Searching for de Soto

Nearly 500 years ago Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto led an expedition through a large swath of what is now the Southeastern U.S.

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Spanish glass Beads were popular trade items with Native Americans.
Spanish glass Beads were popular trade items with Native Americans. These beads were recovered from the Martin Site, where de Soto is believed to have wintered 1539-40.

Fall 2014 Searching for de Soto By Kristin Ohlson: The Atlanta high school girl was in the middle of a solitary stint at the sifting screen, while archaeologist Dennis Blanton and the rest of the group working at the Glass site were engaged elsewhere. Then Blanton heard the girl, who was usually too shy to speak out, calling him. As he approached, she extended her arm and opened up her clenched fist. “Mr. Blanton, is this anything?”

There, in the middle of her palm, was the kind of brightly colored, multifaceted glass chevron bead associated with the 16th-century expedition of Hernando de Soto.

The discovery sent a jolt through Blanton and his crew. A number of archaeologists have dedicated their careers to finding evidence of de Soto’s expedition, which began on the west coast of Florida in 1539 and concluded four years and 4,000 miles later. But Blanton wasn’t one of them. In fact, the purpose of his excavation of the Glass site was to search for evidence of a Spanish mission that was established decades after de Soto’s expedition.

But ever since the high school student’s discovery of the bead in 2006, Blanton, who is now on faculty at James Madison University, has been returning to the site to look for additional evidence of de Soto and to understand more about the native village that may have hosted him. By now, the Glass site has yielded the largest collection of de Soto-era artifacts outside of Florida. Pottery samples as well as radiocarbon testing of burned wood and tobacco residue in pipes date the site to the de Soto years. Blanton believes he’s found the village of the one-eyed chief Ichisi, one of the few native leaders to welcome de Soto. However, this conclusion has rocked the world of de Soto scholarship because the Glass site, which is 120 miles west of Savannah, Georgia, is about 100 miles from the route posited in 1984 by ethnohistorian Charles Hudson and other experts, which most scholars believed to be correct.

The hunt for de Soto has been going on ever since the 18th century, but finding the trail of the expedition remains challenging. Archaeologists are cautious about designating a site as one of de Soto’s steppingstones across the Southeast, because getting one site wrong can throw off the rest of the route.

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