THE HERNANDO DE SOTO EXPEDITION OF 1539-43
AND THE EXTREMELY STRANGE THEORIES OF DONALD E. SHEPPARD
NOTE: The following was originally written as an appendix for my book CONQUEST. Later I decided it would be inappropriate to include something like this in a serious work of history, so I took it out and instead am posting it here. Since Mr. Sheppard has used the internet to spread misinformation and bizarre theories, perhaps the internet is also the best place to try to refute and correct him.
Apologies to readers who are not familiar with the historic background, or the sources referred to. If they want to know more, they are referred to my book mentioned above; at present it is out of print but it might be findable in a public or school library.
It might seem that the internet, with its apparent wealth of information on virtually any conceivable subject, would be of great value to anyone seeking to learn more about the Soto expedition. A search under "Hernando de Soto" turns up a startling number of entries; Google, at the time I write this, shows 47,000!
A few of these sites do contain useful material; for example, I have seen one that reproduced the entire text of Hernandez de Biedma's account. Many are simple retellings, usually in very summarized form, of the history of the expedition as recorded in generally available sources, such as encyclopedias and history books.
And then there are the web pages of Donald E. Sheppard.
There are a staggering number of these; Mr. Sheppard's account goes on for many pages and seems to have at least a couple of mirror sites. Several different introductory pages, under various titles, lead to the main site, as do links found on quite a few other people's websites. All in all the Sheppard pages are so numerous that they virtually dominate the topic on the internet at this time, loading up search engines and burying other sites. Anyone searching the web for information on Hernando de Soto is almost certain to wind up looking at a Sheppard page, probably quite early on.
Which is unfortunate, because the Sheppard pages are a very bad source of knowledge on this subject.
Please understand: I am sure Mr. Sheppard is a nice man, with the best intentions - he is certainly very sympathetic toward American Indians, and not an apologist for the conquistadors - and he clearly has put a great deal of work into his project, and believes passionately in what he has to say; so I wish there were some kinder way to say this.
But I am afraid his internet account of the Soto expedition is hopelessly wrong. While it does contain scattered bits of accurate information and a few perceptive insights, these are embedded in a great mass of serious errors, both of fact and method, and some of the most spectacularly wrong-headed conclusions since the late Barry Fell.
It is not just that his theories differ widely (and even wildly) from those generally accepted by scholars; this in itself would not disqualify them. After all, some of the most important writings of history and archaeology have been, when first published, very different in many respects from what had previously been believed.
But when a person presents a radically new theory that contradicts the existing expert consensus, in any field of discipline, he is obliged to explain his reasons and present evidence to support his ideas. This Mr. Sheppard has failed to do.
True, in some instances he offers murky and confused bits of supposed proof - frequently incorporating factual misstatements, erroneous translations of Indian words, and/or defective readings of the narrative sources - but more often he simply lays down his astonishing statements and moves on, apparently expecting the reader to take his word for it.
(And very precise and confident statements they are, too. In this respect Mr. Sheppard stands in sharp contrast to all the other writers on this topic. None of us claims to know all the answers, or even most of them, with anything like absolute certainty; we all say, "It appears" or "Probably" or "The most likely conclusion is -" Mr. Sheppard, however, unhesitatingly tells the reader that this is how it was and where it happened and to whom. For a historian, and particularly one dealing with a subject as elusive as this one, this is not a good sign.)
Well, the internet is full of strange and wonderful writings of dubious validity, and fanciful imaginings presented as fact; it has been called the "information superhighway", but much of the traffic is of the mis- sort. The Sheppard pages are hardly unique in this respect.
Why, then, am I going to the trouble of commenting on them at such length? Why not, as various people have said to me, simply ignore them?
Because people are reading them. The main site has a Top 5% rating from Yahoo; links turn up on other sites. Even worse, they are being used in schools. There is even, apparently, some sort of instructional package (one of those iniquitous "teaching units", I suppose), aimed at fifth-graders, which uses the Sheppard website as a resource.
