Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas

David Ewing Duncan, Author
David Ewing Duncan, Author Crown Publishers $40 (0p) ISBN 978-0-517-58222-0
Reviewed on: 03/04/1996
Release date: 03/01/1996
Paperback - 608 pages - 978-0-8061-2977-8
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Ruthless conqueror of Central America and Peru's Inca empire, the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto is sometimes portrayed as a saintly bearer of civilization, while other biographers see a brutal butcher. To freelancer Duncan, this son of an impoverished Spanish squire--who became fabulously wealthy by looting gold and selling or working to death thousands of slaves in Panama and Nicaragua--was, above all, a gambler and insatiably ambitious megalomaniac. From 1539 to 1543, de Soto and his army of 600 men trekked 4000 miles through 10 future Southeastern U.S. states, seeking a nonexistent second Inca empire laden with gold. Instead they stumbled upon the Mississippians, a sophisticated culture of city- and mound-building natives. The Spaniards' systematic plunder, murder, warfare and enslavement of the Indians brought the collapse of their civilization. De Soto died of fever in 1542 at the age of 42; more than half his men were killed by the Mississippians. Drawing on expedition logs, colonial archival manuscripts, eyewitness accounts and recent archaeological finds, Duncan strips away decades of mythmaking to plumb the conquistador mentality in a vibrant, gripping biography. Illustrated. (Jan.)
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