Located in Manatee County, Florida near the city of Bradenton, the de Soto National Memorial commemorates the 1539 landing and subsequent expeditions of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, presenting a balanced look at the history and controversies surrounding European exploration and colonization of the Americas.
Explorer Hernando de Soto was born sometime around the turn of the 16th century in Spain’s Extermadura region, the second child of a hidalgo-class noble. At the age of 14, de Soto became involved in an expedition to the New World that landed at what is now present-day Panama, serving as a soldier of horse in the territory of Balboa, under Governor Pedrarias Davila. In 1530, explorer Francisco Pizarro stumbled upon the Peruvian Incan society, which was in the midst of civil war, and enlisted de Soto and Hernan Ponce de Leon to lend their services and resources to his mission to conquer the society. Though Pizarro named de Soto as his second-in-command and promised him a large portion of his spoils for his work, de Soto left the mission five years later after being denied the governorship position of the territory of Cuzco.
After returning to Spain and marrying Donna Isabella de Bombadilla, de Soto met with Emperor Charles V in 1537 to propose another mission to the New World, this time to the area known as La Florida. After traveling to Cuba and claiming the title of its governor, de Soto departed Havana in 1539 and soon thereafter arrived in what is now the Tampa Bay area with an army of more than 600 soldiers aboard nine ships. As their expedition did not yield the anticipated treasures, de Soto’s army primarily seized food and hostages from native villages over the course of their four-year journey, which is noted today as having forever changed the role of Spanish explorers in the New World and the cultural landscape of what is now the American Southeast.
Today, the de Soto National Memorial commemorates the controversial legacy of de Soto’s mission and its impact on the cultural landscape of the American Southeast. The memorial, which was authorized in March of 1948, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a United States National Historic Landmark as part of the Shaw’s Point Archaeological District. As a visitor center and living history demonstration facility, the memorial interprets the impact of de Soto’s expedition through a variety of viewpoints and immerses visitors in experiences to bring the environment of the 16th-century American Southeast to life.
A Visitor Center offers a variety of public exhibits, including a hands-on exhibit allowing visitors of all ages to try on historic armor, helmet, and other period artifacts related to Spanish conquistadors. Other exhibits include timelines of Spanish and indigenous American histories leading up to the de Soto expedition and exhibits of artifacts from those cultures. A theater at the facility also shows a short orientation film, Hernando de Soto in America, throughout the day. A bookstore also offers volumes related to the de Soto expedition and the indigenous cultures of the American Southeast, along with a variety of apparel and souvenirs.
From December through April, a living history camp, Camp Utiza, is presented at the memorial, offering a variety of daily demonstrations from park rangers and volunteers in period-appropriate attire. Talks on historical topics related to Spanish and indigenous American topics are presented periodically, along with crafting and weapons demonstrations. During the months the camp is open, film showings at the Visitor Center theater are timed to coincide with demonstrations and talks.
A variety of outdoor spaces are also offered at the memorial, including a nature trail, picnic area, and several beachfront areas. Bird watching is encouraged during the spring and fall months, and fishing and boating are permitted in certain areas with valid Florida permits. A number of group outdoor activities are presented periodically, including ranger-led kayak tours between May and October, 45-minute guided trail walks, and a de Soto Ranchero Fishing Clinic program, which chooses 10 participants by a lottery process to receive intensive saltwater fishing instruction.
Ongoing Programs and Events
A variety of educational programming is offered at the memorial, including guided and self-guided curriculum-incorporated field trip opportunities for elementary and secondary school students. A Parks as Classrooms program also provides guest speakers for educational groups and curriculum materials for instructors, while a Teacher-Ranger-Teacher training program offers professional development opportunities. A Junior Ranger program offers participation badges to young visitors in exchange for completion of park educational activities. Annual public special events at the memorial include a de Soto Landing Event in April, which features a reenactment of the conquistador’s historic Florida landing and indigenous history demonstrations. Other special events include a Cinco de BioBlitz science celebration in May and periodic special event reenactments and community recreation events.
8300 Desoto Memorial Hwy, Bradenton, FL, Phone: 941-792-0458