Written by Donald E. Sheppard
Drawings: Cheryl Lucente
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Standing in the March snows of 1542 just below the White River crossing at St. Charles, Elvas, who best described this area, reported, "As soon as it stopped snowing, he marched three days (at 10 miles per day while gathering what he could to eat) through an unpeopled region and a land so low and with so many swamps (they're rice fields today, photo at left) and such hard going that one day he marched all day through water that in some places reached to the knees and others to the stirrups, and some passages were swum over..." © 1993, University of Alabama Press
You can read the translated details of Southern Arkansas Conquest
written by three DeSoto's Chroniclers: Biedma, Elvas & Inca
DESOTO'S ARKANSAS TRAIL DETAILS ON GOOGLE EARTH
Elvas continues, "He (DeSoto) came to a deserted village, without corn called Tutelpinco (Arkansas Post; the French would find it and establish an outpost there 141 years later). Near it was a lake which emptied into the river (the Mississippi River) and had a strong current and force of water..."
That lake, today's Dismal Swamp is on the Arkansas River. Snow runoff from the Ozark Mountains floods it in March, causing it to swell. When the nearby Mississippi River floods in May the flow through Dismal Swamp reverses, flooding the Arkansas River upstream. The French selected Arkansas Post because America's great rivers' waters, from the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, Cumberland, Illinois, Wabash, Arkansas and White Rivers, all flow near it. The French traded by canoe on those rivers, as did Native Americans before them, from that same place.
"...As five Christians, accompanied by a captain whom the governor had sent, were crossing it (the Arkansas River below Arkansas Post) in a canoe, the canoe overturned. Some caught hold of it and others of trees which were in the lake. One (man) was drowned there. The governor went (west) for a day along the lake looking for a crossing place, but he did not find it all that day nor any road leading from any other direction (the Arkansas River gets very wide in March). Returning at night to the town, he found two peaceful Indians who showed him the crossing and the road (a navigable waterway) he must take. Reed frames and rafts were made from the houses, on which they crossed the lake..." into today's Pendleton.
"They marched for three days (westward) and reached a town of the district of Nilco, called Tianto..." on thousands of fertile acres beyond Gould and before Bayou Bartholomew .
Biedma says, "We arrived at a province that seamed to us to be the best that we had come upon in all the land (of North America), which is called Anicoyanque." The others called it "Nilco."
Elvas continues for the next nine paragraphs, "Thirty Indians were captured there, among them being two of the principal men of the town. The governor sent a captain on ahead to Nilco (around Bayou Bartholomew's swamp to the bluffs east of today's Star City - mapped above) with horse and foot, so that the Indians might not have any opportunity to carry off the food. They went through three of four large towns, and in the town where the chief lived - located two leagues (5 miles around the swamp) from where the governor remained - they found many Indians with their bows and arrows, and in appearance as if they wished to give battle, and who were surrounding the town. As soon as they saw the Christians were coming toward them, without any hesitation they set fire to the chiefs house and escaped over a swamp that lay near the town (Bayou Bartholomew), where the horses could not cross. Next day, Wednesday, March 29 (under a nearly Full Moon), the governor reached Nilco. He lodged with all his men in the chiefs town which was located on a level field, and which was all populated for a quarter of a league (three-quarters of a mile); while a league and a half distant (4 miles) were other very large towns (around Star City) where there was a quantity of corn, beans, walnuts, and dried plums.
"This was the most populous region which had been seen in Florida (North America) and more abounding in corn, with the exception of Coosa (Summerville, Georgia) and Apalache (Marianna, Florida). Indians came in canoes at night (probably under the Full Moon on Tuesday, March 31st) and carried off all the corn they could and set up their huts on the other side of the river (Bayou Bartholomew) in the thickest part of the forest.
"That river which flowed through Nilco (the Arkansas River) was the same that flowed through Cayas (Summersville, Missouri which we call the Current River) and Autiamque (Jacksonport, Arkansas which we call the White River) and emptied into the large river which flowed through Pacaha (Terre Haute, Indiana; we call that one the Wabash) and Aquixo (Evansville, Indiana on the Ohio River; all of which flow into what the natives called the Great River) and hard by the province of Guachoya" (Lake Village, southeast of Nilco on the Mississippi River's big westward bend).
