Where was Hernando de Soto’s Guaxale?
“No one has ever been able to determine the exact route of de Soto’s expedition.” – Richard Thornton
Guaxale was a Native American village visited by the Hernando de Soto Expedition in late spring of 1541. De Soto and his small army of conquistadors explored what was to become the Southeastern United States between the years 1539 and 1543. Despite the fact that de Soto’s men only visited Guaxale briefly, and the village was not large, it’s location has been a major focus for scholars, studying the earliest Spanish explorers. In North Carolina one suggested location of Guaxale has even been a key element of tourism promotion.
Since the late 1930’s scholars, have “authoritatively determined” where Guaxale was located at least two dozen times, and always at different locations. The controversy is partially fueled by the variations in spelling of “Guaxale” among the 16th century versions of the de Soto Chronicles. Promoters of competing village sites do not always realize that the varying names are for the same village.
No one has ever been able to determine the exact route of de Soto’s expedition. The only locations where the archaeological evidence substantially supports someone’s theory is near an Apalachee Indian mound in Tallahassee, FL and a large town site, now under the waters of Carters Lake, in northwest Georgia. The controversy over Guaxale’s many suggested locations are also the result of scholars making speculative judgments without thoroughly understanding the Native American cultures that the de Soto Expedition encountered.
De Soto slept here in Guaxale . . . and here . . . and here
In the mid-1980s a group of University of North Carolina and University of Georgia professors arrived in Asheville, NC to give a presentation to an Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast. They had been studying the chronicles of the Hernando de Soto Expedition for several years. The scholars announced that the famous explorer had led his conquistadors right through what is now Asheville. They stated to the public that Guaxale, which some called “the ancient capital of the Cherokee Nation” was located on the Biltmore Estate, where a very small mound was visible.
Not being able to pronounce Spanish words correctly, the professors called this “Cherokee capital,” Gwak-zoo-lee. Within days, people of varying amounts of Cherokee ancestry, proposed combinations of English versions of Cherokee words that looked something like Gwak-zoo-lee. Those linguistic similarities were then recorded as proof that de Soto came through Asheville.
Hearing about the public announcement in Asheville, proponents of other proposed routes of the de Soto Expedition complained that their favorite location for the long abandoned town was the correct one. For example, to this day, the State of Georgia has an official historical marker that proclaims the Nacoochee Mound in the Nacoochee Valley, is the site of Guaxale.
When the professors’ book on the de Soto Expedition was actually published, a different, general location was shown for Guaxale. It was placed in northwestern North Carolina. The new route took the Spanish across the mountains into the northeastern tip of Tennessee, then down the breadth of eastern Tennessee into northwestern Georgia. The book did not explain why the original chronicles of the de Soto Expedition stated that de Soto headed due northwest from the town of Kofitachiki (Cofitachequi) to reach the capital of Kusa, while their book’s route takes a 300+ mile long looping detour to the northeast.
In 2001 archaeologists from Appalachian State University excavated the Biltmore Mound near Asheville in hopes of finding 16th century Spanish artifacts buried within the earthen dome. Instead they found the ruins of a round, communal building that had rebuilt three times between 250 AD and 450 AD. The Biltmore Mound was not even a mound, and it could not possibly be the location of the Guaxale visited by the de Soto Expedition.
To this day, one can find dozens of books, web sites, tourist brochures and even encyclopedias that authoritatively announce that Guaxale was definitely located in Asheville, NC. These statements do not even concur with the published findings of the professors, who originally made the statement. However, this “urban legend” has been replicated so many times that most readers assume it to be the absolute truth.
What the De Soto Chronicles say
The Gentleman of Elvas version of the de Soto Chronicles briefly mentions Guaxulle (Guaxale) in Chapter 14: “It took five days to go from this province to another one called Xualla. They found little maize, and for this reason, although the men were tired and their horses very weak, the governor did not stop over two days. From Cofitachiqui to Xualla, it was two hundred and fifty leagues, over mountainous country. The governor set out from Guaxulle, crossing over very rough and lofty mountains. Along that way, the cacica (queen) of Cofitachiqui, whom the governor brought as above said for the purpose of taking her to Guaxule – for her lands reached that far. . . . In five days, the governor arrived In Guaxulle and along the road there was very little maize. . . . The governor left Guaxulle and in a march of two days. reached a town called Canasagua. “
Xualla (or Suale in other versions) is an administrative district, not a village as described in most contemporary texts. It is in hilly country (i.e. the Piedmont.) Guaxale is a village in a high mountain range at least 50 miles (89 km) from Suale. It apparently is located in a valley where there was minimal farmland. Only Creek Indian words are recorded in conjunction with the visit to Guaxale.
In Itsati-Creek, suale would be pronounced jshwă-lē. The Spanish often used an “X” to approximate the “jsh” sound of some Creek and Maya words. The most likely Itsati translation would be “Buzzard People.”
Approximately 20 to 30 miles away from Guaxale was the village of Canasagua. In phonetic English this Castilian (Spanish) spelling would be written Kă-nă-să-wă. The author of the chapter of The De Soto Chronicles, a book edited by Lawrence Clayton, et al., changed the spelling of Canasagua to Canasaga, making the last syllable pronounce differently in Spanish. This altered version of the word was then compared to the English spelling of the Conesaga River in northwest Georgia and used as “proof” that the Cherokees were living in the North Carolina Mountains in 1541.
Understanding ancient words
The comparison of contemporary geographical names which “sound American Indian” to words written 450 years ago by people, who spoke Late Medieval Castilian, can result in very inaccurate interpretations of history. Frontiersmen were often barely literate themselves. They often wrote down Native American names for rivers and mountains inaccurately. Meanwhile, many Medieval Spanish letters have entirely different pronunciations than in English. A good example would be comparing the 16th century Castilian word, “Conasagua” (the Spaniards’ interpretation of a native word) to the 19th century Anglo-Cherokee name of a river in northwest Georgia.
