The sixteenth century Spaniard, Hernando de Soto, is remembered by historians for his exploration of the southeastern United States, which began in Florida. A former mercenary soldier in the conquest of Central and South America, he hoped to increase his notoriety and fortune by leading an expedition through parts of North America. In the end, de Soto’s army spent over four years and covered 4,000 miles in its quest for gold and new territory to colonize. Neither resulted from his efforts.
With approval from the Spanish Crown, De Soto assembled his expedition. He financed the endeavor himself with the understanding that upon his return he would be made Governor of Cuba and the new territory that he discovered. His party was comprised of several hundred men- soldiers, slaves, artisans, priests, and even some women.
In 1539 de Soto departed Cuba for la Florida (the general southeastern United States), eventually reaching its southwestern coast in the vicinity of Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay. The exact location of the landing remains uncertain. After unloading his ships, de Soto ordered a vessel and crew to return to Cuba to obtain additional supplies and assigned another contingent to man a coastal camp. He and the rest of his men then proceeded inland and northward.
The expedition passed through various Indian territories before reaching the Aucilla River, which marked the eastern boundary of the Apalachee people(Apalachee meaning "people on the other side"). The Apalachee Indians fought hard to defend themselves against the Spanish, but they were finally defeated. Rather than allowing the Spanish to pillage their villages and fields, they set fired to them and then fled. The smoke from the fire warned other Apalachee of impending danger.
The Spanish continued westward, ultimately occupying a large, already abandoned Apalachee village of Anhaica in what is now the City of Tallahassee. Anhaica was the Capital of the Apalachee Provence, this town had over 250 structures. De Soto decided to spend the winter there to rest his army, repair equipment, and wait for the arrival of supplies. He selected the chief’s home for his own while his soldiers were given the remaining houses.The Indians that had been captured en route may not have received shelter, since many of them died during the winter.
It was during this encampment of the winter of 1539 that it is believed that Hernando De Soto celebrated the First Christmas in America. De Soto traveled with 3 priests and a full communion set for celebration Catholic mass.
The village of Anhaica was unfortified, so De Soto ordered that a makeshift fortification be erected. The Spanish also may have built enclosures for the livestock that they brought with them. A pig herd was part of the expedition’s food supply. It had the advantage of transporting itself, living off the land, and reproducing along the way. Many of the wild pigs—the variety commonly known as “Arkansas Razorbacks”—found across the southeastern United States, probably descended from pigs escaped from the de Soto expedition. There were no pigs in the North America before the arrival of the Spanish.