"The Lord of the upper part (Guachoya) came in canoes (probably from today's Dermott) to make war on the lord of Nilco. Sent by him, an Indian (first) came to the governor and told him that he (the chief of Guachoya Province) was his servant and as such he (DeSoto) should consider him that..." Then Chief Guachoya arrived. "He (DeSoto) questioned him about a settlement down the river. He said that he knew of none other except his own (Lake Village); and that on the other side of the (Mississippi) river was a province of a chief called Quigaltam (whose nearest village was Greenville, Mississippi). He (Chief Guachoya) took his leave of the governor and returned to his town.
"A few days later (during the darkness of New Moon), the governor made up his mind to go (via today's McGehee) to Guachoya (at Lake Village on today's Lake Chicot, a westward loop in the Mississippi River at the time, just southwest of Greenville), in order to ascertain there whether the sea (the Gulf of Mexico) were nearby, or whether there were any settlement nearby where he might subsist himself while brigantines were built which he intended to send to the land of Christians. As he was crossing the River of Nilco (Bayou Bartholomew below Star City's eastern bluffs), Indians came up (the bayou) in canoes from Guachoya, and when they saw him, thinking that he was going after them to do them some hurt, they turned back down the river and went to warn the chief. The latter, abandoning the town (of Lake Village) with all of his people, with all they could carry off, on that night crossed over to the other side of the great river (today's Lake Chicot). The governor sent a captain and 50 men in 6 canoes down the river (bayou), while he, with the rest of his men, went overland. He reached Guachoya on Sunday, April 17th and lodged himself in the chief's town, which was surrounded by a stockade, a crossbow flight from the (Mississippi) river..." Lake Chicot, the end of the line for Hernando.
"As soon as the governor reached Guachoya, he sent Juan de Anasco up the river with as many men as could get into the canoes; for when they (the marching soldiers) were coming from Nilco, they saw newly made huts on the other side (of the Mississippi River at Greenville)... they brought back canoes laden with corn, beans, dried plums, and many loaves made from the pulp of plums..." for which the Spaniards would pay dearly the following year.
"On that day, an Indian came to the governor in the name of the chief of Guachoya (of Lake Village, whose house DeSoto happened to be living in at the time) and said that his lord would come next day. On the following day, they saw many canoes coming from downstream. They assembled together for the space of an hour on the other side of the great river (today's Lake Chicot), debating as to whether they should come or not. At last they made up their minds and crossed the river. The chief of Guachoya came in them, bringing with him many Indians bearing a considerable quantity of fish, dogs, skins and blankets."
"As soon as they landed at the town, they went immediately to the town to the governor's lodging and presented the gifts to him; and the chief spoke as follows: "Powerful and excellent lord; May your Lordship pardon me for the mistake I made in going away and not waiting in this town to receive you and serve you..." He (DeSoto) asked him (the chief) whether he had any knowledge of the sea (the Gulf of Mexico). He said he did not, nor of any settlement down the river from that place, except that there was a town of one of his principal Indians subject to him two leagues away (5 miles, we call it Fairview; the chief had just come from there), and on the other side (of the Mississippi River) three days' journey downstream, the province (and hometown) of Quigaltam, who was the greatest lord of that region," at today's Vicksburg.
"It seemed to the governor that the chief was lying to him in order to turn him (toward that place and) aside from his towns, and he sent Juan de Anasco downstream with eight horse to see what population there was and to ascertain whether there were any knowledge of the sea." That scouting party's departure was timed for Full Moon at journey's mid-way.
Inca reported, "Meanwhile the chief of Guachoya persuaded the governor to return to the province of Nilco (DeSoto was thinking about the provisions he might be needing during his planned brigantine building campaign that summer), offering to go with his men to serve his lordship, and to facilitate the crossing of the River of Nilco (with the booty from Nico) he ordered 80 large canoes, besides other small ones, to be taken seven leagues (18 miles) down the great river to the mouth of the River of Nilco, which entered the Great River (those canoes were probably still at Dermott, 18 miles northwest of Lake Village, where Chief Guachoya had left them at his frontier village below Nilco, from which he first met DeSoto). They would ascend it to the village of Nilco (Star City's eastern bluff overlooking Bayou Bartholomew and the gignatic plain, where DeSoto first sighted at Nilco). The whole route that the canoes would have to go by both rivers would be about 20 leagues (52 miles) of navigation (on lines drawn between points - the bayous, however, were winding). While the canoes were descending the Great River and ascending the River of Nilco they (DeSoto's people) would go by land, so that they could all arrive together at the village of Nilco at the same time...
