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What is wrong with this painting in National Geographic Magazine?

What is wrong with this painting in National Geographic Magazine?


This painting appeared at the front of a featured article in an issue of National Geographic Magazine, published on November 3, 2011. It portrays the conquistadors of Hernando de Soto crossing the Ocmulgee River in central Georgia in early March 1540 . . . just before reaching the provincial capital of Toa.  The article was about the route of the Hernando de Soto through northwestern Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

This article was promoted to National Geo by the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta.  For six previous years the Fernbank had sponsored archaeological digs on the east side of the Ocmulgee, which charged hundreds of volunteers substantial fees for the opportunity to search for the “lost Mission Santa Isabel de Utinahica.”  When the mission could not be found, because Utinahica was actually 50 miles to the south on the Ohoopee River,  the Fernbank began issuing press releases during the last year of the project that linked European beads, which its archaeological teams unearthed, to the De Soto Expedition.   The National Geo article was a way of saving face over the whole affair.

One of the primary objectives of the People of One Fire is to energize Southeastern Native American descendants into taking responsibility for their own heritage.  Over and over again, people who had no connection to our heritage, other than claiming it for their private intellectual domain, have committed major booboos then gone to extremes to cover up their mistakes.  This case is particularly disturbing because it proves that absolutely NO ONE in the highly respected National Geographic Society fact checked either the article or the painting.  They never even bothered to read the De Soto Chronicles before proclaiming themselves to be experts on the subject to their international readership. 

The probable location of De Soto’s crossing the Ocmulgee. On the left is a 30+ ft. high natural terrace, which elevated the town above floods.

Fact Check Time!

The National Geo article begins, “Under a former Native American village in Georgia, deep inside what’s now the U.S., archaeologists say they’ve found 16th-century jewelry and other Spanish artifacts. The discovery suggests an expedition led by conquistador Hernando de Soto ventured far off its presumed course—which took the men from Florida to Missouri—and engaged in ceremonies in a thatched, pyramid-like temple.”   That text seems harmless enough  . . . if you are one of those who believes De Soto went as far north as Missouri . . .  but let’s take a look at the painting.   These days, most North Americans pay more attention to marketing images than to verbiage.

(1)  The Vegetation – The artist painted the Ocmulgee River to look like the Amazon River Basin.  In the foreground, one sees White Oak leaves and Spanish moss dangling from a rubber tree trunk.   White Oak trees don’t grow next to slow moving Southern Coastal Plain rivers.  They prefer well-drained soils, not swampy land.   Even today, the location is too far inland for the natural growth of Spanish moss.  Back then the inland limit of Spanish moss would have been even closer to the coast because of a colder climate.

Well, there is another problem.  This scene was in early March.  It was still winter . . . especially back in 1540, when North America and Europe were in a Little Ice Age.   There would be no foliage on the hardwood trees. Most of the other vegetation would have been dead.  The location is north of the natural range of the Live Oak.

(2) The River – As you can see in the photo above, the Lower Ocmulgee River is quite deep, often 20-30 feet.  The De Soto Chronicles stated that the Spaniards were forced to build rafts in order to get their men, horses and pigs across the river.  The author of the article was obviously neither familiar with the geography of the region nor the De Soto Chronicles.  He showed the Spanish wading across a shallow river that was barely above the dog’s paws. 

(3) The Injuns –  Various versions of the De Soto Chronicles name these people the Toa, Toali, Toasi or Toase.  The artist portrayed them to be primitive, diminutive Amazonian hunters, buck naked except for the deer skin flaps over their private parts.  The Spaniards would have towered over them. 

What do the De Soto Chronicles say?   The Spanish chroniclers first remarked that the Toa towns were much larger and better planned than the villages in the Florida Peninsula.  They said that the Toa men averaged about a foot taller than the Spanish.  All the men wore their hair up in buns and also wore turbans.  The women leaders also wore turbans.   Whereas the Natives in Florida only wore skirts, consisting of dried Spanish moss vines, the Toa wore tunics and skirts made from brightly colored and patterned . . . woven cloth . . . which looked something like linen. It was woven from Mulberry Tree fibers.  

