The De Soto Expedition



This exercise involves using map skills and learning to differentiate between primary and secondary sources. It uses the Hernando de Soto expedition in Tennessee as the background for the lesson.


 “The first explorations by Europeans in what is now Tennessee took place in 1540, when a Spanish expedition under the command of Hernando de Soto entered the region from the southeast. De Soto had set out from Florida the year before with 625 men in search of gold and other treasures, hoping to duplicate the success of earlier Spanish expeditions in Central and South America. The exact route of the de Soto expedition through Tennessee is unclear, but it is likely that they crossed the Appalachian Mountains somewhere to the north of the Great Smokies and followed the French Broad River down to what later was southeast Tennessee. There are some indications that later Spanish expeditions built forts in the vicinity of Dandridge and Chattanooga...

Failing to find the treasures he sought, de Soto apparently turned back to the southwest before heading north again before entering the bounds of present-day Tennessee south of Memphis. He crossed the Mississippi River and continued exploring to the west. As the health and morale of his party deteriorated, De Soto brought them back to the Mississippi River, where he died from a fever. His troubled expedition returned to the coast.”
According to The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture (

Guiding Question:

  • What do we know about the de Soto Expedition in Tennessee?


  1. Students will identify rivers in East Tennessee that might have been used by the de Soto Expedition.
  2. Students will understand why it is not possible to know for sure where de Soto went and what he saw.


  • Have students write a “journal” account of De Soto’s contact with natives from the point of view of a Spanish soldier or of a Native American.


  1. Pass out copies of the student worksheet, crayons or markers, and state map showing rivers & Indian villages. Have the students follow the directions on the handout, marking rivers and villages.
  2. Check the answers with the key.
  3. Discuss in greater detail why Indians and the first settlers established towns near rivers. You will also need to discuss how the town where they currently live was founded and when. (The handout says that early towns were established by rivers. Later when land transportation was better, it was not necessary to have the town near a river.)
  4. Either project on the wall or pass out copies of the map showing the supposed route that de Soto took. Have them add the Tennessee part to their state maps.
  5. Tell your students that even today, we are not sure of de Soto’s exact route. Some members of the de Soto Expedition kept journals that were later published. But they didn’t have accurate maps, so they could not know for sure how far they went each day or in what directions. The Europeans also did not understand the Indian language so some of names of places and people they saw might be mis-spelled. So even though the journals are a primary source about Indians in North America, historians understand that primary sources sometimes are wrong about some aspects.
  6. Pass out sets of the two images or project them.
  7. Ask your students to compare the shelters shown in both paintings. Which one do they think is probably the most accurate? [The Toqua one. The Toqua painting is based on archeological digs and descriptions of Cherokee towns early settlers and explorers wrote about, while the de Soto one is based on the artist’s imagination in the 1890s. Point out that the de Soto dwellings look a lot like teepees that could have been seen in the West during the 1890s. Archeologists can determine what housing looked like by finding the foundations and also materials.]
  8. If the artist of the de Soto painting got the dwellings wrong, then how accurate is the rest of the painting? [Probably not very accurate.] Then is the Toqua painting completely accurate? [No, unless an artist was present back during this time, he can’t know all the details of clothing, hair styles, and so on. We can assume that the painting is mostly correct.]
  9. Ask the class if these paintings are primary or secondary sources. [Both are secondary.] But just because a source is secondary, doesn’t mean that some or all the information is wrong. As time permits, lead students to consider how historians evaluate different possible descriptions of past events. (Be sensitive if students relate “De Soto Contact” stories that have not been accepted by the scientific community. For example, the website De Soto’s Tennessee Trails Website claims to authoritatively trace de Soto’s travels in Tennessee, but the route they describe has not been supported by archaeological evidence.)


  • Have students research the locations and archaeological exploration of the places in Tennessee where de Soto may have visited.
  • Have students research and compare alternative proposed routes of the de Soto Expedition.
  • Have students research and compare translations of journal entries made by soldiers during the de Soto Expedition.  


Grade 4 Tennessee Social Studies Standards:
  • Identify the routes the explorers of the Americas on a map (de Soto)
  • Identify and use key geographical features on a map (rivers)
  • Recognize that river systems impacted early American history
Grade 8 Tennessee Social Studies Standards:
  • List the early European explorers and their nations of origin.
  • Differentiate between a primary and secondary source.
  • Compare and contrast different stories or accounts about past events, people, places, or situations, identifying how they contribute to our understanding of the past.

            National History Standards:
Era 2: Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
How early European exploration and colonization resulted in cultural and ecological interactions among previously unconnected peoples.

Standard 2A
The student understands the stages of European oceanic and overland exploration, amid international rivalries, from the 9th to 17th centuries.
Grade Level
Therefore, the student is able to

Trace routes taken by early explorers ... [Draw upon data in historical maps]