Hernando de Soto 1539–1540 Winter Encampment at Anhaica Apalachee
From October 1539 through March 1540, the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto and his expedition of more than 600 people occupied the Apalachee capital of Anhaica, located in present-day Tallahassee. Soto had come to conquer and establish a colony in la Florida, which at that time was a vague concept of a territory covering most of the southeastern United States. To accomplish his goals, Soto brought a wide array of people including soldiers, slaves, craftspeople, and bureaucrats. He also brought along a herd of swine that he intended to use for food at a planned colony. A veteran of campaigns in Central and South America, Soto was a ruthless and skilled soldier. As the governor of Cuba and holder of a royal charter to conquer la Florida, he was also one of the richest men in the world at the time. Despite his high hopes, after months of exploring peninsular Florida, Soto had failed to find great sources of wealth, such as gold and silver, like other conquistadors had in Mexico and Peru.
Soto's expedition landed somewhere in Tampa Bay in May of 1539. Two previous expeditions to la Florida had ended poorly for their leaders, Ponce de León and Panfilo de Narvaéz, both of whom died without finding riches or establishing colonies. In peninsular Florida, Soto found little evidence of the types of riches he sought. Soto was lured to the Apalachee territory following reports by their neighbors that the Apalachee were rich and powerful. After crossing the Aucilla River, Soto and his force pushed inland. Having had experience with conquistadors in the past, including Narvaéz's expedition 21 years earlier, the Apalachee abandoned their towns in anticipation of the Spaniards' arrival.
Soto's time at Anhaica was a key turning point in his expedition. While at Anhaica, Soto reconfigured his expedition for a push into the interior. He moved supply lines and gathered intelligence on possible routes. He chose to winter in the area because he used the Apalachee's extensive food stores and buildings to feed and house his expedition. The Spaniards hoped to find riches to the north. Their oftentimes violent excursion into the southeastern United States forever changed the region and had drastic effects on the local inhabitants.
Based on the timing of their occupation of Anhaica, members of Soto's expedition likely celebrated the first Christmas mass in what would become the United States. Although there is no mention of Christmas in the chronicles, the Spanish were devout Catholics, and clergy in the party would probably have held a Christmas mass. At the time, Christmas was a more solemn affair, and it lacked many of the celebrations associated with present-day celebrations. The holiday was one of several feast days celebrated by Catholics. However, because the expedition was under frequent attack by the Apalachee, Soto and his men were likely too busy to participate in many holiday celebrations. During Christmas, Soto sent some of his men out on auxiliary expeditions to establish new supply lines for an eventual push inland. The holiday may be noted in a map associated with the expedition.
The Apalachee territory spanned between the Aucilla to the Apalachicola Rivers, and from southern Georgia down to the Gulf Coast. The ancestors of the Apalachee who Soto encountered had long roots in the area. Five hundred years before meeting Europeans, they had built the mounds at Lake Jackson. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that the Apalachee farmed maize and focused their settlements on high ground around the red hills of Tallahassee. The Apalachee who Soto encountered are part of the archaeological "Fort Walton" culture, a term used by archaeologists to describe patterned similarities in material cultures, especially pottery styles. Accounts in the historical record suggest that the Apalachee were well known and respected by their neighbors. These chronicles describe the Apalachee province as having many towns and plentiful food. Archaeological finds corroborate this description, and there are many recorded sites dating to the Fort Walton period. The description in the chronicles fits archaeological findings showing a sprawling settlement pattern where principal towns were surrounded by hamlets and homesteads. The precise sociopolitical structure of the Apalachee remains unclear. Historic accounts suggest that their capital was located at Anhaica, although they may have had an alternate capital at Ivitachuco, which was likely located on the Aucilla River. The chronicles give little information about the everyday life of the Apalachee. Continuing archaeological work may shed light into more aspects of Apalachee life during the early 16th century and before.
Soto's violent push through the southeastern United States would forever change the landscape of the region, decimating populations through disease and violence, and disrupting longstanding and powerful Chiefdoms. Soto never established a colony. He died of a fever and his body was placed in the Mississippi river in 1542. Half of his men survived and fled by raft to Mexico.
Despite the trauma of Soto's occupation of their capital, the Apalachee survived. They reoccupied Anhaica after Soto left and were still at the town when the Spanish returned to the area in the 1600s. In 1633 the Apalachee invited Spanish Franciscan friars to the area to establish a mission. The Apalachee remained at their homeland until 1704 when they fled the region due to pressure from invading British and Creek forces. The Apalachee today live in Louisiana.
The Archaeology of the Soto Winter Encampment at Anhaica Apalachee
Historians and archaeologists had long puzzled over Soto's expedition route. Through reconstructing distances and landmarks noted in accounts of the expedition, researchers suspected that the 1539–1540 winter encampment would be located in Tallahassee. Material evidence for Soto's expedition remained elusive until 1987, when Division of Historical Resources archaeologist, B. Calvin Jones (now deceased), decided to "poke around" a construction site on Lafayette street in Tallahassee. Calvin discovered a fragment of an early variety of Spanish Olive Jar, a type that could only date to the early 16th century. Further excavations uncovered chainmail, crossbow bolts, and 7-layer chevron beads; items that all date to the early to mid-1500s, and would not be expected in the later Mission-era Spanish settlements in the area. Mad Dog Construction generously allowed archaeologists with the State of Florida to excavate the site ahead of construction. The archaeologist Charles Ewen was brought on to oversee the excavation work alongside Calvin Jones. Findings confirmed the presence of an early 16th century Apalachee settlement along with Soto-related artifacts. The presence of fired clay with palm frond impressions from an Apalachee structure may confirm the burning of Anhaica by the Apalachee during Soto's occupation.
Research into the Soto winter encampment site continues. In recent years the Florida Department of State's Bureau of Archaeological Research (BAR) has collaborated with the Panhandle Archaeological Society at Tallahassee (PAST), a local chapter of the Florida Anthropological Society (FAS), to find further evidence of the Soto encampment at Anhaica. This work has not yet yielded any finds of early 16th century Spanish material. Nevertheless, it has uncovered more evidence of the Apalachee settlement. Research efforts continue in the laboratory as well. Archaeologists at the BAR are working with colleagues at Florida State University and the University of Florida to apply cutting-edge chemical analyses to learn more about the encampment site. BAR archaeologists are currently using an advanced form of analysis to learn about the chemical compositions of distinct seven-layer chevron beads found at the site and are comparing them to beads from other early 16th century sites in Florida in an attempt to distinguish between the beads from different early conquistador expeditions. Archaeologists at the BAR also hope to learn about the source and manufacture of these essential trade items that served as conduits for early contact between Indians and Europeans. BAR archaeologists are also pursuing isotopic analyses of a pig maxilla from the site in order to confirm if it was affiliated with the Soto expedition. Results are expected soon.