In The Footsteps of De Soto
Once again in the early dawn the army began to move out from the "little mountain" where they had camped after climbing the ridge. Rangel says that on the 26th of May the army "crossed a savannah, and suffered greatly from the cold".
The area most commonly called the Mills River Valley is a broad extremely flat area surrounding the junctions of Mills River, Mud Creek, Clear Creek and Cane Creek with the French Broad River. In historical times, when the first settlers arrived, the whole expanse was a grassland without trees, fifteen miles across. The lack of any Native American habitation in this whole area indicates that this area may have been such a prairie since the end of the Ice Age. Today second growth forest covers some of the area, wide farmlands other parts, and development has spread throughout. The Asheville Airport was built here to take advantage of the extremely wide valley, a rarity in the mountains. Interstate 26 between Hendersonville and Asheville runs through the area as well.
One has to spend just a moment at Mills River in the treeless farmlands there, when a cold wind is blowing from the north, to understand "suffering from cold". This is as true in late May during a cold spell, as it is in March. Snow in May is not unknown in historical times in the mountains, and in the 16th century it was known to have been climatically a bit colder as well. In addition anyone who has traveled from the Piedmont into the mountains, especially in the spring, knows the surprising chill upon reaching this plateau, where the temperature is regularly 15 degrees lower than down in Lynn.
One can easily imagine even today the vista stretching across to far away Mount Pisgah, and a cold spring wind whipping across the grasses. No doubt the Indians had brought De Soto this way due to his concern for his horses. Here they would find no obstacle to travel or lack of grazing. The guides probably hadn't counted on the cold. We can imagine that as the cold, windy day drew on the army moved faster and faster across the plain. All day they pressed forward, De Soto was probably determined to get his army across the big river the Indians told him was ahead before nightfall.
Rangel, who was with the vanguard, probably breathed a sigh of welcome relief when they waded the river in early evening and set up camp just beyond on a high hill. This was the end of the plain, now they could find shelter in the mountains and trees from the growling wind. They had covered 15 miles that day, and were 28 miles from Lynn. But the army, and De Soto were having problems.
Among the hundreds behind De Soto struggled the lady of Cutifachiqui. Surrounded by her often horrified"Ladies In Waiting" she struggled along among the masses, she and hers were hovered over by the several Knights on horseback assigned to watch her. She had huge blisters on her feet, tiny feet which were unused to walking but had been forced to become somewhat accustomed to such in the last ten days. All her life her retinues had carried her in a chaise as befits a member of the royal family. But not so on this journey. She had a mission assigned her that she was close to completing, however, her indignities suffered seemed beyond recompose, and almost beyond bearing. But she struggled on, up the steep mountain, toward the "western waters", her box of precious"un-bored" pearls, the royal jewels of Cutifachiqui were close at hand. She was determined to see her "mission" through.
The Lady was a Native American Hero, niece of the Queen of Cutifachiqui. Several weeks before, back in the council houses of Cutifachiqui, she had been informed of her role. Her success would no doubt mean the salvation of her people, they believed. Her assigned task was to lead De Soto northward away from their homeland, in search of his goal of Chisca. Further, she was to attempt to lead the Governor away from their tributary neighbors along the Catawba River by traveling west of the Broad River, far to the west of the Catawba, up the old War Trail. In this way the people of Cofitachequi would preserve the rapidly diminishing supply of corn from last year's harvest still held by their tributaries , and route De Soto along through the poor country adjacent to the Ocute wilderness, an area decimated by hundreds of years of war. This was critical now that De Soto and his men had eaten their way through Cotfetchi's own supplies of food. An earlier plan had sought to draw them away to the East, to seven bins of corn held at Isala as tribute to Cutifachiqui on the Pee Dee River, but in the end De Soto chose to pursue both Chisca and that corn, and thus had divided his army. In the event though, the Lady had achieved her aims, because the troops that went toward Isala were recalled within a week to follow De Soto north. The ruse that brought De Soto over the Broad River was the reason that De Soto Expedition reported a much poorer land from Cutifachiqui to Xuala than Pardo did 25 years later. The route had brought the army up the west side of the Broad and on to the headwaters of the Pacelot.
The Lady had sent embassaries to Guaxule to inform them of the imminent arrival of De Soto. Although these people were not under the control of Cotefetichi, for the border was at the foot of the Blue Ridge, her threat of impending attack if they were not cooperative seems to have worked. De Soto, when informed of the Lady's efforts on his behalf, decided to take her along beyond Xuala, and to leave her inviolate, and in possession of her pearls for a while longer. But the Lady had other plans.
De Soto, who intended to take her large box of pearls, decided that this deed would be better accomplished outside her realm, at Guaxule, where he intended to release her. Somewhere during the hasty march across the plain she had excused herself from her guards, saying she had to "attend to her necessities". With that she had slipped off the trail, with her ladies in waiting and the pearls, and disappeared. When they didn't return her guards searched for them in the tall grass, grass that turned to expansive, almost impenetrable twenty foot tall stands of River Cane along various creeks they had passed, and they searched the woods that came to the edge of the plain to the west, but couldn't find their hiding place.
