Los Sobrevivientes de la Florida:
The Survivors of the De Soto Expedition
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1. Introduction

On May 25, 1989, the United States celebrated the 450th anniversary of the landing of Hernando de Soto and his host on the western shores of Florida. De Soto's was the longest and most detailed exploration of the southeastern United States conducted some eighty years before the Mayflower reached Plymouth Rock.

For this celebration it is appropriate to know, with the best possible certainty, who survived this four year and two month journey which traversed ten present-day states. With that purpose this work presents a register of those who accompanied Hernando de Soto, the Adelantado de la Florida, until his death on the banks of the Mississippi River and afterwards followed its currents to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

Fifty three years ago President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed anthropologist John R. Swanton to the United States De Soto Expedition Commission. Swanton delivered his report to the House of Representatives in 1938, covering all aspects of the de Soto expedition. [1] This report included a list of the participants compiled from the writings of the four known contemporary chroniclers of this expedition, a few original documents published in the nineteenth century, and a transcription of the passengers registered in Spain to proceed to Florida via Cuba. [2] Swanton's archival research was interrupted by the Spanish civil war. His practice of adding the persons found in the cited sources did not take into account those who sailed from Spain but did not continue beyond Cuba, nor all those who were added in Cuba.

In 1538 Hernando de Soto transported his men to Cuba for the Florida expedition. There he remained for almost a year making final preparations, during which time he lost a number of Spanish recruits and picked up new ones locally. Since no documents recording those who finally sailed from Cuba to Florida have yet been found, it is more practical to investigate those who came out of Florida rather than those who went.

This study is based not only on the sources used by Swanton but on the study of unpublished documents. Altogether, sixty-three names have been added to the survivors specifically identified by Swanton, for a total of 257 persons. This work also includes extensive information about their places of birth, ages, families and personal histories. The new data presented here and its analysis, alters previous accounts of de Soto's force and increases our understanding of his expedition. It is hoped that this will encourage further studies of the political, social and economic contributions of de Soto's men, in the places where they chose to live their remaining years.

2. Number of Persons Who Departed For Florida

A brief recounting of those who accompanied de Soto to Cuba and on to Florida is appropriate. Chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega wrote that the Adelantado expedition which left Spain consisted of his household, including his wife and family, 950 soldiers, sailors and the necessary crew, plus twelve priests. [3] The Gentleman of Elvas wrote that de Soto departed with a total of 600 men enlisted in Sevilla. [4] The original register of the passengers who left Sevilla for Florida has been preserved in the Archives of the Indies. It has been transcribed twice, with some variations between the two. The first listed 651 persons but contained one double entry for a net total of 650. It included three women, and five "color loro" or dark-skinned persons. The second listed the same 651 persons including the double entry, but added four men and three women, for a net total of 657. [5] It should be noted that the original passenger roster is not complete, however, for it does not include Hernando de Soto nor his entourage.

Another available list was compiled by J. R. Swanton from the four chroniclers. It amounts to 793 persons including many repetitions, most acknowledged by the author. Considering that Garcilaso de la Vega wrote his account from evidence supplied him by others some 50 years after the fact, his figures are suspect. When comparing the number of persons departing from Sevilla, which he puts at 950 excluding sailors and de Soto's wife and family and 12 priests, with the 657 registered passengers including some females and priests, the exaggeration seems evident. The memory factor may have played an important role in the post-factum estimates of Garcilaso's informants. It appears that the correct figure of those who sailed from Sevilla was higher than the estimate of the Gentleman of Elvas, a little higher than what it is shown in the original register, and lower by some hundreds than Garcilaso's numbers. Two estimates which could be closer to the real figure are those of the Florida survivors Juan Lopez and Sebastian de Villegas contained in their short biographies in Part II of this work. Both testified that the number of persons who sailed from Spain was 700.

Now, let us consider those who finally left Cuba for Florida. Ten days before departure from Havana, the royal officials of the expedition wrote a letter to the King informing him that the armada consisted of nine ships and the army of 313 footmen and 200 horsemen, for a total of 513 soldiers. [6] Once again the chroniclers of the expedition provide varying figures. Hernandez de Biedma wrote that 620 men landed at the Florida port of Bahia Honda. [7] Rodrigo Rangel recorded that 570 men, not counting 130 sailors, were present at the landing. [8] Garcilaso de la Vega wrote that the total number of persons who sailed from Havana for Florida was 1,000, including the islanders who wanted to accompany the expedition, but not counting the sailors. [9] As indicated in the individual biographies of the Florida explorers in Part II, many do not appear in the original register made in Sevilla. The conquerors not registered could have been added in Cuba, leading to another limitation of the original roster for the purposes considered here. During the year the expedition was readied in Cuba several of the original recruits dropped out and many appear to have been added.

