An expedition led by Hernando de Soto conducted the earliest exploration of Tennessee by non-Native Americans in May, June, and July of 1540. The expedition of some seven hundred Spaniards and their slaves had landed at Tampa Bay the previous May and struck north in search of food and gold. After wintering at the main town of Apalachee in present Tallahassee, Florida, Soto continued northeastward the following spring, advancing from one Mississippian town to the next. The expedition turned west in mid-May 1540, crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains at the Swannanoa Gap on May 25.
Following a trail through the mountains, they came upon the fortified town of Chiaha on Zimmerman’s Island in the French Broad River near modern Dandridge, Tennessee. The well-provisioned town contained no gold. The Spaniards’ horses, weak from traversing the mountain trails, were put out to pasture. During the respite at Chiaha, Soto sent two men north to the Chisca towns on the upper Nolichucky River. The Chiscas were rumored to mine copper and perhaps gold.
The hospitable Chiahans provided the Spaniards with food and played and swam with them in the French Broad River. The good time came to an abrupt end, however, when Soto, preparing to leave, asked for thirty women. The Chiahans had attempted to pacify the Spaniard’s demands, but Soto’s request for women brought an end to peaceful relations. Rather than fight the Spaniards, the Chiahans left their town early on the morning of June 21, in hopes the Spaniards would leave. Soto responded by leading thirty horsemen and thirty footmen against the Chiahans, who took refuge on a nearby island. Unable to reach the sanctuary by horse, Soto accepted a negotiated truce that gave the Spaniards porters, but no women.
The expedition left Chiaha on June 28, following the French Broad River and passing through several neighboring towns. On July 1, the chief of Coste met the Spaniards and escorted them to one of his towns. At the Coste capital on Bussell Island in the mouth of the Little Tennessee River, Soto took the chief hostage to obtain guides and porters and prevent bloodshed after his men pillaged the corncribs and houses. Sick men left behind at Chiaha and those who had gone to the Chisca country came down the Tennessee River in canoes and rejoined the expedition.
On July 9, Soto left Coste. At the adjacent province of Tali, near present Sweetwater, the expedition again resupplied with corn, beans, and other food. Crossing the Hiwassee River on July 14, they reached the town of Tasqui, near modern Conasauga, Tennessee. The next day, the Spaniards crossed into northwestern Georgia and continued southward to the capital of the province of Coosa.
Lawrence A. Clayton et al., eds., The de Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543 (1993)