Wednesday, August 16, 2017

De Soto's Gold

The third book completed in the Colonel's summer professional reading program is Charles Hudson's "Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun; Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms."

The Colonel has long been fascinated by the notion of the exploration of the Southeastern interior by the Spanish two centuries before English-speaking colonies were established on the Eastern seaboard.  But, until now, that fascination had not carried much beyond the facts in the preceding sentence.  Hudson's book provides a narrative (complied from contemporary chronicles and supported by archeological evidence) of the de Soto expedition that not only puts flesh on the bones of the Colonel's skeletal knowledge, but provides detailed fatty tissue as well.

In the late Spring of 1541, an army of (mainly) Spanish explorers led by veteran conquistador Hernando de Soto crossed the Little Tallahatchie River somewhere within 20 or 30 miles of the Colonel's vast holdings here at the shallow northern end of deep southern nowhere.  The exact site of the crossing is impossible to verify -- the Colonel would like to think that de Soto's army (or at least exploratory patrols therefrom) actually traversed ground now a part of the Colonel's vast holdings.  The lands through which they marched (between the Chicaza chiefdom near present day Columbus, Mississippi -- 100 miles to the southeast -- and the Quizquiz chiefdom on the Mississippi River south of present day Memphis) was an empty wilderness, devoid of human inhabitants.  

The Colonel is old, but even he wasn't around at the time to be able to verify.   

The de Soto expedition had begun nearly two years earlier.  Launched from Cuba in May of 1539, de Soto's army landed in Tampa Bay and from there literally fought (both against geography and inhabitants) their way around to present day Tallahassee, thence north through Georgia, South Carolina, and well into North Carolina before turning westward through the Appalachian mountains into Tennessee, and from there, into Alabama and then across Northern Mississippi.   

By the time they crossed the Little Tallahatchie, the original strength (approximately 600) of de Soto's army had been reduced by more than a third.  But, they had killed far, far more than that number of the inhabitants of the lands through which they marched, searching for "La Florida's" equivalent to the exceedingly rich culture of the Inca, participation in the subjugation of which had already made de Soto a rich and influential man.  The aim of de Soto's exploration of the Southeast was purely conquest and colonization of a wealth-producing culture for which he would be the principal and not just a participant.  

De Soto's army was an amalgam of seasoned soldiers and treasure-seeking adventurers.  They were armed with weapons and clad in armor that was at the pinnacle of warfare tactics and technology at the time.  A third of the army were horsemen, employing tactics honed in centuries of conflict against the Moorish invaders of the Iberian peninsula.  It was the warrior culture that had developed from the Iberian Christians' response to and eventual reversal of the Islamic invasion of the Iberian peninsula that made conquest of the New World's richest and most powerful civilizations possible, even when Spanish armies were vastly outnumbered by the armies of those civilizations.  

The men of de Soto's army, according to Hudson, did not identify as Spanish.  Spain, as we know it today, did not exist in the 16th Century.  The power on the Iberian peninsula belonged to the regions of Castile and Aragon (united by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella late in the 15th Century); those regions themselves being recent amalgamations of several smaller and distinct regions (some of which even today agitate for independence from Spain).  Hudson says that, rather than as Spaniards, the men of de Soto's army considered themselves Castilian, or natives of the smaller regions or towns of Iberia.  But, primarily, they identified as Christians.  This primary identification by religion, born of centuries in opposition to Islam, was so ingrained that it caused them to view all others as infidels.  The inhabitants of the Caribbean islands, the Inca, the Aztec, and the inhabitants of La Florida (as they referred to the land to the north and east of Mexico) were infidels, as well.  Infidels were to be subdued by the sword, conversion to Christianity was to be a consequence of conquest.   

That they viewed the native inhabitants of the New World as subservient infidels, explains (but doesn't excuse) the cruel and rapacious nature of their actions against them.  At every encounter with a new village or chiefdom, de Soto assumed the position of a superior, demanding tribute of corn (the staple of the late Mississippian culture of the Southeast and the primary victual on which the army subsisted) slaves, and riches. If the natives were accommodating, de Soto accepted and rewarded their subservience and tribute with little more than trinkets.  More often than not, the larger chiefdoms, upon which de Soto descended, reacted violently. By the time the army was in the Colonel's neck of the woods they had fought pitched, set-piece battles with a half dozen different large chiefdoms and running skirmishes throughout their trek with dozens of smaller chiefdoms.  The army suffered heavy losses of men and material, and by the second year of the expedition were clothed no better than the natives.

