Tracing de Soto through the Georgia swamps

Hernando de Soto, the conquistador who had once made huge piles of gold at the Incas’ expense in Peru with Pizarro, died broke, sick and wearing animal skins for clothes somewhere in Arkansas along the banks of the Mississippi in 1542.

He had left Florida two years earlier, following rumors that there was gold in the northeast, but his exact trail has been the subject of much vigorous debate among historians, and even in Congressional committee. Very few artifacts have been found along de Soto’s route. In fact, the only confirmed physical evidence of de Soto’s expedition have been found in Tallahassee, Florida, where they spent their first winter.

Now a Georgia archaeologist thinks he’s found artifacts left behind by de Soto‘s team on the edge of a swamp.

Beads and silver necklace part found in Telfair county, GeorgiaDennis Blanton is the curator of Native American Archeology at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Blanton’s team found beads, metals and a silver necklace in Telfair County, on the edge of a swamp near the Ocmulgee River.

“Outside of Florida, nothing like this has ever been found. And finding the silver piece was almost startling,” Blanton says. “These are the kinds of things, that we know, by comparison with other de Soto sites, especially in Florida, that fit the bill of an area de Soto traveled through.”

The beads were used for trading with the locals and the silver piece was necklace made from a coin of the period.

Historians have long speculated that de Soto crossed the Ocmulgee near Macon, but that’s 80 miles northeast of Blanton’s finds. De Soto’s journals note only that they baptized some native people in the Ocmulgee area, no specifics beyond that.

De Soto’s journal entries are precious records of the Southeastern Native American tribes, in some cases the only written records of their existence, but there’s not enough geographical detail to pin down exactly where they traveled. There are other primary sources from people who were on the expedition and people have come up with a variety of possible routes, including one determined by Congress in 1929 to be the official one.

Finding some new physical evidence of this hotly debated trail is hugely significant.

De Soto route proposed by Charles Hudson in 1997