In May 1539, Hernando de Soto and his soldiers came ashore somewhere along Tampa Bay. There, the Spanish conquistador launched a four-year, 4,000-mile expedition through what is now the southeastern United States, seeking gold and glory. He found neither, and he died along the way.
The spot where his nine ships landed has never been precisely identified. But as the 400th anniversary of the landing approached in 1939, a federal commission said it probably was in Bradenton, on a swampy finger of land on the south side of the Manatee River where it dumps into Tampa Bay.
Community leaders soon organized a reenactment of the landing — a tradition that continues today (April 18 this year) — and pushed to take advantage of the historic event. Eventually, in 1948, Congress created the De Soto National Memorial there on donated land. Because they could not be sure it was the actual landing site, Congress designated it a memorial rather than a monument. At 26 acres, much of it mangrove swamp, it is one of the smallest units in the National Park Service.
The memorial, which is explicitly not a celebration of de Soto or his landing, examines the effect the expedition had on the Native Americans in the area. De Soto and his troops enslaved many, took them on their march west to the Mississippi River and brutalized them. They also spread disease that wiped out much of the native population.
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Visitors to the park can see thatched huts, displays of artifacts, replicas of an Indian canoe and a European boat (still used in the annual reenactment), and watch a video about de Soto at the visitors center.
In addition, the park is organized to take advantage of its natural setting. There is a beach (better for boating and paddling than wading), a nature trail that takes visitors to the Manatee River, a boardwalk in the mangroves, the ruins of a house made of tabby, sightings of dolphins and manatees near the shore, and other features.
In the winter, park rangers set up displays of armor and weaponry from de Soto’s day and give talks about the items in a section of the park called Camp Uzita that is named after de Soto’s base camp. That season has just ended.
Starting in May, guides will lead guests on free kayak tours on weekends. The tours will highlight the park’s natural and historic elements. Details of the kayak tours had not been posted on the park’s website at press time, but a ranger said they would be held again this year on Saturdays and Sundays. Kayaks will be provided; reservations (by phone) are required.
▪ De Soto National Memorial, 8300 De Soto Memorial Hwy., Bradenton; 941-792-0458; www.nps.gov/deso. Admission: free.
▪ Tips: Traffic through central Bradenton is inordinately slow. Budget extra time for coming and going, especially if you reserve a slot on a kayak tour. Dogs on leashes are allowed in the park.