Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Evidence found might contradict conclusions about explorer de Soto

By Wayne Crenshaw - wcrenshaw@macon.com

An archaeological team from Fernbank Science Center works at a site in southern Telfair County in June to search for a lost Spanish mission. The group didn't find the mission, but instead made another discovery — possibly the first artifacts from Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto's 1540 trek through Georgia.
Grant Blankenship/The Telegraph
An archaeological team from Fernbank Science Center works at a site in southern Telfair County in June to search for a lost Spanish mission. The group didn't find the mission, but instead made another discovery — possibly the first artifacts from Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto's 1540 trek through Georgia.

Two years ago archaeologist Dennis Blanton led a team into the woods of southern Telfair County in search of evidence of a lost Spanish mission.

He laughed when one of his team members asked if they might find artifacts left behind by Hernando de Soto's massive entourage in the Spanish explorer's trip through Georgia in 1540.

"I said, 'No, de Soto didn't come through here,' " recalled Blanton, who is Fernbank Science Center's curator of Native American archaeology.

He's not laughing anymore.

After two summers of painstakingly sifting through dirt on sites in Telfair and Coffee counties, the team has found evidence of early Spanish exploration in Georgia. The evidence includes several European-made beads and an iron tool, all dated to the 1500s, approximately 80 years before the Spanish mission settlement Santa Isabel de Utinahica was believed to have operated in the area. Spaniards at the mission could have had beads or other items made almost a century earlier, but it would follow that the dig would also uncover artifacts dated to the time of the mission, Blanton said. So far that hasn't happened.

That leaves two explanations for the artifacts, Blanton said. Either it came from de Soto or from an earlier, lesser known explorer, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon. What is not known is whether either of the two explorers was actually on the site or if the items got there via trading with American Indians.

However, Blanton said, the findings are enough to question the truth of the currently held belief that de Soto's route from Florida went through Macon. That conclusion was reached in the late 1970s by a team of University of Georgia researchers who based the findings on historical record, not archaeological artifacts. Blanton said there are conflicting historical records of the route, and there is no archaeological evidence that puts de Soto in the Macon area.

A previous report issued in 1939 by a federal commission to track de Soto's path concluded that he went through the area where Blanton's team has been digging.

So Blanton now wonders if the 1939 report was right all along.

"We have to ask the question, 'Are we adding some refinement to our notion of where de Soto actually went?' " Blanton said in a telephone interview Monday.

That possibility is at least as interesting as finding the mission, he said. He also noted that he has spoken with colleagues who were involved with issuing the conclusion that de Soto traveled through Macon, and they stick by that report.

De Soto's expedition - formed to hunt gold and find a path to China - included 620 volunteers, about 220 horses and 200 hogs, along with a large amount of military armament. But despite the size of the expedition, the physical evidence of it is extremely rare.

Blanton said the only known artifacts from the expedition to be discovered are from a dig near Tallahassee, Fla., where de Soto camped over the winter in late 1539 to early 1540. He then traveled through Georgia to an area near Columbia, S.C., before tracking back through north Georgia, where the only other known physical evidence of the trip has been located, Blanton said.

From Georgia, de Soto traveled west to discover the Mississippi River, where he died.

The Fernbank team is planning to return to the dig site later this month, Blanton said.

They also will be back next summer and possibly for years to come, looking for additional evidence.

So what exactly would prove that de Soto traveled through the area of the Fernbank dig? Blanton said hog bones dating to the era or military items such as chainmail would be "a smoking gun."

He also said the search for the mission is continuing.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 923-6199, extension 235.

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