Ferdinand de Soto, the discoverer of the Mississippi, was the first civilized white man to put foot upon any part of what is now the State of Arkansas. He and his band of adventurous followers had forged their way over immense obstacles, through the trackless wastes, and in the pleasant month of June, 1541, reached the Mississippi River at, as is supposed, Chickasaw Bluffs, a short distance below Memphis. He had sailed from San Lucan in April, 1538, with 600 men, twenty officers and twenty-four priests. He represented his king and church, and came to make discoveries for his master in Florida, a country undefined in extent, and believed to be the richest in the world.
His expedition was a daring and dangerous one, and there were but few men in the tide of time who could have carried it on to the extent that did this bold Spaniard. The worn and decimated band remained at the Chickasaw Bluffs to rest and recuperate until June 29, then crossing the river into Arkansas, and pushing on up the Mississippi River, through brakes and swamps and slashes, until they reached the higher prairie lands that lead toward New Madrid; stopping in their north course at an Indian village, Pacaha, whose location is not known. De Soto sent an expedition toward the Osage River, but it soon returned and reported the country worthless.1 He then turned west and proceeded to the Boston Mountains, at the head-waters of White River; then bending south, and passing Hot Springs, he went into camp for the winter on the Ouachita River, at Autamqua Village, in Garland County. In the spring he floated down the river, often lost in the bayous and overflows of Red River, and finally reached again the Mississippi. Halting here he made diligent inquiries of the Indians as to the mouth of the great stream, but they could give him no information. In June, one year from the date of his discovery, after a sickness of some weeks, he died. As an evidence of his importance to the expedition his death was kept a secret, and he was buried at night, most appropriately, in the waves of the great river that gave his name immortality. But the secrecy of his death was of no avail, for there was no one who could supply his place, and with his life closed the existence, for all practical purposes, of the expedition. Here the interest of the historian in De Soto and his companions ceases. He came not to possess the beautiful country, or plant colonies, or even extend the dominions of civilization, but simply to find the fabled wealth in minerals and precious stones, and gather them and carry them away. Spain already possessed Florida, and it was all Florida then, from the Atlantic to the boundless and unknown west.
The three great nations of the old world had conquered and possessed – the Spaniards Florida, the English Virginia and New England, and the French the St. Lawrence. The feeblest of all these colonizers or conquerors were the English, and they retained their narrow foothold on the new continent with so little vigor that for more than a century and a half they knew nothing of the country west of them save the idle dreams and fictions of the surrounding Indians. The general world had learned little of De Soto’ s great western discoveries, and when he was buried in the Mississippi all remained undisturbed from the presence or knowledge of civilized men for the period of 132 years.
- It is proper to here state the fact that some local investigators, and others who have studied the history of De Soto’s voyaging through Arkansas, do not believe that he reached and discovered the river as high up as Memphis. They think he approached it a short distance above the mouth of Red River, and from that point made his detour around to Red River. Others in the State, who have also studied the subject thoroughly, find excellent evidence of his presence in Arkansas along the Mississippi, particularly in Mississippi County. After examining the testimony carefully I incline to the account as given in the contest as being the most probable.