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Interactive History Feature: 1628 Across the Continent

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Drawing of de Soto
A rendering of Hernando de Soto's "discovery" of the Mississippi River in 1541.
During the 16th century Spanish, French, and English mariners had explored various regions of what is today the southeastern United States, with the Spanish and English establishing permanent settlements by the year 1628. The Spanish had traversed present-day Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and east Texas in search of gold and silver during first half of the 16th century. In the 1550s, their French enemies were responsible for pirating half of the treasures being shipped by the Spanish from Mexico to the New World. Thus, when the French established a small base named Fort Caroline at the mouth of the St. Johns River, a Spanish expedition led by the naval officer Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles responded quickly; 500 Spanish soldiers surprised and killed most of the French at their fort. After destroying the French forces, Menendez and his men entered the native Timucuan village of Seloy, which they fortified and renamed San Agustín (St. Augustine). The Spanish were assured control of the region, and in 1565 San Agustín became the first permanent European settlement in North America.

Photo of men on Mississippi
Photo of men working on the Mississippi River in 1882.
However, San Agustín was never a prosperous settlement, so the Spanish replaced their military tactics with the mission system in an effort to make Hispanics out of the natives. During the 1590s and early 1600s, several missions were established along the Atlantic coast north of San Agustín into what is today Georgia, north-central Florida, and to the west in the Florida panhandle above the Gulf Coast. At the peak of the mission system in 1675, 40 friars ministered to 20,000 native converts in 36 churches.

Ignored by the Spanish and French, the mid-Atlantic seaboard was claimed by the English, who called the entire region between Florida and the northeast "Virginia." After trying unsuccessfully to establish colonies there in the 1580s, the English tried again in 1607, establishing the Jamestown settlement on the James River. Inadequately prepared for the undertaking of frontier life, less than half of the initial settlers survived that first winter, and in subsequent years -- between famine, disease, and sporadic attacks from the local Algonquian natives -- the colony's demise seemed imminent. But the town held fast, becoming the first permanent English settlement in North America.

In 1616, English planters learned how to raise tobacco and great changes came to the Virginia colony. Tobacco production surged from 200,000 pounds in 1624 to 3,000,000 in 1638, and the Chesapeake outstripped the West Indies to become the leading supplier of tobacco to Europe. This stimulated the population growth of emigrants from England to Virginia, from 350 colonists in 1616 to 13,000 by 1650.

Native Virginians suffered a drastically different fate. The Alguonquians, who numbered 24,000 in 1607, were reduced by disease and war to only 2,000 by 1609. Other Indian people remained numerous outside of the Virginia colony, particularly the Susquehannock, an Iroquoian people, north of the Potomac. But the disastrous pattern of European contact devastating the native inhabitants continued throughout the southeast region. By 1600 the native Mississippian population had collapsed to a small fraction of its former numbers; by 1700, most of the regions larger chiefdoms had collapsed, with the exception of the Natchez people of the lower Mississippi River. The remaining smaller and less powerful native tribes regrouped; the refugees formed new composite confederations that we know today as the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee.

In 1539, Hernando de Soto of Spain landed on Florida, most likely near present-day Tampa Bay. From there, he led an expedition across Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Alabama in search of gold and silver. In 1541, De Soto and his crew were most likely the first Europeans to see and cross the Mississippi River. They traveled up the Arkansas River into Oklahoma, but never found the riches they expected. De Soto died on his journey, and was buried in the Mississippi River.

-- Mica McCarthy and John Uhl





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