February 20, 2022

Mark Twain on Hernando de Soto and the "Discovery" of the Mississippi

Mark Twain's introduction of Hernando de Soto's discovery of the Mississippi

Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (1883) tells about his time as a steamboat pilot there before the American Civil War. "When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village …" he writes in chapter 4. "That was, to be a steamboatman."

The book is a combination memoir and travel guide and includes some interesting historical views, put, of course, in Twain's magical wording. This excerpt from Chapter 1, "The River and Its History," describes context behind Hernando de Soto's "discovery" of the river in 1542.

From Mark Twain's book Life on the Mississippi:


The world and the books are so accustomed to use, and over-use, the word 'new' in connection with our country, that we early get and permanently retain the impression that there is nothing old about it. We do of course know that there are several comparatively old dates in American history, but the mere figures convey to our minds no just idea, no distinct realization, of the stretch of time which they represent. 

To say that De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542, is a remark which states a fact without interpreting it: it is something like giving the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measurements, and cataloguing the colors by their scientific names;—as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but you don't see the sunset. It would have been better to paint a picture of it.

The date 1542, standing by itself, means little or nothing to us; but when one groups a few neighboring historical dates and facts around it, he adds perspective and color, and then realizes that this is one of the American dates which is quite respectable for age.

For instance, when the Mississippi was first seen by a white man, less than a quarter of a century had elapsed since Francis I's defeat at Pavia; the death of Raphael; … the driving out of the Knights-Hospitallers from Rhodes by the Turks; and the placarding of the [Luther's] Ninety-Five Propositions,—the act which began the Reformation. 

When De Soto took his glimpse of the river, Ignatius Loyola was an obscure name; the order of the Jesuits was not yet a year old; Michael Angelo's paint was not yet dry on the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel; Mary Queen of Scots was not yet born, but would be before the year closed. Catherine de Medici was a child; Elizabeth of England was not yet in her teens; Calvin, Benvenuto Cellini, and the Emperor Charles V were at the top of their fame, and each was manufacturing history after his own peculiar fashion; Margaret of Navarre was writing the 'Heptameron' and some religious books,—the first survives, the others are forgotten, wit and indelicacy being sometimes better literature preservers than holiness; lax court morals and the absurd chivalry business were in full feather, and the joust and the tournament were the frequent pastime of titled fine gentlemen who could fight better than they could spell, while religion was the passion of their ladies, and classifying their offspring into children of full rank and children by brevet their pastime.

In fact, all around, religion was in a peculiarly blooming condition: the Council of Trent was being called; the Spanish Inquisition was roasting, and racking, and burning, with a free hand; elsewhere on the continent the nations were being persuaded to holy living by the sword and fire; in England, Henry VIII had suppressed the monasteries, burnt Fisher and another bishop or two, and was getting his English reformation and his harem effectively started. 

When De Soto stood on the banks of the Mississippi, it was still two years before Luther's death; eleven years before the burning of Servetus; thirty years before the St. Bartholomew slaughter; Rabelais was not yet published; 'Don Quixote' was not yet written; Shakespeare was not yet born; a hundred long years must still elapse before Englishmen would hear the name of Oliver Cromwell.

Unquestionably the discovery of the Mississippi is a datable fact which considerably mellows and modifies the shiny newness of our country, and gives her a most respectable outside-aspect of rustiness and antiquity.

De Soto merely glimpsed the river, then died and was buried in it by his priests and soldiers. One would expect the priests and the soldiers to multiply the river's dimensions by ten—the Spanish custom of the day—and thus move other adventurers to go at once and explore it. On the contrary, their narratives when they reached home, did not excite that amount of curiosity. The Mississippi was left unvisited by whites during a term of years which seems incredible in our energetic days. 

One may 'sense' the interval to his mind, after a fashion, by dividing it up in this way: After De Soto glimpsed the river, a fraction short of a quarter of a century elapsed, and then Shakespeare was born; lived a trifle more than half a century, then died; and when he had been in his grave considerably more than half a century, the second white man saw the Mississippi. In our day we don't allow a hundred and thirty years to elapse between glimpses of a marvel. If somebody should discover a creek in the county next to the one that the North Pole is in, Europe and America would start fifteen costly expeditions thither: one to explore the creek, and the other fourteen to hunt for each other.


