Saturday, March 19, 2011

"Olive Skin and Long Beards"

While researching one story, I’m finding rabbit trails to a lot more stories, and I don’t know where to begin. A disclaimer may be in order here, given the subject matter. Just because I present an alternate view of the archaeological or historical record, it does not necessarily mean that I endorse the view. Some selections are for their literary, as much as scientific, interest.

Hernando De Soto

As with any other information presented here independent verification of the facts is recommended.


Let’s jump right into this with a remarkable statement by Richard Thornton, suggesting the presence of Spanish miners on the Tuckasegee:

1745 – Cherokees entering the Tuckaseegee River Basin near Sylva, NC (Jackson County) for the first time encountered villages of white men with olive skin and long beards. The Cherokees reported to the British authorities that the men worshiped a book and lived in log houses with arched windows. The men apparently both farmed and worked silver in order to support their families. The silver ore they smeltered, probably came from Nantahala Gorge or the Snowbird Mountains. The Cherokees said that they drove the dark-skinned white men out of the region.

This is part of an article in which Thornton presents a time line and debunks what he calls myths perpetuated by the standard histories:

The “official” histories of the first half of the 18th century contain some major orthodoxies that are so far from fact that they are farcical. Generically, they can be described as an over-simplification of history that leaves out important details, a grossly inaccurate description of the ethnic landscape of the era, a minimizing of the histories of all the Southeastern indigenous ethnic groups other than the Cherokees, and an exaggeration of the Cherokee’s cultural level, territory and military power during that era. The Alabamo, Shawnee, Catawba, Chickasaw, Apalachicola and Yuchi are barely mentioned, if mentioned at all, in the standard history textbooks of Georgia and North Carolina. However, all of these ethnic groups were “major players” in the Lower Southeast between 1700 and 1776.

Although you won’t find much mention of it in the standard histories, strong evidence indicates ongoing Spanish activity in the Southern mountains, long after the expeditions of Hernando De Soto in 1540 and Juan Pardo in 1567.

Hernando's (1942) DeSoto?


Next is a quick stop at the Berry Archaeological site north of Morganton, NC, which has been described as “the oldest site of European settlement in interior North America.” Over the past 25 years, archaeologists have determined it was the site of “a 1567 Spanish fort known as San Juan. Captain Juan Pardo built his fort in the Upper Catawba Valley as part of an effort to establish a secure transfer route for the treasures of Mexico. Archaeologists have exposed the ruins of four burned buildings and such Spanish artifacts as chain mail, shards of olive oil jars, and nails. Evidence suggests that the compound was attacked and destroyed in the spring of 1568.”

A Warren Wilson website has much more on this, including many of the publications that have resulted from the excavations at Berry. The destruction of the fort did not mean the end of Spanish activity in the region. Although Soto and Pardo failed to find the gold and treasure they sought, other Spaniards continued the quest.


Next stop, Graham County, NC.

Richard Thornton mentions an inscribed rock on Hooper Bald, and Graham County historian Marshall McClung has also written about it. It is something you can still find if you know where to look. I have seen a photo of it.

In 1988, Marshall McClung sent a photo of the writing to the Mcclung Museum at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. Jeff Chapman of the Museum said that the inscription on the rock "PREDARMS CASADA, SEP. 1615", is probably of Spanish origin, and says that in effect that the person was claiming Hooper Bald as his own, was staking a claim, and would defend it to the point of bearing arms.


Let’s drop down into Georgia, past the faux-Bavarian scene in Helen, and take a look at the lovely Nacoochee Valley. Charles Lanman visited the area and wrote about it in April 1848:

Many discoveries have been made in the valley of Nacoochee corroborating the general impression, that De Soto or some other adventurer in the olden times performed a pilgrimage through the northern part of Georgia in search of gold. Some twelve years ago, for example, half a dozen log cabins were discovered in one portion of the valley, lying upwards of ten feet below the surface; and, in other places, something resembling a furnace, together with iron spoons, pieces of earthenware, and leaden plates were disinterred, and are now in the possession of the resident inhabitants. In this connection might also be mentioned the ruin of an old fort, which may now be seen a few miles north of Nacoochee valley. It is almost obliterated from the face of the earth, but its various ramparts can be easily traced by the careful observer. Its purpose we can easily divine, but with regard to its history even the Indians are entirely ignorant.

