The Hernando de Soto Expedition: History, Historiography, and "Discovery" in the Southeast

By Patricia Galloway | Go to book overview
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Ann F. Ramenofsky Patricia Galloway


Disease and the Soto Entrada

In the last decade, historians, ethnologists, and archaeologists have reexamined the nature and consequences of the sixteenth-century Spanish entradas in the Southeast. In these efforts, analyses of the Hernando de Soto venture have loomed large, and this focus is quite understandable.1 The entrada extended over a vast area. Except for the trek by Cabeza de Vaca, the Soto expedition lasted longer than any other, and there are several accounts of the expedition attributable more or less directly to survivors. As a consequence, we have considerable, albeit culturally biased, knowledge about ethnic diversity in the Southeast in the mid-sixteenth century.

A repeated focus in recent Soto scholarship is the importance of disease transmission as the mechanism of population decline in the sixteenth- century Southeast.2 Historical documents and archaeological records show that fundamental changes in population size and distribution postdated the Soto venture in many regions of the Southeast. What is more difficult to determine is whether specific diseases provided the mechanisms for specific changes in population.

European descriptions of native illness in the sixteenth-century Southeast are rare and nonspecific. In the Soto chronicles, for instance, the descriptions of Biedma, Ranjel, and Elvas contain only eight references to disease and death.3 Of that total, two episodes are directly tied to dietary inadequacies. In the other instances, death is attributed to such general symptoms as fever (in the case of Soto himself), lethargy, or generic pest. Moreover, five of eight descriptions refer to Spanish, not native, illness and death. Thus, all the Soto documents contain only three references to native illness, and all are from the Elvas narrative.

Elvas's first reference describes an event at Cofa, where a native guide is said to have foamed at the mouth. In Elvas's second reference, he attributed the abandonment of towns around Cutifachiqui to a pest that occurred during the earlier Allyón exploration: this is the episode most frequently cited as

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