Ask Rufus: Barbecue, buccaneers and six bits a dollar

December 14, 2013 10:46:50 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


On Friday night while I was downtown enjoying wassail, several people asked me the same question; "What are you writing about for Sunday?"  


I got some strange looks when I replied that my topic was that this was the month to celebrate pork barbecue in Mississippi. 


I know Christmas is fast approaching and winter is officially only a few days away but December and barbecue are deeply intertwined in the Tombigbee River Valley. Next to hunting, a pork barbecue is probably the oldest December tradition in the area.  


When the first Europeans arrived in North America there were no pigs to be found. Peccaries or pig-like animals had lived here during the Ice Ages were extinct in this part of the Americas, although they survived in Central and South America. 


With Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto's expedition when it landed in Florida in 1539 were horses, dogs and more than 300 pigs. The pigs were to serve as food in time of famine or provide a celebratory meal on a day of feasting. 


It was around the Dec. 13, 1540, when the de Soto Expedition approached the Tombigbee River in the Columbus area. That day was the feast of St. Lucy, a popular saint at that time, although not well known today. An important Catholic feast day would have been an occasion to celebrate by enjoying some of their pigs roasted over a fire. From the feast of St. Lucy through Christmas there were several feast days, any of which could have been the date of that first pork barbecue in Mississippi. It was also during that time that de Soto established his base camp for the winter of 1540 - 41. Whatever day it was, the first pork barbecue in Mississippi occurred in December 1540. 


I have always thought that a most appropriate date for that first barbecue was Dec. 18, 1540. That is the date by which all of de Soto's expedition (including about 650 men, four women and eight free blacks) had finally arrived at his winter camp. It was also the Feast of St. Rufus. So what better day to have a barbecue. 


And where did this historic and momentous event occur? De Soto crossed the Tombigbee River on Dec.16, 1540, probably at the river's bend where Columbus is now located. The expedition then moved into and established winter camp at Chicaza, a Chickasaw village within a day's march west of the Tombigbee. Leading de Soto scholar Charles Hudson places that as-of-yet village site as being located within an 18-mile radius west of the Tombigbee crossing site. 


Now, as to barbecue itself. The word barbecue is derived from a Spanish word for meat cooked over a fire and is said to be derived from a word the Indians in the Caribbean used to refer to meat roasted or smoked over an open fire. By the 1600s there were pirates raiding Spanish ships in the Caribbean in search of silver or "pieces of eight." These pirates would often preserve fish or meat for their voyages by drying or smoking it on beaches in the manner of the Indians. They, therefore, became known as buccaneers, from the Spanish/Indian word barebcue, because of their food preparation method. Interestingly, the first recorded English use of the word was by a buccaneer, William Dampier in 1697. 


Spanish silver from the Americas was the item sought by the pirates of the 1600s and 1700s. The large Spanish silver 8 reale coin (the size of a silver dollar) was often cut into pie shaped pieces that were called bits or pieces of 8. Each bit was worth 12 ½ cents. So 2 bits was a quarter of a dollar and 8 bits was a dollar. By the early 1700s, Spain also began minting individual 1/2, 1-, 2- and 4-bit coins. Often holes were punched into the silver coins so that they could be worn as jewelry or pinned inside of clothing for safety when traveling. Spanish silver remained legal tender in the United States until 1858. 


When the Spanish silver coins were melted down to make tableware it was called "coin silver". That old football cheer." Two Bits, Four Bits, Six Bits, A Dollar" actually refers to the old Spanish silver coins. 


It is strange to think that the interrelationship between December and the first pork barbecue in Mississippi is also linked to pirates and football. It is also an interesting thought that the first Christmas feast in Mississippi was probably barbecue. 


So, have a happy 473rd birthday of pork barbecue in Mississippi.

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