The problem of writing the social history of the Native peoples of the Southeast is formidable. One has to simultaneously represent both synchronic social and cultural systems and the diachronic change that transforms them. One has to both represent the exotic world of the Southeastern chiefdoms and the European world-system that impinged upon them as "storms brewed in other men's lands" and in time destroyed, dissolved, or enveloped by them. And we must do it with the merest fragments of archaeological and oral evidence. As cultural and social beings, the Native peoples of the Southeast have been fundamentally transformed by history several times over, as have we all. If the Native peoples of the Americas are ever to be more than moral fodder for various ideologies--whether left, right, or postmodern--they must find their proper place in the social history of the modern world. Since 1976 some progress has been made on this front by archaeologists, ethnohistorians, and historians, but much more remains to be done.
— Charles M. Hudson, 2000
Long ago, when I first read the chronicles of Hernando de Soto's expedition across the Southeast, I was reading very narrowly. Specifically, I sought the eyewitness accounts of the first interactions (in 1540) between Cherokees and Europeans. Talk about seminal moments!
Revisiting the De Soto adventure, with a broader perspective on the natives of the Southeast and with the support of scholarship not available 25 years ago, I now realize that "seminal moment" on the De Soto itinerary is not as sure a thing as I once assumed.
Three members of the De Soto party recorded their accounts of the ill-fated expedition and another writer reported the trip soon thereafter. Despite the relatively rich documentary record, disagreements continue regarding the exact route of the three-year-long expedition. "We crossed a big river. We marched north three days. We crossed another big river," leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Several years ago, I compiled a list of the proposed locations for just one village that De Soto encountered on the trip:
Guaxule # 1 – Coosawattee Old Town, near Carters, Murray County, Georgia
Guaxule # 2 – Etowah, near Cartersville, Bartow County, Georgia
Guaxule # 3 – Nacoochee Mound, White County, Georgia
Guaxule # 4 – Peachtree, on the Hiawassee River, Cherokee County, North Carolina
Guaxule # 5 – Asheville, Buncombe County, North Carolina
Guaxule # 6 – Embreeville, on the Nolichucky River, Washington County, Tennessee
Guaxule # 7 – Garden Creek, on the Pigeon River near Canton, Haywood County, NC
In the 1930s a federal commission headed by John Swanton had the task of nailing down the De Soto route. The Commission sent the conquistadors cruising through southwestern North Carolina. The Spaniards caught US 64 near Highlands and followed that to Murphy and beyond, so to speak.
And unless the signs have come down, no fewer than seven North Carolina Highway Historical Markers commemorate the Swanton route. That explains, too, the presence of Desoto Trail Realty and Desoto Trail Construction in Franklin. But to the chagrin of local tourism boosters, the Swanton Commission's "official" route has fallen out of favor. Over the past twenty years, a route proposed by the late anthropologist Charles Hudson has assumed the frontrunner spot. (Guaxule #6 is on the Hudson route, by the way.)
Even so, on some segments of the trip De Soto covered too great a distance in too short a time to reconcile the Hudson route with the written record. Of all the places De Soto visited, from landing near Tampa Bay to his death near the Mississippi River, only one has been identified with a high degree of certainty - the site where he spent the winter of 1539-1540 in what is now downtown Tallahassee, Florida.
Nevertheless, the De Soto narratives provide an unmatched perspective on the natives of the Southeast in the mid-sixteenth century and do offer some clues concerning events that occurred before and after 1540. As a casual student of the subject, I've been perplexed by the huge gap that falls beyond the reach of the historic record and beyond the realm of the archaeological evidence. When the marketing division of any organization spins yarns to fill in that gray area of mystery, the result is less than satisfactory. At least to anyone who ISN'T a fan of the phony history that makes it onto billboards, roadside interpretive exhibits and the endless flood of books intended for unsuspecting readers.
One popular misconception is that native groups were "one with the land" in the sense that they settled their respective territories of the Southeast, "putting down roots" for century after century, peacefully tending their crops, hunting, fishing and picking berries from the same fields, forests and streams as had their ancestors for millennium upon millennium. Well...no, not exactly. And though it may disappoint starry-eyed New Agers to say this, another counterfeit image is that of noble stoics gathered around a fire, passing the peace pipe, singing "Kum Ba Yah" and congratulating themselves on their impeccable environmental ethics, like a bunch of hippies at America's first Sierra Club meeting.
Despite the limitations, embellishments and inaccuracies in the primary sources, they convey some idea of what De Soto discovered in the Southeast. He didn't find the precious gold and silver that he craved so much, the object of his trip. What he did find, at various points along the way, were remnants of the High Mississippian culture, suffering tremendous stress, and on the verge of collapse. He encountered hospitality and hostility. He reached villages that were evacuated in advance of his arrival. He reached villages that sent out great welcoming parties bearing gifts. He observed abandoned settlements being reclaimed by the elements, active settlements with a scattering of fields interspersed with homes, and villages packed tightly inside of protective palisades. He traveled through densely populated river basins and through vast swaths of land, equally attractive, but apparently uninhabited.
Though I've been perusing dozens of sources, two books are especially helpful for following the De Soto travels. One is Charles Hudson's 1997 work, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun and the other is a 1996 biography by David Duncan, Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas. Hudson brings the native people and the historic landscape to vivid life, and Duncan does the same for De Soto and his men.
One more that should be obvious, but isn't. The botanist William Bartram covered some of the same ground as Hernando De Soto (more or less - through Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas) crossing the Blue Ridge in 1776. At first glance, their accounts of "early life" among the natives of the Southeast might seem to overlap. But the people and places encountered by De Soto were hardly the same people and places encountered by Bartram. De Soto's adventures were just as "ancient" to Bartram as Bartram's adventures are ancient to us. (To put it another way...De Soto to Bartram, 236 years...Bartram to the present day, 240 years.)
Getting an accurate picture of the two and a half centuries since Bartram is one thing.
Getting an accurate picture of the two and a half prior to Bartram is another matter altogether.
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