Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Old Man with the Iron-Nosed Mask: Caddo Oral Tradition and the De Soto Expedition, 1541-42

Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Old Man with the Iron-Nosed Mask: Caddo Oral Tradition and the De Soto Expedition, 1541-42

Article excerpt


In 1492, the Caddo Indians occupied a territory along the presentday borders of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The Caddos were mound-building heirs of the great Mississippian civilization. Their villages were centers of trade and industry. The Caddos were horticulturalists and com was the lifeblood of their civilization. While the men hunted, the women cultivated com and other crops in gardens. After the harvest Caddo women pounded the com with large pestles and mortars into flour. More than bows and arrows, mortars and pestles symbolized Caddo civilization (Rogers and Szabo 2004:616-631; Carter 1995).'

Although the Caddo Indians were no strangers to warfare, nothing had prepared them for the confrontation with Spanish Conquistadors, who, under command of Hernando de Soto, entered Caddo territory in 1541. Since 1539, De Soto's conquistadors had scoured the American southeast in search of riches. Instead of gold, they found numerous fiercely independent Indian tribes. When these tribes refused to submit themselves to the arrogant strangers they soon felt the iron-clad hand of war raised against them. When De Soto's men contacted the Caddos, they had already left behind them a path of destruction. Spanish contact with the Caddo Indians is a story of conflict, torture, murder, and enslavement.

At first glance, the Caddo story of their experiences with De Soto's conquistadors does not seem to have been preserved in Caddo memory. However, in Dorsey's Traditions of the Caddo ( 1905) there are two intriguing stories which mention a masked cannibal man who might fit the description of a conquistador.

A quick overview of the types of monsters in the Caddo stories shows a diversity of cannibals, witches, ghosts, and monstrous animals, including snake-tongued squirrels, murderous bears, as well as a snake-like water monster. The masked cannibal monster with his long, spiked nose is the most unique in American Indian monster iconography, because he appears only in the Caddo traditions.

This article considers the possibility that the Iron-nosed mask was a helmet worn by a Spanish conquistador belonging to the De Soto expedition. Although my interpretation that the iron-masked cannibal man may have represented Hernando de Soto or one of his captains, is conjectural, 1 nevertheless believe that a case can be made that the stories refer to the encounter between the Caddo and the De Soto expedition of 1541-42. If so, this story would provide a unique account of De Soto's infamous expedition from an American Indian perspective.


The masked cannibal man appears in two stories, by different story-tellers, in Dorsey's Traditions of the Caddo (1997). Unfortunately, Dorsey provided the name of the first story-teller only: the identity of the second story-teller is unknown.

The first story, titled "The Young Men and the Cannibals," was told by a Caddo medicine man named Wing. Although Dorsey provided no additional information about his source. Parsons provides some biographical detail in her study Notes on the Caddo (1941). According to Parsons, Wing's Caddo name was Tsa'Bisu ("Mr. Wing"), but he was also known as "Dr. Gerrin." He was a traditional doctor who had obtained sacred power from various sources, including a Red-headed woodpecker and a buffalo. According to Wing's own account, he had "the power to prevent anyone from being hurt or harmed, and can charm away all danger." He could also perform magic without medicine and he reputedly had power "to bewitch people who are afar off, and thus make them lose their minds and not know what they are doing." Medicine men like Wing also had special songs with which they frightened death away from people on their death beds. Wing's birth year has not been documented, but he died in 1907. In addition to being a powerful medicine man. Wing was apparently also a prolific story-teller because he contributed no less than thirty-two stories to Dorsey's Traditions of the Caddo (Parsons 1941:31 ; Gerona 2012:358-362; Dorsey 1997:23). …

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