Home Page Home Page

Early Exploration

This week we're looking at some of the early European(ish) accounts of the exploration of Louisiana. de Vaca and de Biedma were both Spanish, while la Salle was French.

De Vaca. The Lost
De Vaca. The Lost Expedition.

de Vaca was the treasurer and officer of the Naváez Expedition, which set out in 1527 (35 years after Columbus discovered America). The expedition started with 600 men; de Vaca was one of only 4 survivors to make it to a Spanish outpost in Mexico in 1536. His group crossed the Mississippi between September and November 1528. It would be almost 200 years until New Orleans was founded. The current was too strong for them to go up river, so we don't have an account of inland. We do have his account of the coast, trying to find food in the cold weather (roots and oysters), and of dealing with the tribes they came across (the shaggy furs they wore could be from bison, which lived in Louisiana at the time). He had to serve as a healer and then as a trader to earn his keep among the tribes. As a European, he could go between tribes that wouldn't deal directly with each other. 

De Soto Exploration
De Soto Exploration Map.

When de Soto was serving as the governor of Cuba, he went on a mission of exploration and conquest in North America. He led his expedition from 1539 until his death on May 21, 1542. Along the way, he discovered the Mississippi River. He died somewhere near the Mississippi River, possibly near modern Ferriday, or possibly in Arkansas. His men buried him in the Mississippi, in part to conceal his death from the local tribes.

"Despite having a new wife and home in Spain, de Soto grew restless when he heard stories about Cabeza de Vaca's exploration of Florida and the other Gulf Coast states. Enticed by the riches and fertile land de Vaca had allegedly encountered there, de Soto sold all his belongings and used the money to prepare for an expedition to North America. He assembled a fleet of 10 ships and selected a crew of 700 men based on their fighting prowess.

"On April 6, 1538, de Soto and his fleet departed Sanlúcar. On their way to the United States, de Soto and his fleet stopped in Cuba. While there, they were delayed by helping the city of Havana recover after the French sacked and burned it. By May 18, 1539, de Soto and his fleet at last set out for Florida. On May 25 they landed at Tampa Bay. For the next three years de Soto and his men explored the southeastern United States, facing ambushes and enslaving natives along the way. After Florida came Georgia and then Alabama. In Alabama, de Soto encountered his worst battle yet, against Indians in Tuscaloosa. Victorious, de Soto and his men next headed westward, serendipitously discovering the mouth of the Mississippi River in the process. De Soto's voyage would, in fact, mark the first time that a European team of explorers had traveled via the Mississippi River.

"After crossing the Mississippi de Soto was struck with fever. He died on May 21, 1542, in Ferriday, Louisiana. Members of his crew sank his body in the river that he had discovered. By that time, almost half of de Soto's men had been taken out by disease or in battle against the Indians. In his will, de Soto named Luis de Moscoso Alvarado the new leader of the expedition" (Biography.com).

La Salle
          Exploration Map.
La Salle Exploration Map.

The la Salle espeditions. On April 9, 1682, la Salle conducted a ceremony at the junction of the bird-foot delta near the mouth of the Mississippi River, claiming the river and its drainage region for Louis XIV. Read the account of his expeditions at 64 Parishes. It has a brief summary of the parts of the expedition that are important for this class. The pictures below show the usual portraits of the noble Europeans bringing civilization to the sauvages who look on in wonder and gratitude. Right up to the image where he was so "unhappily assassinated." The texts reveal a different story, one where the men were lost and bedraggled much of the time. La Salle's expeditions were plagued by desertions and dissention, escallating to his assassination. As we saw last week, what we find in these foundational texts depends on what we bring to them.   

Map of
          Louisiana, 1687.
Map of Louisiana, 1687.

La Salle at
La Salle at Arkansas.

The Tensa Receive La Salle
The Tensa Receive La Salle.

LaSalle claiming
La Salle Claiming Louisiana.

LaSalle claiming
La Salle Claiming Louisiana.

La Salle's Death
La Salle’s Death.

Louis XIV's Seal
Louis XIV’s Seal.

Flag of New
Flag of New France.

Discussion Questions

  1. At what point does the territory of the New World start to become property? How did the European idea of property differ from tribal views of the land?
  2. What are the different ways the tribes interacted with the Europeans?

Home Page Home Page