de Soto’s path may have come through Elizabethton

Published 11:45 am Friday, November 20, 2020

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To the Editor:
It seems the site of Elizabethton enjoys yet another historical prominence. We are familiar with its place as part of the path of the Cherokee and other nations as they traveled north and south to and from wars and their hunting grounds. We are familiar with the formation of the Watauga Association in 1772, the first establishment of self-government on the western side of the mountains. We are familiar with the Transylvania Purchase of 1775 at Sycamore Shoals, which opened the way for Daniel Boone to forge a path through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. We know about the importance of Fort Watauga in the battles of 1776, and we know about this land’s role as the jumping-off point for the Overmountain Men as they began their trek to Kings Mountain in 1780, the battle there one of the major victories of the Americans over the British.
It’s now been determined likely that during the summer of 1540 Hernando de Soto with a party of 620 conquistadors came this way.
A scholarly essay first published in 2016 says that de Soto traveled from Florida to the settlement of Joara in what is now Burke County, N.C., and then to Chiaha, a settlement across the mountains, near what is now Dandridge, Tenn. The writers of this essay say, “Whereas the locations of Joara and Chiaha are solidly established, the route connecting them is not,” and that’s what the researchers want to establish.
Using techniques which measure the easiest path from one place to another, in this case across the Appalachian Mountains, the scientists first determine three likely routes, a southern, a central, and a northern. The southern route would have taken de Soto to the area of modern Marion, N.C., then west to near modern Asheville, and then northwest to near Dandridge. The central route would have taken him due west to near modern Spruce Pine and on to near Dandridge. The northern route would have taken him through modern Elk Park, and perhaps Roan Mountain, to the ground of modern Elizabethton where they turned southwest down the broad Tennessee Valley. Their conclusion? “We are confident,” they write, “that the northern route is the most likely path de Soto followed.” De Soto, as well as the people of the Mississippian Culture, may have walked the very paths we do now.
The essay, first published in The Professional Geographer, was written by Jonathan B. Thayn, Kathryn Sampeck and Matthew Spaccapaniccia. Its title is “Refining Hernando de Soto’s Route Using Electric Circuit Theory and CircuitScape.”

Yours truly,
Marion Hodge
High Point, N.C.

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