- Conquistador's Wake: Tracking the Legacy of Hernando De Soto in the Indigenous Southeast by Dennis B. Blanton
Between 1539 and 1543, Hernando de Soto and his army carved a murderous path through the American Southeast that deeply burned itself into the collective psyche of its victims as well as that of modern southerners. To take a notable literary example, in his 1954 Holiday magazine essay "Mississippi," William Faulkner wove the entrada's memory into the region's very landscape. He described Native American "predecessors" who left "only the mounds in which the succeeding recorded Algonquian stock would leave the skulls of their warriors and chiefs and babies and slain bears, and the shards of pots, and hammer-, and arrow-heads and now and then a heavy silver Spanish spur."
Scholars have not been absent in seeking such traces. Tracking Soto's exact route has been a robust archaeological and historical endeavor since at least the eighteenth century. One of the most influential reconstructions came during the 1930s, when the U.S. De Soto Expedition Commission led by Smithsonian anthropologist John R. Swanton marked the route from Tampa Bay, Florida, through eight southern states back down to the Gulf of Mexico. Swanton used eyewitness Spanish accounts as well as the archaeological data then available to him. Since his report, numerous historians and archaeologists have worked to refine or correct portions of this route, but hard physical evidence that actually pinpoints locales remains frustratingly rare. It is thus big news when a Soto find is claimed, inviting both cheerleaders and skeptics. [End Page 77]
Dennis B. Blanton, formerly curator of Native American archaeology at Fernbank Museum of National History and currently associate professor of anthropology at James Madison University, had no interest in joining the ongoing Soto debates when he sought a seventeenth-century Spanish mission site in south Georgia. But what he and his team uncovered during their ten-year study more resembled a Mississippian Indian village that had been visited by Soto's "armored, clanking horde" (4). Like the careful and conscientious scientist that he obviously is, Blanton followed the facts where they led, and he shares his odyssey in this absorbing account.
The targeted spot was a "fairly nondescript patch" of Telfair County owned by the Glass Land and Timber Company and dubbed, appropriately enough, the Glass Site. It sat close to the Ocmulgee River and was decidedly "scruffy" (24). There were no mounds or any obvious evidence that it was archaeologically promising, only pine trees, marsh, and soil troubled by a century's worth of farmers, hunters, and loggers. Blanton excels at putting the reader into the field with his team. One is plunged into the backbreaking "rhythm of locate, dig, sift, bag, record; locate, dig, sift, bag, record" under a burning sun amid swarms of gnats (63). None of this field work was meaningful, he emphasizes, unless followed by lab work, painstaking analysis, and interpretation. At its best, Conquistador's Wake conjures Ivor Noël Hume's delightful Martin's Hundred (New York, NY, 1982), where archaeology, even when presented in all its unglamorous trappings, nonetheless seduces and intrigues.
Blanton's team did not expect to find Soto artifacts. After all, the Glass Site is located well to the east of all the previous route study maps. But despite the lack of mounds, the team began to steadily uncover what had obviously been an Indian town of some importance. There had been a large temple, a chief's house, and other structures built in a ring surrounded by a ditch and a wooden palisade. Typical Indian artifacts included box turtle shells, marine shell beads, an ear pin, bird points, and smoking pipes. Clearly this was "a place [End Page 78] of consequence" (86) that would have attracted foreign travelers' attention. And then, a young woman at a sifting screen asked, "Is this anything?" There in her muddy hand was "a multicolored, Europeanmade glass bead no larger than...