This is appalling. Not just because some children are being taught arrant nonsense, but in the broader implications - but this is not the place to get into that.
Of course I do not expect that very many fifth-graders are going to read this book. But perhaps a few parents and, better yet, teachers will be alerted. One does what one can.
A point-by-point analysis and refutation of Mr. Sheppard's theories, as set forth in his web pages, would be a lengthy and tiresome business. However, I don't think there is any need for anything so exhaustive. Rather I will merely summarize his version of the story, going into detail on the most flagrant errors or egregiously weird conclusions; and, here and there, examine a few points of lesser importance, just as typical examples of his overall style.
In his introduction, Mr. Sheppard discusses at some length the work of the United States De Soto Commission of 1939, and much of what he says in the beginning is quite correct. However, he also makes such statements as: "The DeSoto Chronicles were dismissed by the Commission, for the most part, as simple fabrication." This is simply untrue; if anything, the Commission sometimes tended to take the accounts too literally, and place undue faith in their accuracy.
He also says, "In fact, modern archaeologists are inclined to believe DeSoto's people simply lied, given the want of material remains of giant Indian cultures at places where the Commission claimed DeSoto found them." One, I know of no modern archaeologist who has ever made any such assertion; two, neither the Soto chronicles nor the Commission's report make any mention whatever of "giant Indian cultures" - merely a few large Indian towns with relatively sophisticated (by Neolithic standards) social structures. And, three, few if any modern archaeologists regard the Commission as the final authority on the subject.
Which brings up another point. Mr. Sheppard is at some pains to discredit the Commission's report - and it is indeed open to question on very many points - but he seems to think it has been the universally accepted version prior to his own. At least he makes no mention of any others. I do not know whether he is simply unaware of the work of such modern experts as Dr. Charles Hudson, or chose for reasons of his own to ignore it; but the omission does his credibility no good.
He begins his narrative by informing us that Hernando de Soto did not, as is commonly believed, invade North America in search of gold. Rather, he says, "DeSoto" (as he calls him, though he admits that "Soto" is correct) was out to find a route to Asia, colonize North America, and establish trade with China. The quest for gold was a side issue; Soto was relying on that to attract colonists. He himself was already "incredibly rich" from the Inca conquest and had no need for more. (As if that ever stopped any man of his kind!)
Moving quickly from the merely startling to the flabbergasting, he declares: "DeSoto had observed that a great circle of Earth drawn from Havana, Spain's strongest outpost in the New World, to the Orient went up America's Great River and crossed the Indians' legendary northern sea."
This sentence in itself is so bizarre as to be disorienting; the reader may experience a brief moment of vertigo, and feel the need to close his eyes. Hernando de Soto didn't know what a great-circle route was, for God's sake; neither did anyone else in the world at the time. If you had asked him the most direct route to China, he would undoubtedly have pointed due west.
The reader might also wonder how Soto would have known anything about the course of the Mississippi, since he hadn't discovered it yet; but Mr. Sheppard assures us, more than once, that the Great River was already known to the Spaniards who sailed between Cuba and Mexico.
There is a grain of truth in this; a couple of Spanish navigators had reported passing the mouth of a big river, as had the Narváez survivors. So at least a few Spaniards knew vaguely that some sort of very large river existed, and emptied into the Gulf at a point between the Florida peninsula and the curve of the Texas coast - but none of them had ever done more than sail past its mouth, and neither Soto nor anyone else had any idea of its course. No one even knew that it ran north-south.
One might also question why, if Soto was trying to develop a route up the Mississippi River, he began by landing in Florida. One might ask quite a few questions; but enough. Let us move on.
