Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms, by Charles Hudson

Painstaking reconstruction of De Soto’s journey through what is now the southeastern US, and the many vanished cultures and peoples he encountered.

This is probably the best overview yet of the cultures of the Southeast at the time of First Contact. I learned a *lot*.

1. Most importantly, the overall picture is not of the Civilized Tribes being civilized because they later adopted European culture, but because they *already were*. That is, they lived in settled towns surrounded by farms, and with most of the accoutrements of early civilizations as seen in the eastern hemisphere: temples or ritual structures (the earthen pyramids for which the “Mound Builders” were named), hereditary nobility, shifting alliances, war, fortifications, slavery, human sacrifice … The names are strange, but the basic outline is all too familiar.

2. Even before Contact, the political structure in the Southeast was fluid and unstable: chieftainships repeatedly grew, fought, and collapsed. Hudson thinks these political factors were more important than climate or land use in explaining things like why the Savannah River valley was almost uninhabited when De Soto passed through — it was a buffer zone between the warring Cofitachequi and Ocute polities. Each of these was actually a multi-chief society, with a paramount chiefdom at the top.

3. De Soto’s trip was not so much an “expedition” as a “swath of destruction”. The Spanish started with over 600 men, 220 horses, a herd of pigs, and several packs of large dogs — but without much in the way of food. All along the way, they got the food they needed by grabbing it from the Indians, as loot or “gifts”. They also grabbed many people to be slaves — to carry their loot, cook their food, be raped, and guide them.

4. I deduce that many of the Indians occasionally practiced slavery or something like it, from the fact that De Soto frequently demanded that various chiefs “give him” porters and women — and they did. I doubt very much that these were hereditary chattel slaves, but some form of slavery-like control seems to have been involved.

5. I knew the Spanish behaved quite terribly, but in one respect Hudson shows they were even worse than I thought. De Soto’s expedition — who, as Hudson says, thought of themselves as “Christian” rather than “Spanish” — brought several groups of large, fierce dogs with them: mastiffs, Irish wolfhounds, greyhounds. These dogs were trained to fight and kill humans at their masters’ orders. When De Soto had Indians “thrown to the dogs”, the dogs didn’t just kill the people … they ate them. These were, after all, meat-eating animals, traveling in an area where their masters were constantly worried about getting enough to eat. Hudson doesn’t mention the dogs after the first winter, so I assume they were killed (or possibly ran away). Not surprising — I can imagine few things more dangerous and unstable than domestic animals that are used to feeding on human flesh. It really makes me appreciate why “dog” is a deadly insult in certain cultures.

6. I had maybe heard vaguely of the Battle of Mabila before, but not in any detail. Paramount Chief Tuskaloosa had assembled a force of several thousand warriors to try to trap the Spanish in the fort of Mabila. In the event, the armor, horses, and discipline of the Spanish gave them an overwhelming advantage, and almost all the Indians were killed in the battle, the fire that burned down the town, or committed suicide to avoid capture.

The Spanish victory was Pyrrhic: though only 22 were killed directly, almost everyone was wounded, many horses were killed, and almost all their possessions were destroyed in the fire. Hudson thinks that De Soto realized at this point that the expedition was a failure, but instead of giving up gracefully and retreating to Apalachee Bay (where their ships were waiting), he decided to take everyone down with him.

7. I always thought De Soto and his men were basically crazy to focus so much on gold. The Indians called them “brigands”, and that’s exactly how they acted: not like people who were looking for a place to colonize or settle, not like organized conquerors, but just like robbers tearing a house up looking for the money. This was all true, but what I hadn’t known was that De Soto was basically second-in-command to Pizarro during the conquest of the Inca Empire. That campaign netted truly staggering wealth; De Soto used his share to go back to Spain for an upgrade in social standing, and to finance the Expedition. Many of the Spanish on the Expedition had invested most or all of their personal wealth into the trip, and finding gold was the only likely way they could get their investments back quickly.

One of the unnoticed forking points of history was that De Soto’s route twice passed within 50 miles of Dahlonega, Georgia — later the site of the first Gold Rush in the US. There was, in fact, gold in them thar hills, but the Indians didn’t know (or care) and the Spanish never found it.

8. Hudson is quite clear that there’s no real evidence that the De Soto expedition itself spread Old World diseases across the Southeast. What *is* clear is that between the time of the expedition in the mid 16th century and the arrival of large numbers of European colonists in the early eighteen century, the native population fell by 70-95% with no particular signs of violence. The evidence that disease was the culprit is circumstantial, but compelling.

The upshot is that the Indians colonists encountered in the 1700s — Creek, Chicasaw, Cherokee, Alabama, and the rest — were descendents of the people De Soto met, but they did not have the same cultures. The Indian cultures of the 18th century were not ancient or timeless: the world had changed, and they changed with it.

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  1. Posted January 25, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    DeSoto came ashore near my hometown of Bradenton, Fl. We (of course) got the whitewashed version of his ‘explorations’ in school. I will track this one down. Thanks for recommendation. Came here via Balloon Juice, btw. Great site.

  2. The Librarian
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Thanks! I’m sure you’ll like the book — it’s (an attempt at) a step-by-step reconstruction, so there will be lots of mentions of places you know.

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