Ask Rufus: A December barbecue, 470 years ago

December 18, 2010 6:48:00 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


The native American pig had become extinct at the end of the last Ice Age probably about 10,000 years ago. It was Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto who reintroduced what is now Alabama and Mississippi to pork. I had briefly mentioned that in an article on the history of barbecue last May (see the article at The story of de Soto and his pigs is a story worth telling in detail. 


When Hernando de Soto landed in Florida in 1539 his expedition carried with it some 300 pigs. These were for a three fold purpose; for breeding if a settlement was established, for food when other food supplies were exhausted and for special meals at feast or celebrations. It was reported that the herd of pigs could be driven for up to 15 to 18 miles a day. 


On Dec. 9, 1540, de Soto and his small army left the Indian chiefdom of Apafalaya (near Tuscaloosa on the Black Warrior River) and headed toward the west. After crossing many cold swamps and creeks de Soto reached the River of the Chicaza (the Tombigbee near Columbus) on Dec. 14, 1540. Their camp site of Dec. 13 would have been close to the Lowndes/Pickens County line. The expedition crossed the Tombigbee on Dec.16 and traveled west to the Indian town of Chicaza which they occupied as their winter camp. That town site has never been found but is west of the Tombigbee and probably within a 20-mile radius of Columbus. 


When did the Spanish first roast pork in the Columbus area? In December 1540 there were two religious feast days that would have warranted a pork barbecue. There were the feast of Saint Lucy (or Saint Lucia) on Dec. 13 and Christmas. Either of those feasts could have been the first barbecue in the Columbus area or for that matter in Mississippi.  


De Soto had given some pigs to the chief of Chicaza and the Indians developed a taste for pork. As a result Indians began to slip into the Spanish camp at night and steal pigs. Several Indians attempting to take pigs were captured by the Spanish. De Soto responded by either executing or cutting off the hands of the captured Indians.  


It is interesting to note that Rodrigo Rangel, de Soto''s private secretary, who kept a journal during the expedition, described Christmas 1540 as: "... it snowed with as much wind as if they were in Burgos, and with as much or more cold." Burgos is a city on the central plateau of northern Spain. Our current cold spell does not compare with the white Christmas of 1540. 


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

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