Piece Of Wood Might Be Remnant Of First European Visit In Arkansas

Apr 25, 2016

Parkin Archeological State Park in Cross County, Arkansas
Credit arkansasstateparks.com

This week, archeologists will likely learn more about a wooden post thought to possibly originate from the first Christian ceremony held in Arkansas. The finding could be a cross erected at the site of a Native American village by an expedition led by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto.

Hernando de Soto set off from Florida in 1540 to travel through what is now the southeast United States. In search of gold, his expedition was the first known band of Europeans to set foot in Arkansas. In 1541, after traversing the Mississippi, they encountered a native population in the fortified chiefdom of Casqui, where more than a thousand people lived as corn farmers.

“While the expedition was here... they had a cross built from wood and raised atop the mound, which was the platform for the chief’s house,” says Jeffrey Mitchem of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.

Mitchem says four separate chronicles from the De Soto campaign corroborate the story of a cross being hoisted up at Casqui as Spanish priests performed a Catholic mass.

“I’m sure the Indians did not get all the subtleties of the mass because they were having to go through all kinds of translators at this point,” he says. “There’s no telling what they thought of it.”

The remains of Casqui are buried in what is now Parkin Archeological State Park in northeast Arkansas's Cross County. Just last week Mitchem led a team to dig into the mound for the first time since the 1960's. It was then that archeologists first turned up fragments of a wooden post.

Hernando De Soto was a Spanish explorer who died in 1542 near what is now Lake Village, Arkansas.
Credit Library of Congress

“From that they just sort of chuckled and said ‘maybe this is De Soto’s cross or something,” says Mitchem.  

But the samples were put aside at the time. Mitchem says “nobody ever even thought” about them until 1992, when he sent them off for two separate radiocarbon dating tests. The tests found the wood samples to be from the middle part of the 16th century. The samples were also identified as Bald cypress. But the pieces were too small for a University of Arkansas Dendrochonologist—or tree ring specialist—to say exactly when the wood was harvested.

In the recent dig, Mitchem’s team quickly gathered a larger piece of wood from the same site. He hopes a tree ring test can now pinpoint the date.

“The sort of Holy Grail for us would be if [the tree ring specialist] could say that that tree was cut down in 1541. We could make a really strong argument that it was actually the cross raised by De Soto,” he says.

Mitchem says he expects to get results from the tree ring specialist sometime this week.