Sunday, November 15, 2009

Memorial in Sarasotas explores De Soto's Greed


VENTURE BOUND Memorial in Sarasota explores De Soto’s greed
         “Twenty years after De Soto visited the Coosa towns, other explorers found barren fields, abandoned towns and fragmented settlements where there had been a prosperous chiefdom. These were the early signs of the European disease and depredations that brought about the collapse of cultures throughout the Southeast.” - National Park brochure

        My wife, Carla, and I attended an Elderhostel on theater in Sarasota, Fla., that was tightly scheduled early and late in the day. We managed to take an afternoon off, and in sorting through the many attractions in the area decided to go to the De Soto National Memorial in nearby Bradenton.
         The National Park Service considers De Soto’s wandering through the countryside in search of gold significant enough to deserve the memorial, along with a small visitors’ center.
        Born in 1500 of a noble family, Hernando De Soto at the age of 14 left Spain, became part of a raiding team in what is now Panama and made a fortune from gold and slaves in Nicaragua. Not satisfied with this wealth, he joined Francisco Pizarro in subduing Peru, returning to Spain a very wealthy man at the age of 36.
His greed for gold and conquest must have been insatiable because after a few years of ease, he cashed in his wealth, bought boats and enlisted an army to go back to the New World.
He arrived in Florida near present-day Bradenton with 622 soldiers, a large number of Indians as slaves to tote the supplies, 200 horses, hundreds of pigs and fierce dogs for disciplining and frightening the Indians. He left a hundred of his men at this spot and headed off for what turned out to be a four-year, 4,000-mile hike across what is now southeastern United States.
        The visitors’ center has a small display area with helmets, chain mail, weapons and a suit of armor. After lifting the chain mail, it was hard for me to imagine how anyone could walk far wearing it, especially because the Spanish were reported to be less than 5 feet tall. The weapons, though primitive by our standards, were so superior to the Indians’ bows and arrows that in any pitched battle the losses on the Indian side were tremendous.
        The visitors’ center shows a 21-minute movie that explains the problems the Spanish encountered and why the expedition failed. Most of the movie is done with re-enactors, but the part of the movie that had the most emotional impact for me was the drawings, evidently done at the time, of how the Spanish mistreated the Indians they encountered. This included torture and the cutting off of hands.
        I walked away from the movie thinking what horrible people conquistadors had been. Finding the city of gold was their goal. The Indians knew this, and to get them to move on they kept telling them the gold was just beyond the next city. De Soto’s expedition was one of looting, burning, raping, enslaving and killing.
Perhaps his greatest crime against the Indians was the introduction of diseases for which they had no resistance, diseases that killed hundreds of thousands of them.
        Coincidentally, De Soto died on the trip, lost half of his men and most of his horses and found nothing of value to take back to Europe.
        The memorial also has a walking trail to demonstrate the kind of territory the Spanish had to work their way through.
        From mid-December until mid-April, a group of park rangers and volunteers put on costumes and give demonstrations of how weapons were used and food was prepared in De Soto’s time.
This memorial is definitely worth a full morning or afternoon visit simply to learn more about our country’s history — even though some of the details are far from pleasant.

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