My last act before leaving Florida – not counting eating those blueberry pancakes – was to stop at the De Soto National Park in Bradenton. Located on the shores of Tampa Bay, this site has been set aside to mark the landing spot of De Soto and his army in what was the start of a 4,000 mile trek across the American continent. De Soto’s venture is really one of the most important explorations in the early history of this continent. If you haven’t read about it, I totally recommend, Tony Horwitz’s, ‘A Long, Strange, Journey’.
The park isn’t huge. When I drove up, it was clear that locals use it for jogs and walking dogs. As it turned out, I was the first visitor of the day having gotten there just after they opened. This was great because outside the Visitor Center, there was a demonstration area where guides displayed and used weapons of the day. You really got a feel for how inventive the Indians were. Also, a guide showed how to keep the armour clean and how it was made.
I got lucky at this point because being the only one there, they had skipped the usual spiel and were just talking to me one on one. When I got to the armour, they allowed me to put on the whole Spanish suit, chain mail and all, which was a really unique experience for me. I totally enjoyed that and it was a highlight of the trip for me.
The most unusual fact I encountered was that the soldiers navigational equipment was in Arabic because the Spanish had gotten it from the Moors. This means of course, someone had to be able to read Arabic and I guess I never thought about the fact that Spain was probably bilingual in that way back in those days.
Another guy explained how the soldiers played card games and dice. I noticed for the first time that the cards were different than ones we’re use to playing with these days. Also, I was able to see demonstrations of the Indian art work which I found fascinating. I was surprise to learn that Indians De Soto met were really farmers. I hadn’t expected this in the tropical terrain of Florida and it was different from the tribes I had researched in other parts of the country.
Overall, I really enjoyed the experience. The only downside, and this was a bit unusual for a National Park, was the organization of the place. The demo guides I mentioned seemed to have a little friction among themselves as in wanting to speak over the top of each other. And one guy in particular, seemed a little taken back when I asked specific questions. For instance, I noticed a design on the Spanish shield and asked if he knew if they soldiers favored a design. I referenced the Greeks who put Medusa on their shields for religious purposes. I’ve always found Park Guides/workers to be the best in taking questions.
Inside the Visitor Center was also a downside. The gift shop was so small that if you had two people in there, it was pretty well a crowd. As you can imagine there wasn’t much to browse through in the way of gifts. Also, the guy behind the register, an elderly guy, while nice, didn’t seem to know much about the store or the park system. He kept the one ranger on staff busy. Maybe he was new. I don’t know.
The American National Park System is one of this country’s points of pride. We’ve done it well even though there are people out there actively trying to destroy it. If you get down to the Tampa area, check out De Soto National Park. An hour there will cover everything and you’ll enjoy it.