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Archaeologist has found evidence of De Soto's expedition

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« on: July 10, 2012, 12:31:06 am »

Archaeologist has found evidence of De Soto's expedition

Ethan White, 15, left, uses a screen to sift sand at the circa 1606-1608 San Buenaventura de Potano Spanish mission location at his familyís property in north Marion County while his father, archaeologist Ashley White, feeds sand from one of the many excavation holes at the site, which includes a nearby area where Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto camped in August 1539.
Doug Engle/ Ocala Star-Banner
Ocala Star-Banner
Published: Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 7:56 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 7:56 a.m.

Hernando De Soto's route through Florida is as elusive to modern archaeologists as the gold the famed Spanish explorer sought throughout the southeastern United States.

Ever since De Soto's 600 men set foot on the shores of Tampa Bay, arriving from Cuba almost 500 years ago, historians have debated the exact direction of his failed treasure-hunting expeditions as far north as Tennessee and North Carolina.

But in north Marion County, an archaeologist has found what his contemporaries deem rarer than the gold De Soto was seeking ó physical evidence of the explorer's precise journey through Marion County and enough information to redraw Florida De Soto maps and fuel many more archaeological digs based on his findings.

"It gets rid of the guesswork now on the route through Marion County," said Ashley White, a local archaeologist who found the site. "Now, we know for sure he came up through the Black Sink Prairie to Orange Lake and looped around through Micanopy."

From the De Soto site, which sits on the one-time Indian town known as Potano, De Soto eventually marched to Utinamocharra in present day Gainesville and later to Tallahassee for the winter.

Archaeologists who study Spain's settlement of Florida and De Soto's exploration into the Southeast United States, regard White's find as priceless and have little doubt as to the site's authenticity.

"I looked at the archaeological evidence. There is absolutely no doubt that is a De Soto contact site, and I am 99.99 percent sure this is the town of Potano, the major Indian town," said Jerald Milanich, the author of multiple books about De Soto's expedition and curator emeritus in archaeology of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.

"Until now, we really had no one location until all the way up to Tallahassee. Now we have a midway place."
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« Reply #1 on: July 10, 2012, 12:33:14 am »


White's initial discovery was less a product of painstaking exploration than dumb luck.

Historians before White had dug thousands of pits into Florida's backwoods and sifted tons of dirt in hopes of finding artifacts linked to the explorer, without success. The only confirmed De Soto site in Florida is in Tallahassee, where De Soto's men wintered for five months.

White himself had walked his family's property for two years looking for remnants of what he thought was a 17th century Spanish cattle ranch. He found little more than Indian artifacts.

Then in 2005, a series of hurricanes and storms inundated the 700-acre property owned by his wife, Michelle White, a bioarchaeologist.

"There is a lot of drainage (on the ranch) ... and all this sand broke loose and we had artifacts just lying on top of the ground," Ashley White said.

One was a coin minted before De Soto's 1539 expedition. It was in a clump of pines near Black Sink Prairie.

At the time, however, White's attention was riveted on the remains of a 16th century structure he discovered a couple of hundred yards away.

That structure turned out to be the mission of San Buenaventura de Potano, which was established some years after De Soto came through. There, White's family found copper coins of the era and brown streaks from what remained of the posts that anchored the church. It was enough to make him put the other site on the back burner.

White didn't know it at the time, but the first site was what other historians had been looking for: physical evidence of De Soto's exploration.

Meanwhile, the second site yielded its own archaeological treasure trove — about 100 medieval coins, the largest cache from that era in North America.

"Still, the original thought was that it was a Spanish ranch outpost, and that was our hypothesis for probably two years of the work here," White said. "(The De Soto) trail, it's not the first thing on your mind in Central Florida archaeology."
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« Reply #2 on: July 10, 2012, 12:34:09 am »

White's hypothesis began to change as he examined the scant remains of the building and nearby artifacts and realized they shared similar architectural characteristics with other Florida mission buildings along Indian trails. Among those artifacts were colorful, handmade glass beads from the late 16th century, coins, pieces of pottery and nails.

Gifford Waters, historical archaeology collections manager of the Florida Museum of Natural History and an expert on Spanish missions, said finding the mission remains so close to the De Soto site reinforces the legitimacy of White's discovery.

Missionaries would have used De Soto's records to establish their churches along Indian trails and towns, Waters said.

"This (the De Soto site) is an extremely important site, historically and archaeologically," he said.

