Archaeologists: DeSoto WUZ HEER.

The Wilmington, NC, Star News celebrates a rare Floridian trace of a Hernan De Soto’s march from Tampa Bay up through Tennessee, into Arkansas and down to New Orleans. The 16th century Spaniard and his 600 men made some of the earliest European maps of the United States – and finally, we’ve found physical evidence of one of America’s great journeys of exploration:

Ever since De Soto’s 600 men set foot on the shores of Tampa Bay, arriving from Cuba almost 500 years ago, historians have debated the exact direction of his failed treasure-hunting expeditions as far north as Tennessee and North Carolina.

But in central Florida’s Marion County, an archaeologist has found what his contemporaries deem rarer than the gold De Soto was seeking – physical evidence of the explorer’s precise journey through Marion County and enough information to redraw Florida De Soto maps and fuel many more archaeological digs based on his findings.

The only confirmed De Soto site in Florida is in Tallahassee, where De Soto’s men wintered for five months.

[Archaeologists Ashley] White himself had walked his family’s property for two years looking for remnants of what he thought was a 17th century Spanish cattle ranch. He found little more than Indian artifacts.

Then in 2005, a series of hurricanes and storms inundated the 700-acre property owned by his wife, Michelle White, a bioarchaeologist.

“There is a lot of drainage (on the ranch) … and all this sand broke loose and we had artifacts just lying on top of the ground,” Ashley White said.

One was a coin minted before De Soto’s 1539 expedition. It was in a clump of pines near Black Sink Prairie.

Unsure when winter would begin in Florida, De Soto was looking for a town to occupy with enough food to feed his troops.

Potano likely had a central communal wooden building, a plaza, a chief’s home and several huts where other Indians lived.

But De Soto and the Indians didn’t always coexist peacefully.

The Spaniard plundered towns that didn’t cooperate and killed Indians who refused to help, often in a spectacle that served as a warning to other Indians.

The Indians of Potano, fed up with De Soto, spent the next summer guiding him and his army through the worst stretches of Florida swamp they could. He spent the next winter in Tallahassee before leaving Florida for good and wandering all over the southeastern US looking for gold… which just wasn’t there.