Calderon’s Company is a group of living-history volunteers based at De Soto National Memorial, in Bradenton, Florida. The organization is named after Captain Pedro Calderón, who was left in charge of the base camp and port with approximately 100 soldiers and sailors, when Hernando de Soto began his entrada into La Florida in June of 1539. Members of the company have since 1993 researched, constructed arms and armor, and portrayed the garrison life of these sixteenth-century conquistadors in the Tampa Bay area. Please enjoy this slideshow of the 2010 Desoto landing reenactment.
On this day in 1539 Hernando DeSoto began off-loading nine ships that held tons of equipment for his journey into the southeast. For the journey he brought along 620 people including priests, craftsmen, engineers, farmers and merchants for founding a colony. He also brought along female slaves and male African slaves. The livestock he brought included 220 horses, a herd of pigs and hunting dogs for hunting down and killing the natives. And it didn’t take long for the killing to begin. As DeSoto oversaw the unloading of the ships the slave trader Vasco Porcallo de Figueroa went inland in search of natives to enslave. He chanced upon a group of natives that resisted. Figueroa and his men killed two and returned to the ships. Seeing the difficulty of the Florida terrain and the fierceness of the natives Figueroa decided to return to Cuba. But the killings didn’t end there. These killings would be the beginning of a three-year rampage by DeSoto that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of natives through what are now eight states in the southeast.
This day 475 years ago Hernando DeSoto and his boats were carefully sailing into what is now called Tampa Bay. DeSoto and his sailors called it Bahia Honda or Deep Bay. The bay offered a natural refuge for DeSoto to unload his ships of men, horses, dogs, and pigs into Florida. But two things delayed the landing- initially Desoto’s scout Juan de Anasco, who had reconnoitered the bay the previous winter, didn’t recognize where he was. After a day Anasco and DeSoto got their bearings straight and made their way into the bay.
The other setback that kept DeSoto in the bay for an extra couple days was that the bay was lined with Red Mangrove trees.
Mangroves are tropical trees that thrive in salty environments along the water's edge. Red Mangrove trees create a tangle of long dense roots that create a natural barrier to shore erosion and create habitat in the marine food chain. They also kept DeSoto in the bay. Over the past 100 years Tampa Bay has lost over 44 percent of its coastal wetlands acreage According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
There was only one spot where DeSoto could put ashore and many believe that was at Piney Point, a mangrove free beach on the southeastern shore of the bay. And if Desoto were to return today he may still have trouble recognizing the place. Nearly half of the mangrove swamps that once ringed Tampa Bay have been replaced by development and seawalls.
Since 1850 people have been beating the bushes, searching far and wide for Hernando Desoto’s route through the Southeast. Professional and lay historians alike have been on Desoto’s trail like hound dogs sniffing through North America as far north as Chicago and as far west as Texas. As of this writing two sites in the southeast have been definitively linked to Desoto- the Martin site that lays within the city limits of Tallahassee, Florida and the Orange Lake site near Ocala, Florida.
No one knows exactly where Desoto and his men walked on their journey through the southeast from 1539-1542, but just by looking at a contemporary map of the Southeast you would think otherwise.
On current maps of the southeast Desoto’s name is legion. Desoto City and Hernando County in Florida. Hernando County and Desoto in Mississippi. The Hernando Desoto Bridge crosses the Mississippi River and links Memphis, Tennessee with West Memphis, Arkansas. Towns in Oklahoma,Texas and Louisiana also bear the name DeSoto.
In Alabama it’s a bit different. Although the Battle of Mabila that pitted Desoto against Chief Tazcalusa is believed to have taken place in what is now Alabama in 1540, there isn’t a county or a city in Alabama named for the Spanish conquistador. However a tourist attraction named Desoto Caverns is located at Childersburg, Alabama in Talladega County, a place that Desoto may have traveled near during his trek through the Southeast. In my next installment we’ll explore Desoto Caverns with a peculiar character named Happy Hernando.