Excerpt and images from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, from a digital version at Gutenberg.org, a mindbogglingly rich source of free historical and public domain books including many of Mark Twain's treasures. Check out the Gutenberg Project at Gutenberg.org. Life on the Mississippi is available in HTML (online) or in EPUB, Kindle, or plain text.

(C) 2022 by Enrique's Voyage. All rights reserved.



See Also:


On March 28, 1521, Enrique of Malacca became the first person to complete a
linguistic circumnavigation of the globe—he traveled so far in one direction that he reached a point where his language was spoken. Enrique’s journey began a decade earlier following the sack of Malacca, when he became a slave of Ferdinand Magellan. A teenager, he accompanied Magellan back to Portugal, then to Spain, and finally on the Armada de Molucca to locate a westward route to the Spice Islands.  Read more:




Ferdinand Magellan’s historic journey swept up several unlikely travelers along the way, among them a seven-year-old boy at Guanabara Bay (Rio de Janeiro). Half-Portuguese, half-Tupi Indian, he is remembered in history as Joãozito Lopes Carvalho. The young boy became the first native of Brazil and likely all of South America to cross the Pacific Ocean—on a year-and-a-half journey that for him ended at Brunei five hundred years ago this summer.

Joãozito was the son of João de Lopes Carvalho and a Tupi Indian woman in what is now Brazil. A Portuguese pilot, João Carvalho had traveled to Guanabara Bay in 1512 on the Bertoa, a commercial vessel sent to pick up dyewood there. A decade earlier a Portuguese fleet had landed at Guanabara Bay and claimed the area for Portugal, naming it Rio de Janeiro for the month they arrived, January 1502. Read more.

Antonio Pigafetta's account of the Magellan-Elcano voyage gives us both first-hand historical detail and color—the human aspects of the journey. The Italian scholar learned all he could about the cultures that Magellan's fleet encountered, even sitting down and recording samples of languages.

An excellent example of Pigafetta's curiosity and fascination is his description of the coconut and the palm tree, which he learned about soon after the fleet's arrival in the Philippines. Like the pineapple Magellan tried in Rio, the coconut was an unknown. "Cocoanuts are the fruit of the palmtree. Just as we have bread, wine, oil, and milk, so those people get everything from that tree. Read more.



A handful of medieval travelogues were the closest thing Ferdinand Magellan had to a travel guide when he sought a westward route to Asia—accounts credited to Marco Polo, John Mandeville, and others, and those all echoed the same monsters and myths repeated since the time of Pliny the Elder, the Roman author whose Naturalis Historiae helped inspire the encyclopedia.

It gets little mention today, but The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was a world atlas of sorts in medieval Europe, essential reading for navigators and explorers. The accounts became circulated widely in Europe in the fourteenth century. They detail travels in North Africa and the Middle East, and in India, China, and even the Malay Peninsula—which would have been of particular interest to Ferdinand Magellan, and also Enrique of Malacca, Magellan’s interpreter-slave. Read more.





Reni Roxas and Marc Singer brought the story of Enrique to life for children in 
First Around the Globe: The Story of Enrique. Twenty years on they released this anniversary edition in 2017 from Tahanan Books, Manila. Read more.




On March 16, 1521, Magellan and his crew reached the Philippines, where they would finally be able to recover after three months crossing the Pacific. They were unable to stop long at Guam—their encounter with the Chamorros they met there did not go well, as seen in their sendoff. As they were departing, more than a hundred of the Chamorros’ outrigger canoes followed for more than a league.

As Pigafetta wrote, “They approached the ships showing us fish, feigning that they would give them to us; but then threw stones at us and fled. And although the ships were under full sail, they passed between them and the small boats [longboats fastened astern], very adroitly in those small boats of theirs. We saw some women in their boats who were crying out and tearing their hair, for love, I believe, of those whom we had killed.” Read more.



Find us:

Learn more about Enrique at EnriqueOfMalacca.com.





(C) 2022 by Enrique's Voyage, EnriqueOfMalacca.com. All rights reserved.