"As soon as all was prepared and they brought the canoes, the governor ordered (a) company (to) go (with) them to direct and give orders to four thousand Indian warriors who were embarking in them. (They) carried their bows and arrows... (DeSoto) allowed them a period of three full days for their navigation, which seemed time enough for both parties to arrive and join one another at the village of Nilco... they all arrived at the same time in sight of the village of Nilco. Though the chief was absent, its inhabitants sounded the alarm and stationed themselves to defend the crossing of the river (Bayou Bartholomew) with all possible spirit and courage. But they could not resist the fury of the enemy, who were both Indians and Spaniards, so they turned back and abandoned the village...
"The Guachoyas entered it as a village of hated enemies, and being an affronted people who desired vengeance, they sacked and robbed the temple and burial place of the lords of that state, where, besides the bodies of his dead, the chief kept his best and richest and most valued possessions, and the spoils and trophies of the greatest victories that he had won over the Guachoyas... and a large number of weapons that the Guachoyas had lost in the battles they had with the Nilcos. They refused to capture alive any person that they found in the village, regardless of sex or age, but killed them all..." Despite DeSoto's attempts to stop them, the Guachoyas burned their villages to the ground. DeSoto's people would return to Nilco that winter but find very little.
Back in Lake Village, Anasco returned from his journey down the Great River in search of the sea. Elvas says, "He was gone for a week (the time it took for the army to raid Nilco) and on his coming said that during that whole time he could not proceed more than 14 or 15 leagues (about 38 miles) because of the great arms leading out of the river, and the canebrakes and thick woods lying along it; and that he found no settlement." Biedma says, "...he returned saying that he did not find a road (a navigable waterway) nor a way to cross the large swamps along the great river." The river's spring flood was well underway given that heavy snows had been reported that winter. Levees line that rivers' banks today to contain the flooding, but Anasco lost track of the river's "road" because its natural curves were obscured by the mid-May flood.
Elvas says, "The governor's grief was intense on seeing the small prospect he had for reaching the sea; and worse, according to the way in which his men and horses were diminishing, they could not be maintained in the land without supplies. With that thought he (DeSoto) fell sick, but before he took to his bed, he sent an Indian to tell the chief of Quigaltam (Mississippi) that he was the sun of the sun (a God) and that wherever he went all obeyed him and did him service...
To DeSoto's demands that chief replied, "...let him dry up the great river and he would believe him..." The chief refused to come, which, given history's course over the next three centuries, proved to be a wise decision. That Mississippi chief and his people would thrive; those of Arkansas would die off, probably of diseases brought in by DeSoto's people and animals from Europe, Africa and, as we shall see, Louisiana and Texas later that year.
Continuing, Elvas says, "The Governor realized within himself that the hour had come in which he must leave his present life. He had the royal officials summoned, and the captains and principal persons. To them he gave a talk, saying that he was about to go... The next day, May 21 (of 1542), died the magnanimous, virtuous and courageous captain, Don Hernando de Soto, Governor of Cuba and ruler of Florida..." His body was hidden there, but one week later (under a Full Moon for proper tribute by his soldiers), it was removed so the Indians could not find it and prove to others that he was not a God. "...and a considerable quantity of sand was placed with the blankets in which he was shrouded, and he was taken in a canoe and cast into the middle of the river..." into today's Lake Chicot
The King's Agent says of DeSoto's death, "The Governor, from seeing himself cut off and that not one thing could be done according to his purpose, was afflicted with sickness and died... he left Luis de Moscoso (pronounced mos-cos-o) appointed as General. We (a group of officers) decided that since (the river was flooding more every day) we could find no road (navigable waterway) to the sea, we should head west, and that it could be that we might be able to get out by land to Mexico, if we did not find anything else in the land or any place to halt..." like Mexico City, with plenty of gold and silver to plunder.
Elvas says, "It seemed advisable to all to take the road overland toward the west, for New Spain lay in that direction; and they considered as more dangerous and of greater risk the voyage by sea; for no ship could be built strong enough to weather the storms, and they had no master or pilot, and no compass or sailing chart, and they did not know how far away the sea was, nor had they any information of it; nor whether the river made some great bend through the land or whether it fell over any rocks where they would perish. Some men who had seen the sailing chart found that the distance to New Spain (Mexico) along the coast in the region where they were was about 500 leagues (1,300 miles) or so. They declared that even though they might have to make detours by land, because of looking for a settlement (for food), they would not be prevented from going ahead that summer except by some great uninhabited district which they could not cross..."
He concludes, "On Monday, June 5, he left Guachoya. The chief (of Lake Village) gave him a guide to Chaguete (in today's Louisiana) and remained in the village."
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