Archaeologists examining Tallahassee site of DeSoto's 1540 camp 7-07

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - By the time John Smith met Pocahontas in
Virginia, Europeans had already come to the Florida Panhandle and

But the conquistador Hernando de Soto and his men - the first
tourists to visit Florida for the winter - left behind remnants of
their time on a hilltop that is now almost in the shadow of the state

They also left behind a native culture that had thrived in this area,
but was changed forever by contact with the Spaniards and the
diseases they brought.

While Americans this week celebrate the birth of the nation, and
while historians this year mark the 400th anniversary of the English
settlement of Jamestown, archaeologists in Florida continue to sift
through a site where Europeans hunkered down much earlier.

 From October of 1539 to March of 1540, more than 60 years before the
English settled Jamestown, de Soto and about 600 Spanish soldiers
seized the town of Anhaica from the Apalachee Indians. They moved in
for the winter before resuming their search for riches in gold they'd
heard could be found in the New World.

Historians have long known from journals of de Soto's men that they
spent the winter somewhere in the Tallahassee area, but they didn't
know exactly where until the 1980s, when a state archaeologist asked
some developers for permission to survey an area they were planning
to turn into an office complex. The archaeologist, Calvin Jones, was
looking for signs of a Spanish mission from the more recent past.

Instead, Jones found chain mail armor fragments, coins and other
artifacts that because of their age could have only been left by de
Soto's band. They also found significant remnants of the Apalachee
settlement that de Soto invaded.

The site, which is literally in the side yard of a home built by
former Gov. John Martin in the 1930s, has since been bought by the
state. There's little to mark the significance of the site to Native
American or Spanish exploratory history, but five centuries later it
continues to yield clues to what life was like that winter when
Florida's original culture clashed with its future.

Archaeology students from Florida State University continue to work
at the site, where chain mail fragments, cross bow dart tips, glass
beads, and pieces of pottery can still be unearthed. From time to
time, state archaeologists hold a field school, allowing students get
a sense for what it really means to dig into the past.

The students get down into the dirt, carefully pulling back layers of
soil in what looks more like a sweaty day working in the yard than
the stuff of Indiana Jones.

"The physicality of it's not romantic, but the notion is," said
Paul Williamson, one of several students who took part in the field
school this summer.

The field school gives the students a chance to experience what draws
most archaeologists into the field - being transported in a way into
another time, and to appreciate what those people did and how they

In a Web diary the students are producing, student Evan Heiser talked
about gaining an appreciation for workmanship in a preindustrial time.

"There is just something strange about handling an artifact which
was made a few hundred years ago by someone who really needed it,"
Heiser wrote. "Touching the surface and looking at all the flakes
really allowed me to understand how skilled the workers must have
been. Touching the point brought me back in time for a few minutes."

While the site is perhaps more significant as the only definitive one
associated archaeologically with Hernando de Soto, the clues to what
life was like for the Indians are also a remarkable trove, said
Andrea White, an archaeologist with the state of Florida who oversees
the students.

"A lot of people tend to focus on de Soto's occupation of the
site," said White. "I'm trying to create a balanced view - we have
this really cool, pre-contact Native American culture."

The site's discovery in the face of planned development that might
have obscured it forever and its yielding of artifacts that have
helped scholars better study the clash between explorers and Native
American cultures may be a story of archaeological triumph. But the
story of the site itself is rather bleak.

The disputed village was fought over by the Indians and the Spaniards
and portended disappointment for both groups. While the Apalachee
lost their homes and would see their culture dramatically diminished
by European contact, the Spanish also had a nightmare visit to

After wandering thousands of miles over four years through what is
now 10 Southeastern states, de Soto died in the wilderness, never
finding the gold he and his men were seeking. Only a few members of
his party survived, making their way to Spanish Mexico. ---

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