Kanosawa is an Itsati-Creek word meaning “hognose skunk.” It is a large skunk with the body of a raccoon and the markings of a striped skunk. The Kanosawa Clan was one of many former clans among the Eastern Muskogeans. It was probably composed of people who were ethnically non-Muskogean, at least originally.
A remarkable aspect of the long search for Guaxale’s location is that none of the most prominent proponents of various locations (even professors with Ph.D.’s in anthropology) seemed to be able to pronounce medieval Castilian words correctly. There was no “W” in the Iberian languages. The fifteen languages of the Iberian peninsula in the 1500s wrote the “w” sound in three ways: “gua,” “hua,” and “joa.”
In English phonetics, Guaxale would be pronounced Wă-hă-lē. The “Wă” sound would be a bit more guttural than an English Wă.” Guaxale happens to be the same word that evolved into Guale, the Spanish name for the people on the coast of Georgia in the 1500s and 1600s.
The spellings of Guaxale in the de Soto Chronicles and include Guaxule, Guaxulle, Guaxoli and Guasili. This is strong evidence of the word’s ethnic origin. The Eastern Muskogean languages of the Creek Indians, Itsati (Hitchiti) and Mvskoke (Muskogee) have a vowel that can only be approximated in modern English and didn’t exist in the Iberian languages. It is represented today as a “v” and is roughly a nasal “ăw” sound.
In 1541 Castilian had recently become the official language of the royal court, but it was a second or even unknown language for most persons living in the peninsula. Spain, as a nation, was only one generation old. The chroniclers of de Soto came from several parts of Iberia. They typically represented the Muskogean “V” sound with either an a,o, u or i. Whenever one sees these variations in recording Native words, it is certain that the vowel was a Muskogean “V.” The Itsati and Mvskoke word, wahvle, means “southerners.” The word has no meaning in Cherokee. Guaxale~Wahale could not have possibly been a Cherokee village.
There are several possibilities for the ethnic identity of Guaxale. The chronicles state that Guaxale was a vassal of the Creek language-speaking province containing the town of Kofitachiki (Cofitachequi in Castilian.) De Soto’s guides and hostages had come from Kofitachiki. That does not mean that the residents of Guaxale were ancestors of the Creek Indians. The ethnic label Wahvle or Wahvli was applied to Muskogeans living on the coast of Georgia and in Florida; their cousins, the Mayas of Central America; and even the Arawak peoples of the Caribbean Basin.
The Shawnee Indians’ name for themselves, Shano, means “Southerners.” Early French and English explorers encountered many Shawnee villages in the North Carolina Mountains. Several of their villages were concentrated near the source of the Saluda River. When these Highland Shawnees came under the government of a powerful Muskogean province in coastal South Carolina, the principal village on which that authority was exerted may have been named the Muskogean translation of the Shawnees name for themselves.
A comparison of possible sites for Guaxale
The Nacoochee Valley of Georgia is formed by an ancient cluster of volcanoes at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountain in White County, GA. It can be entered by relatively level trails at three points. Archaeologists have determined that it was densely populated during the 1500s by ancestors of the Creek Indians. Its broad bottomland soils are some of the most fertile in the Southeast. Although numerous 16th and 17th century Spanish artifacts have been found there, none of the physical characteristics of Guaxale’s description match the Nacoochee Valley.
Saluda, North Carolina is located at the mouth of a Blue Ridge Mountain gap and trade path that in pre-European times was an important entrance into the Appalachian Summit. The Saluda River flows southward from there to join the Congaree River, which then joins the Wataree River to form the Santee River. The location of Kofitachiki (Cofitachiqui) is believed to have been on either the Santee or Wataree River.
Despite the historical association of the Shawnee and Creek Indians with Saluda’s location, local folklore defines the word Saluda as being derived from the Cherokee words for Corn River or Green Corn Festival. Corn River would be pronounced Se-lu-ay-kwa-nee. There is no similarity. The more likely origin of Saluda is Suale-te – “Buzzard People” in Itsati. The Buzzard Clan was once a prominent division of the Shawnee. Cherokee and English speakers in the past wrote Creek “t” sounds as “d’s.” The Saluda, NC area has received very little attention from archaeologists and so it can not be further evaluated.
Asheville, North Carolina is 24 miles (34 km) from Old Fort, NC at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. An old Native American trail once traversed that route, Fourteen miles (22.45 km) along that route is level terrain paralleling the Swannanoa River. The Spanish could have reached Asheville’s location in 2-3 days, not five. No 16th or 17th century European artifacts have been found in the Asheville Area. Also, archaeologists have not discovered any Native American towns in the Asheville Area that were occupied in 1540 AD. The bottomland soils are sparse in the Asheville, but its other physical characteristics do not match those of Guaxale.
Burke County, North Carolina was proposed as the location of Xualla (Suale) in the book, The De Soto Chronicles. The chapter on de Soto’s traverse from Cofitachequi to Chiaha does not give a specific location for Guaxale. It states that Cherokee guides led de Soto from Xualla to Guaxale, therefore, both towns were in Cherokee territory. However, the original chronicles written in the 16th century (as cited earlier in this article) clearly state that de Soto’s guides came from Cofitachiqui, a town that spoke some dialect of the Creek language. No specific site for Guaxale in this alternative can be evaluated.
There will never be absolute proof that a specific archaeological site was the location of the fabled village of Guaxale until Spanish artifacts, clearly associated with the de Soto Expedition, are found in situ with contemporary Native American artifacts. Readers should be wary of any discussion of the de Soto Expedition route, which describes specific sites as absolute fact rather than speculative theory.