An ethnohistorian’s insights into untangling the past

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Many of us wonder what it might have been like to wander the New World with an early European adventurer.

In 1984, Dr. Charles Hudson, an ethnohistorian at the University of Georgia, and his wife, Joyce Rockwood Hudson, did just that. They set out in their 1965-model red Volkswagen Karmann Ghia to retrace and verify the route that Hernando De Soto and his entourage took through southeastern North America in 1540. They traveled De Soto’s 4000 mile route as best they could, thinking much of the time about what that trip had been like for expedition members, and for the Native American peoples they encountered.

Looking for de Soto cover

And Mrs. Hudson kept a diary of that trip, published by the University of Georgia Press in 1993. She titled it Looking for De Soto: A Search Through the South for the Spaniard’s Trail.

While in part this is a travel story, Mrs. Hudson also gives the reader insights into how archaeologists and historians sort through contradictory data and information, how they think about research problems. The publisher notes on their website:

As if writing a detective story, the author suspensefully paces the narrative with the accrual of geographical, artifactual, and documentary evidence, punctuating it with false leads and other setbacks, as mile after mile of the trail is redrawn. The story even has its villains—“pothunters” and private collectors; the builders of canals and dams that alter the courses of rivers and inundate ancient village sites; and the owners of corporate farms, who have leveled and eradicated ceremonial mounds with their massive agricultural machinery.

Mrs. Hudson’s book is entertaining and informative, and recommended to all who are interested in the process of piecing together the complex story of the archaeology and history of southeastern North America.