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Cherokee :: Cherokee History Before DeSoto :: Kingsport


Cherokee History Before DeSoto :: Cherokee

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    DeSoto devastated America's Indians with foreign diseases; his people crippled the survivors with an enduring prejudice.

    In the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains live a people whose ancestors came to America thousands of years before Columbus. Ancient tribes had followed animals over a land bridge from Asia when the oceans were shallow during the Ice-age. Tribes hunted large animals with stone tipped spears, then roasted meat and fish over fires in coastal caves and rustic abodes. Hides were used for clothing, shoes and blankets. Clans moved down the shorelines with the animals and gathered wild fruits and vegetables along the way. Fire was carried from place to place. Sea shells were used for knives, tools and utensils. Colorful feathers and gems were strung with animal hide and worn for identity.

    When our climate got warmer the glaciers melted, the oceans rose, smaller animals prevailed and people moved inland with the oceans. Tropical currents flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, causing rains which kept the Mississippi River full year round. Fish and migratory animals ate the foods which grew near the river's bottom lands and thousands of people settled the Mississippi River. They fanned up its feeders as the climate got warmer. Various clans gathered to form villages to protect themselves from others and wild animals. Some in the villages fished, others hunted, some made blankets and clothes from plants and animals, and others gathered wild fruits and vegetables. Pottery was made from clay and seeds were planted in fertile places along the rivers. Houses were made with wood and covered to keep them dry. Fire places were built and used to smoke fish and meat for the winter. Crops were gathered and stored in dry places.

    Villages united into networks bordered by natural barriers. Dugout canoes were invented and networks enlarged into nations of people who shared certain customs and gestures. Culture grew rapidly with the exchange of news, foods, clothing, metals, and art. The Cherokee Indians, the upper Tennessee River people, became one of the nations residing along the Great River System; the Mississippi and all of its giant tributaries. Other nations were forming along the Great River's other tributaries: the Ohio, the Upper Mississippi, the Missouri, the Tennessee, the Arkansas and the Red Rivers. Trade was conducted along the Great River from the Rockies to the Appalachians and down to the Gulf of Mexico. Large cities grew where the big tributaries merged. Indian economy focused into the continent, with Illinois at the center of trade, not outward across the seas, as was the habit of European nations at the time Columbus discovered America.

    The Cherokee Indians lived along the Tennessee River in the Appalachian Mountains. They thrived in the bottom lands from Virginia southward. They built their houses in villages, much like Early American settlers did. Villages were separated by day-long walks, houses were made of wood and stone, fields were planted, nuts and berries were gathered, game was cured, tobacco was smoked and the Cherokee people adhered to high ethical standards. "Fire," the center of life, became the Cherokee word for "home."

    Rivers between the Cherokee mountains, fed by creeks running from all directions, flowed north and west into the Great River, the Cherokees' lifeline to other Indian cultures. A network of roads followed those rivers and streams to connect the Cherokee villages. Steep mountain gaps limited routing choices so Cherokee roads converged at certain gaps, just as roads do today in those mountains. Village chieftains lead and represented the people to the tribe as a whole. The people used the roads to trade and compete with other villages. They continued to grow and flourish well after Columbus discovered America, but when Hernando de Soto followed their roads into their villages in 1540 everything changed.

    DeSoto brought foreign diseases, horses, whips, swords and vicious dogs to America; he took women, food and slaves as he went. Interior North America withstood the onslaught to become the only place in the New World that Spain never colonized. Spain reacted by blaming American Indians for DeSoto's defeat. They conceived a prejudice against Indians which others acquired. Our image of the Devil, a "Red Man with a Spear," was born when DeSoto died in America. It differs substantially from all previous Old World "Devil" concepts. It was used to symbolize the American Indians who resisted Spanish settlement of North America. DeSoto devastated America's Indians with foreign diseases; his people crippled the survivors with an enduring prejudice. Our pioneers brought that image with them from Europe.

    by Donald E. Sheppard & Mr. Jeremiah Wolfe,
    Native American, Eastern Band of Cherokee
    Illustrated by Cheryl Lucente

    The after-effects of DeSoto's invasion are obvious once his history is placed into perspective. DeSoto accounts were published throughout Europe and served to entice others to America. Those accounts were the only source of written intelligence of America until French and English explorations much later. The DeSoto accounts of the splendor of America were celebrated in Europe for centuries. Most significant, however, is that DeSoto's peoples' accounts established the precedent for all European relations with America's Indians. That is, DeSoto's people interacted with Native Americans in such a manner as to place them in a role subordinate to humanity.

