Writing the history of sixteenth-century southeastern North America is difficult chiefly because for the most part there is no historical writing about the natives of the region written by themselves. Thus the history of most of what happened in the region during the period must be written using documents that are both radically external to most of the story and only privy to its most recent phase. Writing a history of events for any time before the coming of Europeans is clearly not possible, and histories for the colonial period will inevitably be inadequate. The historian must therefore be content to focus on the larger patterns of the conjoncture, the rhythms of economic and social history, pursuing those aspects that can be documented. At the same time, the anthropologist is concerned with uncovering the very long-range patterns of the longue durée, the evolution of cultures and ecological adaptations, but shares an interest in the particulars of culture change. The contributions of both disciplines are fundamental to the study of the Hernando de Soto expedition and the native societies it encountered, and in this chapter I discuss the strengths and limitations of each.
In the history of southeastern native and European newcomer, the moment of first contact provides an essential nexus, pointing for the anthropologist toward the past and for the ethnohistorian toward the future. Together the practitioners of these disciplines can provide a better idea of the trajectory of native peoples from the past of prehistory into the Past of a History articulated according to European standards of history-writing, but only if they make the effort to dovetail their respective explanatory models.
The wide-ranging entrada of Hernando de Soto and his expeditionary force into the Southeast allows for just such a nexus, and recent centennial fervor--and funding--have emphasized it in an effort to establish a synchronic portrait of native southeastern polities poised on the edge of history. Anthro-