Ask Rufus: De Soto's footprints

August 3, 2014 12:18:20 AM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


It's been almost 474 years since Hernando de Soto dined on barbecue pork in the Black Prairie just west of the Tombigbee River. 


Around Dec. 16, 1540, the Spanish explorer and his expedition of more than 650 men crossed the Tombigbee and established their winter camp about a day's march from the river. 


De Soto took over the Chickasaw Indian village of Chicaza and turned it into a Spanish military camp. With de Soto was a drift of some three or four hundred pigs some of which provided the first pork barbecue in Mississippi. Native hog had become extinct at the end of the Ice Age. The village of Chicaza was occupied by de Soto from about Dec. 16, 1540, until March 4, 1541, when it was attacked and burned by the Chickasaws. The site of Chicaza, which is west of the Tombigbee and probably within 30 miles of Columbus, has never been found. 


One would think an Indian village occupied by some 650 Spanish soldiers for three months and then burned would be easy to locate. However, the passage of hundreds of years and the Euro-American alterations of the landscape have made that search difficult. From the mid-1980s into the 1990s, I was active in that search, as secretary of the Mississippi De Soto Trail Commission. That effort provided some lighter moments. 


For several years a group from Columbus, West Point and Tuscaloosa held a commemorative barbecue, beginning with one called the First Annual 447th Anniversary of Pork Barbecue in Mississippi. When the Walmart super-center was being constructed in Starkville I heard an archaeologist say that some important site would probably get bulldozed. I could not resist going online and buying some 400- to 500-year-old European artifacts from an antique shop in Amsterdam. 


When they arrived I called the archaeologist and asked him to stop by my office as I needed to show him something. I put the European artifacts in a bag with some local dirt and waited. When he came by my office I pulled out the bag and dumped it on a table saying that a bulldozer operator at the Starkville Walmart site had found lots of this stuff but only saved this sample. I asked the archaeologist if it was anything of interest. His face got very red and with respect for public decency I will not repeat the comments he made. When I finally told him where the artifacts had really come from he said something about getting me back for almost causing him to have a stroke. 


One of the popular misconceptions about the de Soto expedition is about the artifacts that would be associated with its campsites. Many people have a perception of the Spanish marching across the South wearing armor almost like some medieval knight. While some of the soldiers did arrive with armor it was not worn very long. The expedition landed around Tampa Bay on May 24, 1539. The armor came off very quickly. Also after disastrous encounters (for both sides) with Native Americans at Mabila in present day south Alabama and Chicaza, the expedition had lost much of its European material, of which it did not have a lot to begin with as everything had to be carried by whoever possessed it. 


In what I consider the best books on the de Soto expedition, "Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun," University of Georgia Press, Charles Hudson commented on what artifacts might be expected to be found at a de Soto site. According to Hudson the expedition "left behind only the thinnest scatter of material remains." Those artifacts would include glass chevron and tubular Nueva Cadiz beads, fragments of weapons, large-headed wrought-iron nails and iron crossbow points or bolts. 


Small brass bells found in north Mississippi and in the Delta were once considered to be from de Soto but that has been questioned since several have French markings on them. Also some halberds one thought to be from de Soto now appear to be much more recent. One of them was found near the Military Road northeast of Columbus and though once called a de Soto artifact, was probably from a U.S. artillery unit building the road in 1818-1819. 


The search for artifacts has also had its lighter moments. Back around 1990 some archaeologist from a noted Ivy League university wanted to examine the archaeological collections of the University of Alabama. The impression they gave was that they wanted to see if there might be some unrecognized de Soto artifacts. The late Doug Jones, who was dean of arts and sciences and director of University of Alabama Museums, very graciously hosted them in Tuscaloosa. He explained to them the university's most prized de Soto artifact was kept in a safety box in the University vault. He explained it was the most pristine condition de Soto artifact there was. 


Doug took the visiting archaeologists to the vault. They had their cameras ready in expectation of some great historic discovery. As Doug opened the box, he announced "Ain't she a beauty" and brought forth a mint condition 1952 DeSoto automobile hubcap. 


In actuality the search for Chicaza goes on, though at a much slower pace. Though Chicaza still has not been found, a few artifacts that might have been associated with de Soto have turned up in Oktibbeha and Clay Counties. As the search continues we will, somewhere, find de Soto's footprints. For those who enjoy the lighter side of an archaeological search, I would recommend Joyce Hudson's book "Looking for de Soto," also published by the University of Georgia Press.

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