De Soto scholarship varies across disciplinary and cultural backgrounds, with differences reaching down to the name. Do we call the conquistador Soto, de Soto or De Soto? The surname “Soto” (without the “de”) is technically correct, and while Spanish speakers use the lower case preposition, the name’s iconic status (like Cadillac, De Soto is also a car) lends credence to the capital “De.” This particular essay in the Road Course is as much about the Soto (or de Soto) expedition as it is about De Soto (the figure in the popular imagination), and I have fewer qualms about capitalization.
As with Cabeza de Vaca, Latin Americanists and Anglo historians approach the expedition very differently. Scholars in the United States, particularly in the South, have obsessed over the explorer’s route. For decades, debates raged over the site of the 1539 landing, whether Tampa Bay or Charlotte Harbor. Journalist Lindsey Williams reviews both sides in “A Charlotte Harbor Perspective on De Soto’s Landing Site” (1989), noting that claims for a more southerly entrada first appeared in a series of 1947 articles in the American Eagle, an organ of the utopian Koreshan Unity Society. Jerald T. Milanich and Charles Hudson (who side with Tampa Bay) reconstruct the expedition’s path in exhaustive detail in Hernando de Soto and the Indians of Florida (1993); David E. Duncan narrates the entire four-year expedition in full brutal detail in Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas; Charles Hudson’s Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms (1997) provides the authoritative account of the Spanish-native encounter across the Southeast; and John R. Swanton issues the last and sometimes humorous word on route studies in his Final Report of the United States De Soto Expedition Commission (1985). Lawrence Clayton, Vernon James Knight, Jr. and Edward C. Moore edited the definitive, two-volume De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543 (1993), with exhaustive footnotes, and yes, lots on geography. (Note how their title fudges between the upper- and lower-case “d.”)
Jeffrey M. Mitchem and Brent R. Weisman provided the first academic studies of Tatham Mound, shortly after their discovery and study in the 1980s. Weisman worked from the Henry Prince diary, which has since been edited by Frank Laumer, Amidst a Storm of Bullets: The Diary of Lt. Henry Prince in Florida, 1836-1842 (1998). On the historic landscape of the area, with emphasis on Seminole-maroon-precontact connections, see Weisman’s “The Cove of the Withlacoochee: A First Look at the Archeology of an Interior Florida Wetland” (1986). A report of the Tatham Mound, available online, is Mitchem, Weisman et al., “Preliminary Report in Excavations at the Tatham Mound …” (1985). Expanding from these initial studies, Dale L. Hutchinson uses Tatham Mound to explain native health, disease and depopulation in Tatham Mound and the Bioarchaeology of European Contact: Disease and Depopulation in Central Gulf Coast Florida (2006). Fantasy novelist Piers Anthony, who lives nearby, funded research on the mound and also set a fantasy novel there, Tatham Mound (1991). There’s lots of honey used as contraception and talking spirits in Anthony’s quest narrative.
My understanding of the trail in the popular imagination draws heavily from the personal archives of Professors Milanich and Weisman, who graciously opened their files. Over the past decade I have been collecting lesson plans, cartoons and advertisements, coloring books, advertisements and public history programs. Each year the De Soto National Memorial, a National Park in Bradenton, reenacts the landing. Milanich has been particularly generous in sharing his collection of De Soto kitsch, including samples of a subgenre I never knew existed — Archaeologist Hate Mail, or letters from the amateur historians who challenge the scholarly reports. The Milanich-Weisman files includes correspondence about the trail’s academic reconstruction, periodical accounts, photos and internal memos about bringing scholarly findings to the public. Their efforts culminated with the Florida Division of Parks and Recreation official De Soto Trail, which included a pamphlet, signage and interpretative kiosks. Plans to connect the trail across states, providing a southeastern equivalent of the Lewis and Clark trail, failed. The De Soto Trail has since been been dismantled, although a downloadable map for a revised trail is now available.
