By John Ross
Four hundred and eighty years ago this month, searching for Indian gold mines, Hernando de Soto and his conquistadors became the first Europeans to cross the Blue Ridge.
Imagine about 600 Spaniards, some on horseback but most afoot, some wearing iron armor and carrying pikes or heavy hand cannons called arquebuses. All were deeply weary, having marched for a year through uncharted country since their landing near Tampa.
Accompanying them were Indian guides and porters from an ancient people not yet known as Cherokee or Creeks. Weeks earlier, upon entering their village, thought to be just south of Camden, SC, de Soto’s men found tools flecked with soft, yellow metal they assumed to be gold. In a manner of friendly hospitality, the chief of the village, a woman, ordered the Conquistadors provisioned with grain and meat.
After the Spaniards looted stored provisions and pillaged bodies in the mortuary temple of their strands of freshwater pearls, the chief refused to be of further assistance. De Soto held her hostage and ordered her to guide him to gold mines reported to be high in the mountains to the north.
On May 21, 1540, de Soto arrived at Joara, the Indian town spreading across the broad flood plain at the confluence of Irish and Upper creeks about eight miles northwest of Morganton. Joara was located at the junction of two major Indian trails. Here, in 1566, Juan Pardo would build Ft. San Juan, and, today this active archaeological site is known as the Berry Site.
After resting at Joara for four days, de Soto followed Upper Creek toward the crest of the Blue Ridge. A day into the journey, the chief, whom de Soto’s chroniclers describe as the “Lady of Cofitachequi,” pleaded to be excused to relieve herself. She took with her one of her slaves and, when out of sight, fled down the mountain.
The Conquistadors gave up on finding gold and pressed on, crossing the Blue Ridge near Linville Falls and picked up the North Toe River. De Soto was certain they had come upon “Rio Espiritu Santo,” as the Mississippi River was known to Spaniards. In the grips of the Little Ice Age, the region may have been sheathed in ice and snow. With their soft leather boots soaked and suffering greatly from cold, they stumbled on through the little flat that would hold Spruce Pine and past the future site of Penland School of Craft.
Downstream, Cane River joins the Toe and the two become the Nolichucky. De Soto followed it through Erwin before finally breaking free of the mountains at Embreeville, TN. What relief they must have felt. Before them lay a broad and virtually level valley.
Continuing downriver, they passed Davy Crockett’s birthplace and came within a mile or so of the future home and tailor shop of President Andrew Johnson at Greeneville. On June 5, they reached Chiaha, a large Indian village on Zimmerman’s Island near the confluence of the Nolichucky and the French Broad River.
On his trek across the Blue Ridge, de Soto discovered no gold. He would die two years later south of Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi of fever. Disease he and other Spanish explorers brought would kill an estimated 90 percent of the Southeast’s native population.
You can follow de Soto’s trek by car from Morganton up through Linville Falls down past Spruce Pine and Penland School of Craft through Erwin and down along the Nolichucky River to Douglas Lake. In all, the route transects a huge slice of American history from de Soto’s crossing of the Blue Ridge in 1540 to the World War I German internment camp at Hot Springs.