    European doctrine would, thereafter, place America's Indians in the same category that DeSoto's people had: as pagan Devil's; non-humans incapable of ownership. Beginning with news of Hernando DeSoto's death in the 1540's, today's image of the Devil arose throughout Europe: our tall, red-skinned, body-hairless, dark-eyed, spear-carrying American Indians with tails were immortalized. American Indians were usually called "Red Devils" by European settlers. That image, born in Spanish Conquest, survives to this day. It varies so much from all previous "Devil" concepts that its use immediately following DeSoto's death seems indisputable.

    Why has it taken so long for us to realize the profound effect DeSoto had on America? The answer is simple. We could not believe the stories about DeSoto, even shortly after the fact, because things had changed so much and so quickly just after DeSoto arrived in America. Indians became itinerants to avoid diseases in population centers; their great nations, their cities and their giant farms, all described by DeSoto's people, no longer existed. Indian cities were abandoned: the people fled for refuge. DeSoto's accounts were eventually dismissed by French and English pioneers, given the tremendous short-term changes in the North America he visited. His landing place in Florida was not even correctly identified until 1994. The trail he took through America could be located only by following precise directions between landmarks, which his people wrote, starting at that port. Their directions, to make matters worse, were described in terms unfamiliar to post-DeSoto, English speaking, non-seafaring, non-equestrian, non-military pioneers and scholars. But DeSoto actually did port at the best possible place he could to preserve his horses from the ravages of a long sea passage from Havana to the Great River, and he did follow Indian trails between Indian villages most of the time he was here. He was a military strategist, not the wandering fool portrayed by many historians. After all, he had honed his skills in Peru, where he had fought his way straight to a City of Gold.

    DeSoto's army had over two-hundred horses, each requiring adequate food every day (Clayton 1993:I:225). Horses were so important to DeSoto's mission that pastures or Indian villages with stored food were always his intermediate destinations. But American Indians had no horses or cattle, so their lifestyles were not accommodating to DeSoto's (Clayton 1993:II:69, 146). To make allowance for this, DeSoto marched his army in six divisions (Clayton 1993:I:58). Each camped separately at various fields and Indian villages. DeSoto's army was strewn across the landscape as it advanced, their campsites often at great interval. Horsemen provided DeSoto with intelligence for selecting desirable campsites for each, then "posted" his marching orders accordingly.

    ... The study of DeSoto's conquest is inseparable from that of PŠnphilo de NarvŠez. Both were Spanish conquistadors who are known to have entered and exited Florida near the same locations, within a dozen years of each other. NarvŠez failed utterly. DeSoto followed and partially succeeded here. DeSoto's army became aware of native aversion to Spaniards, provoked by NarvŠez and coastal slave hunters, shortly after landing in Florida. Ńlvar NuŮez CabeÁa de Vaca provides us with the only existing narrative of the NarvŠez Entrada, which was poorly executed and scantily recorded (Superscripts in this report which refer to Vaca are shown as V, and are linked directly to the spot in his Narration, linked hereto, where the statement occurs.) DeSoto's chroniclers, who wrote their perceptions of NarvŠez and described the place where he built his boats for escape, are relied upon here for additional intelligence of his conquest.

    Once DeSoto marched to Apalache and established his winter quarters, he dispatched his Thirty Lancers to ride back down his trail to bring forward all troops and ships left at port in south Florida. The Lancer's journal, questionably understood but factually related by Inca, is used here to establish distances between places which the chroniclers failed to record in their personal journals when they blazed that trail. Inca's account of the Thirty Lancers journey will, therefore, be discussed, at times, before we discuss DeSoto's arrival at Apalache. I know of no other way to substantiate this incredible journey as it unfolds.


