Ask Rufus: Christmas, barbecue and global warming

December 15, 2012 7:09:51 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


The Christmas season always reminds me of barbecue and global warming. They have both been around our area a long time. The first written record of the Columbus, Starkville, West Point area was penned 472 years ago. It was in December of 1540 that the Hernando de Soto expedition journeyed into the Upper Tombigbee Valley. 


Around Monday, Dec. 13, 1540, the expedition entered what is now Mississippi, and the following day they encountered the Tombigbee, probably at Columbus. They called the river the River of the Chicaza after the Indian province (Chickasaw) that bordered its west side. The river was described as "flowing out of its bed" when the Spaniards arrived, and that would have dictated their crossing point. 


A flooded river provides the evidence for the expedition crossing at what is now Columbus. In 1817, John Pitchlynn had pointed out to Capt. Hugh Young, who was surveying the route for Military Road, that the mouth of Moore's Creek (site of the bridge to the island) was the place on the river that the Indians used as their high water crossing.  


According to de Soto scholar Dr. Charles Hudson (his reconstruction of de Soto's route was used by the National Park Service's historic trail study), "it is probable that the trail their guide from Apafalaya [Indian province centered near Tuscaloosa] was following led them to the Tombigbee River at present-day Columbus, Mississippi." 


De Soto's men constructed a large piragua and crossed the river on Dec.16, 1540. Part of the expedition reached the town of Chicaza late on that day, with the rest of de Soto's men arriving Dec. 17. It was there de Soto established his camp for the winter of 1540-1541. Christmas in 1540 was the first Christmas known to have been spent by Europeans in what is now Mississippi. 


The site of Chicaza has not been located but is believed by Dr. Hudson to be located between northern Noxubee County and southwestern Monroe County, within the Black Prairie, and no more than 18 miles west of the Tombigbee.  


Now I am sure you are wondering what this has to do with barbecue and global warming.  


The Spanish expedition had with them a drift of pigs, being 300 in number at its start. Pork was eaten when food ran short or for special feasts, and the word "barbeque" is derived from a Spanish word for meat cooked over a fire. Several saints' feast days occurred after the expedition's arrival in what is now Mississippi, and Spain in the 16th century was a Catholic country. 


De Soto also had been specifically ordered to spread Christianity among the Indians. He and his men considered themselves not a Spanish expedition but a Christian expedition. 


Religion was important to de Soto, not only because of his faith but because the Inquisition was full-blown in Spain and a member of the expedition, Hernandez de Biedma, was the Spanish Crown's representative. De Soto knew a written report would be sent to the Crown after the expedition was completed.  


As to possible dates for a barbecue, the feast of St. Lucy is on Dec. 13, which was about the time the expedition crossed into present-day Mississippi. She was a popular saint of de Soto's time. Though a little-known saint, the final arrival of all of de Soto's expedition (including about four women and eight free blacks) at the village of Chicaza occurred by Dec.18, the feast of St. Rufus. I have always thought that day would have been an absolutely wonderful date for de Soto to have celebrated with the first pork barbecue in Mississippi. 


Actually, the establishment of the winter base camp on the 18th would have been a day the Spanish might have marked with a special meal. The other date likely for a feast at which pork would have been served was Christmas.  


At any rate, the first pork barbecue in Mississippi occurred in our area 472 years ago this month and may have been Mississippi's first Christmas dinner. 


One of the interesting revelations to come out of the narratives written by members of the de Soto expedition was their account of the weather. The winter of 1540-1541 in present-day east Mississippi was a nasty one. The journey from Apafalaya to the Tombigbee in early December 1540 was described by Rodrigo Rangel (private secretary to de Soto) as "... having passed bad crossings and swamps and rivers and cold weather."  


Rangel went on to describe Christmas Day at Chicaza as "... it snowed with as much wind as if they were in Burgos, and with as much or more cold." Burgos is a city in northern Spain which is located at the Iberian central plateau or highland plain. I guess we have warmed up a good bit since 1540 as I never recall more than a slight dusting of snow at Christmas, much less a blizzard. 


The best general account of the de Soto expedition is Charles Hudson's book, "Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun." Hudson spent time in both Columbus and Starkville while researching the de Soto expedition. For a fun read, there is Joyce Hudson's book, "Looking for De Soto: A Search Through the South for the Spaniard's Trail." It is a light-hearted account of traveling with her husband during his search for de Soto.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]