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Childhood and Youth.
Birthplace of Ferdinand De Soto.-Spanish Colony at Darien. Do
Pedro de Avila, Governor of Darien.—Vasco Nuñez.-Famine, -Love in the Spanish Castle.—Character of Isabella.-Embar. rassment of De Soto.- Isabella's Parting Counsel.
In the interior of Spain, about one hundred and thirty miles southwest of Madrid, there is the small walled town of Xeres, It is remote from all greas routes of travel, and contains about nine thousand inhabitants, living very frugally, and in a state of primitive simplicity. There are several rude castles of the ancient nobility here, and numerous gloomy, monastic institutions. In one of these dilapidated castles, there was born, in the year 1500, a boy, who received the name of Ferdinand de Soto. His parents were Spanish nobles, perhaps the most haughty class of nobility which has ever existed. It was, however, a decayed family, so impoverished as to find it difficult to maintain the position of gentility. The parents were not able to give their son a liberal education. Their rank did not allow them to intra
duce him to any of the pursuits of industry; and so far as can now be learned, the years of his early youth were spent in idleness.
Ferdinand was an unusually handsome boy. He grew up tall, well formed, and with remarkable mus. cular strength and agility. He greatly excelled in fencing, horseback riding, and all those manly exercises which were then deemed far more essential for a Spanish gentleman than literary culture.
He was fearless, energetic, self-reliant; and it was manifest that he was endowed with mental powers of much native strength.
When quite a lad he attracted the attention of a wealthy Spanish nobleman, Don Pedro de Avila, who sent him to one of the Spanish universities, probably that of Saragossa, and maintained him there for six years. Literary culture was not then in high repute; but it was deemed a matter of very great moment that a nobleman of Spain should excel in horsemanship, in fencing, and in wielding every weapon of attack or defence.
Ferdinand became quite renowned for his lofty hearing, and for all chivalric accomplishments. At the tournaments, and similar displays of martial prowess then in vogue, he was prominent, exciting the envy of competitive cavaliers, and winning the admiration of the ladies.
Don Pedro became very proud of his foster son, received him to his family, and treated him as though he were his own child. The Spanish court had at that time established a very important colony at the province of Darien, on the Isthmus of Panama. This isthmus, connecting North and South America, is about three hundred miles long and from forty to sixty broad. A stupendous range of mountains runs along its centre, apparently reared as an eternal barrier between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. From several of the summits of this ridge the waters of the two oceans can at the same time be distinctly
Here the Spanish court, in pursuit of its energetic but cruel conquest of America, had established one of its most merciless colonies. There was gold among the mountains. The natives had many golden ornaments. They had no conception of the value of the precious ore in civilized lands. Readily they would exchange quite large masses of gold for a few glass beads. The great object of the Spaniards in the conquest of Darien was to obtain gold. They inferred that if the ignorant natives, without any acquaintance with the arts, had obtained so much, there must be immense quantities which careful searching and skilful mining would reveal.
The wanton cruelties practised by the Spaniards
upon the unoffending natives of these climes seem te have been as senseless as they were fiendlike. It is often difficult to find any motive for their atrocities. These crimes are thoroughly authenticated, and yet they often seem like the outbursts of demoniac ma. lignity. Anything like a faithful recital of them would torture the sensibilities of our readers almost beyond endurance. Mothers and maidens were hunted and torn down by bloodhounds; infant children were cut in pieces, and their quivering limbs thrown to the famished dogs.
The large wealth and the rank of Don Pedro de Avila gave him much influence at the Spanish court. He succeeded in obtaining the much-coveted appointment of Governor of Darien. His authority was virtually absolute over the property, the liberty, and the lives of a realm, whose extended limits were not distinctly defined.
Don Pedro occupied quite an imposing castle, his ancestral mansion in the vicinity of Badajoz. Here the poor boy Ferdinand, though descended from families of the highest rank, was an entire dependent upon his benefactor.
The haughty Don Pedro treated him kindly. Still he regarded him, in consequence of his poverty, almost as a favored menial He fed him, clothed him, patronized him.
It was in the year 1514 that Don Pedro entered
upon his office of Governor of Darien. The insa tiate thirst for gold caused crowds to flock to his banners. A large fleet was soon equipped, and more than two thousand persons embarked at St. Lucar for the golden land. The most of these were soldiers; men of sensuality, ferocity, and thirst for plunder. Not a few noblemen joined the enterprise; some to add to their already vast possessions, and others hoping to retrieve their impoverished fortunes.
A considerable number of priests accompanied the expedition, and it is very certain that some of these at least were actuated by a sincere desire to do good to the natives, and to win them to the religion of Jesus :—that religion which demands that we should do to others as we would that others should do to us, and whose principles, the governor, the nobles, and the soldiers, were ruthlessly trampling beneath their feet. Don Pedro, when measured by the standard of Christianity, was proud, perfidious and tyrannical. The course he pursued upon his arrival in the country was impolitic and almost insane.
His predecessor in the governorship was Vasco Nuñez. He had been on the whole a prudent, able and comparatively merciful governor. He had entered into trade with the natives, and had so far secured their good will as to induce them to bring in an ample supply of provisions for his colony. He