Found  /  Discovery

After Defeating Hernando de Soto, the Chickasaw Took his Stuff and Remade It

The site offers rare evidence of interactions between de Soto and Indigenous people.

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 objects made from European metal: a cannonball, a mouth harp, a bridle bit with a golden crest, and more. They also found objects that 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 sizable 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 artifacts made from European metal 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.