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The Search for Juan Pardo’s routes through the Appalachians

The Search for Juan Pardo’s routes through the Appalachians


A journey through the Southern Appalachian Mountains during the same months that de Soto and Pardo were there.

In 1567, Captain Juan Pardo received orders from the Viceroy in La Habana de Cuba to find the shortest overland route from the new colony of Santa Elena on present day Parris Island, South Carolina to the Spanish silver mines in Zacatecas, Mexico.   Sephardic Jewish pirates based in the Bahamas;  French Huguenot privateers based in Gascony and Navarre; plus English privateers licensed by the new Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England, were reeking havoc on the Spanish treasure fleets.  Also, many ships were being sunk by hurricanes in the late summer.  It was believed that shipping gold and silver directly from port at a higher latitude (Santa Elena) to Spain would eliminate most of the shipping losses.

The pirate attacks were part of the ongoing religious wars in Europe.   In fact, the primary reason for funding the establishment of Santa Elena, San Mateo and San Agustin on the South Atlantic Coast was to prevent the Protestant and Jewish forces from establishing fortified bases there.

Between April 2010 and November 2010,  Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Museum of American History and the National Park Service, subsidized my camping journey across the Southern Highlands, in search of the actual routes of Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo.  Roger and I were quite aware that the late 20th century study of these routes had been highly skewed by funding from private corporations and government agencies in North Carolina.  The professors had used state highway maps to analyze alternative routes from their university offices rather than intimately knowing the rugged terrain. 

Roger and I intended to publish a definitive book on the 16th and 17th century Spanish colonization of the Southeast . . . including the cryptic settlements of Spanish and Portuguese Jews.  I was looking for a 17th century Sephardic Jewish gold mining settlement, when I stumbled upon the Track Rock Terrace Complex.  In fact, for several months, I didn’t realize that the terraces extended up the mountain and assumed that the lower terraces were built by Jewish refugees.   Unfortunately, a previous affliction by cancer returned to Roger with a vengeance in the winter of 2010-2011.  He died on September 30, 2011.

In the 1980s, a self-appointed team of Southeastern academicians initially formed to find the true routes of De Soto and Pardo.  Several of the professors came to my office in Asheville to meet with two state archaeologists and myself.   Even though it was their first time in the North Carolina Mountains,  they brought the “final route” for De Soto, marked on state highway maps.

Same symbol from the same time period!

On the wall of my office, I had mounted enlarged photographs of stone inscriptions on the steps of the Pre-Axtec (Chichimec) pyramid of Tenayuca, northwest of Mexico City, and a photo of me standing in the ritual gateway of the Maya city of Labna.  Among both the Chichimecs and Creek Indians, rattlesnakes were endemic artistic and religious themes.  The profs didn’t comprehend the profound significance of the Chichimec glyphs, but got really spooked when I told them that Linda Schele’s husband took the photo of me at Labna.  Linda Schele was just becoming known for her collaborative translations with David Stuart of Maya glyphs.  Guess that morning in Asheville was forgotten by some of these same “scholars” in 2012.

To be honest, at that time I didn’t know diddlysquat about de Soto and had never heard of Juan Pardo.  I really didn’t care to know more and thought the meeting was a big waste of my time.  We were using historic preservation as an economic development tool for the revitalization of Downtown Asheville and the Montford Neighborhood.  Where some arrogant Spaniards went over four and half centuries ago seemed totally irrelevant. My lord!  The professors had Ph.D.’s and presented themselves as experts on Spanish history, yet they couldn’t even pronounce Spanish words correctly?

However, what the two state-employed archaeologists and I DID know was that these academicians were off in lala land.  They had labeled a dinky little three feet high Woodland Period mound on the Biltmore Estate as “Guaxule, the ancient capital of the great Cherokee Nation” . . . or something like that.   We told the profs that there were NO occupied Mississippian Culture towns in the French Broad River Valley when de Soto and Pardo were wandering about the Southeast.   Also, Zimmerman Island, Tennessee, downstream on the French Broad was abandoned around 1500 AD.  Apparently, some plague had swept through the valley.  We also told them that no 16th or 17th century artifacts had ever been found in the French Broad River Valley, whereas they were abundant in North Georgia.

The professors ignored us.  They held a press conference on the Biltmore Estate announcing that Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo had come through Asheville and stayed on the Biltmore Estate.  They then picked up big checks from the Biltmore Corporation, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Eastern Band of Cherokees and lord knows who else.   The rest is . . . well . . . fabricated history.