Mr. Sheppard now recounts the story of Cabeza de Vaca, which he rightly treats as essential to an understanding of Soto's motives and actions. Unfortunately his account is dead wrong - or else everyone else who has studied the subject is hopelessly in error. According to him, the Narvaez survivors came ashore on the coast of Louisiana, not Texas. (He has them building and employing rafts rather than boats, contrary to the explicit language of Cabeza de Vaca's own account - a curious error, since Mr. Sheppard is apparently a former naval officer - but never mind.) Cabeza de Vaca eventually fled along the coast, entering Texas in the Port Arthur area. The famous meeting with the Indians who told him about the cities took place at the site of Houston, not in the Southwest as everyone else believes, and the Indians were Caddos.
It is not explained how the Caddos of eastern Texas knew about the Pueblo towns of the Southwest, or why they would have said they lay to the north. Neither is it explained why Cabeza de Vaca's descriptions of these Indians and their way of life bears no resemblance to what is known of the Caddos, or his descriptions of their desert homeland to the east Texas floodplain. No evidence is offered for any of these assertions; they are merely, as is Mr. Sheppard's habitual style, asserted.
Turning at last to the Soto expedition itself, Mr. Sheppard's account of the first part of the journey is not terribly unorthodox. He does believe that the initial landing was made not at Tampa Bay but farther south, at Port Charlotte, but so have many people, including no less an authority than Samuel Eliot Morison.
As for the march north through the Florida peninsula, his version of the itinerary differs from the Commission's and Dr. Hudson's, but not wildly so. He rejects the location of the winter camp at Tallahassee; but it must be admitted that there is no proof that the camp was at Tallahassee. (The archaeological evidence proves only that Soto's Spaniards were there at some time, and Mr. Sheppard admits as much, saying that Tallahassee was just another stop on the route.)
Rather he believes that the town of Iniahica, where the army passed the winter, was near Marianna, some fifty miles or so farther west. Here for once he offers, if not exactly proof, at least some arguments to support his position, based on the local topography. This might be more convincing if he did not throw in the phrase "the Apalachicola River's mammoth gorge" - of which there is no such thing; there is no "mammoth gorge" anywhere in the state of Florida.
The other odd aspect of the Florida part of the Sheppard account is the attention he gives to the winter ride of Juan de Aņasco's detachment back south to the base camp. He talks quite a lot about these men, whom he calls the Thirty Lancers, and seems to think were some sort of elite unit.
This is understandable enough; Aņasco's ride was indeed an impressive feat, and the story is worth retelling. However, Mr. Sheppard seems particularly fascinated by Elvas's remark that they passed the Indian towns at night, in order to avoid contact. From this he appears to have drawn some extremely strange conclusions about the operating practices of Hernando de Soto's army - but we will come to that in time.
At this point Mr. Sheppard temporarily drops out of his narrator's role; the account of the march across Georgia consists of a series of quotations from the chronicles, mixed together and without attribution. Here and there, modern place names are inserted in parentheses, but without further comment.
Again, nothing very unconventional is presented in this section. He has the expedition crossing Georgia diagonally from southwest to northeast, which is pretty much what everyone else says; the differences are those of detail, and I confess I am not sufficiently expert on the topography of central Georgia to pass judgment on who is right.
Like Dr. Hudson and many others, he rejects the location of Cofitachequi on the Savannah. His scenario now comes surprisingly close to the Hudson version, in fact; he believes that Cofitachequi was on the Congaree, on the site of present-day Columbia, South Carolina.
(Not "near" or "in the area"; on the site. Mr. Sheppard's locations are always given with great precision and confidence, and he routinely places important Indian towns referred to in the chronicles directly on the sites of modern cities. He is quite open about this; he says that this is the reason there are no archaeological findings to support his conclusions. It would be incivil to say, "How convenient," but one can hardly help thinking it.)
From Cofitachequi, Mr. Sheppard has Soto moving into the mountains and crossing into North Carolina northwest of Spartanburg, placing Xuala at the site of the little town of Tryon. The route then goes through Asheville, which he identifies as the site of Guasili. His reconstruction of the route is therefore not all that far removed from the various others that have been proposed, or demonstrably contrary to existing knowledge The same, however, cannot be said for some of the other statements he makes.