By 1921, when John Thomson Faris published Seeing the Sunny South, the old story related by Lanman had "evolved":

Habersham County, which borders on Tallulah Falls, has its reminders of the Cherokees. In 1830, in Nacoochee Valley, on Duke's Creek, a subterranean village was discovered by gold washers. Here were thirty-four log houses, all joined together. Perhaps these were the homes of the people of the legendary Nacoochee (Evening Star), the chief's daughter, who fell in love with the son of a chief of a neighboring hostile tribe. Their union was opposed, but they married without permission, and went for their honeymoon to "the valley, where, from the interlocked branches overhead, the white flowers of the clematis, and the purple blossoms of the magnificent wild persimmon mingled with the dark foliage of the muscadines." There "the song of the mocking-bird and the murmur of the Chattahoochee's hurrying waters were marriage hymn and anthem to them.'' But the angry father pursued them, and shot an arrow at Laceola, the bridegroom. Nacoochee thrust herself in the path of the arrow. Together they were buried, and a mound was heaped above them, which is pointed out to prove the legend's truth.

Charles Lanman


The people of Cherokee County, NC are justifiably proud of the many Spanish artifacts that have been uncovered in that region. I assume that the display of those items in the history museum in Murphy is still used to support the theory that Soto and Pardo traveled through Cherokee, which seems less and less likely as we learn more about their travels (which were probably farther north, along the French Broad River in Tennessee). Even so, the artifacts, many of them found near the Peachtree Mound, remain strong evidence for a Spanish presence at some point in the past.


In his 1922 history, Asheville and Buncombe County, Foster Sondley adds this:

In 1690 James Moore, secretary of the colony settled at Charlestown in South Carolina, made an exploring tour up the country to the mountains until he reached a place where his Indian guides said that twenty miles away Spaniards were mining and smelting with furnaces and bellows. Numerous traces of mining operations in Western North Carolina before the English came but in which iron implements (unknown to Indians) were used have been found", some in the country of the Sara Indians near Lincolnton, some at Kings Mountain, and some in Cherokee County which the Cherokees said had been made by Spaniards from Florida throughout three summers until the Cherokees killed them. Thus the Spaniards lived and mined in Western North Carolina more than 125 years from 1540 till 1690 and later.

Here’s the text of Moore’s letter to royal surveyor Edward Randolph:

As well out of curiosity to see what sort of Country we might have in land as to find out and make a new & farther discovery of Indian Trade, I made a Journey in the year 1690 over the Apalathean Mountains [Appalachian] in which Journey I took up seven sorts of ores or mineral stones, all differing either in weight, color, smell or some other qualities.

By my friend col[onel] Maurice Mathews I sent these to be try'd [tested] to England, he had them try'd and sent me a word two of the seven sorts were very good and one Indifferent. By the Help of my Journal I can go to every Individual place I took up any of the seven sorts of ores. In the same Journey I was informed that the Spaniards had been actually at work upon mines within Twenty miles of me I enquired of the Natives of the truth of that matter and the reason why they desisted. They told me it was true and described to me their great Bellows & furnaces, and that they killed the Spaniards...when...the Spaniards grew Numerous [fearing that] they [the Spanish] should make slaves of them to worke in those mines as they had Millions of other Indians as they said they had been informed....

Reflecting S[i]r on the weakness of this our Colony & considering that the report of a silver mind among us would incite & encourage the French in America, if not in Europe, to Invade us. I thought it convenient during the War between the Crowns of England & France not to make any discovery of them. Now S[i]r By the Peace the Emperor hath made with the Turks and the recovery of the King of Spain (if those reports are true) the Peace between England and France seems to be well confirmed and Lasting. I think this poor little colony of ours may not only be out of Danger of an Invasion, but be peopled and enriched by the working of these mines....


I like to think of these various reports as the tiny pieces of one great mosaic. For today, I’ll add just one more, an article that appeared in an 1881 volume of American Naturalist:


In Western North Carolina are found many evidences of prehistoric mining operations, such as open cuts, tunnels, shafts and dumps. The latter are covered with a forest growth of several hundred years, and in the excavations has accumulated the debris of centuries.

About ten years ago a new industry was inaugurated in the State, that of mica mining, and strange to say, the best and most profitable mines have been those located upon the sites of the "old diggings." In clearing out the ancient works very few implements have been found which throw light upon the original miners. The opinion, now generally held, is, that they belonged to the Mound-builders, whose mounds are also found, but sparingly, in the river basins. That this is, for the most part, correct, I think has been clearly shown by Prof. Kerr in his Report on the Geology of North Carolina for 1875. He there states that he learned in a conversation with Col. Whittlesey, and subsequently from numerous publications on the subject of the mounds of the Northwest, that mica was of common occurrence in the tumuli of the Mound-builders, among the utensils and ornaments which such rude people are in the habit of inhuming with their dead owners. And upon further inquiry, he ascertained that cut forms, similar to those found in the mounds were occasionally discovered among the rubbish and refuse heaps about and in the old pits. (Note 1)

