Florida Museum archaeologist Charles Cobb holds an axe head known as a celt, one of more than 80 metal objects likely from the de Soto expedition. To create this distinct shape, a Chickasaw craftsperson reworked Spanish iron to mimic traditional stone versions.
Enlarge / Florida Museum archaeologist Charles Cobb holds an axe head known as a celt, one of more than 80 metal objects likely from the de Soto expedition. To create this distinct shape, a Chickasaw craftsperson reworked Spanish iron to mimic traditional stone versions.

In 1540, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, fresh from ravaging the Inca Empire, marched onto Chickasaw lands in what’s now northern Mississippi with 600 men and hundreds of livestock. By the spring of 1541, de Soto had offended the Chickasaw so badly that they burned his camp and drove the whole Spanish expedition off their lands. Archaeologists recently unearthed evidence that people from nearby Chickasaw communities gathered up the things the fleeing Spaniards left behind and put them to use in some innovative ways.

It’s a surprisingly cool story to find buried in a paper titled “Nascent Colonialism and Heterogenous Hybridity,” but that’s academia for you.

The spoils of war

Archaeologists excavating centuries-old Chickasaw sites in an area called Stark Farms unearthed a surprising number of European-metal objects: a cannonball, a mouth harp, a bridle bit with a golden crest, and more. They also found objects which had been broken up or modified into more traditional Chickasaw tools: bits of copper shaped into beads and pendants, pieces of iron horseshoes broken and sharpened into scraping tools, and barrel bands bent, broken, and ground into sharp cutting tools called celts.

“One of the most stunning things we’ve found is an exact iron replica of a Native American stone celt, or axe head,” said archaeologist Charles Cobb of the Florida Museum of Natural History. “I’ve never seen anything like this in the Southeast before.”

Scrapers and celts like these were staples of Chickasaw daily life, but craftspeople usually made their tools out of stone or bone. But somehow, people living around what’s now Stark Farms acquired a sizeable stash of metal objects. Having no real need for barrel bands or horseshoes, they reworked the Spanish loot into the tools they actually needed.

Cobb and his colleagues were surprised to find so many European-metal artifacts at a Chickasaw settlement dating back to the 1300s to the mid-1600s. At that point, European colonizers didn’t trade their valuable metal goods to Indigenous people very often. Those items were reserved for important trades or political gifts to big-shot leaders. Iron would have been much too rare for the average person to use for common tools like celts or scrapers.

“Typically we might [see] a handful of European objects in connection with a high-status person or some other special context,” said Cobb. “But this must have been more of an open season—a pulse of goods that became widely available for a short period of time.”

According to Cobb and his colleagues, that’s because the horseshoes, cannonball, barrel bands, and other items were the spoils of war.

“Alienating their hosts through violence”

The style of the objects suggested that they had been discarded sometime in the mid-1500s, likely by a Spanish military expedition. Fragments of horseshoes match the type used in the late Middle Ages in Spain, and several axes match a type that were commonly used in the 1500s. The bridle bit with its golden crest also looked distinctively Spanish. And the total lack of domestic items like kettles, thimbles, and scissors points toward a group of nearly all men—probably a group of soldiers.

Meanwhile, the location of Stark Farms lined up with accounts written by the survivors of the de Soto expedition. The accounts covered how, in 1543, the survivors built rafts to retreat back to Spanish colonies in Mexico after de Soto died of fever near the Mississippi River. When the would-be conquistadors finally made it back to Spain, several of them published their stories of the expedition, which became bestsellers at the time.

Those accounts told of how the Spaniards had camped at Anhaica, the capital of the Apalachee, over the winter of 1539-1540 and then made their way into Chickasaw territory later in 1540. On the upland prairie of what’s now northeast Missouri, the Chickashaw farmed maize and lived in clusters of towns. At Chikasha, the main town of the Chickashaw, the Indigenous leader Chikasha Mingo gave the newcomers permission to set up a winter encampment on some land near the town.

Violence, maybe?

Things were going well at first, until the conquistadors relaxed enough to be themselves.

“[De Soto] and his men soon fell into their predictable pattern of alienating their hosts through violence and constant demands for resources,” wrote Cobb and his colleagues.