(4) The Story Line –  Hernando de Soto’s expedition probably did cross the Lower Ocmulgee River, but this is no revolutionary new idea.  In 1718,  French Royal Cartographer, Guillaume De L’Isle. showed the route of De Soto at that location. (See map below.)  The 1939 De Soto Trail Commission put De Soto’s crossing at the same location.   It was only in the late 1980s that a group of Southeastern professors moved the crossing northward. 

The professors, dominated by Charles Hudson, moved De Soto’s route northward because they had moved the location of Cofitacheque from near the South Carolina coast to near the Fall Line.  The De Soto Chronicles stated that Cofitacheque was located two days walk from the ocean, but these late 20th century academicians knew better.  So the Fernbank archaeologists were moving the route back to where it had been for three centuries. 

The beads may have been left behind by De Soto, maybe not.  For five of the six years of the Fernbank study, the beads were described in Atlanta newspaper articles as proof that the expedition was near a Spanish mission that operated between 1610 and 1640.  Suddenly, in 2010 the beads became proof that De Soto had dropped them off to the Indians in 1540.

In 1564 and 1565, the French at Fort Caroline sent six expeditions into the interior of Georgia.  The explorers were given instructions to provide beads and tools to the tribes of the interior in return for establishing friendly trade relations.  Note that De L’Isle’s map shows Fort Caroline to be on the south side of the mouth of the Altamaha River.  In addition,  Fort Caroline’s commander,  Captain René de Laudonnière,  personally led a large expedition, which traveled up the Altamaha River to the town of Utinahica.  His memoir provides detailed information on the distances and landmarks involved.  That’s how we know that the Fernbank archaeologists “were looking for love in all the wrong places.”   There are still mounds visible where he said Utinahica was located.

The Fernbank Museum was warned very early

At about the same time that the Fernbank Museum issued the first press release to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which asked for volunteers to work on the search for Mission Santa Isabel de Utinahica that upcoming summer,  I was doing a research project for the Muscogee-Creek Nation.  The Oklahoma Creeks wanted me to determine where the towns with Creek names, visited by De Soto, were located in 1540 and where they were located in the 1700s.

Immediately after the AJC newspaper article was published, I sent the Fernbank’s archaeologist an email, which told him that where he was planning to dig was the approximate location of Toa . . . where De Soto had crossed the Ocmulgee.  Utinahica was 50 miles farther south and six miles up the Ohoopee River.  I attached a digital copy of an old Spanish road map, which historian Michel Jacobs had sent me.  When establishing Utinahica, plus two missions near the Okeefenokee Swamp, the Spanish built a road that looped around the west side of the Okeefenokee Swamp and terminated at the confluence of the Altamaha and Ohoopee Rivers.  A symbol for a mission church was shown on the map near the termination of the road. 

I received a brief response, which basically said,  “Now run along and play child.”   The English word, sophomore, is derived from two Greek words, which mean, “wise fool.”






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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.



    Thank heavens you’re here to set records straight. You are doing a good work here. Thank you.


    Hey Richard,
    I think Nat. Geo has been going down hill for years. When every article regardless of the subject had a paragraph on global warming and pc Language it became a propaganda magazine not a science magazine. I really like to read the older issues, much better writing, much like yours. Thanks for all you do!


    Richard, it is a shame how the scholars who are supposed to know the real facts, never do, or just don’t take the time to do the proper
    research before putting it in black and white. Thank God for Richard Thornton who always tells us the truth of the matter and the true
    and correct facts. Blessings, Hesaketvmese Mvto.


    I am impressed by Richard’s investigative work. When others get lazy and gloss over the details, Richard will come up with the specifics of truth that set him apart from the rest. IE: White oaks and where they are found, Spanish moss, depth of a river, ect… Richard is a great resource for knowledge and facts and I find him to be a great asset in assisting me in my personal quest for knowledge and understanding about the real Fort Caroline. There is a story to tell.
    Thanks, Richard


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