By Mark Michel, Photos by Jessica Crawford
Archaeologists with the Arkansas Archeological Survey just announced that they believe they have found the remains of a Christian cross erected at the Indian village of Casqui in 1541 by the Spanish entrada of Hernando de Soto. On Monday, seven archaeologists from the Survey began to excavate on the largest mound at Parkin Archaeological State Park in northeastern Arkansas, the presumed site of Casqui. Remains of what appears to be the cross were recovered on Tuesday.
De Soto and his large force landed in Florida in 1539 and fought their way across the southeastern United States seeking gold and other riches. In late June 1541, they crossed the Mississippi River into what is now Arkansas. The first major village they encountered was Casqui, also the name of its chief. According to the Spanish chronicles, Casqui was suffering from an extended drought and asked for help from the European gods. A dozen or so Dominican priests were part of the expedition. The company’s carpenter, an Italian, was dispatched in search of the “tallest, straightest tree” from which to build a massive cross. On July 4th, 1541, a hundred men raised the cross on top of the largest mound, where Chief Casqui made his home. As many as 2,000 Indians witnessed the event and the Catholic mass that followed.
De Soto, finding no riches at Casqui, soon continued west into Texas. Returning to Arkansas, de Soto died near the mouth of the Arkansas River and was buried in the Mississippi River. The survivors of the expedition traveled down the Mississippi and eventually got back to Mexico.
The cross they erected at Casqui, reported in all four of de Soto’s chronicles, was forgotten, until in the 1960s when archaeologists from the University of Arkansas were cleaning up some looters’ holes in the top of the biggest mound at the Parkin site. In the bottom of one of the holes they found the top a large wooden post. Samples were collected, the post was covered with plastic, and the hole filled in.
By the 1970s the Parkin site was still well preserved on about 17 acres on the banks of the Saint Francis River, because it had a small lumber company community located on top of it. Preservationists began pushing to make the Parkin site a state park, and in the next several years the new Archaeological Conservancy assembled many individual tracts comprising most of the site totaling about 60 acres. The park opened in 1994 with a new visitor center and interpretive trails.
Dr. Jeffrey Mitchem, the Parkin site archaeologist for the Arkansas Archeological Survey, had already begun his years of research on the site. In 1992, he had found the sample from the 1960s recovery project in the University’s museum and theorized the post might be the remains of de Soto’s cross. Carbon-14 dates were obtained that showed a range of dates from A.D. 1515 to 1663, in the right ballpark. For the next 23 years Mitchem conducted many excavations and other research at Parkin, but not on the largest mound. In 2015, the Elfrieda Frank Foundation agreed to fund a determined search for the remains of the cross.
Finally this week, the search for the remains of de Soto’s cross began in earnest. Mitchem and his project co-leaders, Survey archaeologists Tim Mulvilhill and Jami Lockhart, began to work on Monday. Mulvihill, using state of the art survey equipment, located the spot marked by the 1960s archaeologists. “Their directions were excellent, Mulvihill said, “we came down very near to the top of the post.” The team, including archaeologists Jared Pebworth, Katie Leslie, Bob Scott, Mike Evans, and park superintendent Ben Swadley, had carefully excavated six adjacent one meter square units to a depth of about three feet to the top of the post. The plastic covering from the 1960s, although greatly deteriorated, was clearly visible.
On Tuesday, the team carefully excavated around a large wooden post that appeared to have been burned. The cross was built of bald cypress, a large tree that preserves extremely well. As the hole around the post deepened, the post was revealed to be a burned segment of a larger piece. The preserved segment measured 18 inches in diameter and about 12 inches deep. At the end of the day, Mitchem and his crew carefully wrapped the post in cotton padding and very gingerly removed it to the park’s laboratory.
On Wednesday, with the post gone, the excavators cleared away the remaining dirt and revealed the faint outline of a large post hole, 35 inches in diameter. Leslie and Pebworth continued to dig half of the outlined hole. They found a large pit reaching more than five feet below the present surface that looked to everyone like the hole for a large post, the de Soto cross. At the bottom they found a couple of Indian pot sherds. Mitchem theorizes that the wooden post segment preserved because it had been charred, and the remains of the base of the cross have rotted away. In fact rotted wood is visible in the sides of the post hole.
The post will soon be taken to the University of Arkansas where David Stahle, an expert in cypress tree rings, will try to get a date from the growth rings. If it comes out to 1541, the link to de Soto will be confirmed. Mitchem will also take ten new samples for Carbon-14 dating.
A visibly thrilled Mitchem said, “This is a very exciting development. The combination of the wooden post segment and the undisturbed large post hole both point to a strong presumption that this is de Soto’s cross from 1541.” “Hopefully the dating studies, especially the tree rings, will confirm it.” The project will continue for the rest of this week, with lab results still to come.
As to the impact of de Soto’s cross on Casqui, the drought seems to have persisted for several more months.
As part of the Conservancy’s Peoples of the Lower Mississippi Valley tour offered this fall, Jeff Mitchem is the featured speaker the first night, and Parkin Archaeological State Park in Parkin, Arkansas is the tour’s first stop.
Parkin Archaeological State Park is located in Parkin, Arkansas and is open Tuesday thru Sunday.
- Correction 4/25 to reflect that Dr. MItcheum has worked at Parkin for some 23 years.