Monday, January 14, 2008

Artifacts may point to de Soto's trail

From Foster's Daily Democrat
Associated Press Writer
Article Date: Sunday, January 13, 2008

JACKSONVILLE, Ga. — A rusty, diamond-shaped iron blade, its sharp
point jutting from the dirt where it was discovered, could be a
centuries-old clue that sheds new light on the obscure path taken
by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto.

For archaeologist Dennis Blanton it has erased most doubts that
the patch of ground in southeast Georgia was visited more than
460 years ago by some group of Spanish explorers —
if not by de Soto himself.

"It's pretty much case-closed," says Blanton, standing in a clearing
among planted pines where his archaeologists have dug about 18
inches into the dirt in an area the size of a small house. "If you had
to deduce the most plausible source, it would be de Soto."

But it also presents a mystery: The site is 90 miles from where experts
believe de Soto traveled. It highlights the challenge of deducing the
route taken by de Soto, an explorer who left few traces of his journey.

Hernando de Soto became the first European to explore the interior
of present-day Georgia in 1540, when he and 600 men arrived nearly
two centuries before the British founded the colony of Georgia in 1733.

Historians and archaeologists have long debated his exact path, which
took him through much of the South. Few Spanish artifacts along his
trail have been found. Blanton says, cautiously, his findings in rural
Telfair County may provide some physical proof of de Soto's presence.

Blanton of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta has been
digging on-and-off for 18 months on private land used for growing pine
trees in rural Telfair County, about 120 miles west of Savannah.

Along with shards of Indian pottery, Blanton's team has uncovered two
scraps of iron and five ornate, pea-sized glass beads. Blanton says he's
convinced the beads and iron were brought by Spanish explorers to
trade with Indians.

However, the site where Blanton's team found its artifacts near the
Ocmulgee River lies about 90 miles southeast of where most experts
believe de Soto crossed the river near Macon. The few known written
accounts by de Soto's companions are short on landmarks other than
rivers and long-vanished Indian villages.

Archaeologist Charles Hudson spent a decade dogging de Soto's trail.
The route he and two colleagues first published in 1984 remains the
map of de Soto's course most accepted by experts. But Hudson says
it's a pursuit fraught with uncertainty.

"They weren't modern men and weren't self consciously trying to leave
an account of where they went," said Hudson, a retired University of
Georgia archaeologist. "It's kind of maddening, because everything
is enclosed in a fog of doubt."

In the summer of 2006, Blanton began digging in hopes of finding a
remote Spanish mission established in the 1600s. Instead he found
beads that experts agree were fashioned a century earlier by Italian
glassmakers. Italy was known to trade the beads with the Spanish,
who brought them across the ocean.

Historians agree de Soto and his men entered present-day Georgia
near its southwest corner and worked their way northeast into
South Carolina on the first leg of a winding trek that took de Soto
4,000 miles from northern Florida to Arkansas, where he died of
fever in 1542.

In 1984, Hudson and fellow researchers Marvin T. Smith and
Chester DePratter published a route for de Soto's Georgia travels
that had him crossing the Ocmulgee River near Macon.

Hudson and his colleagues mapped de Soto's route using written
accounts of three men traveling with the explorer and matching them
with geographic features and archaeological evidence of Indian
settlements they believed the explorer encountered. Hudson said
what made his proposed route stand up to scrutiny was that the
Indian sites formed a chain across the state.

"If you just pinpoint a single location on the basis of artifacts, the
evidence is not very strong — and these are all portable artifacts,"
Hudson said. "I'm a little dubious that de Soto was down that far."

Smith, an anthropologist at Valdosta State University, said the most
likely scenario would be that the Spanish artifacts found in Telfair
County got there by way of Indians trading among themselves.

"It would be so easy for the Indians to move that stuff around
among themselves," Smith said. "It was so shiny and new and
something they'd never seen before."

Blanton argues that archaeologists typically find Spanish iron and
beads in Indian graves, indicating that Indians prized such rare
and alien trinkets. The Telfair County artifacts, however, appear
to have been found on the floor of a home.

Blanton argues Indians would have treasured glass beads and
iron too much to leave them discarded on the ground, but
Spaniards wouldn't have valued them as much.

Regardless of de Soto's involvement, experts agree the Telfair
County site offers a rare window to a distant history when Indian
cultures thousands of years old first collided with Europeans
intent on conquering the new world.

"Everything changed instantly," Blanton said, "as soon as those
Spaniards emerged from the woods and came up the riverbank."

See Original Article

Comment by The Gnome:

Neither the Spanish nor the Natives had a clue that the mere
presence of the Spanish among the Americans was a death
sentence for the Americans and their civilization.

It was not simply the rapaciousness of the Europeans (of which
there was no shortage) but of even greater consequence for
the Americans were the micro-organisms, brought by the
Europeans, which were being inhaled by the Americans who
came in close contact with the explorers.

These invisible and unimagined passengers upon and within
the Spaniards would spread fatal pestilence throughout the
communities of the people contacted by the Spanish and
would be spread, by the contactees, to other Americans
living in the area.

According to Hudson's reconstruction, De Soto expedition
built boats and crossed the Mississippi a little south of
present-day Memphis and found the riverbanks basically
lined with Native towns and the area home to thousands
of warriors.

When the French, including La Salle, passed the same area
one hundred years later they found no people living in the
area: the river was without a village for two hundred miles.

The Spanish had intended to enslave the Americans and
steal their lands and gold, instead they introduced the
diseases which depopulated the American continents of
the pre-Columbian inhabitants except for a small remnant.

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