For example, in placing Guasili at Asheville, he cites a supposed Cherokee legend that the people used to meet at the site of Asheville to compete in foot races; and he says that "Jua Gaux-u-le" is Cherokee for "The Place Where They Race." It is not; it means nothing at all in Cherokee, and is not even pronounceable in that language.
There are several other assaults on the Cherokee language, such as his assertion that "Canasoga" in Cherokee means "against the slopes." (He simply ignores the obvious correspondence to the well-known Conasauga River, placing Canasoga in western North Carolina some way east of Waynesville.) All this is a mere prelude, however, to the stunner which he drops soon afterward, as the expedition arrives at Coosa.
Coosa, he says, was Cherokee.
Now this is simply hogwash. The Creek people themselves have a very solid traditional knowledge on this point; Coosa was one of the most important towns in Muskogean history. But even if they were not Creeks in the strict sense - they could have been, say, Hichitis or Alabamas - the Coosans could not possibly have been Cherokee. All else aside, the political structure described - a large nation or kingdom under an authoritarian central ruler, whose person was so sacred that his capture ensured general obedience - has never existed among the Cherokee people, and is utterly contrary to long-standing traditional Cherokee attitudes and philosophy.
(There was never even such a thing as a Principal Chief, or a centralized government, until the eighteenth century; and even the chief of a Cherokee town had no coercive authority whatever, his only status being that of first-among-equals, and his only power being dependent on his personal prestige and persuasive skills. This is one point on which both white scholars and Cherokee tradition firmly agree.)
He says that "Coosa" is Cherokee for "place of the birch." It is not. Actually, the Cherokee word that sounds closest to "Coosa" is "agusa", meaning "a Creek Indian." But "Coosa" is Muskogean, and means "canebrake", of which there are many along the rivers of northern Georgia and Alabama - where the birch tree, however, does not occur.
Mercifully, Mr. Sheppard returns now to his no-comment style, presenting the march from Coosa to Mobila, and the meeting with Tascalusa, in the form of a long concatenation of extended quotes from the chronicles. Paraphrases, rather; the language is rather different from the original; for example, the narration is given in the first person plural - "we" did this and that - whereas Ranjel and Elvas adhere strictly to the third person, even when referring to themselves, in accordance with sixteenth-century custom. Only Biedma says "we."
However, the paraphrase generally holds quite closely to the sense of the original, and perhaps the author's intention is to make the account more readable. No matter; at least this section contains no gross misstatements or errors, and gives a pretty good picture of events. His location of Mobila is probably too far north, but not impossibly so; and he assigns no outlandish tribal affiliations to Tascalusa's people.
Up to this point, as I say, the Sheppard version of the expedition's route is at least roughly similar to that generally accepted: northward through the Florida peninsula, west into the Panhandle, northeast across Georgia into eastern South Carolina, then up over the Appalachians and swinging southwest to a point in southern Alabama. It differs in detail from both the Hudson and Commission models - and mine - but usually no more widely than they differ from one other. However startling his pronouncements on other matters, his route as far as Mobila is not radically unorthodox.
And at first, after Mobila, his construction remains conventional enough; he too has Soto heading northwest from Mobila. But soon after this comes the point where the Sheppard version marches off in a direction all its own, following a drummer unheard by anyone else.
"What historians didn't know until recently," Mr. Sheppard proclaims, "was that from Alabama, DeSoto's Army (sic) proceeded northward to Chicago."
Yes. He contends - declares as incontrovertible fact - that Soto, rather than swinging west across northern Mississippi and eventually crossing into Arkansas, continued on north. The Great River he discovered was not the Mississippi (which, as noted, he claims was already well known) but the Ohio; the lands of Casqui and Pacaha were not in Arkansas but Indiana, and so on.
