Park History: De Soto National Memorial

It's more likely that ancestors of this white ibis, and not Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, stood on this site in 1539. NPS photo by John Moerk.

Editor's note: Though one of the smaller units of the national park system, De Soto National Memorial is rich in history....even if that history is a bit muddled. Helping explain that history are David and Anne Whisnant, husband and wife historians who spent time at the memorial compiling an administrative history for the National Park Service.

The park marking the spot where Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto probably didn’t land in North America in 1539 turns 60 today. On March 11, 1948, Congress created the De Soto National Memorial in the mangrove swamp on Shaw’s Point, in Bradenton, Florida.

The memorial came to be because a small metropolis on the soon-to-be-booming Florida Gulf Coast, Bradenton – and its chamber of commerce – wanted the town to take advantage of the coming growth. In 1939, community leaders thought they’d found an opening when a federal government commission formed to research and celebrate the 400th anniversary of De Soto’s landing in what the Spanish called La Florida identified Shaw’s Point as the conquistador’s likely landing spot.

The Colonial Dames of America quickly erected a granite marker there that year, and two years later the town of Bradenton staged its first “De Soto Pageant Spectacle,” which included a full-dress landing re-enactment celebrating the explorer’s triumphs over native peoples and a harsh environment. “The wonder story of the 16th century brought to life before your eyes,” the mail-out advertisement promised.

A half-dozen years later, federal legislation passed and soon, on land donated by two local citizens, De Soto National Memorial was born on a spot the Park Service’s own staff warned was “swampy and wet.” The local newspaper, however, confidently predicted that the new park “can become one of the major attractions in Florida.”

Today, the park, occupying what has turned into a beautiful spot where the Manatee River meets Tampa Bay, consists of fewer than 30 acres, a small Mission 66-era visitor center, a “living history” area where De Soto’s first encampment is recreated each winter, a self-guiding trail through the mangroves, several imposing gumbo-limbo trees, the ruins of a typical Florida “tabby house,” a modest beach area, and an almost unimpaired “sixteenth-century viewshed” looking out into Tampa Bay toward the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s not, as they say, a “destination park” that you would plan an entire trip to Bradenton to see. And within a national park system whose largest units range up to 8,000,000 acres, it is one of the tiniest. If one ranks the nearly 400 parks by number of visitors, however, De Soto falls near the middle – drawing approximately as many visitors in a year as Bandelier National Monument (110 acres) or King’s Mountain National Military Park (4,000 acres), and twice as many as either Andersonville National Historic Site (500 acres) or Walnut Canyon National Monument (3,300 acres).

And yet, as we learned while spending a year-and-a-half writing an “administrative history” of the park for the National Park Service, the challenges of establishing, designing, developing, operating, and maintaining a park do not necessarily correlate well with either size or number of visitors. The memorial, it turns out, is a small park that has confronted and coped (on the whole rather well) with an unbroken series of large and complicated issues.

First among them is the challenge of commemorating what historians aptly call a “difficult history.” De Soto’s brutality toward native peoples is legendary. The arrogant conquistador expected submission and service from those from whom he hoped to steal gold, and when he didn’t get it, he captured leaders, unleashed fearsome weapons and vicious war dogs, and for good measure chopped off noses. More harmful in the long term was the scourge of disease, which killed countless thousands of native people.

Blazing a path of violence through what later became the southeastern United States, De Soto neither found gold and treasure nor established any permanent presence for the Spanish. Instead, his dogged, delusional 4,000-mile-expedition ended in disarray, with a dead De Soto dumped quietly into the Mississippi River and the ragged remnant of his 600+ person army dragging itself pitifully into Mexico in 1543, four years after the Florida landing.

So what, really, is to celebrate or memorialize here? From the 1930s vantage point, it was the nobility and courage of the conquistadors, forging their way through an uncharted wilderness and heralding the arrival of civilization in the Americas. “One of the high-hearted men who have made history,” a speaker called De Soto at the dedication of the Colonial Dames monument.

But by the early 1990s, Native American activists (impelled partly by national critiques of the Columbus quincentennial) were recasting this story as genocide. Scholars, meanwhile, came to understand that virtually the only net gain from the expedition was the set of “chronicles” it left behind – the eyewitness (more or less) accounts that provide a vivid look at flora, fauna, and native North American life at the point of European contact.

In the midst of these changes, the park had to cope for years with local commitment to the Mardi Gras-like De Soto “celebrations” in Bradenton coordinated by a local historical society dominated by prominent business leaders. In what was perhaps an appropriate metaphor for the way times had changed since 1539, the re-enacting “conquistadors” group frequently came ashore at the memorial and went on to “capture” the local mall. But on one occasion in the early 1990s, the re-enactors’ march to the mall had to thread its way through fish guts thrown into the streets by angry Native American activists. The conflict exemplified the challenges the memorial itself faced in its telling of a “difficult history.”

The memorial’s history-telling has also been complicated by the fact that emerging discoveries in De Soto studies have robbed the site of any claim to have been the actual landing place. In fact, no physical, documentary, or archaeological evidence places De Soto on Shaw’s Point. Some evidence points to other possible landing locations, but the passage of time has produced no durable consensus. About the only thing that is clear is that the location of the memorial at that particular spot on the Florida coast is a relic of a 1930s understanding of the expedition.

But it’s not only in history telling that this small park has confronted large issues. It has also faced many of the same park management challenges that much larger parks deal with: how to stabilize its fragile and always eroding coastline; how to protect the park from storms and high tides, hurricanes, mosquitoes, and invasive species; how to minimize negative effects of encroaching residential development on three sides (complete with numerous proposed – viewshed degrading – boat docks); how to negotiate the park’s role in overlapping – but sometimes problematic – tourism promotion efforts in Bradenton.

The point here is that, while you may not plan a Florida vacation around a trip to De Soto, the park is a roughly-30-acre gem that is very much worth visiting. Going there teaches you – through both static exhibits and the park’s exemplary living history presentations – that studying and interpreting the history of European contact in the Americas is very complicated. Archaeology is fragmentary and written accounts few and often maddeningly difficult to interpret. Piecing together the stories of either the Spanish conquerors or of the numerous native American peoples they encountered is a fascinating process – a historical puzzle somewhat unfamiliar to people like us who are used to studying the twentieth century, where the available written record is vast.

Visiting and learning about De Soto National Memorial also teaches us a lot about our parks – the politics of their creation, the complications of their relations with local citizens, the dilemmas of management, and the value of the resources they have sheltered. To have protected a small plot of coastal land for public use in an urban area where development pressure has for decades been intense is no minor feat.

One central remarkable (and admirable) fact about De Soto National Memorial’s dedicated staff is that it has managed to take a small site – mis-located historically and geographically, subjected to unrelieved environmental assaults, and embedded in a complicated and sometimes contentious local situation – and make it work as a park.

Another (no less remarkable) fact is that the memorial has built and sustained a thoughtfully designed program to both engage the public and to help people understand one piece of the larger difficult history of the nation itself. Other far larger and better funded parks with far larger staffs have sometimes accomplished less.

Anne Mitchell Whisnant and David E. Whisnant are the authors of several books about the history of the national parks and cultural history and policy. They now do consulting research for the National Park Service through their firm, Primary Source History Services.