Entradas and Exchange: De Soto, Etowah, and Patterns of Early European-Mississippian Trade

By Matthew Gramling


Hernando DeSoto

The importance of exchange to the survival of Hernando De Soto’s entrada into the US southern interior cannot be understated.[1] As De Soto’s army marched through the diverse and dynamic world of the late Mississippian South, they depended heavily upon the network of Native chiefdoms they encountered for supplies and labor. De Soto and his men often had to engage in the complex rituals of diplomacy and exchange that characterized Mississippian political life in order to obtain such provisions. Through accommodating to Mississippian norms and occasionally interblending their own European traditions of exchange, the Spaniards were effectively able to engage, and if need be outmaneuver, their Native counterparts in order to procure the necessities for their continued expedition. De Soto would often enter into the principal town of a local chiefdom and exchange verbal promises and gifts for food, tamemes, and enslaved female captives.[2] Diplomacy was not the only form of exchange by which relations were established and Native goods and services were procured. Occasionally, trade would take precedence. The Spaniards would sometimes barter European goods for Indian chattel. These kinds of exchange represent the first strands of a great tie which would bind Natives and Europeans to one another as major actors in their respective histories and bind each society in the ever-shifting dynamics of sovereignty and empire that characterized the colonial Southeast.[3] One of the encounters between De Soto and the Mississippian Indians which best foreshadows these later developments occurred during De Soto’s encampment at the town of Itaba –located at the present day Etowah Indian Mounds–for more than a week in the summer of 1540. The Spaniards engaged in trade negotiations with the local populace of Itaba, bartering mirrors and knives for enslaved Indian women. As such, the Spanish-Mississippian exchange at Itaba represents the seeds of a pattern of European-Indian exchange that would develop into a vast trade economy which would transform the Mississippian world. The exchange of Spanish goods for Indian slaves at Itaba demonstrates the profound significance of exchange to Late Mississippian political culture and how European goods would enhance and transform Native perceptions of power. The Itaba exchange also exhibits the nature and role of slavery in Mississippian society, as well as acts as a prelude in miniature for the Indian slave trade of late seventeenth century. Thus, the trade negotiation at Itaba heralds many of the patterns of exchange that would create the Mississippian Shatter Zone of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

On August 20, 1540, after spending almost a month at the paramount town of Coosa, De Soto descended with his army out of the Coosawattee basin of the Blue Ridge Mountain and headed southwest in search of  the chiefdom of Tazcaluza.[4] They travelled for three days, passing through the abandoned Indian town of Talimuchisi near present-day Pine Log before arriving at night and amidst heavy rains at the town of Itaba .[5]  These rains had caused the section of the Etowah River near the town to run hard and swell its banks, thus making it unfordable. With no easy or ready means to bypass this obstacle, De Soto had his men bivouac at Itaba and wait until the floods of the river subsided. Itaba was described by the Spanish as a large town subject to the paramount chiefdom of Coosa.[6] Yet, a century earlier Itaba (or Etowah) was the power center of the Lower Ridge and Valley. Throughout much of the Middle Mississippian Period (900-1350 A.D.), Etowah had been the paramount chiefdom of the region, dominating much of Etowah Valley into Eastern Alabama.[7] Possessing one of the largest platform mounds in North America, Etowah has produced some of the most extraordinary Mississippian artifacts.[8] Etowah reached its zenith of complexity and influence between 1250 and 1375.[9] Subsequently, the Etowah was attacked and its palisade and temples were razed to the ground.[10] The site then lay abandoned for nearly a century.[11] By the time De Soto arrived there, Etowah had only been reoccupied for about 75 years and was a minor mound center under the hegemony of Coosa.[12]

Artist’s conception of the Mississippian Village of Itaba (Etowah)

De Soto’s army spent nine days at Itaba waiting for the floodwaters of the Etowah to subside. While encamped there, the Spaniards engaged in trade with some of the local Natives, bartering European-made knives and mirrors for enslaved Indian women. While at first glance appearing to be a minor moment in De Soto’s entrada through the Native Southeast, the Itaba exchange provides profound insight into the importance of exchange to Mississippian political life and its foundational role in European-Indian interaction throughout the history of the colonial Southeast. The late Mississippian world which Itaba inhabited was marked by intense competition between highly stratified chiefdoms in which power was rooted in a sacred cosmology which undergirded and legitimized Mississippian political order.[13] Mississippian cosmology perceived reality through the lens of a three-tiered cosmos and was characterized by rituals centered on world renewal through the exercise of spiritual and ceremonial power.[14] Associated with this cosmology was a sacred iconography which imbued images and objects which possessed symbolic connections to this three-tiered cosmos with sacred power.[15]


 This three-tiered cosmos was composed of three worlds, each possessing its own distinctive character: the Upper World, This World, and the Lower World.[16] The Upper World was the home of spiritually potent beings such as the Sun, Moon, Thunderers, and legendary creatures such as sacred birds like raptors.[17] It was also marked by purity and perfect order. The Lower World was the realm of fish, amphibians, and reptiles and was characterized by infertility and disorder. It was also the dwelling place of fearsome monsters such as the Underwater Panther and Great Serpent.[18] Between these worlds was This World–the home of animals, plants, and humans.[19] Upper and Lower Worlds were inaccessible to humans, especially ordinary people who lacked the ritual and spiritual power to intervene in the Upper and Lower Worlds.[20] Mississippian chiefs, however, asserted they possessed the ability to transcend the bounds of This World and maintain order in the cosmos.  The central locus where chiefs exercised this cosmic power was the town, the basic political and social unit of Mississippian chiefdoms.[21] 

