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Home North Carolina Clay County City of Hayesville Historical Markers De Soto

De Soto

Main Street, Hayesville, NC, USA
  North Carolina State Historical Marker
    North Carolina State
Historical Marker
    Marker Text:
"In 1540 an expedition of Spaniards led by De Soto, first Europeans to explore this area, passed near here."
     There can be little doubt that the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto (ca. 1497-1542) was not always certain about the next stop along his two-year, trailblazing expedition through what is now the southeastern United States. Perhaps he would be interested to know, then, that scholars today, four centuries later, still debate his itinerary. What is clear is that De Soto’s 4,000-mile journey was the first European excursion into the interior of present-day America. After the Spanish Crown conferred upon De Soto the privilege of exploring La Florida, a territory in the southeastern extreme of the modern United States, the ambitious conquistador led an expedition of 600 men through the Southeast, beginning in 1540. His main goals were to discover gold and silver and to determine a direct route to Mexico, where Spain had established a significant presence. Until his untimely demise along the banks of the Mississippi River in 1542, De Soto and his party traveled between Indian settlements, often forcing natives into submission through violence. After the death of their leader, the expeditionary force proceeded to Mexico, where Spanish colonies extended them hospitality.

     The primary historical documentation for De Soto’s 1540 expedition is a set of maps, along with three contemporary sources. Eight State Highway Historical Markers were erected in 1940 based on information from a 1935 U.S. De Soto Expedition Commission panel led by ethnologist John Swanton (1873-1958). Congress tasked the commission with identifying De Soto’s route in order to commemorate the quadricentennial of the first European expedition into North America. In recent years, new evidence, mainly from archaeological excavations, but also including modern translations of historical sources and improved scientific evaluation methods, has been compiled and interpreted by a number of scholars, the most prominent being anthropologist Charles M. Hudson, of the University of Georgia. Archaeological excavations also have provided new clues to De Soto’s 1540 route, as well as the route of fellow conquistador, Juan Pardo, who led a similar expedition, beginning in 1566. The premier example is the Berry Site, located in Burke County, which archaeologist David Moore of Warren Wilson College and his associates have confirmed to be the village of Joara (Xuala), a location both De Soto and Pardo visited.

     While scholars across several disciplines believe Hudson has compiled an impressive body of knowledge from new findings since the 1939 Swanton report, most are quick to acknowledge that Hudson’s findings, while on a firm foundation, are far from conclusive. Swanton’s findings indicated that De Soto and his expeditionary force of 600 men entered North Carolina through what is now Jackson County, in the southwest quadrant of the state, and proceeded west through present-day Macon, Clay and Cherokee counties before entering Tennessee. Hudson, on the other hand, conjectured that De Soto entered present-day North Carolina near Mecklenburg County, then proceeded northwest through Catawba and Burke counties, before proceeding further west to Cherokee County, afterward entering territory that is now Tennessee. In December 2002 the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee (comprised of ten history professors from across the state) reviewed an appeal to remove the old markers based on the Swanton report but declined to do so. While acknowledging the work of Charles Hudson and others and recognizing that the scholarly consensus has moved in that direction, the committee viewed the conclusions as less that absolute and voted to keep the old markers in place.

William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 340 (2006)—sketch by David G. Moore
Charles Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms (1997)
Paul E. Hoffman, “Hernando de Soto: A Review Essay,” Louisiana History (Spring 2000): 235-239
John R. Swanton, Final Report of the United States De Soto Expedition Commission (1939)
Warren-Wilson College, “The Berry Site” webpage: