Artifacts Seized from Conquistadors by Chickasaw People in 16th Century Uncovered
A team of archaeologists digging at the Stark Farms Native American site in east central Mississippi have found more than 80 metal artifacts that were not manufactured by the Chickasaw people who once lived there.
As they explain in a study published in the April 2021 edition of American Antiquities , the archaeologists believe these items were left behind by 16 th century Spanish explorers who’d been in contact with the Chickasaws. Specifically, they think these anomalous artifacts had originally belonged to the 400 men who accompanied Hernando de Soto on his doomed 1539-1543 expedition across what is now the southeastern United States.
It is known that de Soto’s expedition passed through this part of the country, spending the winter of 1540-41 in an abandoned village near a large Chickasaw settlement. Tensions between the two groups ultimately flared into violence, and when the Spanish fled their Chickasaw attackers they likely left left a lot of their possessions behind.
The Chickasaws modified these iron axe heads to better suit local uses. They likely obtained these tools through secret trading with Spanish soldiers or on the battlefield where they routed Hernando de Soto and his men in a surprise attack. Credit: Florida Museum, Photo by Jeff Gage
Trade between the early Spanish explorers and Native American groups in the southeast was common. But what was found at the Stark Farms site far exceeds in quantity what would have been shared voluntarily.
“Typically, we might find a handful of European objects in connection with a high-status person or some other special context,” explained University of Florida archaeologist and study co-author Charles Cobb, in a Florida Museum of Natural History press release . “But this must have been more of an open season – a pulse of goods that became widely available for a short period of time.”
The archaeologists arrived at Stark Farms in 2015, under the financial sponsorship of the Chickasaw nation, which is now headquartered in Oklahoma. Their task was to discover as much about Chickasaw heritage in Mississippi as possible. The archaeologists have been using metal detectors to search for metal artifacts, which proved to be available in surprising abundance.
What was most interesting about the metal objects they found is that most had been altered in some way. They had been repurposed and re-manufactured, made into tools or ornaments that were useful to the Chickasaw. Some examples of this were pieces of a horseshoe that had been converted into scrapers, copper alloy pieces that had been shaped into beads and strung on a necklace, and barrel bands that were remade into cutting tools.
One of the more ominous discoveries were several chain links, which had been pulled apart and sharpened around the edges. The archaeologists aren’t sure what the Chickasaws used these chain links for, but they know very well why the Spanish had them in their possession.
“The Spanish brought reams of chain with them to shackle Native Americans as captives and porters,” Cobb said. “This is evidence of some of the first examples of European enslavement of people in what is now the U.S.”
If the Spanish had intended to use those chains on the Chickasaw, they never had the chance. The Chickasaw drove the interlopers from their territory just a few months after they arrived, perhaps sensing that their new “friends” had the potential to become a dangerous enemy.
This piece of chain link has been pried apart and its edges sharpened. The Spanish brought reams of chains with which to hold Native Americans as captives and porters. Credit: Florida Museum, Photo by Jeff Gage
The Defeat of de Soto and the Triumph of the Chickasaws
Hernando de Soto launched his ill-fated expedition in the North American southeast in 1539. From his original landing site in Florida, he and his men wandered gradually eastward, exploring territory that was entirely unfamiliar. They made contact with different Native American groups along the way, while searching for gold or any other type of metal or mineral riches they could find.
In 1840 they arrived in the territory of the Chickasaw people , in eastern Mississippi. At first, relations between the Spanish and Native Americans in the region were friendly. The Chickasaw leader, Chikasha Minko, generously allowed the Spanish expedition to camp in one of their villages over the winter. Treating them as welcome guests, they shared their food with the Europeans and engaged in at least some trade.
But relations became increasingly frayed as the months passed. The Europeans continued to consume valuable resources without offering any compensation in return. Tensions mounted even more when de Soto ordered the execution of two Chickasaws who were accused of stealing Spanish livestock. As winter passed, the Chickasaws grew increasingly anxious for de Soto and his men to leave.
But when the Spanish did finally agree to go in the spring, de Soto demanded that the Chickasaws provide him with 200 men to act as porters, carrying Spanish supplies to the spot of their next encampment. According to an account from the Chickasaw side , it seems de Soto also demanded that Chikasha Minko provide his expedition with a number of women, who would be expected to accompany the Spanish and remain with them to be used as sex slaves.
Furious at these arrogant demands, Chikasha Minko ordered his men to attack the Spanish encampment on March 4 under the cover of the early morning darkness.
The Spanish were more heavily armed and had more modern weapons. But they were routed by the Native Americans, who had the element of surprise on their side. Up to 60 members of de Soto’s expedition were killed (the Chickasaws lost only one warrior) and the village they’d been occupying was burned to the ground.
The Spanish retreated to a new location nearby. Here they were attacked again, and after another successful effort by the Chickasaw the Spanish left the territory for good. In their hasty retreat they were forced to leave behind a lot of items, which were retrieved by the Chickasaw and repurposed for their own use.
Searching through the two sites the Spanish had occupied, the Chickasaw found blades, nails, axe heads, and many other metal objects made from iron, lead, or copper alloy. Since the Chickasaw tools at this time were normally made from bone, plant stalks, and stone, they were delighted to gain possession of the stronger and more durable metal, which could easily be put to good use.
Portrait of Hernando de Soto, spanish explorer and conquistator, led the first European expedition into the territory of North America. Source: acrogame / Adobe Stock
Finding and Preserving the Artifacts of Freedom
Hernando de Soto’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chickasaws was a harbinger of things to come. Just a year later, in 1542, de Soto died of a fever while his expedition camped on the Mississippi River in what is now Arkansas. De Soto’s death effectively brought his expedition to an end, as his remaining men chose to return to Mexico before securing passage back to Spain.
Many of these men later wrote books detailing their thrilling adventures in the New World.
“There was a thriving industry in explorer and survival tales,” Cobb explained, “which is probably one of the reasons why some of these individuals provided their accounts.”
The truth of such accounts was always open to question, given the Spanish need to cast themselves as brave adventurers and heroes. But what is undeniable is that the Chickasaw decision to drive the Spanish out of their territory was a wise one.
After de Soto’s exit, European explorers didn’t return to Chickasaw territory for another 150 years. The Chickasaw enjoyed a few more generations of freedom, because they refused to cooperate with invaders who did not have their best interests at heart.
The metal objects the Chickasaw recovered and reused were a mark of their success. Now that these objects have been recovered, they can be returned to their rightful owners—the Chickasaw nation, which has been sponsoring the archaeological excavations at Stark Farms from the start.
Top image: Florida Museum archaeologist Charles Cobb holds an axe head known as a celt. To create this distinct shape, a Chickasaw craftsperson reworked a Spanish iron object to mimic traditional stone versions. Credit: Florida Museum, Photo by Jeff Gage
By Nathan Falde