Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto led the first European expedition across the Mississippi River and entered native Tula territory near present-day Fort Smith, Arkansas today in 1541. Now WE know em


Hernando de Soto was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who led the first European expedition deep into the territory of the modern-day United States, and the first documented to have crossed the Mississippi River on May 8, 1541.

Complete map of De Soto expedition, 1539-1543

Complete map of De Soto expedition, 1539-1543

De Soto and his 400 men had to cross the Mississippi, which was constantly patrolled by hostile natives.

Hernando de Soto’s first contact with Arkansas natives. Courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission.

Hernando de Soto’s first contact with Arkansas natives. Courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission.

After about one month, and the construction of several floats, they finally crossed the Mississippi at or near Memphis, Tennessee and continued their travels westward through modern-day Arkansas.

The expedition became the first Europeans to see what Native Americans referred to as the Valley of the Vapors, now called Hot Springs, Arkansas. Members of many tribes had gathered at the valley over many years to enjoy the healing properties of the thermal springs. The tribes had developed agreements to put aside their weapons and partake of the healing waters in peace while in the valley.

De Soto and his men stayed just long enough to claim the area for Spain.

Tula territory

Then on September 30, 1541 near present-day Fort Smith, Arkansas, de Soto and his forces entered Tula territory in present-day western Arkansas encountering fierce resistance.

This may have happened in the area of present-day Caddo Gap, Arkansas (a monument stands in that community).

Cadda Gap Historical Marker, Montgomery County, Arkansas

Cadda Gap Historical Marker, Montgomery County, Arkansas

Today, the Tula are known to history only from the chronicles of Hernando de Soto’s exploits in the interior of North America.

The Tula were possibly a Caddoan people, but this is not certain.

Based on the descriptions of the various chroniclers, “Tula Province”, or their homeland, may have been at the headwaters of the Ouachita, Caddo, Little Missouri, Saline, and Cossatot Rivers in Arkansas.

They are also thought to have lived in the northern Ouachita Mountains in the Petit Jean and Fourche valleys.

De Soto violently clashed with the Tula multiple times during early October of 1541.

His secretary, Rodrigo Ranjel described the Tula as, “the best fighting people that the Christians met with.” A statue was erected in the late 20th century to commemorate the Tula, but de Soto scholars suspect that the location of the statue does not correspond with the Tula’s actual homeland. The Tula are thought to be the first Caddo band to encounter Europeans.

The 16th century Spanish chroniclers wrote that the Tula practiced cranial deformation and tattooed their faces. They fought with large spears.

An archaeological site, Bluffton Mound Site (3YE15), 35-40 southwest of the Arkansas River is associated with the Tula. The site is a Caddoan Mississippian culture mound center.

It was suggested by Swanton that the Tula assimilated into other Kadohadacho tribes, meaning their descendants would be enrolled in the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma today.

After a harsh winter, the Spanish expedition decamped and moved on more erratically.

Their interpreter Juan Ortiz had died, making it more difficult for them to get directions and food sources, and generally to communicate with the Natives.

Eventually, the Spaniards returned to the Mississippi River.

De Soto died of a semitropical fever on May 21, 1542, in the native village of Guachoya (historical sources disagree as to whether de Soto died near present-day McArthur, Arkansas, or in Louisiana) on the western banks of the Mississippi.

Before his death, de Soto chose his former maestro de campo (or field commander) Luis de Moscoso Alvarado to assume command of the expedition.

Since de Soto had encouraged the local natives to believe that he was an immortal sun god (as a ploy to gain their submission without conflict, though some of the natives had already become skeptical of de Soto’s deity claims), his men had to conceal his death. The actual location of his burial is not known.

According to one source, de Soto’s men hid his corpse in blankets weighted with sand and sank it in the middle of the Mississippi River during the night.

Another possible location for his corpse is within Lake Chicot near present-day Lake Village, Arkansas.

Now WE know em



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