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Ask Rufus: The South as pictured 400 years ago

 

Probably the earliest image of Northeast Mississippi is this 1706 Dutch engraving of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto having the hands of Indians cut off as punishment for stealing hogs from his camp. The incident on which the image was based occurred at the village of Chicaca early in 1541.The village was located about a day’s march west of the Tombigbee River.

Probably the earliest image of Northeast Mississippi is this 1706 Dutch engraving of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto having the hands of Indians cut off as punishment for stealing hogs from his camp. The incident on which the image was based occurred at the village of Chicaca early in 1541.The village was located about a day’s march west of the Tombigbee River. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Rufus Ward

 

A common question I am asked is, "What did this country look like when only the Indians lived here?" Usually I answer simply, "it was beautiful." I have read accounts of a person riding a horse through the forest at a gallop for there was little underbrush and a high tree canopy. That was probably the exception rather than the rule though. 

 

The earliest written descriptions of our area come from the Hernando de Soto Narratives. These are three first person and one second-hand (written about 40 years afterwards) accounts of the 1539-1543 Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto's expedition through what is now the southeastern United States. His 1540-1541 winter camp was in the prairie, west of the Tombigbee River.  

 

A 1706 Dutch publication, "Voyagie von don Ferdinand de Soto," included what is probably the earliest known image of the landscape of what is now northeast Mississippi or West Alabama. It was an engraving illustrating de Soto's cruelties in Florida, which then included what is now Mississippi and Alabama. 

 

On December 9, 1540, de Soto set out from the Warrior River -- probably just south of present day Tuscaloosa -- for the River of Chicaca (Tombigbee). Rodrigo Rangel, de Soto's secretary, described the journey as having "traversed many bad passages and swamps and cold rivers." They arrived at the river on December 14th, built boats and crossed it on the 16th.  

 

The expedition then marched to and occupied the Indian town of Chicaca (Chickasaw) which was located about a day's march west of the Tombigbee. The town was described by Rangel as being in a savannah. In "La Florida", written by Garcilaso de la Vega in 1589 but not published until 1605, de Soto's camp at Chicaca was described as situated on level ground running north and south between two streams. He stated that the bottom land around the camp contained walnut, oak and live oak trees. 

 

The 1706 Dutch engraving illustrates de Soto having the hands of Indians cut off as punishment. It is a portrayal of an incident which occurred after three Chickasaws were caught stealing hogs from de Soto's camp around January 1541. The camp was probably somewhere between present day Brooksville and Okolona. De Soto executed two of the Chickasaws and released the third after cutting off his hands.  

 

Besides Spanish cruelty, the illustration presents a fanciful view of the prairie west of the Tombigbee but with mountains. 

 

The most prolific engraver of early views of America was Theodor de Bry. He produced engravings from drawings that had been made by John White who had been for a while with Sir Walter Raleigh's lost colony of Roanoke Island in 1565. He also used drawings by Jacques le Moyne of the French attempt to colonize Florida in 1562. These drawings were described as being in Virginia or Florida. During the 1500s-1600s Florida referred to the entire lower southeast from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. 

 

De Bry's engravings appeared in book form and were first published in 1591. These engraving show fascinating images of life in the south at the time of European contact. One of the engravings shows Indians in Florida killing "crocodiles" (alligators). This is of special interest since a proto-historic Indian grave excavated by archaeologist between Starkville and West Point contained a large alligator skull. "Another engraving by de Bry illustrated a "fortified town among the Floridians." This illustration shows that Indian towns in the southeast were not at all like those commonly pictured today. Another famous engraving showed the Indians' method of tilling the soil and planting crops. 

 

Many of de Bry's early illustrations of the south have been reprinted and are available today. They have long been used as illustrations in history books. Some of the most attractive and accurate copies of de Bry's engravings were hand-colored illustrations used in an 1837 French history of the United States, Rochelle's Etats-Unis d'Amerique. Albert Pickett's 1851 History of Alabama also contains many of de Bry's engravings. The best summary of early images of the south and Native Americans is found in Emma Fundaburk's Southeastern Indians Life Portraits which was reprinted in 1996.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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