Broad, shallow ford on the Tuckasegee River upstream from the capital of Chiaha, where De Soto’s herd of pigs crossed.

Back to the future

Throughout the 18 years that I lived in either the North Carolina Mountains or Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, my mother and sometimes, even my grandmother, had complained in letters to me about what was going on in Georgia. “Someone was changing the history of Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.” My grandmother was livid because the Atlanta Journal-Constitution periodically published a map of the state, which showed all the lands north of Savannah as always being Cherokee.  She became double livid when the Anderson, SC newspaper published an article, which showed about 3/4 of South Carolina as Cherokee.  (Actually, the Lower Cherokees were composed of 8 towns with Creek names and maximum population of 1200 people.)   She would say, “Horse manure . . . there were white men living up in the mountains at least a hundred years before there was even such a thing as a Cherokee Indian.

My mother was upset about the changes to the state history curriculum which had reduced the discussion of the Creeks to half a chapter and increased discussion of the Cherokees to 4 1/2 chapters . . . containing mostly descriptions of events and people in North Carolina and Tennessee.  Would you believe that Georgia’s state history syllabus had over twice as many chapters on the North Carolina Cherokees than did the Civil War?    The discussion of the Creek culture was very superficial. The syllabus basically said, “The Creeks also lived in Georgia.  The were like the Cherokees, but they really were not anything worth talking about.” At the time, I assumed that I would never live in Georgia again and so didn’t get involved.

When a weekend visit to my family on a Easter weekend turned into an involuntary permanent residence in Georgia, interest in the fabrication of history steadily heated up.  My mother showed me a series of newspaper clippings that steadily distorted history more and more.   One Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter called Etowah, Coosa and Chattahoochee, Cherokee words.   Another article quoted an official of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian without comment, when she said all the mounds north of Macon, GA and Montgomery, AL had been built by the Cherokees.   In the late 1990s and early 2000s, little by little the newspaper articles and TV news blips were erasing the existence of the Creeks in Georgia.   The Chickasaws had already been erased in Alabama.

The Smokies still get snow in the early spring – view from my camp site.  The Little Tennessee River Gorge is between the two ridges.

Things get serious

When I began doing research work for the Muskogee-Creek Nation,  I had to re-read the series of books published in the late 20th century by by some of the professors, who were in my Asheville office so long ago.  The first time that I had read these books, it was basically entertainment, not a professional activity for which I was expected to produce analytical documents.

These academicians had sent both de Soto and Pardo on long detours through much of North Carolina, when actually de Soto was headed to Kusa in Northwest Georgia and Pardo was following orders to find the most direct route to Mexico.  Fossilized in academic stone today is the ludicrous “fact” that Juan Pardo traveled 260 miles due north from Santa Elena to the Berry Archaeological Site in Burke County, NC, when the Viceroy had ordered him to find the most direct route to Zacatecas, Mexico.  No one in academia or the media has questioned that idiocy.  All of the towns, visited by de Soto in the Southern Highlands had Muskogean names, but the clique had relabeled them to be Cherokee words, whose meanings had been lost.  The chapter is entitled “De Soto among the Cherokees.”

The academicians had gotten away with bad scholarship, because what they published seemed to have little relevance to practical concerns of politicians and entrepreneurs.  However, by the first decade of the 21st century several members of this clique were on the payroll of  economic interests that wanted to build a Cherokee casino in Georgia.  By December 2006, we realized that the archaeologists, employed by the casino developers were incrementally using the pseudo-history of the De Soto and Pardo books as a jumping point for re-labeling all of the Native American town sites from Macon, GA northward.  If Etowah Mounds was declared to be Cherokee then it was a simple matter for the Lamar Village in Macon and the Lamar Culture to be labeled “Cherokee.”   Basically, at that point, developers could build Cherokee casinos about anywhere they liked . . . or at least that is what they thought.

The Eastern Band of Cherokees and Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma had already succeeded in pressuring National Park Service administrators into publicly stating to the media that the Cherokees were one of the tribes, who built the mounds at Ocmulgee National Monument. Even today,  any archaeological work or museum exhibits at Ocmulgee must be approved by the ECB, Cherokee Nation and Keetuwah Band of Cherokees, in addition to the four federally-recognized Creek and Seminole tribes. 

Upon the formation of the People of One Fire in 2006, the first thing we did was create a list of the towns visited by Hernando de Soto in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee, translated into English with university-published Muskogean dictionaries.  We  thought that would stop the malarkey being said to the media by the anthropology professors.  It didn’t.  Neither the professors nor the newspaper reporters paid us a bit of attention.  We were unable to translate Chiaha, but the Chiaha People became a major branch of the Creeks, so we thought it didn’t matter.

