William Henry Powell's "Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto" was painted in 1853, more than 250 years after the event.
Painting by William H. Powell, courtesy the Architect of the Capitol

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  • On May 8, 1541, Spanish explorer Fernando de Soto reached the banks of the Mississippi River. De Soto and his expedition were exploring the southeastern part of North America, searching for gold and other riches. 
    De Soto had decamped from what is now Tampa Bay, Florida, two years earlier. In Tampa, de Soto hired a skilled translator (Juan Ortiz), who was able to communicate with many local Native American people. From Tampa, de Soto and Ortiz traveled with a huge expedition of about 600 men and 200 horses. Those numbers dwindled as they confronted unfamiliar, hostile cultures and harsh weather.
    The de Soto expedition traveled from Tampa to what is now northern Florida, a region called Apalachee (from where we get our word Appalachia). Next, they continued their futile search for gold in what are now the forests of North Carolina and Tennessee. There, they accidentally released pigs brought on the expedition for food. These introduced species were the ancestors of the feral razorback hogs now found throughout the southeastern U.S.
    The de Soto expedition then met the Alabama people, but had a bloody encounter with the Mobilians, led by Chief Tuskaloosa, on the Gulf Coast. (The U.S. later borrowed these names, of course, for the modern state of Alabama and two of its largest cities—Mobile and Tuskaloosa.) The expedition crossed the Mississippi River—which de Soto called the Rio Espiritu Santo—near what is today Memphis, Tennessee, and proceeded to explore regions in Oklahoma and Texas. De Soto was the first European to see the “Valley of Vapors”—what is now Hot Springs, Arkansas.
    De Soto died a year after crossing the Mississippi. The rest of the expedition, which eventually reached what is now Mexico City, had to conceal his death from local tribes, as de Soto had encouraged them to think of him as a living god.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    ancestor Noun

    organism from whom one is descended.

    bank Noun

    a slope of land adjoining a body of water, or a large elevated area of the sea floor.

    communicate Verb

    to exchange knowledge, thoughts, or feelings.

    conceal Verb

    to hide.

    confront Verb

    to address a problem or person directly.

    culture Noun

    learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

    decamp Verb

    to pack up equipment and leave a camping or temporary resting site.

    dwindle Verb

    to shrink.

    encounter Verb

    to meet, especially unexpectedly.

    expedition Noun

    journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

    explorer Noun

    person who studies unknown areas.

    feral Adjective

    wild or untamed, but descended from domesticated animals.

    forest Noun

    ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

    futile Adjective

    useless or without any result.

    god Noun

    one of many spiritual deities or supreme beings.

    harsh Adjective


    hostile Adjective

    confrontational or unfriendly.

    introduced species Noun

    a species that does not naturally occur in an area. Also called alien, exotic, or non-native species.

    Native American Noun

    person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.

    razorback Noun

    feral hog common in the southeastern U.S.

    region Noun

    any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    translator Noun

    someone who interprets, usually from one language to another.

    tribe Noun

    community made of one or several family groups sharing a common culture.

    vapor Noun

    visible liquid suspended in the air, such as fog.

    weather Noun

    state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.

    Encyclopedic Entry: weather