By Paula Neely
Searching for gold and other riches, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto landed in Florida in 1539 and launched a four-year exploration of the Southeastern United States. But despite the duration and scope of de Soto’s entrada, archaeological evidence of the sites he visited is very rare. In recent years, however, archaeologists have employed metal detectors to unearth evidence of de Soto’s route and also contradict previous theories about European gift giving as well as provide new insights about how Native Americans used European metal artifacts.
Traveling with about 600 men, dozens of horses, and hundreds of pigs, de Soto was the first European to explore the inland areas of the Southeast, and he alternately befriended and warred with the natives that he encountered. Trekking 4,000 miles through parts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas, the Spaniards failed to find precious metals, except a bit of copper. De Soto died in May 1542, on the banks of the Mississippi River. In July 1543, the survivors of the expedition rafted down the Mississippi and then hugged the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico to return to Mexico.
One of the few confirmed de Soto sites is Anhaica in Tallahassee, Florida, where the Spanish camped during the expedition’s first winter. No one knows exactly where the Spanish went after that, but an estimated reconstruction of their route by anthropologist Charles Hudson suggests the general locality of large villages they visited. Hudson based his widely accepted reconstruction on four chronicles of the journey, written from survivors’ accounts, that include geographical descriptions and information about Native American chiefdoms. To help chart the trail, he also calculated that footmen and herds of pigs could travel an average of about fifteen miles a day.
In 2015, archaeologists from the Chickasaw Nation, the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA), and the universities of Mississippi and Florida discovered another site with compelling evidence of de Soto that they believe was a community of the Chikasha (also spelled Chicasa) chiefdom where de Soto camped from December 1540 to March 1541.
This is an article excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.