This is a truly remarkable theory, and so one reads on to learn what evidence is offered to support it. One does so in vain. Mr. Sheppard supports his statements only with other unsupported statements.
Chicaza, for example, he says was not in Mississippi, but in Tennessee, near Lawrenceburg, at the site of the Davy Crockett State Park. "Today we know," he says, that the Chickasaws lived in southern Tennessee, just south of the "Alibamos" who lived in the Nashville area. Further, "we know" that the Alibamos spoke the same language as the people of Casqui, which was also the language of the people of Coste.
Some of the Chickasaws did live in southern Tennessee. The Alabamas, as far as is known, lived farther south and east. The people of Coste were almost certainly Coasatis, linguistic cousins of the Alabamas - the two tribes eventually combined into the group known today in Texas as the Alabama-Coushattas. Mr. Sheppard says they spoke a "unique language" but in fact both groups spoke dialects of the great Muskogean family.
The Casquis, however, are another matter. No one knows what language the Mississippian tribes of Arkansas spoke. But Mr. Sheppard - to jump ahead momentarily - believes they were the Kaskaskias of the upper Midwest; and if this were true it would make nonsense of his linguistic grouping, because the Kaskaskias most definitely spoke an Algonquian language, totally incomprehensible to the Muskogean Alabamas and Koasatis.
Mr. Sheppard now goes off into a couple of digressions, of no discernible relevance to the question of whether Soto visited Cook County, but interesting all the same. First he declares at some length that the Spaniards' records of distances were quite precise. This is a surprising notion, since they had no means of accurate measurement; and indeed elsewhere he says that they measured distances by pacing them off as they marched. Which is a highly inaccurate technique over any distance, even on straight roads or over cleared land, and becomes more so in rough terrain and useless on winding paths. (I have, as it happens, some experience of pacing off quite short distances in swampy country, trying to locate property boundaries, while working as a logger in Arkansas.)
Then he changes the subject again and introduces yet another remarkable declaration: Soto's army, he says, often marched at night.
Needless to say, he gives no evidence; understandably so, since there is nothing anywhere in the accounts to support such a claim. He seems to have gotten carried away by the account of Aņasco's ride in Florida, which did make use of the cover of darkness, but to conclude that this was common practice is absurd. Indeed Elvas very likely mentions this detail precisely because it struck him as such an unusual and original tactic.
But this ties in with a very curious aspect of the Sheppard narrative: his constant mentioning of the phases of the moon. He makes this a very important issue; the phases of the moon, he says, are vital to an understanding of Soto's movements - because it was only under the full moon that his troops could march at night!
Which is laughable. The full moon might be of considerable value to a man crossing the desert or open plains at night; but in heavily forested country, such as Soto's people traversed, the moon is rarely even visible through the foliage overhead. (Except in the winter, when Soto's army made camp and did not move about.) I have spent a great many nights outdoors in such country - often, in fact, in the same country as Soto's army - and walked a lot of trails in the dark; and I can attest that the moon, full or otherwise, is virtually useless as a source of illumination in the woods.
The mental picture of several hundred European soldiers stumbling along an Indian trail in the dark, tripping over roots and vines and bumping into one another, leading skittish horses - or, if they were demented enough to try to ride, getting clotheslined out of the saddle by unseen limbs - is the stuff of a Monty Python sketch. But even funnier is Mr. Sheppard's claim that Soto went in for surprise night attacks on Indian villages. Spaniards? Sneaking up on Indians at night? Oh, dear.
Still, it cannot be denied that there is a definite full-moon quality to many of Mr. Sheppard's theories.
I will pass over the details of the Sheppard account of the supposed northward march, and merely summarize: the Great River, as already noted, is said to have been the Ohio, "not the Mississippi River, as ALL previous historians have mistakenly surmised." The crossing was at Evansville, and was done using rafts, not boats; Elvas is misquoted to support this.
