In 1936, Congress created the Hernando de Soto Commission to locate his North American Trail...
Dr. John R. Swanton, a Harvard Ethnologist, was appointed to Chair both that Commission, consisting of six Southern Congressmen, and it's Fact Finding Committee. "Refined" by Congressional interests then published in 1939, The Final Report of the United States DeSoto Expedition Commission (press their DeSoto trail map above) still stands as America's primary intelligence of
Hernando de Soto's Expedition in classrooms across the country, despite the fact that modern science casts considerable doubt on its validity.
In light of scientific advancement, improved Native American cultural understanding and complete English translation of all known records of DeSoto's expedition, this Site attempts to track DeSoto's "army" through North America. Its conclusions vary substantially with the Commission's trail (press map above for comparisons). Scholars have argued that archaeology would eventually prove the Commission's trail theory, but that science has failed to do so. If anything, archaeology has raised suspicion of the Commission's trail thesis given the scarcity of DeSoto era artifacts found at a place which they say he and his army wintered at for four months.
The sciences of geography and sociology have made giant strides, well beyond anything imagined in the 1930's. Satellite imagery, laser topography and computer graphics provide very precise description of this entire continent. Geographers have shown that America's large contours - its mountains, rivers, plains and swamps, many of which DeSoto's people described - have not formed or moved since DeSoto was here. Modern maps and aerial photographs were used here to place and track his army. Field visits (image at left) verified the landmarks, contours and the practicality of routes his "army" described.
Native America was recorded by DeSoto's people in personal chronicles (image at right), but the Native Americans described in them were alien to the Commission's comprehension of Native America. Medical science has shown the profound effect the world's diseases had on Native America's population shortly after DeSoto's people introduced foreign viruses. Giant Native villages, described by DeSoto's people at many places which are cities again today, were destroyed by epidemic. They were not to be found by later European explorers who the Commission relied upon for Native American village placement. They had moved, many to places where the Commission believed they lived at during DeSoto's time, but lacking the geographic features described by DeSoto's Chroniclers.
For that reason, the Commission dismissed other details in those chronicles as simple fabrication. The names of various Indian villages reported in them were used by the Commission, however, for placing native villages and trails between them. Today we know that many of the villages which they "placed" were misidentified. Indian villages had moved southwestward shortly after DeSoto's visit, away from contaminated population centers, well before other Europeans reported their whereabouts.
Dr. Swanton had studied Native American linguistics and their habitats (map at left) and knew that DeSoto's place name "Chicasa," where his army spent the brutal winter of 1540-41 after their defeat at Mabila in Southwestern Alabama, matched the name of a tribe still living in Eastern Mississippi near the Tombigbee River's headwaters.
Late-Twentieth Century interviews with that tribe's elders, however, revealed their certainty that they had moved there from Chicasaw Old Fields west of Huntsville, Alabama (press map at left), around 1700. A reliable French Map of 1715 places them there.
The Commission misplaced that critical village site location along DeSoto's trail, leading their trail west (press map at left) instead of north to the "Great River" (darkest lines on map) which DeSoto crossed beyond "Chicasa." Landmarks described along his northbond trail from Mabila through "Chicasa" then across the Ohio River are unmistakable.
Under immense political pressure from interested localities and Congressmen serving on the 1936 Commission, Dr. Swanton became aware of various DeSoto trail theories, but none more acceptable at that time than that of Henry R. Schoolcraft, an 1800's Federal Indian Agent. Schoolcraft, who had published his DeSoto trail hypothesis in 1857, had also recognized that certain Indian place names in the available DeSoto records of his day matched names (including "Chicasa" in Mississippi) which he had heard from Native Americans still living in the Southeast in the early 1800's.
Schoolcraft's knowledge of Indian language and habitat apparently had enough support for the Commission to use his DeSoto trail as a pattern for its own. Starting at Tampa Bay, during Tampa's 1930's Depression Era thrust to attract Latin American business (where the Commission held its second meeting) the Commission's Trail closely followed Schoolcraft's from there north then south-west through "Chicasa," crossing the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee, which he believed DeSoto called "Quizquiz," a name alien to his knowledge of native linguistics. DeSoto's Quizquiz was actually the name of the last tribe he defeated before taking Peru's city of gold. He used that name to motivate his men to cross the Great Ohio River, the expedition's worst obstacle.
Beyond Memphis Schoolcraft had found the Kaskaskia Tribe in Missouri in 1818. That tribe lived about the same distance above Memphis as the "Casqui" people described by DeSoto's people living beyond the "Great River." Schoolcraft never realized that the Kaskaskia were not called "Casqui" by Native Americans; that title was used for the Kashinampo Tribe, which Dr. Swanton knew but believed resided in Arkansas in 1541. We know today that the "Casqui" tribe lived in Kentucky and Southwest Indiana at that time, on both sides of the Ohio River.
On his way north from "Chicasa" to that river, DeSoto battled the "Alibamo." Today we know that the "Alibamo" lived in Nashville (map at left) and spoke the same language as the "Casqui-Chisca" to their north and the "Chisca" to their east at Knoxville, where DeSoto scouts reported them the year before. In "Indians of Southeastern U.S., Map 10, Tribal Movements," Dr. Swanton shows the "Casqui" moving north from Arkansas in historic times and the "Alibamo" moving northeast, against the known movements of nearly all tribes in that area. He never knew that those tribes had moved from the northeast after DeSoto's people infected them, thereby misdirecting his Commission's DeSoto trail (press map below).
Rangel, DeSoto's Personal Secretary, reported in the North Carolina Mountains (undisputed), "...there they crossed, in water up to their shins, the river by which they afterward left (today's America) in the brigantines that they made. When that river comes forth to the sea, the navigation chart states and indicates that it is the river of Spiritu Sancto..." today's Mississippi River (also undisputed). One might ask just how he could have made that observation had he followed Dr. Swanton's Commission's DeSoto Trail from those mountains? After all, those mountains are drained by the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers into the Ohio River which drains into the Mississippi River, ALL IN TODAY'S KENTUCKY. The Commission's DeSoto Trail goes nowhere near there, but Rangel did. He went thru Kentucky with Hernando de Soto!
The States of Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri were excluded from the Commission's consideration as points from which DeSoto's people first described Native America (along Our DeSoto Trail Map, above right), despite the fact that conspicuous landmarks in each match DeSoto's peoples' descriptions of them perfectly, a serious problem for the Commission's want of landscape identity in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.
The truly deprived, however, given America's long-term acceptance of the Commission's outdated report, are the Native Americans who have never been recognized for having developed a highly sophisticated culture in giant cities and well organized provinces before the world's diseases destroyed them. Since the Commission chose, for the most part, to ignore what Desoto's people wrote about them, our understanding of Native Americans has been frozen in time. Itinerant Indians living in teepees, riding horses, waiving spears and shooting arrows at frontier settlers seems to be the stereotype of Native Americans.
Few Americans learn in school what DeSoto's people reported about real Native Americans. Reluctance to have us believe what DeSoto's people wrote about Native Americans, living precisely where American cities are built today, may be owed to aging Federal litigation involving Native American land claims. Dr. Swanton, an otherwise brilliant scholar, got caught up in the politics of his day, seemingly against his will, but for President Roosevelt's Reconstruction efforts in a Depression ravaged America. We, as concerned citizens, have every reason to investigate what DeSoto's people wrote about Native American people, given that everything else they wrote about their journey is credible along their real route.