With some more archaeology, the White site "will be accepted as strongly as the Martin site in Tallahassee," Waters said. "It helps us to learn more about the Spanish expedition, but also more about the Indians."
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« Reply #3 on: July 10, 2012, 12:34:29 am »


When White returned to his first site, where he found the oldest coin, he found two more coins. Both were minted before De Soto's Florida exploration began and were much older than those at the mission site. He also found glass beads, made near present day Venice, Italy, that were more complex and older than those found at the mission site.

Then White found a few links of iron chain mail from Spain, with designs De Soto's men would have woven onto their garments to protect them from Indian spears and arrows. The way the chain mail was linked predated the mission.

He also unearthed a pig jaw, unique to the domesticated herd of European animals De Soto brought to help feed his men.

There had been other Spanish explorers, such as Panfilo de Narvaez, but they had not brought old world pigs, nor had they traveled as far inland.

Other archaeologists such as Milanich say the collection of artifacts represented a town on the move.

In their book, Milanich and archaeologist Charles Hudson had laid historical groundwork for the De Soto site more than 20 years ago. They attempted to map De Soto's trail based on written records and artifacts. Hudson is a professor of anthropology and history emeritus at the University of Georgia and author of many books on the history and culture of the Indians of the Southeast.

Those written records, which include at least three accounts written at the time by men who traveled with De Soto, put the explorer at the White site beginning on Aug. 11, 1539, and for the next three weeks.

Thousands of Potano Indians lived in the town and along lakes and rivers up into present day Alachua County. The Potano Indians were a subset of the Timucua Indians who called North Central Florida home.

Milanich based some of his theories about De Soto's routes on Indian trails, many of which became modern highways and railroads.

"And we knew the trails led to Indian towns and knew De Soto in 1539 traveled on the Indian trails to get food and looking for wealth," Milanich said.
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« Reply #4 on: July 10, 2012, 12:35:13 am »

But the written records of those who traveled with De Soto were difficult to decipher. Geographical locations recorded hundreds of years ago using only descriptions of marshes, rivers and wetlands left many archaeologists like Milanich uncertain.

"As an archaeologist, I'd like to tell you we know everything, but we don't. We just have bits and scraps of information," he said.


Like bread crumbs marking a trail, archaeologists have to depend on things explorers left behind, such as the beads and coins.

"Like other Spanish explorers, the De Soto expedition brought trade goods they could give to the Indians to get them to be their friends, to pay them off, to provide bearers to carry their supplies, to get food and even get women, to get consorts," Milanich said.

It was that search for food that drove De Soto to White's location in 1539.

"Food was always a problem. If you're not eating, forget it," Milanich said. "And it was a huge operation going through central Marion County."

Unsure when winter would begin in Florida, De Soto was looking for a town to occupy with enough food to feed his troops.

Potano likely had a central communal wooden building, a plaza, a chief's home and several huts where other Indians lived.

But De Soto and the Indians didn't always coexist peacefully.

The Spaniard plundered towns that didn't cooperate and killed Indians who refused to help, often in a spectacle that served as a warning to other Indians.

The Europeans also exposed the indigenous people to diseases against which they had no immunity. Thirty years later, when the French met the Potano, the population had plummeted from as many as 30,000 to about 3,000 people.

Most of the Indians were happy to see De Soto leave, urging him on with tales of gold to the north, Milanich said. As soon as a route was staked out, De Soto sent word to his men scattered in a long trail behind him to follow.

In 1539, the Indians rebelled against De Soto's brutality and the diseases his expedition spread. They killed De Soto's men when they could get away with it as the Spaniards marched north. Captured Indian guides made the exploration as difficult as possible, sending the Spaniards wandering aimlessly in the hot, humid Florida summer.

De Soto finally marched to Tallahassee and wintered there into 1540.

"De Soto makes it all the way into Arkansas and they spend the next year running around looking for gold. There is none. There is no wealth," Milanich said.

"He had invested his fortune, his reputation and that of his family and his relatives and everything else. So he must have felt he couldn't get out at the time. He couldn't give up," Milanich said.

De Soto died in 1542 on the banks of the Mississippi and was interred in those waters.

Sixty-four years after his death, the Spanish built the mission of San Buenaventura de Potano just across a creek from White's De Soto site.

"The discovery of the (Potano) site is really a beginning, not an end," Milanich said. "The start of a lot more research, of learning about the area. It helps us to understand what things were like on a summer day in 1539, and I'm sure it's very exciting for people to realize that they had a very important bit of history right in their own backyard."
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