When Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto stepped on the shores of Tampa Bay, Florida with visions of gold floating through his head, he had no mapped route, no idea of what lay in front of him and not an inkling that this trip would end in his death.
As De Soto and more than 600 troops set off from Tampa Bay into the humid Florida interior they cut a path following Native American trails as they searched for wealth, food and shelter. They were lured by promises of riches farther north, and the Spanish forces ended up plundering and killing indigenous populations along the way.
De Soto never found the gold or the land route to China that he was looking for. Instead the first European to cross the Mississippi River found a watery grave when a fever took his life somewhere on the river’s western banks in either present day Louisiana or Arkansas.
With De Soto’s passing, his route through Florida and into the southeastern United States became obscured in history and given over to interpretation…until recently.
A local Florida archeologist recently uncovered what some of his contemporaries claim has been more elusive that the prized gold De Soto searched for…evidence of his journey through Florida that could redraw the Spanish explorer’s path and help expose more archeological sites in the region.
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"It gets rid of the guesswork now on the route through Marion County," said Ashley White, the archaeologist who found the site in Florida’s Marion County, according to the Ocala Star-Banner. "Now, we know for sure he came up through the Black Sink Prairie to Orange Lake and looped around through Micanopy."
White, who lives on a 700-acre property owned by his bioarchaeologist wife, Michelle White, came across the discovery of De Soto’s encampment almost by luck.
While for years he had found Native American artifacts on the property, it wasn’t until a series of hurricanes and storms in 2005 thrashed Florida and turned up White’s soil that he found something out of the ordinary: a coin minted before De Soto's 1539 expedition.
Nearby White also came across a 16th century structure that turned out to be the mission of San Buenaventura de Potano, established a number of years after De Soto made his way through the area. On that site, White uncovered, were white copper coins and brown streaks where the church’s post used to be.
At first, the archaeologist didn’t fully comprehend the significance of his find.
“The original thought was that it was a Spanish ranch outpost, and that was our hypothesis for probably two years of the work here," White said, according to the Star-Banner. "(The De Soto) trail, it's not the first thing on your mind in Central Florida archaeology."
On closer examination of the first site, however, White began to come across handmade beads and other coins similar to those found on other Florida mission buildings along Native American trails. Missionaries most likely used De Soto's records to establish their churches along the paths.
"This (the De Soto site) is an extremely important site, historically and archaeologically," Gifford Waters, historical archaeology collections manager of the Florida Museum of Natural History.
The discovery has drawn praise both locally and nationally. The local media has covered the find extensively and this fall White and his family will unveil the finding at Appleton Museum of Art. Last week the Explorer’s Club, the famed society dedicated to scientific exploration, announced White’s findings via its Twitter account.
White’s discovery now opens the door for more research both at his site and in other sites around the region where De Soto may have camped on his way to his demise.
"The discovery of the (Potano) site is really a beginning, not an end," said Gerald Milanich, the author of multiple books about De Soto's expedition and curator emeritus in archaeology of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, according to the Star Banner. "The start of a lot more research, of learning about the area. It helps us to understand what things were like on a summer day in 1539, and I'm sure it's very exciting for people to realize that they had a very important bit of history right in their own backyard."
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.