De Soto was no doubt unhappy when the Lady's guards splashed across the river in the evening light to report they had lost their charge. He probably initiated a headcount of the army as it arrived in camp, and now he discovered the lady and her group were not the only ones missing. Five European slaves and even a Knight were unaccounted for.
De Soto now boiled into a characteristic rage. Captain Alonso Romo had lead the rear guard that day, and De Soto blamed him for the losses, so he sent him and his company back eastward, ordered to find the escapes, or else. De Soto decided to stay in camp the next day to await Romo's return. When he did return, with two of the escapees, the next day "De Soto wanted to hang them", Rangel says.
The French Broad
The 26th was an eventful day. Rangel and Elvas would remember that while "in that savannah they crossed the Espirito Santo", or Mississippi River, and here they had crossed "the River" in water "up to their shins".
Many have approached these telling accounts as key to the route. Early scholars decided this could ONLY describe the French Broad, and have spent great efforts attempting to determine how they got from here to the traditional site (1939) of Chiaha in Northern Georgia. Today's "experts", while relocating Chiaha on the lower French Broad, have decided, through their own interpretation, that the accounts only meant that the army "discovered a creek that ran into the Mississippi", and that they found this creek in a narrow valley that they decided for some reason to call a savannah. Hudson and Beck have decided this best describes the Upper North Toe River near Spruce Pine, a stream that you can step across in several steps, and so not normally above your "shins". This is so they can successfully proclaim the Berry Site as Fort San Juan / Xuala. I don't think so...
My sense is that the accounts said this WAS THE RIVER, and that it was amazing that they crossed in water JUST up to their shins. I think that they who had crossed so many rivers would not describe a smaller stream such as the Upper North Toe as THE RIVER. And having crossed countless streams "up to their shins" on the trek north, why say that about a little stream, unless this was indeed a RIVER, and crossing "up to their shins" was something special. I think they meant it was a major river, obviously (to them) THE major River of the western lands, the Mississippi River. This a description that ONLY the French Broad can claim, at least the only River within two day's walk of the top of the Blue Ridge that might claim so without stretching the imagination, or without making excuses for the accounts' verbiage.
Here's what the accounts have to say about the 25th and 26th of May :
"The governor set out from Xualla for Guaxule, crossing over very rough and lofty mountains. Along that way, the cacica of Cutifachiqui, whom the governor brought as above said for the purpose of taking her to Guaxule, for her lands reached that far, going one day with her slave women who were carrying her, stepped aside from the road and went into a wood saying that she had to attend to her necessities. Thus she deceived them and hid herself in the Woods; and although they sought her she could not be found. She took with her a box of canes made like a coffer which they call "petaca", filled with un-board pearls. Some who had most knowledge of them said they were very valuable. An Indian woman was carrying them for her whom she took with her. The governor, in order not to cause her unhappiness in everything, left them, intending to ask them from her at Guaxule, when he should give her leave to return. She took it and went to stop at Xualla with three slaves who had escaped from the camp and with a horseman who remained behind, for being sick with fever he wandered from the road and was lost. This man, named Alimamos tried to have the slaves abandon their evil intention and go with him to the Christians-which two of them did. Alimamos and they overtook the governor fifty leagues from there in a province called Chiaha. They related how the [Lady of Cutifachiqui] had remained in Xualla with a slave of Andre de Vasconcellos who refused to come with them; and it was very certain that they held communication as husband and wife, and that both had made up their minds to go to Cutifachiqui."
"Tuesday, on the twenty-fifth of May, they left from Xuala and crossed that day a very high mountain range , and they spent the night in a small forest and the next day, Wednesday, in a savannah where they endured great cold, although it was already the twenty-sixth of May; and there they crossed, in water up to their shins, the river by which they afterward left in the brigantines that they made. When that river comes forth to the sea, the navigation chart states and indicates that it is the river of Spiritu Sancto; which, according to the charts of the cosmographer Alonso de Chaves, enters in a great bay, and the mouth of this river, in the salt water, is it thirty-one degrees on this side of the equator.
Returning to the history, from there where it is stated that they crossed the river in water up to their shins, the cacica of Cofitachequi, whom they took with them in payment of the good treatment that they had received from her, turned back, and that day Mendoza de Montanjes and Alaminos de Cuba stayed behind (it was said that it was done with deception); and because that day Alonso Romo led the rear guard and left them, the Governor made him return for them, and they awaited them one day; and when they arrived, the Governor wanted to hang them. In that [province] of Xalaque a comrade deserted who was named Rodriguez, a native of Pefiafiel, and also a shrewd young Indian slave from Cuba, who belonged to a gentleman called Villegas, and a very shrewd slave of Don Carlos, a native of Barbary, and Gomez, a very shrewd black man of Vasco Gonzilez; Rodriguez was the first, and those others farther on from Xalaque."