Casqui was at Vincennes, Indiana. Pacaha was at Terre Haute. (Once again, these important towns just happened to be located on the future sites of cities, unfortunately obliterating all archaeological evidence of these large Mississippian communities.) The River of Casqui was the Wabash.
Terre Haute was the northernmost point Soto reached. The earlier claim that his army traveled "northward to Chicago" is modified a bit; neither Soto himself, nor the bulk of the army, actually got to the Chicago area. Rather it was the scouting party reported by Luis de Biedma which reached the Lake Michigan shore.
Here Mr. Sheppard indulges in a bit of outright fiction-making. Biedma says nothing whatever about any body of water, large or small. He says that they were ordered to look for a route to the Pacific, and to ask the natives whether the sea was near; and that is all he says on the subject. Biedma was a careful and precise observer, and gave a very clear account of the things the scouts did see - his description of the nomadic lifestyle of the Indians they met has been of real value to anthropologists, because of its detailed clarity - and it is inconceivable that he would have neglected to mention having seen an enormous inland sea.
And it is even more inconceivable that Soto would not have responded to such a report by immediately going to see for himself. If, as Mr. Sheppard maintains, Soto was indeed on a quest for a water route to Asia, he would have rushed excitedly to the shores of the the great water, convinced that he had found the Northwest Passage - as Jean Nicollet, a far more competent explorer with a far better grasp of geography, believed when he first saw the lake in the following century.
Mr. Sheppard says that Biedma realized that the lake offered no such route, and so reported; but there was no possible way for Biedma to know any such thing, and Hernando de Soto would never have taken an underling's word for something so important.
Now if they were camped in west-central Indiana, then undoubtedly the scouts would have found the lake. But this is further proof (if further proof were needed) that they were not there, or anywhere near there; because they didn't see any such lake, because none of the accounts mention it and they would have if they had.
Simple logic, however, seems at times to take a back seat to the all-too-common human desire to believe a thing because it would be really neat if it were true.
Moving on again at last, Soto is said to have marched across southern Illinois; Coligua is identified as the site of Kaskaskia, on the Mississippi River. And here we have a fine example of the Sheppard genius for playing fast and loose with the facts.
As I have noted elsewhere in this book, one of the problems in locating Coligua is that the descriptions do not quite match. Ranjel says that it was "along the gorge of a great river." Elvas, however, says Coligua stood "in the vale of a river of medium size, like the Caya, a stream that passes through Estremadura."
Since Mr. Sheppard places Coligua on the Mississippi, one might think he would use Ranjel's description as evidence. But perhaps that would be too easy. Instead he quotes, or rather misquotes, Elvas: "That town of Coligoa was situated at the foot of a mountain in a field of a river the size of the Caya River which flows through Estremadura."
Note the omission of the inconvenient phrase "of medium size", which of course could hardly apply to the Mississippi. But Mr. Sheppard does not stop with this bit of editing. He goes on to say of the Caya, "That giant river drains half of Spain." He also says, "Spain's great river is called Cayas by Spaniards even today (as opposed to Caya by the Portuguese); it flows from Madrid, the wealthy center of Spain." Elsewhere he states that the Caya is the largest river in Spain.
And all of these statements are totally false. The Caia (as it is spelled in Portuguese) is not a "giant river" - of which there are none in Spain - and it does not drain half of Spain, or any significant fraction thereof, nor does it flow from anywhere near Madrid. It is not the largest river in Spain - the Ebro is, by volume, while the Tagus is the longest - or even one of the larger ones; and the Spaniards do not call it the Cayas, they call it the Caya.
It is merely a minor tributary of the Guadiana; a river of medium size, just as Elvas says. Its only importance is that for some of its length it forms a small stretch of the border between Spain and Portugal. The Fidalgo, who surely knew the Caia well - it flows between Elvas and Badajoz - would certainly not have compared it with the Mississippi. It is hard enough to reconcile his description with the Arkansas.
