2009-05-08 / Two Hours From Home

Part 4: Searching for Treasure

By John Cely Congaree Land Trust cowasee@gmail.com

The Broad River at Columbia where De Soto probably crossed in April 1540. The Broad River at Columbia where De Soto probably crossed in April 1540. We all remember Hernando DeSoto's famous exploration of the American South from our high school history days. The relentless Spaniard and his 600 conquistadors traveled 3500 miles from 1539 to 1543 in a fruitless search for gold and riches. Along the way he "discovered" the Mississippi River and died on its banks on May 21, 1542.

DeSoto's expedition was the very first to explore the North American interior by white men, and he encountered many of the major Indian chiefdoms and tribes of the American South. It was an epic journey and a story worthy of Hollywood.

For much of the 20th century, scholars and historians placed most of DeSoto's journey to the west of South Carolina. It remained for Chester DePratter of South Carolina's Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, DeSoto biographer and Indian authority Charles Hudson, and others, to re- examine the route and move it further east, squarely in the center of South Carolina and the COWASEE Basin.

The Lady of Cofi- tachequi shows De Soto and his men a chest of freshwater pearls. The Lady of Cofi- tachequi shows De Soto and his men a chest of freshwater pearls. The revised route now has DeSoto crossing to the east bank of the Broad River a little north of Columbia. It was April 1540, and his army was famished after crossing an uninhabited wilderness of eastern Georgia and western South Carolina.

DeSoto's traveling army fed itself by going from one Indian village to another, stealing their corn supplies and other foods. And, of course, the villages were the likely sources of gold and other treasure.

After crossing the Broad, DeSoto turned to the southeast, where a scouting party had reported an Indian town. The army may have traveled a route similar to where today's Bluff Road is located. If so, imagine what a spectacle that must have been in the spring of 1540 to see an army of 600 conquistadors with their horses, dogs, and swine marching through present day Gadsden!

The exhausted and hungry Spaniards found what they were looking for - a town called Hymahi or Aymay, possibly located in the fork of the Wateree and Congaree Rivers. The soldiers re- provisioned themselves on corn, corn meal, mulberries, and wild strawberries but did not tarry long. They were in a hurry to get to a legendary Indian town reportedly full of riches that they had heard about since leaving Florida eight months earlier. It was called Cofitachequi, ruled by a Queen, and only located a little more than a day's travel upstream.

The army turned northward, marching along the west side of the Wateree River, approximately where US 601 is today. On May 1, 1540, they came to a large Indian settlement on the east bank of the Wateree a little south of present- day Camden, and the object of their search - Cofitachequi. The Indians had been expecting the strangers through the Indian grapevine and came to greet them in dugout canoes.

Accompanying the greeters was Indian royalty in the form of a princess the Spaniards called the Lady of Cofitachequi. She was an exemplary host and gave DeSoto and his men free run of the town. They wasted no time looking for riches, but the best they came up with were 200 pounds of freshwater pearls and pieces of mica and copper. Interestingly, the Indians had in their possession Spanish trade goods and implements that must have come from de Ayllon's failed settlement of Chicora on the South Carolina coast in 1526.

After consuming all the available food at Cofitachequi, DeSoto and his men headed north, towards more Indian towns and, hopefully, the riches that lay before them. True to form, they kidnapped the princess to serve as a guide and to shield them from Indian reprisals. She later escaped and made her way back to freedom.

(Next week:

John Lawson, explorer)

Return to top