For more than two hundred years after the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492, with perhaps one exception, no European adventurer set foot upon the soil of Middle Tennessee. This possible exception we shall now notice.
By reason of the successful voyage of Columbus, and a few subsequent discoveries by his fellow countrymen, Spain claimed the whole of North America. Following the return of these expeditions there were circulated throughout the Spanish domain the most extravagant stories of the wealth and beauty of this new found land, and numerous parties were formed for its exploration and conquest. In 1512 Ponce De Leon, a Spaniard, crossed the Atlantic at the head of a company and landed on the southern extremity of the continent. He named the country Florida, because of the abundance of wild flowers growing along its shores and also because of the discovery was made on Palm Sunday. For many years thereafter all the country south of this expedition led by Ponce De Leon was the discovery of a fabled fountain of youth, said by the mystics to be located within the interior of the continent. It was confidently believed by the Spaniards that those who were so fortunate as to drink from this source would enjoy perpetual youth. Before they had long pursed their journey, however, they found instead, death from wounds inflicted by poisoned arrows from the bows of hostile Indians. At intervals for twenty-six years thereafter other Spanish explorers visited America for purposes of spoil and conquest but returned without evidence of success.
Ferdinand De Soto was a renowned Spanish soldier of fortune who had served with Pizarro in the conquest of Peru. In 1538 under the patronage of the emperor, Charles V, this veteran warrior began the organization of a company for the purpose of exploring Florida. His patron, the emperor, had but recently ascended the throne of Spain, which was now the most powerful monarchy in all Europe, uniting as it did under one scepter "the infantry of Spain, the looms of Flanders, and the god of Peru." Thus, with unlimited resources at his command, De Soto soon found himself leading a company of nine hundred and fifty adventurers.
Ramsey says that "the chivalry, rank and wealth of Spain entered into this army," and Irving declares that "never had a more gallant and brilliant body of men offered themselves for the new world." Many of them, though of immense wealth, had made disposition of all, and in reckless disregard of the future had invested the proceeds in this enterprise, some bringing over their wives and children together with a retinue of servants. On board ship when they sailed from Spain, were three hundred and fifty mules and a herd of swine, the latter the first of their kind yet brought to America. Arriving in Havana, Cuba, during the month of May 1538, a year was spent in further preparation for the journey into the interior of the continent.
Having added here fifty recruits to their number, they again set sail, landing at Santo Bay on the west coast of Florida, May 27, 1539. From thence a few days later they marched bravely into an unknown region. A majority of these adventures were yet in the springtime of life, and cared but little for fountains of youth. Instead, they were searching for cities of silver and gold, the glittering battlements of which they fancied now hidden away within the region they were about to invade. If in the days of our youth, over field and fen we have trudged in fruitless search of a pot of gold at the end of a fitful rainbow, we have already an idea of the disappointment which at every turn awaited these credulous wanderers. For two years they traveled hither and thither through the Southern States, deluded by savage deceit and beset by savage foe. However, the latter were not altogether the aggressors. De Soto and his officers had been trained in a bad school of warfare, and in turn their treatment of the natives was in many instances both treacherous and cruel in the extreme. On the Savannah River at the present site of Silver Bluff, Georgia, they came upon the village of a beautiful Indian princess, the ruler of a large domain. When informed of their approach she ordered no resistance, but going at once to the camp of the Spaniards, made a peace offering of blankets and shawls and such other supplies as she possessed. Taking from her neck a string of pearls she gave them to De Soto, at the same time offering to him and his followers the freedom of her realm. They accepted this invitation, and after remaining at the village for a month, rewarded the kindness of the princess by taking her captive and leading her in chains on foot behind them as they traveled through the surrounding provinces. At length she escaped and returned to her subjects, remaining forever thereafter a bitter enemy of the whites. This incident if but and example of many others of like character.
In the early spring of 1541, the army came by some route to the Chickasaw Bluffs, the present site of Memphis, and the De Soto discovered the Mississippi River.
Because of the unfamiliar Indian names used by the historian of this expedition we are now unable to locate, with certainty, all the mountains, rivers, and villages by, over and through which they passed en route. That at some period of the journey they visited the Muscle Shoals of the Tennessee River Northern Alabama is supposed by reason of the location there of two ancient forts or camps, more recently identified as of Spanish construction. The names of some of the villages and the numerous crossing of streams have led to the belief that they traveled also through a portion of East Tennessee, the line of march being from North Georgia through Polk, McMinn and Monroe Counties to the foot of the Chilhowee mountains; thence west and southwest, crossing the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, and from thence into Middle Tennessee. Canasauga, Talisse, and Sequachie, all mentioned by the Spanish historian in connection with this part of the journey, are now familiar names in the locality mentioned. They camped for a while at the foot of the mountains which are suppose to be the modern Chilhowee. Around the base of these there flowed a small but rapid river, which properly describes the Little Tennessee. Leaving there "the first day's march westward was through a country covered with fields of maize of luxuriant growth." During the next five days they traversed a "chain of easy mountains covered with oak and mulberry trees, with intervening valleys, rich in pasturage and irrigated by clear and rapid streams." When at the rate of ten miles a day they had journey for sixty miles, they came to a village "stood in a pleasant spot bordered by small streams which they took their rise in the adjacent mountains." These streams "soon mingled their waters and thus formed a grand and powerful river," probably the Tennessee. Turning now from a westerly course they resumed their journey along the bank of this stream toward the south. Eighty miles below they discovered a village on the opposite shore to which they crossed in many rafts and canoes which they prepared for that purpose. Here their worn-out horses were for a season allowed to enjoy rich and abundant pasturage in the neighboring meadows. While in this retreat the Indians showed them how to obtain pearls from oysters or muscles, taken from the river. If the theory advanced is true, the village mentioned was near the present site of Chattanooga, and beneath the shadow of the overhanging cliffs of Lookout Mountain, a locality which for ages was the haunt of the Aborigines.
The mountains, the rivers, the distances traveled, and the pearls all tend to establish the route indicated. From this place they crossed the mountains westward. Martin's history of Louisiana suggests that from thence they passed entirely through Middle Tennessee and into Southern Kentucky, in which event their journey lay through Maury, Rutherford, Davidson and Sumner Counties.
Is is not unreasonable to suppose that the natives with whom they conversed during the first of their travels had not failed to lure this band of plumed and armored piligrams searching for mystic treasures into a region so fruitful of legend. By the glens of the far-famed Hiwassee, under the sheltering coves of the Chilhowees and Lookout, on the ancient forest-covered crest and slopes of the Cumberlands, and into the darkened ravines and beautiful valleys beyond; on every hand might be uncovered secret portals to hidden treasures. These once discovered, they would return in triumph to Spain and there with sparkling jewels dazzle the eyes of their less hardy countrymen.
From the top of every mountain range stretching itself athwart their chosen route, their scouts might gaze eagerly for a glimpse of silver-paved and gold-domed cities with which a vivid imagination had vested an unknown land.
After crossing with his band the Mississippi at Memphis and traversing a region afterwards called the "Great American Desert," the De Soto died in Louisiana a year later in a lonely glade near the mouth of Red River. Wrapping his body in a cloak a few of his officers rowed out at midnight to the middle of the Mississippi and their buried their gallant commander in the waters of the mighty river he had discovered. The hour selected was because of the purpose of the Spaniards to conceal from the natives among whom they were encamped the knowledge of De Soto's death. The latter had told the Indians who came every day to his tent that he was from the land of the Great Spirit, and therefore would never die.
The expedition now ended in disaster, having already lost by
disease and warfare more than two-thirds of its original number.