Whatever the deficiencies in Mr. Sheppard's training as a historian, I would have thought that as a former naval officer he would have more respect for basic geography, and make an effort to check his facts before stating them.
Now he has the expedition traveling down through Missouri to Tanico, which he places at Forsyth, Missouri, a little way east of Branson. Given the recorded dates, which work out to nine days of actual travel with one spent resting, this is not credible - but no doubt it was the full moon and they marched by day and night....
Tula he places at Harrison, Arkansas. The Caddos are not known to have inhabited this area, but the possibility cannot be ruled out. Mr. Sheppard, however, says that the Tula Indians were Wichitas, which certainly can. From there he has the expedition heading roughly eastward to Utiangue, which he places at Jacksonport in northeast Arkansas.
And here we come to perhaps the most bizarre part of this very bizarre narrative. One internet link site proprietor sarcastically classified the Sheppard pages as "Alternate History", but at this point we move into the realm of outright fantasy.
He says that there was a huge lake that existed in northeast Arkansas until 1812, when the New Madrid earthquake caused it to drain. This, he explains, was the basis for the Indians' stories of a great inland sea, which had figured in Soto's supposed search for a passage to Asia.
That is, I think he is saying it was in northeast Arkansas. He says "the enormous lake that existed in the area," and by "the area" I take it he means the general area where they were staying at the time. Furthermore, there is a map attached, with the words "The Indians' Great Sea" superimposed over a large, vaguely marked-off area; and while it is hard to make out just where this is supposed to be - it is a very crude map - it appears to represent northeast Arkansas and perhaps southeastern Missouri.
But then Mr. Sheppard says that Soto learned that "the Mississippi River Delta was only a gigantic lake", and that is confusing, since of course northeast Arkansas is nowhere near the Mississippi Delta, which lies hundreds of miles to the south - as some of Soto's men would learn, the hard way - so I admit I am confused. Was this "gigantic lake" in northeast Arkansas, or in the Mississippi Delta region, in southern Louisiana?
I am inclined to think he does mean it was in northeast Arkansas, and that he is merely speaking with his usual imprecision. And for that matter when I lived in southeastern Arkansas I sometimes heard people talk about being in the "Delta country", so the error is not unique to Mr. Sheppard.
But it does not matter. No such body of water existed, in northeast Arkansas or the Mississippi Delta or anywhere else in the Mississippi watershed; not in the sixteenth century or any other time since remote prehistory. The "enormous lake" is a figment - I will not say of Mr. Sheppard's imagination, because for all I know he got this factoid from some other source, but of someone's.
(The words "enormous lake that existed in the area" are underlined as a hyperlink, and I clicked on it eagerly, expecting to find some further explanation; but all I found was a reproduction of a modern relief map of Arkansas, which of course showed no such lake - though it did show, quite clearly, the outlines of Crowley's Ridge, the highest land in eastern Arkansas, squarely on the location of Mr. Sheppard's alleged lake!)
There is little real point in going on; anyone who still takes Mr. Sheppard's theories seriously, after the business with the lake, is probably beyond the reach of rational argument. However, we may as well skim over the rest of the text; it does have its morbidly interesting moments.
Having spent the winter in the area of Newport, Arkansas - an experience which few would envy them - the white men moved south, along the White River. Mr. Sheppard's analysis of their movements is rather unclear, and his descriptions and place-names are sometimes a bit muddled, but in this he has some excuse; the country along the lower White is very confusing, even today, as I have good reason to know.
Guachoya he locates at Lake Village, on Lake Chicot, which he says was at the time part of the Mississippi River. This is not total fantasy, like his other lake; Lake Chicot, a very large horseshoe lake - the biggest in Arkansas - was indeed at one time part of the big river. However, scientists say that its separation from the Mississippi took place, at the very latest, a century or more before Soto's arrival.
