The Occasional Joke

Nurse: Patient's name?

Centurion: Marcus Licinius Crassus

Nurse: And his date of birth?

Centurion: 115 BC.

Nurse: All right. And what is he here for?

Centurion: Cataphract surgery.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

More fun with amateur historians

For reasons of my own (to make it sound mysterious and interesting, when in fact it's just another tangent in my own wandering intellectual path), I've been reading about Hernando de Soto and his reign of terror in the US Southeast, mid-sixteenth century. In the course of it, I encountered one of my favorite things, a bitter and acrimonious dispute among academics over exactly where he went. But the differences between the two most commonly - accepted routes, The Hudson Route and the Swanton Route, are minor, compared to the route proposed by the authors of the site, who have misinterpreted (or interpreted to suit themselves) some of the language in sixteenth century sources to suggest that the De Soto mob looted, raped, and pillaged their way to ... Chicago. Yes, Chicago. (Where they narrowly avoided being named to a vacant Senate seat by Rod Blagojevich.) The text on this otherwise entertaining and pretty-looking site says things like this:

The King's Agent with a scouting party for Hernando de Soto's ill fated Conquest of 1541 reported that, "...we traveled eight days (northward In the Illinois Reeds from Terre Haute, Indiana) through an uninhabited land ...

Note that the quotes don't stop when the writer gets to the parenthetical part, leaving the young and foolish to perhaps assume that the conquistador being quoted actually said something about Terre Haute. In fact, the whole thing is arrant nonsense, as anyone who can use a map and a pair of dividers would know. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on the topic includes a representation of the doctrinaire Hudson route, showing (almost certainly correctly) that De Soto and company never got any further north than Mississippi. But they then cite the link, without comment. Another fan site presents an outraged attack on the Chicago version; significantly, no serious works I've found so much as mention this side-battle.

Why do I care? Well, basically, I don't. But something about this "enthusiast versus the world" thing just sucks me in. At one point, I had to deal professionally with some local amateur archaeologists, and it may have colored my point of view.

Backstory: for those who missed the chapter on "Explorers" in Social Studies, De Soto (not "Soto," as one of his more annoying biographers insists on calling him) was a thug from Extramadura who made a huge fortune helping Pedrarias Dávila and Pizzaro rob, kill, and enslave anyone in Panama and Peru who didn't look much like a Spaniard. Returning to Spain with his money and a resume that would have easily gotten him any number of executive positions in today's world, say, for example President of the Sudan, he convinced the Emperor of Spain to give him a licence to take over what was then called La Florida, but essentially amounted to the entirety of North America. His eagerness to do this was based on simple reasoning: new world = gold. Oh, and slaves.

So in 1539 (not 1546, as I unaccountably typed when I first posted this rubbish), he and 600 - odd fellow barbarians descended on the vicinity of Tampa Bay, and began a 3 year, multi-thousand-mile trek through the Southeast, fighting and kidnapping their way into the interior. Although exactly where they went is still the subject of dispute, what we know is that half of them died, as did thousands of locals. De Soto himself died of some disease, somewhere along the banks of the Mississippi river, and what was left of his army built boats (after a minor side trip to Texas, which they were wise enough to turn around and abandon,) and floated their way down river to the gulf. From there, they managed to make it to a Spanish outpost in Mexico.

After De Soto, not much in the way of contact with the interior took place until the Atlantic Seaboard colonies of England began to work their way inland. The Spanish had missions in large parts of Florida proper, but by "interior" I mean Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. In what we can say for convenience was about 100 years, the populations of those areas crashed disastrously, to the point that later explorers found vast uninhabited tracts, and many of the remaining indigenous people no longer remembered who had built the ruins around which they lived.

Why? Like a number of similar crashes in pre-literate cultures, we ain't sure. European diseases are one good bet, although no specifics are available. The Mississipian was in decline already, by some measures, and the shock of contact with De Soto's horde may have pushed some over the edge. There is also some thought that climate change may have been an issue -- and of course, they were corn freaks, and corn depletes the soil, so to some extent, some of them may have farmed themselves out of a job. But it's a grim story, regardless of the details. Best book about it all by a country mile is Charles Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun.

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