Spanish conquest and U.S. expansion

Picturing De Soto for the U.S. Capitol before the Civil War

Peter Frederick Rothermel, De Soto Raising the Cross on the Banks of the Mississippi, 1851, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, funds provided by the Henry C. Gibson Fund and Mrs. Elliott R. Detchon, 1987.31), a Seeing America video Speakers: Dr. Anna O. Marley, Curator of Historical American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Rothermel, De Soto

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Key points

  • Painted in 1851, Rothermel’s De Soto Raising the Cross reveals more about mid-19th century politics than about Spanish conquests of the 16th century. Proposed for the U.S. Capitol rotunda as part of a series depicting America’s history before the Revolutionary War, this painting presents a sanitized and deeply racist narrative of progress and civilization.
  • Completed shortly after the Mexican-American War and the annexation of vast amounts of territory by the United States, Rothermel positions De Soto’s campaign as a historical prototype for American westward expansion.
  • The subject of this painting, Hernando de Soto, led the first European expedition in the present-day United States from 1539-42. Although Rothermel suggests a peaceful transformation, de Soto’s military conquest devastated the Mississippian network of Native American towns, cities, and communities. This painting creates an American mythology rather than depicting historical fact.

Go deeper

Read a short biography of Peter Frederick Rothermel at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

View the paintings on display in the US Capitol (with links to individual paintings)

Read about the Mexican-American War 

View primary sources and a lesson plan about the Mexican-American war at the Smithsonian

Explore primary sources on Hispanic exploration in America with a teaching guide

Parallel Histories: Spain, United States and the American Frontier at the Library of Congress

More about the Mississippian culture devastated by de Soto’s expedition

More to think about

Rothermel’s De Soto Raising the Cross was proposed for a mural in the United States Capitol rotunda, but William Henry Powell’s Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto was selected instead. How does Powell’s painting perpetuate many of the same propagandistic mythologies about America’s early history?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.