Anthropologist Offers New Solution To Fabled Route Of Spanish Explorer Hernando De Soto

August 04, 1997

ATHENS, Ga. -- Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was looking for gold and glory when he landed at present day Tampa Bay in May of 1539. For the next three years, he blazed a path through the American South. Some of that journey was relatively uneventful, while other parts were drenched in blood and unspeakable suffering.

When De Soto died of illness on May 21, 1542, on the western banks of the Mississippi River, his dreams of finding a great kingdom like that of the Incas or Aztecs had been shattered. But his hope for glory exceeded his fondest dreams, since his journey would lead to the opening of America for exploration -- an event at once marvelous for Europeans and devastating for the Indians.

Now, a new book tracing the De Soto Expedition has for the first time tied the famed explorer's route to recent and emerging archaeological discoveries. The result is far and away the most accurate map ever drawn for the still mysterious journey of De Soto into the heart of an American darkness.

"I have different levels of confidence in different parts of the route, but for most of it, I feel that we are close to the mark," said Dr. Charles Hudson, a University of Georgia anthropologist who spent 16 years researching the route. His book on the expedition, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun, was just published by the University of Georgia Press.

The exact route of De Soto and his troops has been the subject of often rancorous argument among historians and archaeologists for more than century. Some towns have tied their local history to the belief that De Soto visited their area. The problem is that the Indian chiefdoms named by the contemporary chroniclers of the expedition vanished long before anyone could determine their exact locations. Thus, researchers were left with a set of assumptions but little hard evidence about where the group might have gone.

Even before researchers got into the act, the possible route of the expedition drew interest. As early as 1584, a map of the Southeast included place-names appearing in the chronicles of the expedition, but the first attempt at reconstruction of the journey came in a French map drawn in 1718. All through the Nineteenth Century, writers tried their hands at drawing the route of De Soto, and some of their proposals added to knowledge of the trail.

But it wasn't until 1935, when the U.S. Congress approved the appointment of a De Soto Expedition Commission, that modern science was brought to bear on the problem. The route devised by that group, especially John Swanton, who was chairman of the commission, became the King James Version of the expedition.

"Swanton did the best he could with what he had," said Hudson. "He got the general area of the landing at Tampa Bay right, and he also correctly identified the general location of the first winter quarters in what is now downtown Tallahassee. But almost everything else he had was pretty far off."

Hudson, an authority on anthropology of the South and author of the influential book The Southeastern Indians, began his own quest for the De Soto route in 1980. A couple of years earlier, he had spent a year as a senior fellow at the prestigious Center for the History of the American Indian at Newberry Library in Chicago, and it was there he became intrigued by the De Soto route. But it was not until he began discussions back at the University of Georgia with two graduate students, Chester DePratter and Marvin Smith, that he began to realize that some important new clues were coming to light.

Beginning in the late 1960s, archaeology in the Southeast had begun to unravel the world of the men and women who lived here centuries ago. The land began to divulge hints of great chiefdoms whose influence spread for miles around. Archaeologists brought to that world a new light, and the pace of discovery and knowledge increased at a dazzling rate.

As Hudson began to study the work of these scientists, he decided to see how their work matched the proposals Swanton had made in the Thirties. The answer was soon clear: not very well at all. Hudson, his students and other collaborators roughed out a new De Soto route. So, in 1984, he and his wife, the novelist Joyce Rockwood, decided to drive the entire route of the expedition, stopping to see how well the land matched the new route.

"It was simply a thrilling experience," said Hudson, "the single most enjoyable thing I have done in my entire academic career. It was a particular pleasure meeting and getting to know the archaeologists who had worked on sites along the route."

Hudson soon found there was anything but consensus about the path of the De Soto expedition. Some researchers had their own theories that they ardently defended. Also, southeastern towns that had always believed in the Swanton version of the route were unhappy to find that a revised map might leave them many miles off the real path taken by the Spanish explorers.

In the end, however, Hudson came to visualize the big picture with clarity since it was tied to archaeological discoveries that came after Swanton's work. Hudson also relied heavily on researchers such as Drs. Dan and Phyllis Morse of Arkansas Archaeological Survey, whose work in identifying the Parkin archaeological site in Arkansas as the location of the town of Casqui in the De Soto journals, was "nothing short of brilliant."

Hudson is the first to admit that some of the native towns along his route are at "possible" locations. But nowhere does he -- as Swanton did -- locate a string of native towns in an area known to have been uninhabited in 1539-43.

"The location of the 1540-1541 winter camp in Mississippi is still uncertain," he said, "and the same is true of the town of Mabila, where De Soto's troops were attacked by Indians in a disastrous battle that claimed the lived of more than two thousand Indians." And Hudson knows that in some quarters, his version of the route will be controversial.

Historic archaeology of the Southeast will finally nail down the precise route along its entire distance.

(Writers/Editors: For information about obtaining a copy of the book, please call Tom Payton at the University of Georgia Press at 706/542-6160.)

University of Georgia

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