Legendary accounts of early voyages by Spanish explorers are curiously substantiated by ancient maps which show that the mouth of the Mississippi River and the immediate vicinity of present-day New Orleans were known to Europeans only a short time after Columbus led the way to the New World.
On the Tabula Terre Nove, a map made by Waldseemüller before 1508 from an original, probably the Cantino map of 1502, and on other early charts, there appears the three-tongued mouth of a river, whose location, west of a well-defined Florida, suggests the delta of the Mississippi. Inasmuch as the discovery of Florida is attributed to no earlier an explorer than Ponce de Leon ( 1513), the only possible inference is a previous discovery, unrecorded in history except by cartographers.
Later knowledge of the river may have come from the half-legendary voyages of Alvarez de Pineda and Cabeza de Vaca, intrepid adventurers who explored the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mexico. According to a picturesque account, Pineda in 1519 discovered the great river, to which he gave the name Rio del Espiritu Santo. At its mouth he found a large town, and for a distance of six leagues upstream counted forty villages inhabited by giants and pigmies wearing ornaments of gold in their noses and ears. All that was lacking in this beautiful and densely populated El Dorado, where the rivers ran to the sea heavily laden with gold, was the Fountain of Youth, for want of which, perhaps, the Spaniards thought the country not worth conquering.
Less fantastic is the voyage of De Vaca, leader of the survivors of the Narvaez expedition, which was commissioned by the Spanish Government in 1528 to explore and conquer the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mexico. Escaping from the hostile. Indians at Apalachicola Bay, De Vaca and his men, making their way along the coast in makeshift boats, passed the mouth of a broad river, presumably the Mississippi, which poured so large a stream into the Gulf that his men were able to obtain fresh water far out at sea. One account of this journey relates that, with the exception of De Vaca and three men, the entire force capsized and was lost in the current, while another narrator states that a tropical storm destroyed all but the leader and a few men, who tarried six years among the Indians before reaching Mexico.
The first white men to view the site of New Orleans were Luis Moscoso and the survivors of De Soto's expedition, who sailed down the river in 1543 on their way back to civilization. More than a century later, during which time the lower Mississippi lay neglected by explorers, Sieur de la Salle, with a party of fifty men, descended from the Great Lakes, making a stop on March 31, 1682, at the Indian village of Maheoula, a Tangipahoa settlement, which, from Tonty's mention of it as being twenty leagues from the western channel of the mouth, must have been close to the present location of New Orleans. On April 9, 1682, at a point not far downstream (27° North Latitude), a cross was erected with a column bearing the arms of France and an inscription claiming the territory in the name of Louis XIV.