From Cofitachequi "We turned again north and traveled eight days through land poor and lacking in food until we arrived at a land that they call Xuala, and here we found little population, because of the land being rugged, but still we found some Indian houses. In these mountains we found the source of the great river by which we left, and we believed it to be the river of Espiritu Santo. "
"At the end of the fifteen days, the horses now being rested, they left Xuala. On the first day they marched through the cultivated fields and gardens that were there, which were many and good. They marched for another five days through a mountain range, uninhabited but a very good country. It had many oaks and some mulberries, and plenty of pasturage for cattle. There were ravines and streams with little water, though they flowed rapidly, and very green and delightful valleys. At the place they crossed it this range was twenty leagues wide." (twenty leagues is around 60 miles)
The army got underway again on the morning of the 28th of May, pressing northward along the west bank of the French Broad in the morning and then by noon traveling away from that river to the northwest. By evening they had intersected the Suali Trail, the major east to west Indian Trail of the area, and turned due west, finding camp in an "Oak Grove", twelve miles from the day's starting point. This may have been in the vicinity of the Sand Hill, a major camping spot for Native Americans in historical times, and a post on the Rutherford Trace during and after the Revolution.
The next day they continued west following up a "large stream which they crossed many times." This was Hominy Creek, a large tributary of the French Broad, a creek which the old highway crosses about six times today on the way west. Today Interstate 40 also follows this route west of Asheville. By early afternoon the vanguard was at the head of Hominy Creek, here they climbed the low ridge and crossed to the watershed of the Pigeon River, where they camped, having covered a modest 12 miles that day.
In the morning Indians from Guaxule were at the camp, they brought presents and food for the army. De Soto ordered the army on the road and before noon they had entered the towns of Guaxule (also spelled as Guasili). Upon their arrival they had traveled 61 miles from Lynn.
Here's what the accounts say ...
"The next day [after leaving the river] they spent the night in an oak grove [robredal], and the following day, alongside a large creek, which they crossed many times; and the next day messengers came in peace, and they arrived early at Guasili, and they gave them many tamemes, many little dogs, and corn; and because this was a good resting place, the soldiers afterward called it, while throwing the dice, the House of Guasili, or a good encounter."
"...in five days, the governor arrived at Guaxulle. The Indians there made him service of three hundred dogs, for they observed that the Christians liked liked them and sought them to eat; but they are not eaten among them [the Indians]. In Guaxulle and along that road there was very little maize. The governor sent an Indian thence with a message to the cacique of Chiaha,asking him to order some maize brought them, so that they might rest several days in Chiaha."
"Without anything else worth recording happening to them and having marched five daily Journeys through the mountain range, the Castilians arrived at the province and pueblo of Guaxule, which was situated among many small streams that flowed through various parts of the pueblo. Their sources were in these mountains which the Spaniards had passed through and in others beyond.
The lord of the province, who also had the same name of Guaxule, came out half a league from the pueblo accompanied by five hundred nobles handsomely dressed in rich mantles made of various kinds of skins and wearing long plumes on their heads, in accordance with the common usage of the whole country. Thus ceremoniously he received the governor, showing by signs his regard for him and speaking to him most courteously and with a very lordly air. He took him to the pueblo, which had three hundred houses, and lodged him in his own. On receiving the message from the ambassadors of the lady of Cofachiqui, he had moved out of it to accommodate him and had prepared other things in order to serve him better. The house was on a high elevation like other similar ones we have described [a mound]. All around it was a public walk along which six men could pass abreast. The governor was in this pueblo four days, informing himself about the surrounding country ..."
"We went onward to a town that is called Guasili, where they gave us a quantity of dogs and some corn, of which they had little."
Here was the largest and most powerful of the mountain towns, a central town of the late Pisgah Period, the Native Americans who lived here were probably ancestors of the Cherokee. With three mounds in one village center and another dominating a second town a mile away, at the height of their power the towns completely covered the rich bottom land where Garden Creek enters the Pigeon River. By the time of De Soto the towns may have already been in decline, but there is no doubt they were deserted not long after his visit, and were long forgotten by the time the settlers came.
But maybe not completely forgotten. The exact area was one of the earliest land grants in today's Haywood County. In 1787 it was granted to Joseph McDowell and it was described as the area known as "The Flowery Gardens". What was meant by that? Nobody can recall, but could it refer to the fact that domesticated plants and flowers still remained growing there long after the ancient town had vanished?
And what were the "dogs" offered the Spanish? They had been given them before back in the Piedmont, where the Indians said they raised them in their houses to eat. Here, the more "civilized" folks of Gauxule didn't eat the "dogs", but they gathered them up for the Spaniards as gifts (before they hid their corn). Since there were no "dogs" in the southeast in those times, the animals mentioned must have been alien to the Spaniards, and they chose the word "dog" to describe them (as they described Turkeys as "hens"). Scholars have long debated over whether these "dogs" were actually Raccoons or Possums. Anyone who knows both animals must agree that a Racal would not be kept as a pet, or confused with a "hairless, bark-less dog", as they were described. The dogs the Indians offered the Spaniards, with a chuckle, were Possums, a prolific presence in the southeastern mountains even today !