    Born in 1500 of a noble family in Spain, and raised in the new colony of Panama, DeSoto became acutely aware of possession, land title and legal remedy (see Hoffman in Clayton 1993:I:421). He was influenced by three men of his time: Ponce de Leůn, who discovered North America, Balboa, who discovered the Pacific Ocean at Panama, and Magellan, who sailed that ocean to the Orient; the greatest market on earth. DeSoto's ambitions in life would be governed, to a large extent, by envy of them.

    DeSoto learned "conquest" techniques while on slaving missions with Balboa in Panama. Vicious dogs, fast horses and extortion became his hallmark. DeSoto enjoyed the title "Child of the Sun" E 77 probably for conducting dawn raids on unsuspecting villages, capturing the village chief and extorting citizens for his return.

    Balboa was put to death by a jealous Panamanian dictator, DeSoto's next patron, in 1518. Balboa had over-stepped his bounds without the strength of a personal army to hold his ground.

    DeSoto signed as a Captain with Francisco Pizarro to conquer Peru with an army of his own. Kidnap brought huge ransoms for DeSoto's army. Spectacular brutality became DeSoto's way of life.R 256-7 He amassed great fortune before Pizarro discharged him.I 61

    DeSoto returned to Spain to seek recognition at Court, but was not accepted there as a peer. NarvŠez and another conquistador had recently disappeared while attempting to colonize North America at two different places, thus tarnishing the reputation of New World Conquistadors in general but setting the stage for DeSoto's attempt to establish his own name. He married Isabel de Bobadilla, whose family held power at court (Hoffman in Clayton 1993:I:449-450). About that time, CabeÁa de Vaca, a survivor of the NarvŠez Expedition, stirred the European population with astonishing stories of great wealth to be found in North America.E 48

    The King, despite DeSoto's petition for lands elsewhere (DeSoto in Clayton 1993:I:358), granted this trusted soldier of the cross a four year commission to colonize and hold North America (La Florida) instead (see the King's Concession to DeSoto in Clayton 1993:I:359-365). DeSoto was assigned the governorship of Cuba from which to stage his invasion of today's United States; land once "owned" by Ponce de Leon, NarvŠez and the other failed conquistador. Francisco VŠzquez de Coronado was dispatched from Mexico to explore and conquer the western part of North America at the same time.I 63-66

    DeSoto selected eager volunteers for his conquest from Spain and Portugal, many of African descent; farmers, soldiers, traders, accountants, ship builders, carpenters, clergymen and tailors (E 49-50 and Hoffman in Clayton 1993:I: 451, 453). They averaged 24 years of age; some had been in the new world before, some with DeSoto. Lawyers were prohibited from joining DeSoto by act of the King; they were known to cause trouble over land title and the division of crown spoils (Clayton 1993:I:363).

    Some of DeSoto's soldiers provided their own weapons, horses, hounds, servants and equipmentI 72-79, 86, 88 & 130: some brought their wives. They sailed to Cuba with stores of clothing, trade goods, shields, armor, helmets, cross-bows, guns, black powder, nails, tools, seeds and plows for the conquest and settlement of our mainland. More animals and food - hardtack, Irish blood hounds, long legged Spanish herding pigs and mules - were bartered from Cuban plantation owners (Clayton 1993:I:373). DeSoto's livestock count came to at least five hundred, including two hundred and thirty-seven horses.Ibid, R 254

    DeSoto landed in Charlotte Harbor, Florida, on June 1st, 1539. One month later he marched his army inland then spent that winter in North Florida. With news of gold "toward the sun's raising" he headed northeast during the spring of 1540: traveling through Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas. Finding no gold, he headed west through Tennessee, then south through Georgia and Alabama. His object was to meet his ships at Mobile Bay. In October 1540, Chief Tuscaloosa's Tribe ambushed DeSoto's army 100 miles above that port. Despite emerging victorious, DeSoto retreated his tattered army northward beyond the Tennessee River in order to preclude bad news from reaching prospective settlers and to isolate his men from escape.

    In the spring of 1541, DeSoto proceeded due north through Kentucky and Indiana: his scouts as far as Chicago. Finding no ocean to cross to China for trade there, DeSoto retreated southwestward through Illinois, Missouri then into Arkansas for winter. On May 21, 1542, he died at Lake Village. His body was placed in the Mississippi River. His army fled to Mexico.

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