- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2007


By the time John Smith met Pocahontas in Virginia, Europeans had already come to the Florida Panhandle and left.

But the conquistador Hernando de Soto and his men — the first tourists to visit Florida for the winter — left behind remnants of their time on a hilltop that is now almost in the shadow of the state Capitol.

While Americans celebrated the nation’s birthday last week and while historians marked the 400th anniversary of the English settlement of Jamestown this year, archaeologists in Florida continued to sift through a site where Europeans hunkered down much earlier.

From October 1539 to March 1540, more than 60 years before the English settled Jamestown, de Soto and about 600 Spanish soldiers seized the town of Anhaica from the Apalachee Indians. They moved in for the winter before resuming their search for the gold that they had heard could be found in the New World.

Historians have long known from journals of de Soto’s men that they spent the winter somewhere in the Tallahassee area, but they didn’t know exactly where until the 1980s, when a state archaeologist asked some developers for permission to survey an area they were planning to turn into an office complex.

The archaeologist, Calvin Jones, was looking for signs of a Spanish mission from the more recent past. Instead, Mr. Jones found chain-mail armor fragments, coins and other artifacts that could have been left only by de Soto’s band. They also found significant remnants of the Apalachee settlement.

The site, which is in the side yard of a home built by former Gov. John Martin in the 1930s, has since been bought by the state. Archaeology students from Florida State University continue to work at the site, where chain-mail fragments, cross-bow dart tips, glass beads and pieces of pottery still can be unearthed.

From time to time, state archaeologists hold a field school. In a Web diary the students are producing, student Evan Heiser talked about gaining an appreciation for workmanship in a preindustrial time.

“There is just something strange about handling an artifact which was made a few hundred years ago by someone who really needed it,” Mr. Heiser wrote. “Touching the surface and looking at all the flakes really allowed me to understand how skilled the workers must have been. Touching the point brought me back in time for a few minutes.”

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