Our parks | De Soto National Memorial combining history and nature

rdymond@bradenton.comApril 3, 2011 

MANATEE -- At some point in their lives, perhaps everyone gets an inexplicable desire to just yell out, “Hey, Ranger Dan, tell me the story again of how Hernando De Soto came ashore and claimed La Florida.”

Fortunately for Manatee County residents and guests, the county has a handy De Soto National Memorial located at the terminus of 75th Street West to quench the desire. But not only that, there is also a real Ranger Dan at the Memorial.

He’s Dan Stephens and he can be found just about any day of the week, telling and retelling the story from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Stephens, a Bradenton-native who has been a park ranger at the Memorial four years and graduated from Manatee High School in 1993, asks visitors to imagine it is a hot, sweltering day in May 1539.

“You are a Native American standing here in their camp,” Stephens tells tourists Sandra Levesque of River Woods in Parrish and Levesque’s sister, Jane Crocker from Massachusetts.

Stephens pointed to the Memorial’s vista of water, trees and sky, which is the coming together of the Manatee River, Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay.

“You would see 12 ships passing by here on their way to a point about 10 miles north of here, which is now Port Manatee, where we think De Soto actually landed,” Stephens said. De Soto’s fleet would include three or four large ships, called caravels and galleons, as well as smaller vessels.

Levesque and Crocker listened intently, curious about De Soto, who left home at age 14 and used his ambition to become one of the richest explorers in the world.

The local area was then occupied by Native Americans who stood an average height of 6-foot-2, Stephens said.

One only wonders what the Native Americans thought of the Spaniards, who stood 4-foot-9 to 5-foot-4.

“The Native Americans here realized they could not defeat the Spanish armor that De Soto’s men wore, so they practiced guerrilla warfare,” Stephens said. “They would rush in and aim their spears and arrows for a gap in the armor not to kill but to wound. The wounds would infect and the victims would be unable to fight.”

De Soto’s was a difficult four-year, 4,000-mile expedition around the Southeastern United States. Besides the Native American defenders, they dealt with diseases and the geography, which included mountains, swamps and rivers that they weren’t used to in their native country.

They didn’t take away the gold from Florida that they were seeking, but they did bring in America’s first pigs, the first horses into the American Southeast and the first large breed dogs, which are referred to as war dogs. They were not the first to bring matchlock muskets -- that honor goes to Chris Columbus-- but they were the first expedition to wear full armor, Stephens said.

“Behind you, you will see the Ana Mendez,” Stephens tells the tourists, pointing at the 25-foot replica of a Spanish landing boat built by the Cortez Historic Fishing Village and their master craftsman, Bob Pitt. “It’s named for the only female survivor of the expedition. Ten-year-old Ana disguised herself as a boy and kept the disguise throughout the entire trip.”

Stephens points to the 13 gumbo limbo trees lining the parking area, one standing 43-feet high and earning the title, “Largest gumbo limbo in North America. “The ladies are in awe of Ranger Dan, with De Soto a close second.

“It’s a fascinating story,” Levesque said.

The park will host its annual De Soto Landing at 10:30 a.m. April 16. It will feature a reenactment of the landing of De Soto, complete with volunteers wearing period costumes. It will include volunteer Tim Burke, a De Soto re-enactor, respected for his presentations, Stephens said.

The park and its programs are free to the public. The park is open every day of the year but Christmas, New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving.

“Hmmm, he brought our first pigs,” Crocker repeated of De Soto.

“What was he like?” a bystander chimes in.

“De Soto was not cruel, but was highly ambitious,” Stephens said. “He died on the trip and became the first white man buried in the Mississippi River.”

In a part of the Memorial called Camp Uzita, park rangers Christen Overstreet and Dayna Lazarus, who are known as “historical interpreters,” are telling the story, to a bleacher filled with tourists, of how the Native Americans had war clubs that were remarkably like the Spanish battle mace.

These historical interpretation shows last about 15 minutes and are presented at the top of every hour.

“The only difference was that the Spanish had metal and the Native Americans tempered their wooden weapons by heating them and drawing out all the water,” Lazarus said.

In the visitor center nearby, where a 22-minute movie called “Hernando De Soto in America” starring Tim Burke plays about 20 times a day, Nick Olsen of Elk River, Minn., is trying on armor while his wife, Joyce, takes his picture.

“Really cumbersome,” Olsen said of the armor. “I don’t know how they did it.”

Ah, that’s another story.

“Hey, Ranger Dan...”

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.

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