In The Footsteps of De Soto
The Tennessee River Valley
Sherlock Holmes would say that the next item required for establishing the route, after establishing the starting point, would be to determine the destination of the journey. In this instance, that might not be as difficult as the establishment of an exact point of departure. The descriptions left us by the accounts, and by Pado and parties, leave little doubt for those who don't believe the geographic world has changed significantly since then. There is only one river within reach that might "fit", and that is the Tennessee River, and it's upper reach that is known above Knoxville, TN as the French Broad River. Only there do the descriptions find a home without excuses.
The town was isolated between two arms
of a river and was settled near one of them. At a distance of two crossbow-shots
above the town, the river divided into those two arms which were reunited
a league below. In the field between the one arm and the other was in
places about the width of one crossbow-shot, and in places of two. They
were of great width and both were fordable. Very excellent fields lay
along them and many maize fields.
From here we traveled four days and arrived
at Chiaha, which is very abundant in food. It is situated on an island
in this river of Espiritu Santo, which from its source makes very large
[islands]. In this province we began to find the towns palisaded...
And the next day, Saturday, in the morning,
the Spaniards crossed the very broad river, across a branch of it, and
entered in Chiaha, which is on an island of the same river.
All of [the Rivers] joined together within
a short distance to form a large river of such volume that at Chiaha,
which was thirty leagues from Guaxule, it was largcr than the Guadalquivir
at Seville. The pueblo of Chiaha was situated on the end of a large island
more than five leagues long, which the river formed.
The accounts of Pardo and his secretary, who visited Chiaha 25 years later, and built a fort there, echo those of the De Soto accounts. More is added by the continuation of the accounts as they passed beyond Chiaha, describing one town after another, many situated on islands in the same river as they went downstream. In the Pardo accounts they say the ford to get over to Chiaha was "navel deep" and extremely wide. In the Pardo accounts another town is described a day's travel upstream from Chiaha (15 miles?). This town was also located on this wide river, at a point where it was joined by another river, forming a long and narrow peninsula.
In the days before I had ever opened a book by Hudson, having decided to remain pure and use only the accounts to trace the route, I read and reread the descriptions of Chiaha. Believing strongly that the start of the journey lay on the headwaters of the Broad or Catawba I strove to find a place that might "fit" based on the number of days travel it took De Soto to arrive there from Xuala. The accounts disagree a bit, but it is sure that it took no more than nine days travel at most. The accounts also stated that it was about 50 leagues. I understood a league to be about 2.6 miles (although Hudson says it was more like 3.4). This meant that the distance roughly about 130 miles, requiring the expedition to move at over 14 miles per day, surely a maximum through mountainous country. Often it can be demonstrated that the accounts exaggerate distances, but never, it seems, did they underestimate. This is typical of my hiking experience. Armed with a maximum of 130 miles I began to seek large rivers that could be reached to the west of Xuala in that distance.
In historical times the Cherokee had a series of settlements on the Little Tennessee near its junction with the Tennessee River south of Maryville, TN. This could possibly meet the description, but it was much to far to the west. No other river within reach offered any possibility of meeting the descriptions except for one, the lower French Broad just before it meets the Holston to become the Tennessee River. Here, above Knoxville, the river still forms long islands. But even Knoxville was too far, so in the end I had decided that Chiaha must be under the waters of Douglas Lake. Imagine my satisfaction when I finally picked up Hudson's "Pardo" and found that he too had placed Chiaha at that location, and indeed had come up with an aerial photograph of the place before it was flooded. Zimmerman's Island, he said. And I agree.
What wonders have the "March of Progress" taken from us at Zimmerman's Island. Here we might have found the ruins of Pardo's Fort, a wealth of Native American information from the Mississippean Period, and a better understyanding of that misty period before the Cherokee. Here also we might have found evidence of the biological results of "first contact" with the Europeans, possibly the catalyst that brought about the fall of the Native Empires that De Soto described, and led to the rise of the historical Cherokee.
Douglas Lake is "pulled down" 65 feet in the winter by TVA, leaving just the broad channel of the old river flooded. It's not enough to expose the site, but in those times the island is just under 50 feet of water. And remember that it's our Uncle Sam with his hand on the floodgates at Douglas Dam. Maybe, just maybe it's not too late...
With our end points set we begin to retrace De Soto's footsteps across the mountains, from Crooked Creek to Zimmerman's Island, through the wonderful land that is my home.