Over the winter of 1540-1541, de Soto’s soldiers executed two Chickasaw men and cut off the hands of another, whom they accused of stealing their pigs. As spring approached, de Soto demanded hundreds of people join his expedition to carry the Spaniards’ equipment and supplies. That’s when the Chickasaw decided they’d had enough.

Chikasaw Mingo’s warriors attacked the colonizers’ camp at night. They set fire to the camp and killed at least 12 Spanish soldiers, along with dozens of pigs and horses.

Apparently, de Soto could at least take a hint. He retreated about a mile away with his troops and remaining livestock, then set up a new camp. That wasn’t far enough to suit the Chickasaw, who by this point were extremely done with the Europeans’ nonsense. Chikasha Mingo’s forces attacked again, and although de Soto’s troops managed to put more of a fight, the Spaniards ended up retreating north, minus their livestock and most of their supplies.

The supplies they left behind weren’t abandoned for long. People from communities near the battlefield seem to have rounded up useful items from the former Spanish camps and taken them home. There, craftspeople reworked the Europeans’ tools into their Chickasaw counterparts.

What can you do with a broken horseshoe?

And that’s what Cobb and his colleagues found, nearly 500 years later. The archaeologists say they probably haven’t found the site of the Spanish winter encampment or the second battlefield, because there’s no sign of burned structures and no bones from pigs or horses. Instead, the sites where they found 83 total European metal artifacts were probably villages near the main town of Chikasha and the Spanish camp. People from those sites visited the burned camp after the battle and took home useful souvenirs.

Cobb and his colleagues say that a few of the metal objects probably also passed into Chickasaw hands during the winter before the battles; under-the-table trading between soldiers and locals wasn’t uncommon. Either way, the dozens of European artifacts reworked into Indigenous tools tell an interesting story about what happened when European and Indigenous cultures first interacted.

At sites dating to the early centuries of colonization, archaeologists often see evidence that Indigenous people improvised with, and modified, foreign objects. People like the Chickasaw already had their own material culture: a set of tools designed for the tasks that made up their daily lives, which would be familiar to the people who used them. Presented with tools outside that repertoire, like horseshoes, people tried to turn those tools into something they found actually useful, like scrapers or celts.

After a few centuries, Indigenous people started working some elements of European material culture into their own lives, just as European colonists borrowed some material culture from Indigenous people. “In the 1500s, a thimble might be turned into a bangle,” said Cobb. “By the late 1700s, a thimble is a thimble. You tend to see a more regular adoption of goods over time.”

“Unconquered and unconquerable”

One of the most powerful examples of this process is a handful of chain links, which Chickasaw craftspeople pulled apart and sharpened at the edges to make a tool. If you know what you’re looking at, those unassuming little objects sum up the whole story of the 1541 routing of de Soto and why it matters to Indigenous people today.

“The Spanish brought reams of chain with them to shackle Native Americans as captives and porters,” said Cobb. “This is evidence of some of the first examples of European enslavement of people in what is now the US.” That’s probably the fate that awaited the hundreds of porters de Soto demanded from Chikasha Mingo, a fate the Chickashaw thwarted by decisively driving the conquistadors off their lands.

And in doing so, the Chickasaw won themselves about 150 years of relative peace and autonomy, free from European colonizers.

“This research shows how Chickasaws adapted to invasion by alien intruders and secured their reputation as unconquered and unconquerable,” said archaeologist Brad Lieb of the Heritage Preservation Division of the Department of Culture and Humanities, Chickasaw Nation, a co-author of the study. He describes the battle as “a baseline event in Chickasaw cultural history.”

Although the US Department of War forcibly removed the Chickasaw to Oklahoma in 1837, the Chickasaw Nation is alive and well today, with about 49,000 members. It sponsored Cobb and his colleagues’ work at the Stark Farms sites as part of an effort to study and preserve important Chickasaw sites. As part of the project, the Chickasaw Explorers Program gave Chickasaw college students the chance to participate in archaeological fieldwork.

American Antiquity, 2021 DOI: 10.1017/aaq.2021.17  (About DOIs).

Listing image by Jeff Gage/Florida Museum of Natural History