The large difference between Garcilaso's figure of the persons arriving in Florida and that of the royal officials can be explained in part, for while the officials were referring to military personnel only, Garcilaso considered all persons including servants, administrators, tradesmen, and it seems, people living in Cuba who wanted to tour the eastern coast of Florida. The rest of the difference may be due to an exaggerated count by Garcilaso. A more likely number of those landing in Florida should exceed the soldiers mentioned by the royal officials, and perhaps somewhere around the 570 mentioned by Rangel and the 620 described by Hernandez de Biedma. Some additional estimates can be gathered from the biographies of the survivors in Part II. Pedro de Arevalo declared that 650 persons went to Florida from Cuba, a figure repeated by Francisco de Guzman.

All these estimates are presented in Table 1. Based on them and the official register, it appears that around 700 persons left Spain for Cuba and, after nearly one year there, some 600 plus finally left for Florida. It seems apparent that more were lost than gained in Cuba, thus the allure of de Soto's adventure may not have appealed to all the conquerors of the day. After all, Florida was competing at that time with the fantastic news still coming from Peru and, to some lesser extent, with the riches found in the Urabá region east of Panama and the first notice of the possible existence of a rich land south of the Santa Marta, province of Nueva Granada.

Table 1.
Number of Persons Who Departed For Florida
From Spain to Cuba

Garcilaso de la Vega950 plus
Gentleman of Elvas600
Passenger register657
Juan Lopez700
Sebastian de Villegas700

From Cuba to Florida
Royal Officials513
Hernandez de Biedma620
Rodrigo Rangel570
Garcilaso de la Vega1,000
Pedro de Arevalo650
Francisco de Guzman650

From Spain and Cuba to Florida
J. R. Swanton, including repetitions793

3. Number of Survivors

The most detailed account on the number of survivors comes from the Gentleman of Elvas. He wrote that 322 Spaniards embarked in seven brigantines at Aminoya to sail down the present day Mississippi River. When confronted by Cacique Quigaltam and his people a short distance downstream, eleven men were lost. The rest continued towards the river mouth and then to Mexico. Elvas added that 311 Christians, who had departed Florida, finally reached the port of Pánuco, New Spain. [10] Garcilaso de la Vega indicated that slightly fewer than 300 survivors rejoined their new Governor, Luis de Moscoso, at Pánuco. [11]

Another important source on the survivors is a record following Hernandez de Biedma's account of the Florida expedition, here referred to as Hernandez de Biedma's list. [12] He titled it "Memoir of the Names of Persons Who Came from Florida, Who They Are, And of What Countries Native." Under subtitles corresponding to different geographical areas and cities, he mentioned 221 survivors adding, in several instances, the profession, trade, and/or parentage of the person included. This list is not complete and, by its numerous folds and how it is ordered, may have been kept in somebody's pocket for some time. Yet, it is invaluable, containing not less than 60 names not found in the passenger register recorded in Sevilla. His additions reflect the conquerors who joined the expedition in Cuba and those not registered in Spain, like de Soto's entourage. Other sources of information about the number of survivors are the very declarations by some of them appearing in Part II of this study. Pedro de Arevalo indicated that 350 persons survived, Francisco Gutierrez lowered the figure to 300, Luis de Moscoso mentioned 350, and Sebastian de Villegas said that half of the 700 who started the expedition were able to see its end. As will be seen in detail in Part II, this investigation has revealed the names of 257 survivors but, the definitive list has yet to be compiled. The figures listed here are presented in Table 2. It is likely that the Gentleman of Elvas was quite right about his 311 figure, having witnessed the events. If so, 54 names await discovery. It may be added that in the list of de Soto's men compiled by Swanton, 194 persons are specifically described as survivors, including some possible duplications acknowledged by the author. [13]

Table 2.
Number of Survivors

Gentleman of Elvas311
Garcilaso de la Vegaunder 300
Hernandez de Biedma221
Pedro de Arevalo350
Francisco Gutierrez300
Luís de Moscoso350
Sebastian de Villegas350
J. R. Swanton194
This investigation257


Los Sobrevivientes de la Florida
©1990, Ignacio Avellaneda and P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History
avellaneda/part1.htm — 27-Jun-2005

Copyright © 1990 Ignacio Avellaneda. Pubished by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History—University of Florida Libraries. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and publisher.