Friday, April 27, 2018

In the footprints of Hernando De Soto

We might have been in the Tampa area to catch up with some old friends and get in some time on the beach, but the temptation to explore led us to another site steeped in history – De Soto National Memorial.

There were others that came before Columbus, and there would be others after, Europeans marching across North American to explore and colonize the ‘New World.’ Hernando De Soto was a Spanish soldier, granted the license to explore La Florida by Charles V of Spain. He arrived in Havana in 1538, sailed to Florida in 1539 with 622 soldiers, and landed near Tampa Bay to spend the next three years trekking across the Southeast. Leaving disease and devastation in their wake, De Soto’s expedition sought gold and riches… What they found instead were hundreds of villages, but the consequences for their inhabitants were disastrous. Ironically it is the information about the Native Americans who lived here before us that is valuable to historians today, although the expedition was trailed by tragedy, the resulting social dislocation destroying the rich culture and traditions they were observing and recording.

De Soto burned his way north through Florida, then crossed into Georgia up to Ocmulgee. Upon reaching Cofitachequi in SC many of De Soto’s men were ready to settle. However, they were pushed on in search of gold and glory, and after cutting across to Coosa, TN they turned south, threading through Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. Three years after landing in Florida, Hernando De Soto died of sickness and was buried in the Mississippi River. The remainder of his expedition stumbled back to Mexico, arriving at Pánuco River in 1543.

A good place to start your explorations of the National Monument is at the Visitor Center. We found the 20 minute film a little on the tragic side for young children, but the exhibits and artifacts on display offer insight into the expedition, Florida in the 1500s, the Natives who lived there, and the consequences of the excursion.

We opted to hike the 2 mile Memorial Trail, passing through a mangrove swamp out to the Manatee River. The first point of interest is the ruin of a tabby house. Built from a mixture of lime, sand and shell mined from the local prehistoric shell middens that once lined the shoreline, the structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Once attributed to the 1843 homestead of shipping merchant William H. Shaw, recent archeological surveys suggest that the site may be related to the freed black community of Angola, and date back as far as 1812.

From De Soto Point we headed south along the coast, eventually reaching the Holy Eucharist Monument and the Memorial Cross. Both were impressive, but the boys were by far more impressed with the beach.

The trail eventually emerges to the road, and we followed it back north to the parking area and Visitor Center. A highlight in this central area is the Replica Spanish Camp, complete with reproductions of Spanish armor and weapons. Modeled after an Indian village that was captured by De Soto to serve as a base camp, the demonstrations on everything from weapons to cooking were fascinating for adults as well as the children.

The large stone monument in the center commemorates the expedition. It was placed by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, and today is significant as the mark of the beginning of the De Soto Trail, the historic route of the conquistador’s expedition through the Florida Native American territories in his quest for fame and fortune.

If you are headed to De Soto National Memorial from May through October, be sure to sign up for the free 1.5 hour Ranger led kayak tour. Spots on the tour are first come, first serve, but they do take reservations – call (941) 792-0458 to reserve your seat. Tours run on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings at 9:00am, and include all your equipment (2 person kayaks, paddles and personal floatation devices).  Imagine seeing Florida the way the first Europeans saw it – blue waters ending at beaches lined with thickets of mangroves, gumbo-limbo trees shading the swampy understory.

The National Memorial is an expressive reminder of the tragic history of Americas. However, it also serves as a showcase of the natural beauty of the region; the coastal habitats are home to a wide variety of wildlife, and their range from aquatic to upland forest showcase the area’s diverse animal life. In terms of recreation, “The Cove” is a popular temporary anchorage for small boats, the beaches are well-known for not being too crowded, and the annual schedule of events allows for all types of interests.

I hope you enjoyed my National Park week series! Next week we’ll be back up in the FL panhandle, exploring the coast in an epic trip that took us from Tarzan’s Wakulla Springs State Park all the way to Pensacola… I hope you’ll join us in our adventure!


  1. Fort De Soto is where the St. Petersburg Latvian Association holds its November 18th celebration of Latvia's Independence Day. A beautiful spot! Thanks for your informative post. I have never been inside the visitor center- so I did not know it had information about De Soto.

    1. Small world! The picnic area looked comfortable, and possibly it can be arranged to utilize the Spanish camp in offseason?


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