In a world apart from route-obsessed scholarships, Latin Americanists have mined the discourse of conquest as literary subject. Latino and Spanish critics especially have focused on El Inca Garcilaso, which route scholars dismiss as the “least reliable” of the four accounts. (My chapter in the Road Course dwells much longer on the author than the shorter blog post.) For English readers, El Inca Garcilaso is available in the second volume of The De Soto Chronicles, although the sadly out-of-print translation by John Grier Varner and Jeannette Johnson Varner, The Florida of the Inca (1980) is more fluid. Emma Susana Speratti-Piñero edited the definitive Spanish-language version, and the standard biography in English John Grier Varner’s El Inca: The Life and Times of Garcilaso de la Vega. Raquel Chang-Ródriguez edited collection provides the best single volume introduction, Beyond Books and Borders: Garcilaso de la Vega and La Florida del Inca (2006). John E. Worth included several sections of El Inca Garcilaso in the documentary-narrative history, Discovering Florida: First-Contact Narratives from Spanish Expeditions along the Lower Gulf Coast (2015). The Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes provides a complete bibliography of El Inca Garcilaso.
Less concerned with physical settings, the criticism on La Florida del Inca has been well served by post-colonial and deconstructive readings. Bernard Lavalle’s overview, “El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega,” situates the author in hemispheric and transatlantic contexts (1992), highlighting a standard theme of American versus European presence. Rolena Adorno emphasizes intertextuality in “El Inca Garcilaso: Writer of Hernando de Soto, Reader of Cabeza de Vaca” (in Chang-Rodridguez, above), as does Chang-Rodriguez in Violencia y subversión en la prosa colonial hisapanoamericana (1982). José Rabasa’s Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier: The Historiography of Sixteenth-Century New Mexico and Florida and the Legacy of Conquest (2000), one of few literary studies to examine El Inca Garcilaso alongside other primary accounts, emphasizes figures of violence. Jonathan D. Steigman outlines the moral weight and rhetorical couching in La Florida del Inca and the Struggle for Social Equality in Colonial Spanish America (2005).
The richest criticism of El Inca Garcilaso often starts with composition history. See, for starters, Aurelio Miró Quesada’s “Creación y Elaboración de La Florida del Inca” (1989). The focus upon the composition has in turn supported deconstructive readings: see, for example, Susan Jákfalvi-Leiva’s influential Traducción, escritura y violencia colonizadora: un estudio de la obra del Garcilaso. Foreign and Comparative Studies (1984); Enrique Pupo-Walker, Historia, Creación y Profecía en los Textos del Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1982); and Pupo-Walker, “La Florida del Inca Garcilaso: notas sobre la problematización del discurso histórico en los siglos XVI y XVII” (1985). On La Florida del Inca as Renaissance history, see David Henige’s “The Context, Content, and Credibility of La Florida del Inca (1986), and “‘So Unbelievable It Has to be True’: Inca Garcilaso in Two Worlds” (1997). Lee Dowling, finally, reviews the literary context in an attempt to reconcile differences between positivist historians and those cultural critics who are more interested in discursive formations in “La Florida del Inca: Garcilaso’s Literary Sources” (2005).
As with the Cabeza de Vaca, discussed above, I have sought to set writing about De Soto and El Inca Garcilaso within a broader scholarly context. Any discussion of Native Americans and Spanish colonial discourse is indebted to Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (1949). Walter D. Mignolo situates the aims of Renaissance against indigenous history in “El Metatexto Historiografico y la Historiografia Indiana” (1981). Beatriz Bodmer emphasizes the discourse of failure, or how failed expeditions shaped narratives of the northern borderlands in The Armature of Conquest: Spanish Accounts of the Discovery of America, 1492-1589 (1992). On the Spanish expeditions as both military and discursive struggle, see Margarita Zamora’s Language, Authority, and Indigenous History in the Commentarios reales de los Incas (1988). Adorno emphasizes intertextuality between accounts in “Discourses on Colonialism: Bernal Díaz, Las Casas, and the Twentieth Century Reader” (1988). Historian Amy Turner Bushnell discusses the tidal change that led to less recognition for conquistadors by the late fifteenth century in “A Requiem for Lesser Conquerors: Honor and Oblivion on a Maritime Periphery” (2006). Future scholars surely will consider how the various stands of research intersect, and how our own differences in cultural background and academic discipline have left the individual parts of a single history so strikingly unfamiliar. To this point, literary critics and historians have failed to bring together the different readings that come from texts and bones.
(Author’s note. Did I miss or misrepresent anything? Contact me!)
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