In the course of his celebrated four-year expedition (1539-43), Hernando de Soto passed through the region of La Florida then known as Tama (or La Tama).
Tama was beyond the upper reaches of Guale, abutting on the territory of the Apalachees to the West, in the very heart of the present State of Georgia. Despite the distance separating Guale from Tama, there would be a passing association in the year 1597, featuring Fray Francisco de Veráscola, one of the Martyrs slain in Guale.
The "Gentleman of Elvas" – whose chronicle of De Soto's heroic journey is the source of much instructive information about La Florida – informs us that in early April of 1540 De Soto's party was at the Indian site called Ocute, moving shortly thereafter to other places called Cofaqui and Patofa. All these Indian settlements were situated on the River Ocmulgee, which flows through what was to be known to the Spaniards as Guale;joining the Oconee it becomes the Altamaha, ultimately to empty into the Atlantic just north of St. Simons Island.
At the native sites on the upper reaches of the river, De Soto's explorers – sweltering in their heavy military outfits, with their firearms ready for any sudden need – were well received by the native chiefs. In his chronicle Elvas speaks glowingly of the land of Tama, describing it as highly populated and notably fertile and productive. He describes also how the cacique of the area showed himself especially solicitous and helpful toward the strangers.
In the village of Achese, before leaving, the Spaniards set up a cross as a sign of gratitude and a symbol of hope. In the presence of that sign of salvation, did Fray Juan de Torres, the Franciscan priest accompanying the De Soto expedition, perhaps make a wish and offer a prayer that someday his brethren, the Sons of St. Francis, might return to the area of Tama, bringing the Gospel and the Faith of Christ?3
Four decades later the Franciscan Friars did indeed establish themselves in La Florida, starting their missionary work in Guale. There they heard about the land called Tama – a fabled land noted for its fertility and believed to be rich in deposits of precious metals. Indeed, at a time when the situation of La Florida became particularly burdensome, the King of Spain and the Governor of La Florida did exchange letters about the desirability and the advantages of moving the struggling capital out of San Agustin to the more promising area of Tama. 4
Needing first-hand information looking to the advisability of such a move, in 1597 the Governor, Gonzalo Méndez de Canzo, sent an embassy to Tama, composed of a military man and two friars. The soldier was Gaspar de Salas, a veteran of twenty years of military service in La Florida and a trusted adviser, whose knowledge of the native languages and customs was often used by the King's men. The two friars were Fray Pedro Fernández de Chozas and Fray Francisco de Veráscola, both of whom were to figure prominently in the story of the martyrdom. Veráscola would be slain by the rebelling Indians: Fernández de Chozas it was who first became aware of the slayings and who sent the first notice of the tragedy to the Franciscan Comisário and to the Royal Governor in San Agustín. Early in the year following the slaying of the five missionaries, Chozas was sent to Spain to give a firsthand report on the situation in the diminished ranks of the Franciscans.' He remained in Spain, being elected to positions of confidence and responsibility.
On the mission to Tama, the soldier and the two friars were accompanied (according to the not always reliable author of the poem La Florida) by a group of some thirty natives from Guale. It took them eight days to travel from the coast of Guale to the heart of Tama, a distance of some fifty leagues (about 150 miles). Aware of the presence of enemy natives, they returned to Guale by a route that was less dangerous, and were able to arrange the use of canoes on the return trip down the Ocmulgee to the coastal area of Guale.5
True Relation of the Hardships Suffered by Governor Fernando de Soto and Certain Portuguese Gentlemen during the Discovery of the Province of Florida, trans. and ed. James Alexander Robertson, Publications of the Florida State Historical Society, 11, 2 vols. (DeLand, FL, 1932), ch. 13, 2:76-83.
See John Tate Lanning, The Spanish Missions of Georgia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 193 5) 111-35; Cristobal Figuero del Campo, Franciscan Missions in Florida (n.p. Ars Magna, 1994) 89-94.
On Francisco de Verascola's participation in this expedition to Tama, see below, 67- 68.