Little Tennessee River Gorge – View out the front door of my tent in February 2010 –  Pardo departed Chiaha about this time.

Track down de Soto or Pardo?

The next strategy was for one of us to write a book on either the de Soto or Pardo Expedition.  I imagine that would have fallen to me, just like the “shared”  authorship of POOF newsletters.  LOL   The idea was to quote the erring passages in one of the late 20th century texts where the professors mispronounced the Spanish word, did not translate the Muskogean words or made claims like that Pardo marched 260 miles northward to build a road to Zacatecas, Mexico.

The chroniclers of the De Soto Expedition typically gave the number of days traveled between towns or even the calendar dates.  However, their descriptions of the landscape are rare.  Fortunately, they gave extensive descriptions of the landscape when the conquistadors were traveling through the Province of Chiaha. Juan dela Bandera, the chronicler and sidekick of Juan Pardo also provided detailed descriptions of Chiaha.  Both de Soto and Pardo had visited Cofitachequi and Chiaha.  However, I finally decided to go with Pardo, because Santa Elena was a fixed point agreed upon by everyone, from which dela Bandera gave distances to other towns and villages, which were on the extreme ends of Pardo’s journeys.

Interpolating all versions of the de Soto Chronicles with the account of the Pardo Expeditions resulted in eight parameters for the location of Chiaha.  Those parameters, colored black, are geographical parameters, while those in brown enabled me to identify the specific ethnic group, who lived in Chiaha and thus made it possible to translate the word, Chiaha.

(1)  The province of Chiaha was surrounded on all sides by high mountains. Both explorers reported frigid temperatures at high mountain gaps during the late spring.

(2) The capital of Chiaha was on a long island in a broad, fast-running mountain river that was shallow enough for horses to cross.  However, the current ran so fast that horses and burros often stumbled.

(3) Three smaller fast-running rivers joined the main river upstream from the capital.

(4) There was a deep mountain gorge downstream from Chiaha, which was about 40 miles long. De Soto’s expedition followed this gorge in order to reach the town of Coste, which was also on an island.

(5) When Juan Pardo departed Ichiha, he traveled southwestward through another deep gorge, which had silver ore deposits on its slopes.

(6) In some chronicles, the capital of Chicha is called Ichiaha or Ychiaha.

(7) The inhabitants of Chiaha grew large fields of salvia (Chia) along the rivers.

(8) The inhabitants of Chiaha were the only indigenous people in the Southeast, encountered by De Soto’s conquistadors, who raised domesticated honey bees and regularly ate honey.

By the time I left western North Carolina in July 2010 to camp near Hiawassee, GA,  I was certain that Chiaha was located somewhere between the confluence of the Cheoah River with the Little Tennessee River and Downtown Bryson City, NC.   There was a problem, though.  The geography of this 44 mile long corridor had been radically changed by the construction of a series of hydroelectric dams, in particular the Fontana Dam.  Any island matching the description of Chiaha Island in the Spanish chronicles, would be under hundreds of feet of water.

Furthermore, no archaeological investigations had been carried out prior to the filling of the reservoirs or since then.   Fontana Dam was built during the early stage of World War II, when Germany and Japan were winning.  There was no time for cultural frivolities.   The critical region for pinning down the paths of Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo was essentially an archaeological terra incognito . . . with everything being labeled “Cherokee,” while all Native American place names appeared to be either Creek or Arawak.

Pinning down the routes of Juan Pardo and Hernando de Soto seemed to be at an impasse until last week.   I stumbled upon a detailed, high resolution US Geological Survey of the Little Tennessee River Gorge and all of the Great Smoky Mountains from 1904.  Apparently, the surveying work was authorized by Congress in order to open up the region to  logging companies and narrow gauge railroads.  In Part Two, you will be surprised what I found under the deep waters of Fontana Lake.  The map also shows the isolated mountaineer communities that have been obliterated by the lakes and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   Would you believe that there are or were Native American mounds in the national park? 


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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Great article! I have always been very interested in the early history of this area. Can’t wait for part 2! Thanks


    I live and work in the Great Smoky Mountains and I would like to know what article follows this one? Also, have you seen the old inscription on the stone on Hooper Bald in Graham County? It can either be read as Cherokee words or Spanish but I tend to think they are Spanish,


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