By Mary Ann DeSantis
Photography courtesy of Mary Ann DeSantis and National Park Service/DeSoto
Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto came ashore in Tampa Bay with 700 men, women, and children 480 years ago. They began a 4-year, 4,000-mile journey through what would eventually become the American South.
Make no mistake – Hernando DeSoto was not a kind man. He was ruthless in his quest to discover gold, the primary reason for his ill-fated journey. DeSoto’s own men hated him so much that he hired German mercenaries for protection. He enslaved the natives to be his guides and inflicted punishment when things didn’t go according to his plan.
Despite his atrocities, DeSoto is still remembered and honored for his contributions to the New World. The name, “DeSoto,” is a common one in the Southern states where the expedition journeyed – Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Towns, cities, counties, lakes, forests and one national memorial park pay homage to the Spanish explorer who was the first European to discover the Mississippi River.
Each spring, re-enactors from as far away as Spain assemble on the shores of the DeSoto National Memorial Park near Bradenton, Florida, to mark the anniversary of DeSoto’s landing. This year, the 80th re-enactment took place at the park, which was established as a national memorial site in 1948 some nine years after the park opened.
National Park Ranger Daniel Stephens is quick to point out that this park named for DeSoto isn’t exactly the precise point where the explorer landed on May 25, 1539.
“We think DeSoto landed 10 miles north of us around what is the Port of Manatee today,” Stephens clarifies. “And that is why we have the memorial designation.”
When the word ‘memorial’ is included in the U.S. National Park name, it means an historical event occurred near the area but not on the site. The designation can recognize a historic person or event.
The annual re-enactment ceremony of DeSoto’s landing is only one small part of the DeSoto National Memorial Park’s mission. From May through October, park rangers lead free kayak tours and provide the kayaks, gear, and safety equipment. The mangroves around the park’s shoreline are a perfect place for families doing their own explorations. Living history demonstrations and programs are held from December through April at the onsite Camp Uzita village.
Throughout the summer, the park offers the DeSoto Rancho Fishing Clinics and single day Junior Ranger mini-camps, which teach children about fishing, history, ecology and conservation. An award-winning Junior Ranger Activity Book is available free and will keep youngsters of all ages busy as they wander the walking trails and museum.
The year-round highlight of DeSoto National Memorial Park is the nature trail that winds along the beach shoreline and through several Florida ecosystems, including a mangrove forest like the one that DeSoto’s men would have encountered. Trails include interpretive signage and waysides that tell the story of the DeSoto Expedition and the natural history of the area. Park rangers offer 45-minute guided trail walks, depending on staff availability and weather.
And, of course, what would a memorial park be without a museum? The small museum on the park’s grounds features several hands-on exhibits, including opportunities to try on a Morion helmet or a cuirass, a heavy piece of defensive armor for the torso. A brief film about DeSoto’s expedition is shown throughout the day inside the museum gallery and offers details about DeSoto’s route.
The park rangers as well as the re-enactors strive to create authenticity. “I hope we make history rich for the young people who come here,” says Tony Lenari, a Sarasota resident who participated in the DeSoto “landing” last spring.
History may have turned out differently if DeSoto had been able to stick to Spain’s plan to build a colony on the shores of Tampa Bay. However, he was aggressive and hoped to increase his fortune by discovering gold. He also was fearful that his men would revolt and leave on the ships, so DeSoto pushed northward. He died in May 1542 from a fever, and his body was secretly deposited into the Mississippi River near the Louisiana side. His successor Luis Moscodo ordered the army to cut down trees and melt their armor for nails to build seven boats. On July 2, 1543, the last of the conquistadors – only 311 or the original 700 survived – set sail down the Mississippi River and eventually arrived at a Spanish colony in Mexico.
“To this day, DeSoto’s expedition is controversial,” says Stephens, who played a Spanish priest in the re-enactment ceremony. “But it provided unique and valuable insight to the land.”
DeSoto’s men chronicled their journey with diaries and maps. The expedition also introduced pigs, horses and dogs into the New World and opened the region for future explorations.
nps.gov/desoRead More in DeSoto Magazine online.