Friday, November 18, 2016

De Soto National Memorial

Conquistador Hernando De Soto was an experienced explorer by the time he landed in Florida's Tampa Bay in May of 1539. He had spent years under the governorship of Pedrarias Davila exploring and plundering areas of what is now Peru and Central America.
He had set sail from Cuba with 9 ships containing an army of 600 soldiers, craftsmen and 12 members of the clergy to conquer a portion of the new unexplored world called la Florida. The vessels also brought horses, war dogs and pigs to the new world. De Soto and his crew are thought to have made landfall at Piney Point and set up camp at Uzita, a native American village on the Manatee River.
Piney Point, where the expedition is said to have come ashore is where the National Memorial is today.
The park is located on the river, just beyond a residential neighborhood. You will know when you are getting close because the street signs have the image of a conquistadors helmet on them.
The De Soto National Memorial has a Visitor Center with plenty of parking. Near the Visitor Center you will find Camp Uzita, a recreation of the Uzita Village that De Soto and his troops occupied after landing. In the Winter months Park Rangers and volunteers dress in period costume to demonstrate daily activities of life in that time period.

Fred the Conquistador
During the off season you can see exhibits of armor and weapons inside the Visitor Center. It was very interesting to try on armor and helmets. The helmets were huge. We thought that the Spanish explorers must have had very large heads, but then realized there was a fabric hat that went underneath the helmet and a neck piece that held it up.  It must have been unbearable in the Florida Summer to wear heavy European clothing covered up by chain maille and solid armor. Those shiny metal helmets would have been like an oven.
Fred enjoyed a long conversation with the Park Ranger on duty about the halberd weapon and its similarity to a current fire fighting tool. It was interesting to learn that the halberd is still in use by the Swiss Guard at the Vatican.

Boardwalk through the mangroves

We watched a 20 minute film at the Visitor Center that described De Sotos fruitless search for gold and other material riches through what is now Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas.

The National Memorial site includes a 1 mile Nature Trail. The trail begins to the right of the Visitor Center. As you approach the water you can see across the Manatee River to Tampa Bay with the Gulf of Mexico in the distance. This is a lovely spot for picnicking and boat watching.
The Nature Trail is very easy walking along the water and through a forest of black, red and white mangroves on packed sand and boardwalk. The Spanish moss and ball moss hanging from the trees are like lace curtains as you walk along the trail.

There are points of interest along the way that include native plants labeled with their names as well as how they would have been used by indigenous people.

The nature trail
We also found a shell midden, a tabby house ruin (tabby is an old kind of concrete made of burned oyster shells), a cross, and the Holy Eucharist Monument.  The Holy Eucharist Monument is also called the Hernando De Soto Catholic Memorial. It was originally exhibited at the World's Fair in New York in 1969 before finding a home at Piney Point.

Henando De Soto Catholic Memorial
The cross was erected as a memorial to the 12 catholic priests who traveled with De Soto.  The cross and Holy Eucharist monument are owned by the Catholic Diocese of Venice who used to own the land where they sit. That land called Riverview Pointe Preserve is now owned by Manatee county. It has been registered as a National Historic Place and is administered by the county and the National Park service. There was once a 9 foot bronze statue of De Soto here but it was removed due to vandalism. It is currently on display at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton.

Memorial cross
Near these monuments is a nice stretch of sandy beach. There were many party boats anchored here. Boaters had grills out and were cooking an afternoon dinner, flying frisbees and playing with their dogs. There was a nice selection of Caypso music drifting over the water. We stopped to speak to a couple whose poodles were enjoying the sand and water but nobody offered us a beer so we continued our walk.  Next trip we will remember to bring the picnic basket.

We found the party beach. Every waterfront National Park seems to have one.

The De Soto National Monument is the start of The De Soto Trail, a 34 stop Florida driving tour of locations connected to the expedition.
De Soto's quest for riches and personal glory was devastating to many of the native peoples his expedition encountered. The spread of disease and superior weaponry killed many. Although his dream was never accomplished and he died on the journey Hernando De Soto is remembered as the first European explorer to travel and document what is now the Southern United States and to cross the Mississippi River.

Ball moss in the mangroves

The De Soto National Memorial
8300 De Soto Memorial Highway
Bradenton, Florida
(941) 792-0458


  1. Can't wait to get down there, Bonnie. Fred looks great in that helmet!

  2. Can't wait to see you guys. You should have seen Fred when he first put the helmet on. It slid down right over his eyes.