When Prof. Kerr's attention was first called to these prehistoric excavations (1867), he was invited to visit some "old Spanish silver mines" which had been discovered a few miles south-west of Bakersville, in Mitchell county, showing that by some means the inhabitants had associated these works with the early explorers of our country. It seems probable that tradition may have given rise to this impression, for in a letter written by the Hon. T. L. Clingman, who is very familiar with Western Carolina, I find the following: "The old Cherokee Indians, living in some of the western counties, used to speak of a tradition coming down in their tribe, that long ago companies of white men came on mules from the south, worked during the summer and carried off a white metal with them." (Note 2)

The evidence of the former exploration of this region by white men—Europeans—in search of the precious metals, has not, until recently, been very strong, although in many instances the works indicated a considerable skill in mining, and in a few cases marks have been found as if made by some metallic instrument. (Note 3)

This summer, for the first time, I learned that some iron tools had been found in an old shaft in Macon county. (Note 4) Upon inquiry, I found them in the possession of Mr. Albert S. Bryson, a merchant in Franklin, the county seat of Macon. From him and others I ascertained the facts here stated.

In 1875 the Guyer mica mine was opened on the site of a "prehistoric working" on the mountains near Iola creek, northwest of the town. There was a basin-like depression some eighteen feet in diameter, at the bottom of which was a shaft apparently about eight feet deep. In carrying on the necessary mining operations this old shaft was cleaned out and found to be of considerable depth. In the rubbish which had accumulated within it, at distances varying from thirty-five to fifty feet below the surface, were found the iron implements figured in the accompanying plate. At the depth of forty feet an adit or tunnel was found opening on the mountain side, and at the bottom of the shaft (fifty feet), resting upon quartz, the charred remains of wood. It is thought that fire was here used for the purpose of breaking up the quartz; that after the rock was heated, water was poured upon it causing it to split into fragments.

Ancient Iron Mining Implements in North Carolina

Now as to the implements. They are of wrought iron, and of such shapes and weights as to be easily carried. That they had been worn out and thrown 3way is not improbable. The axe (Fig. i) is rather small, and has been considerably distorted by hard usage, as will be seen in Fig. 2. The eye is quite large, and the head is cracked completely through (Figs. 2 and 3). There is also a rupture near the blade as if the strain on the handle had been so great as to almost break away the side. On the blade is a brand (Fig. 1) which has been so effaced by erosion as to be no longer intelligible. The shape of this axe and its light weight are in contrast with those in use—being of an old pattern which is now rarely met with. The blade and head are each about three and threequarter inches in width, while between them the width diminishes to two and three-quarter inches.

The implements represented in Figs. 4 and 5 are evidently a pair of gudgeons—parts of a windlass. They are pointed at their extremities that they may be driven into a wooden roller or axis. The lower part of the shank is squared so as to prevent its turning in the wood, while the upper part is cylindrical, forming an axle for the support of the roller. Into their bifurcated heads were undoubtedly inserted levers for turning a windlass. As these irons have a length of but sixteen or seventeen inches, they could be easily carried from place to place, and the machine of which they form a part, could be readily extemporized from the trunk and branches of a small tree. Fig. 6 is theoretical, showing their probable use.

A wedge three and three-quarter inches long and one and a-half inches wide, was also found (Fig. 7). Its head was somewhat battered.

The inference to be drawn from the discovery of these iron relics, is, that some of the "old diggings" are the work of Europeans, as the use of iron was unknown to the native American races. Is it not possible that there is a basis of truth in the old Cherokee tradition? That a party of Spanish explorers—and perhaps more than one—penetrated Western Carolina in search of gold, silver and other minerals, and, in some instances, finding the old mines of the Mound-builders, caused preliminary investigations of their value, does not seem improbable. In Cherokee county are found "prospect holes" excavated with far greater skill than that of savage or barbaric miners. To what expedition these Europeans belonged, is a mystery. That of De Soto, according to the course traced out by Bancroft, passed within a comparatively short distance of North Carolina—especially the south-western corner—as it crossed from the head waters of the Savannah or Chattahouchee to those of the Coosa. From it an exploring party was sent to the north, which returned disheartened—without the precious gold—reporting the mountains impassable. Could the work have been done by stragglers from this or other parties, or have there been special expeditions to this region of which the historian has lost sight?

1 Report of the Geological Survey of N. C, Vol. I, p. 301, 1875.
For the Finding of Mica ornaments in mounds see Vol. I, Smithsonian Contributions to knowledge. Monograph of Squier and Davis, p. 240; and Foster's Prehistoric Races of the U. S., p. 191.
2 Speeches and Writings of Hon. Thomas L. Clingman, p. 130.
3. See ib., p. 131.
4 Since the above was written Prof. Kerr has called my attention to the fact that an iron crank was discovered some years since in an ancient shaft in Cherokee county, on Valley river. See Rept. of Progress N. C. Geol. Surv., 1869, p. 56.


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