Spanish conquistador Hernando DeSoto passed through his namesake county nearly 500 years ago on his way to discovering the Mississippi River. But aside from a few objects left behind by his expedition, historians have very little archaeological evidence to pinpoint his exact route.
A new discovery of metal objects in northeast Mississippi though is shedding some new light on the Spaniard’s contact with the area’s original inhabitants.
Archaeologists with the Florida Museum of Natural History recently announced that they have unearthed dozens of metal objects from DeSoto’s expedition. The objects were discovered at the Stark Farm site, a Native American village occupied by the descendants of the Chickasaw Indians.
Using metal detectors, historians located more than 80 items including cutting tools and jewelry that match the style and type of items that DeSoto’s expedition had with them. Following a spring 1541 skirmish between DeSoto and the Chickasaw, which forced the Spaniards to flee, the ax heads, horseshoes, nails and other metal objects that were left behind were repurposed and put to good use by the Chickasaw. The discovery is only the second known site to provide evidence of direct contact between DeSoto and the native inhabitants.
“It is very cool,” said Robert Long, curator of the DeSoto County Museum. “It just shows you the lasting impact that DeSoto has. Before the Spaniards, the Native Americans did not have metal. They didn’t have horses. And his feral hogs are the progenitors of our wild boars. So he continues to have a lasting impact.”
According to the detailed accounts taken by members of the expedition, DeSoto arrived in Mississippi in 1541 with 600 men along with hundreds of horses and livestock. The conquistador had spent the past three years wandering through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee,and Alabama in search of gold that the Native Americans were rumored to possess. DeSoto was on the expedition that had plundered the Incas in Peru seven years earlier and hoped to steal similar riches from the native inhabitants. DeSoto encountered numerous rich Indian farming and hunting cultures, but found no gold.
Long said there were about 5,000 Chickasaw Indians living in the region at the time. The Chickasaw were the second largest Indian group in Mississippi and farmed and hunted in north Mississippi between the headwaters of the Yazoo and Tombigbee Rivers around present-day Tupelo. The tribe was a highly intelligent and fierce people who lived in sophisticated village sites and farmed maize in the rich soil.
The Chickasaw kept a watchful eye on the unwanted visitors. It is unclear whether the Chickasaw chief offered DeSoto a modest village to spend the winter in, or if the conquistadors made themselves at home in an abandoned town site.
Tensions flared though when DeSoto executed two Chickasaws and cut the hands off another who was accused of stealing pigs. Like many conquistadors of his day, DeSoto had a reputation for bloodshed. The Spaniards had previously clashed with natives in a battle north of modern day Mobile where over 3,000 Indians were killed.
The conflict came to a head in the spring of 1541 when DeSoto demanded the Chickasaw provide him with 200 slaves to carry their equipment on the next leg of his journey. Insulted and having worn out their welcome, the Chickasaw attacked the Spanish camp at night, killing about 60 men and forcing DeSoto and his force to flee, leaving behind a great many of its supplies.
“The Chickasaw were a noble but fierce people who weren’t anybody’s fools,” Long said. “At first, they exchanged pleasantries and were cordial. DeSoto was a very fierce individual who had come to conquer in the name of Spain and tried to enslave them. They got wise to what DeSoto was planning and chased him out of the area. They were known as the mighty and unconquerable Chickasaw and sent a clear message that they weren’t going to be trifled with and would defend themselves. So that’s where those metal artifacts came from. They were salvaged from whatever the Spanish left behind.”
DeSoto regrouped and pressed on northwest into modern day DeSoto County where on May 8, 1541, somewhere in the Walls area, he became the first European to lay eyes on the Mississippi River.
Long said the county museum does not have any original artifacts from DeSoto, but does have pottery and pottery shards that date back to the earliest native inhabitants.
DeSoto’s legacy, though, is a mixed one, Long said.
“He discovered the largest waterway in North America, which ironically he viewed as an obstacle because he had to cross it,” Long said. “He of course died later in either Arkansas or Louisiana never having found any gold. But the expedition members brought back stories of these newly discovered lands. For the Chickasaws, DeSoto is the person who really set into motion the decline of their civilization. We in DeSoto County, though, walk and drive in his footsteps every day. And the fact that we are still talking about him nearly 500 years later shows you that he is still significant.”