But still, de Soto pressed on.  At each new village and chiefdom, de Soto had but one overriding question: "Where is the largest city, and is there gold?"  The Inca or Aztec analog in La Florida did not exist, and de Soto literally wore himself and his army out in the fruitless search for it.   

Two years after landing in Tampa Bay, de Soto reached the Mississippi River near present day Memphis.  As they did at each major river on their march, the army built large boats and crossed the Mississippi, bringing scores of horses, several hundred hogs, and a couple hundred native slaves with them.  The next several months were spent searching for cities of gold throughout present-day Arkansas and Southeastern Missouri.  They found only scattered chiefdoms eager to repel the invaders from their territories.   Nearly a year after crossing the great river, his hopes of finding a rich civilization to subdue dashed, de Soto fell sick and died on the west bank of the Mississippi.

Before he died, de Soto conferred command of the army to Luis de Moscoso.  The army now wanted no more searching for gold and physical sacrifice.  They wanted to go southwest to Mexico, where their countrymen had established "civilized" colonies.  Moscoso first scouted for an overland route, but discovered increasingly difficult geography and fewer native villages from which to procure corn as they traveled into what is now East Texas.  They turned back to their starting point on the Mississippi River, built and provisioned boats, and sailed down the river to the Gulf and then west to Mexico.  Less than half the number that began the expedition in Cuba three years earlier made it to Mexico.

As Hudson narrates each leg of the de Soto expedition, he takes great pains to describe what is now known about the native cultures at each contact point.  The picture he paints is of a myriad small subcultures almost all influenced in one way or another by the late Mississippian, "mound-building," culture.

Mississippian culture began in the Mississippi River valley around 800 A.D.   Archeologists, who coined the term "Mississippian" to denote it, have determined that the culture grew out of a shift from hunting and gathering to an increasing dependency on the cultivation of corn; a grain that grew easily and robustly in the alluvial soils of the large river deltas of the Southeast, returned high yields, and endured long storage.  The cultivation of corn, as opposed to the nomadic nature of a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, rooted people in place.  A collection of family farms became a village.  A collection of villages became a chiefdom.  And, as the natural conflict of man continued, stronger chiefs conquered and annexed lesser chiefdoms, or at least demanded tribute from them.  

The enduring, dominant, and perhaps most characteristic trait of mankind is warfare.  Conflict between neighboring hominids is as old as one wants to peer back into the geological record.  Warfare between small collections of people tends to be limited -- characterized by raiding resulting in relatively low casualties.  In the case of the Mississippian cultures there was no clear economic or political incentive in completely wiping out one's neighboring enemy.  In many cases enmity between neighboring chiefdoms actually drove the development of larger and larger political associations, with political centers of power growing hand in hand with religious ritualism and necessitating the building of larger and larger civilization centers. 

By the time the army of de Soto arrived in the Southeast, the great Mississippian cultures had reached their zenith and were in decline.  In many local cases the decline had been cataclysmic, with little left but native remnants who knew nothing about the builders of the great earthen mounds around which they lived.  In some cases, great swaths of territory were completely devoid of inhabitants where once great numbers were extant.  The cause of the Mississippian culture's collapse is unknown, but was certainly either warfare, climate change, epidemic disease, or habitat destruction and crop failure; or a combination of all or parts of the above.   

Even the mighty chiefdoms -- Apalachee, Cofitachequi, Coosa, Chicaza, Quizquiz, Utiangue, Anilco, Quigualtam, and others -- thriving when de Soto arrived, were themselves gone a century later, the remnants of which coalesced into new tribal collectives, namely the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creeks, and Seminoles.  Contrary to uneducated popular belief, even these tribes were not 100% native American blood -- European and African interbreeding began with, and exponentially expanded from, first contact.   At the time of their removal from the Southeast in the 19th Century, each of the "five civilized" tribes were amalgams of many disparate native ancestors, European descendents, and former African slaves, each bound only by a shared language and relatively recently adopted cultural practices. 

The great irony of the de Soto story is that in the Spaniards' frantic search for instant wealth in the lands of La Florida, they catastrophically failed to see the forest for the trees.  The wealth of what became the Southeastern United States was not what gold or silver the ground did or did not produce, but the ground itself.  Had de Soto chosen a strategic position on the Mississippi River or any of the other major tributaries that either fed into the Mississippi or the Gulf of Mexico and established a colony, he could have eventually ruled an agricultural kingdom larger and richer than any on earth at the time.

Strategic myopia has always been, and will likely always be, the great limiting condition of man.                                                            

Sunday, August 13, 2017


There's a building sense of excitement here at the approximate astronomical center of the known universe (also known as the shallow northern end of deep southern nowhere).

