Hernando de Soto in Georgia
The first European to explore the interior of what is now the state of Georgia was Hernando de Soto. In fact, De Soto entered the state on two occasions during the course of his expedition.
De Soto's fleet sighted the western coast of Florida near Tampa Bay on May 25, 1539. He landed about 600 men and about 220 horses, and from there he proceeded northward to present-day Tallahassee, where he and his men spent the winter of 1539-40 in the territory of the chiefdom of Apalachee.
On March 3, 1540, De Soto and his army departed from Apalachee and by day's end had reached just inside the southern border of what is now Georgia, a few miles south of present-day Cairo. When they reached the Flint River, they built a crude boat and ferried everyone to the western side of the river. From there they proceeded to the Chickasawhatchee Swamp, where they came to the chiefdom of Capachequi.
After spending six days in Capachequi, they resumed traveling northeast, proceeding up the western side of the Flint River to near present-day Montezuma, where they crossed to the eastern side of the river and came to the chiefdom of Toa on March 23. After a short stay, they continued on to the northeast until they came to the Ocmulgee River. On an island in this river they found an abandoned village, where meat had been left roasting on a barbacoa, a wooden frame suspended over a wood fire—the first recorded instance of barbecue in Georgia. They proceeded upstream a few miles until they came to the chiefdom of Ichisi, whose main town is thought to have been at the Lamar mound site at present-day Macon. Because the people of Ichisi met them peacefully, De Soto ordered that a wooden cross be set atop a mound in the town, and De Soto and his men tried to explain its significance to the Indians.
From Ichisi they proceeded northeast to the Oconee River, where they found the chiefdoms of Altamaha, Ocute, and Patofa, with the chiefdom of Ocute being paramount. From Ocute they continued eastward, crossing the Savannah River several miles north of where Augusta now lies. They continued through present-day South Carolina and North Carolina before turning northward to cross the Appalachian mountains, entering the Tennessee Valley east of what is now Newport, Tennessee.
On August 20, 1540, De Soto and his army departed from the main town of Coosa and traveled to the south, crossing the Etowah River at the town of Itaba—the Etowah Mound site—and proceeding on to the chiefdom of Ulibahali at present-day Rome. They continued down the Coosa River to another town, perhaps Apica, possibly located at the King site in Foster's Bend. On September 5, 1540, they crossed into what is now the state of Alabama.
The expedition continued westward for another three years. During this time about half of the original army were killed by Indians or died of various causes, as did De Soto himself.
Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight Jr., and Edward C. Moore, eds., The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543, 2 vols. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993).
Charles M. Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997).
Elsa A. Nystrom, Kennesaw State University
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.