.”
As a conquistador and nobleman, it was de Soto’s duty to lead his men from the restful Dade City retreat to continue their quest.
They headed north and crossed the Withlacoochee River where they spotted “red deer like large bulls, very large bears and panthers,” Moore wrote.
As the namesake for Hernando and DeSoto counties in Florida, de Soto and his expedition, known as the entrada, entered Georgia where they fought the Indian warriors of Chief Tuscaloosa at a small fortress settlement called Mabila.
Continuing their long journey from 1539 to 1543, the de Soto expedition made its way through the Carolinas, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and sent scouts as far north as present-day Chicago.
Searching for an elusive passage to the Pacific Ocean, de Soto sent scouts as far west as San Antonio, Texas.
Finding no gold or food, de Soto perished on the banks of the Mississippi River, in 1542.
His contingent, which had dwindled in 1543 to less than 300, fled south toward Mexico City where Spain’s major outpost was located on the continent.
At least 30 lancers of de Soto’s men headed back and stopped to rest in Dade City, before returning to Spain.
Published August 24, 2022