Having consigned the Adelantado's remains to Lake Chicot, Moscoso and his band set off for Texas. They head south into Louisiana and then west, crossing the Red River at Shreveport. This is some way off the usually accepted route, but not egregiously so. In Texas, however, the survivors are alleged to have traveled much, much farther than has been generally believed. They are shown going all the way to Austin, with advance scouts reaching San Antonio.
This is, shall we say, highly improbable. It would add another hundred miles to the distance covered - more, really, as they are shown making a big detour, for no apparent reason, in the area between Waco and Killeen. And it is very clear from Elvas's account that they were operating at the limits of their physical resources; it is remarkable that they got as far as they did.
Even the fiercely patriotic local historians of Texas, who love to brag about any Texas connection with famous people or events, have not tried to claim that Spanish knights visited the heartland of their state, and the site of its capitol. And with good reason; with lifelong personal experience of the distances involved, they know better.
Mr. Sheppard does introduce one of his bits of supposed linguistic evidence: "Nondacao," he says, is the Caddo name for Waco. No it isn't. The Wacos were Plains Indians, one of the southern bands of the Wichita tribe. The Nadakos, aka Anadarkos, were Caddo. Entirely separate peoples, though linguistically related. (A Caddo man once told me, "We and the Wichitas can sort of understand each other.") The Wacos lived in central Texas, near the future site of the city that bears their name. The Nadakos were living in eastern Texas, near Nacogdoches, by the seventeenth century; they may have lived farther west in Moscoso's time - but they were not the Wacos, and that Moscoso met them does not prove or even suggest that he reached the Waco area.
So they go back to Arkansas, and set up their shipyard in Aminoya - which, it turns out, was not on the Mississippi, as everyone has always believed. Everyone, that is, including the Spaniards and Portuguese themselves; and everyone since, except Mr. Sheppard.
He says that Aminoya was on the Arkansas, at Pine Bluff. I cannot think why, unless some deep-seated contrarian impulse impels him to reject accepted beliefs simply because they're there. The exact location of Aminoya is unknown, but the narratives state unequivocally that it was on the Mississippi. The Fidalgo of Elvas says that Aminoya was "a quarter of a league distant from the Rio Grande"; and Luis de Biedma writes that it was "standing upon the Great River." The terrain around Pine Bluff is quite unlike that described in the narratives (I ought to know, I was born there) being on relatively high and well-drained ground, not subject to the sort of massive and extended flooding that drove Moscoso crazy.
(He says that the "spring thaw" in the Ozarks caused the Arkansas to flood, and that the spring flooding of the Mississippi backed up the Arkansas clear to Pine Bluff. Oh, good God.)
And from here on there really is no point in discussing the details of Mr. Sheppard's route. He tells how they built their boats (for once he does not call them rafts) and floated down the Mississippi - well, first the lower Arkansas, but then at last he allows them to reach the Great River again - to the Gulf; and then sailed along the coast of Texas until they reached northern Mexico. Unsurprisingly, he gives a great many specific locations along the Texas coast, but that is no matter.
One feels, perhaps, faintly disappointed that the final part of the tale proves so conventional. By this time I would not have been greatly surprised to be told that Moscoso and his men suddenly bit the Indians on their necks, turned into bats, and flew away.
So ends our journey, following Mr. Donald Sheppard as he attempts to follow Hernando de Soto. It has been a curious journey indeed; as strange a ride as that of Morrowbie Jukes, and much, much longer.
And this farrago of errors and misstatements and outright fantasies - easily disprovable, on any of a number of major points, on the basis of known historic and scientific and geographic fact, by anyone with access to a decent public library - is being read, and taken seriously, by no telling how many people every day; and is, at the time of writing, being taught in public schools!
This is the sort of thing that causes despairing people to conclude that there is no God.
But I am glad, all the same, that I had the chance to read Mr. Sheppard's text. As a work of history, it is worse than worthless; as a work of imaginative fiction, it has its moments but the plot makes no sense and the writing is execrable. As a case study in truly irresponsible historical revisionism, however, it is one of the most fascinating specimens I have ever seen.