A solar eclipse is scheduled to appear overhead the Big House here at Egeebeegee, headquarters of the Army of Northern Mississippi.  

The Colonel has been busy in preparation for the big event.  The comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda was missing him the other day and found him working in one of his fields. 

"Hey, Knucklehead," she called out, "it's way past your nap time and it's a jillion point five degrees out here!  What are you doing?" 

"Marking off parking places.  What's it look like the Colonel's doing?"  Sometimes the Colonel gets a wee bit exasperated at the questions from his bride.  Particularly when it's a jillion point five degrees outside and the Colonel is overheated and in need of a nap.

"It looks like you're using up the last of my orange spray paint.  Don't you have something better to do?"

What could be a better use of the Colonel's time than making a jillion point five dollars renting parking places to observe the solar eclipse?  Sometimes the Colonel gets a wee bit exasperated at the lack of situational awareness from his bride.  "Don't you know there's about to be a solar eclipse overhead the Colonel's vast holdings?  The sun will be blocked for a few minutes and midday will be dark as sunset."   

"Big deal," the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda sneered.  "That happens every time a thunderstorm comes along."

"Well, dear, thunderstorms happen all the time, but the moon doesn't cover the sun but once or twice in your lifetime."

"Silly man.  The sun is a jillion point five times bigger than the moon.  How can the moon cover the sun?"

The Colonel stood and faced the love of his life, sucked in a humid heap of the stuff that passes for air during August in Mississippi, and began his hip pocket lecture on orbital dynamics, the positional relationship of planetary objects in the inner solar system, and the rarity of the moon's shadow crossing any point on the earth's surface.

The comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda recognized the tell-tale signs of the beginning of one of the Colonel's stupefying, hours-long lectures, and cut him off with the hand and arm signal signifying "Oh, please just shut up."  

"Okay, okay.  I get it.  The moon is going to cross in front of the sun as it goes overhead and it doesn't happen very often.  But, that doesn't explain why you're marking off parking places in one of your fields."

"Not just one of my fields, Sweetthing.  All of 'em.  We're gonna be rich.  Don't you see?  This eclipse is only going to be visible in a narrow strip of land as the sun crosses the Northern Hemisphere.  People from places outside of that narrow strip are going to pay big money for a spot inside the path of totality to sit and watch."

"Sounds like the path of total nonsense to me.  Another one of your get rich quick schemes.  Remember how the 'pet tree' idea turned out?"

"Look, the Colonel can't help it if the public doesn't recognize a fad when they see it.  Pet trees are just an idea whose time hasn't come yet."

The Colonel stepped off another three spaces and started painting another line in the grass.  "There's another 900 bucks."

"Nine hundred dollars!  You're charging nine hundred dollars to park in one of your fields?"

"All of my fields," the Colonel reminded Miss Brenda.  

"Why nine hundred?"  The comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda's voice had changed to the tone that indicated she was afraid to hear the answer.  "Why not an even thousand?"

The Colonel was ready for that question.  "Sweetie, we are just south of the path of totality.  We are only going to see about 90% of the eclipse here.  So, the Colonel is going to offer a discount."            


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Eye of the Beholder

An amazing discovery has been made here at the approximate astronomical center of the known universe -- time is a race horse.

An inexhaustible race horse.

An inexhaustible race horse with a bur under its saddle.

An inexhaustible race horse with a bur under his saddle and the bit in his teeth.   

Thirty-nine years ago, today, the Colonel's best friend -- the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda -- gave birth to the first Gregory man-child of the last generation...

Wait..., thirty-nine years!?!

How is that possible?  

When the Colonel hit the rack last night he was only 21.  When he woke up this morning, he's s..., he's si... he's sixt...

He's stinking old, is what he is.

And, so is Number #1 son...

Want to know the wonder of life-long love?  Check this out.  Whenever the Colonel looks at the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda he sees the teenage girl with whom he fell in love.

He also sees the twenty-something young lady who bore him sons -- two of 'em in less than 16 months (and brought home a daughter, a few years later, too!).  He sees the gorgeous gal in the picture accompanying this post.

Ain't hard, really.  She still looks like the picture.   

And, yet the oldest of our children is only a few years shy of being twice as old as his mother was when she gave birth to him.  

Joshua Lee Gregory announced his entry into the air-breathing domain just before evening chow time on the 10th of August in 1978.  

He's been making his presence known ever since, and the world hasn't seen the best of him yet.

Happy Birthday, Josh!