A Trail through Time: The Hernando de Soto Trail of 1539

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Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto has been viewed as a controversial figure in Florida and America’s history.  In Spain and in some areas of the U.S. he is seen as a romanticized hero and adventurous explorer. However, many of the Southeastern Native American tribes would more likely view him as a monster or a destructive man.  Either way you look at it, he was a product of his time and Medieval Europe.  He was born around 1500 in Spain in the province of Extremadura. This province produced many  of the Spanish explorers we study today, such as Francisco Pizzarro (among others).  He was the second son of a minor Spanish noble, and therefore he had no claim to the family’s wealth. De Soto probably saw the riches and glory of the New World as his way to create his own wealth and reputation. At the young age of fourteen he sailed to Central America as an enlisted man. It was there that he learned the terrorizing skills that he would later use on the native populations in La Florida. Before that though, he would fine tune his skills as a member of Francisco Pizzarro’s army that successfully overthrew the Incas in South America. He returned to Spain with a wealth of Incan treasure and married the daughter of King Charles V.  However, the privileged life of a Spanish noble and husband was not for him and he received a grant from the king for the rights to conquer and govern the new Spanish territory, La Florida.

In 1539 de Soto came to Florida and encountered the native inhabitants of the state. At the time these people were already experiencing cultural change, the mound building

A general map depicting Native American communities in Florida at the time of de Soto's arrival in 1539.

Mississippian culture had started to decline and new tribes were increasing their dominance over the land. In the North Central Region of Florida the Apalachee were becoming the dominant chiefdom in the area. Throughout Florida villages would trade, create alliances and battle with each other. Extensive trade routes had been established and stretched throughout Florida.  When Hernando de Soto arrived there were nearly 3500,000 natives already living in Florida. Less than 20 years later many of the villages were found abandoned and the native populations had been scattered sparsely throughout the state. Many were killed by the Spanish or European diseases that the Spanish had brought with them.

The St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail.

The Hernando de Soto Trail follows the path he took the first year of his historic expedition through Florida in 1539. Along this route there are 34 stops that mark significant points in his journey through the state. There are kiosks at each of these locations that discuss the cultural and environmental conditions associated with these sites and the historic events that took place there. Hernando de Soto traveled this route by boat, foot and horseback, but fortunately for us, all of these sites are easily accessed by car! On May 25, 1539 the ships anchored near the mouth of Tampa Bay and he traveled northward up through Florida. You are able to relive this historic trek through La Florida by following a map that can be found at any one of the 34 locations along this trail. In the North Central Region there are several sites that are part of this trail. The St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail, Kate Ireland Park,  the Governor Martin House at De Soto’s 1539 Winter Encampment Site,  Riley Palmer Construction,  Lafayette Heritage Trail Park,  the First Federal Sports Complex and Falling Creek Falls Park are just a few of the included locations in this region. If you would like to learn of more locations please stop by the Governor Martin House (1001 De Soto Park Dr., Tallahassee) during business hours to pick up your free map and brochure or visit any of the other previously listed sites to pick up a brochure. Additionally, you can follow @FPANNrthCentral on twitter. For the next few weeks, until we have gone through all 34 locations along the trail, we will be tweeting information (including websites) for each site pertaining to Hernando de Soto’s travels throughout the State of Florida. We will also post this information on our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/FPANnorthcentral. So be sure to follow us to learn more about this trail and kiosk locations in your area, and don’t forget to pick up your free copy of the map and brochure so that you have it handy for your next road trip through Florida!


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