De Soto, Hernando (dĭsōˈtō, Span. ĕrnänˈdō dā sōˈtō) [key], c.1500–1542, Spanish explorer. After serving under Pedro Arias de Ávila in Central America and under Francisco Pizarro in Peru, the dashing young conquistador was made governor of Cuba by Emperor Charles V, with the right to conquer Florida (meaning the North American mainland). He led an expedition that left Spain in 1538 and landed on the Florida coast, probably near Tampa Bay, in 1539. That was the start of an adventure that took him and his band nearly halfway across the continent in search of gold, silver, and jewels, which they never found.
After wintering near Tallahassee they went N through Georgia and the Carolinas into Tennessee, then turned S into Alabama, where De Soto was wounded in a battle with Native Americans. He was so determined to continue his treasure hunt that he refused to inform his men that Spanish vessels were off the coast. In the spring of 1541 they again set forth and were probably the first Europeans to see and cross the Mississippi. A journey up the Arkansas River and into Oklahoma disclosed no treasures, and, discouraged, they turned back to the banks of the Mississippi. There De Soto died; he was buried in the river, so that the Native Americans, whom he had intimidated and ill-used, would not learn of his death.
His men went west again across the Red River into N Texas, then returned to the Mississippi and followed it to the sea. A remnant of the expedition made its way down the coast to arrive at Veracruz in 1543. The chief chronicle of the expedition is by a Portuguese called the Gentleman of Elvas.
See biographies by R. B. C. Graham (1924), T. Maynard (1930, repr. 1969), B. Shipp (1831, repr. 1971), and M. Albornoz (1986); studies by R. F. Schell (1966) and P. Lily (1983).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.