Accordingly, the greater access a chief had to sacred objects the greater prestige, security, and autonomy he and his community possessed.[22] The principal means by which these prestige goods were obtained was through the complex dynamics of exchange. Diplomatic gifts were among the most prominent and powerful forms of exchange used by Mississippian communities. Gift between chiefs established, renewed, and reinforced bonds of amity, reciprocity, and mutual obligation between communities.[23] Purpose of gifts is to foster interpersonal relationships, one in which the recipient often becomes indebted to the giver.[24] As such, gifts could function as a means of conferring or reinforcing the power of the giver and the recipient.[25] The gifts exchanged between chiefs were sacred prestige goods whose rarity often signified the power of the giver and recipient. [26] In return for continued fealty and tribute, paramount chiefs would often present sub-chiefs with items which would reinforce their power over their respective communities.


 Such gifts demonstrate how the power of the foreign provided legitimacy and support to authority and political status of chiefs and their communities.[27] Chiefs would sometimes enter into multiple exchange relationships with rival chiefdoms in order to leverage one against the other and cause them to compete for friendship and influence.[28] Occasionally, chiefs capitalized on this competition and were able to advance the power, status, and autonomy of their communities at the expense of their exchange partners. The arrival of Europeans provided new opportunities for exchange and enabled ambitious chiefs to obtain greater independence from, if not authority over, their old chiefly overlords. Natives would often enlist these newcomers in aiding them in advancing their local ambitions especially against old political rivals.

 Europeans like De Soto not only brought their force of arms into Mississippian exchange dynamics, they also carried European goods with them which their Native exchange partners would use as prestige goods to enhance their status and influence. The introduction of European goods into Mississippian dynamics of exchange also planted the seeds of profound change in Native society. Exchange in European goods, especially trade, democratized access to prestige goods and would gradually erode the chiefly monopoly on spiritual power, thus leading to a slow reorganization of Mississippian society. The Itaba exchange provides a glimpse into early European-Indian patterns of exchange as well as foreshadows the influence that trade in European goods would have upon Mississippian culture and society. The Spaniards’ bartering of knives and mirrors at Etowah and the Native interest in them as prestige goods heralds the inception of what would become a vast network of exchange in which European and Indian communities would increasingly be bound in a web of mutual influence and interest.


The Itaba exchange also possesses considerable import for European-Indian patterns of exchange in demonstrating the nature and role of slavery in Mississippian society and presaging the dynamics of exchange which would typify the Indian slave trade during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Native slavery had existed for millennia by the time De Soto had arrived at Itaba. Native slavery was intricately bound up in the patterns of warfare and violence in Indian society.  Slaves in Native society were almost exclusively war captives. During the Mississippian Period, the presence of highly centralized and competitive chiefdoms meant warfare and violent death rate increased dramatically. Mississippian warfare was an essential element in securing a community’s political and material needs.[29] Chief engaged hegemonic warfare in order to gain power over the resources and labor of rival chiefdom.[30] Warriors would often steal or destroy an enemy’s food supply and seize prestige goods which often included captives.[31] As noted above, prestige goods were integral to chiefly spiritual power by providing tangible proofs of his relationship to sacred distance.[32] As such, captives served as spiritually potent prestige goods because as foreigners they were living objects which represented a chief’s mastery of the outside world.[33]As with other prestige goods, captives demonstrated a chief’s knowledge of the world beyond his chiefdom and ritual power to harness the supernatural and thus ensure success in diplomacy, war, and agriculture.[34] Thus, captives were an integral component in preserving Mississippian social order. In accords with their status as living prestige goods, captive slaves were valuable objects of exchanges especially if they were women. The gifting of captive women between old or new exchange partners was full of symbolism representing peace, fertility, and the giving of life in an otherwise violent world.[35]

On several occasions during De Soto’s entrada, the Spaniards exchanged diplomatic promises with Native chiefs for enslaved Indian women as sex slaves and laborers.[36] While possessing several similarities, the Itaba exchange distinguishes itself as an act of trade over diplomacy. Spaniards and their Native counterparts at Itaba bartered and haggled their respective prestige goods. Each sought an equal exchange of the commodities they possessed. The Indians desired Spanish mirrors and knives, which potentially possessed considerable spiritual power and consequent enhancement of social status. The Spanish sought female captives to satisfy their carnal inclinations and need for Native labor. As such, the Itaba exchange foreshadows the dynamics of exchange which characterize Indian slave trade of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. The arrival of the English in the colonial Southeast in the late eighteenth century brought yet another European exchange partner to the political table as well as provoked considerable change in the dynamics of European-Indian interaction. The burgeoning plantation society of English South Carolina were desperate for deerskins and Indian labor and Native communities were glad to supply them in exchange for an ever-increasing list of European, cloth, tools, and weapons.[37]

Exchange was foundational to all early European-Indian contacts in North America.[38] De Soto’s entrada brought Europeans and Southeastern Indian into sustained contact for the first time and planted the seeds of a pattern and network of exchange which would bind Indian town and colonial settlement into the political and commercial region known as the colonial Southeast. Exchanges such as those which took place at Etowah demonstrate the ways in which Europeans and Indians asserted and accommodate their traditions of exchange and foreshadowed considerable transformation in Native society in the face of European colonization and trade. The European presence would bring with it conquest, disease, and commerce which would disrupt the hierarchical world of Mississippian chiefdoms and transform Native society into a more egalitarian realm of council houses, elders, and powerful confederations of Indian towns. In turn, this new Native world was far more adapted to both resisting and shaping the course of European empire in the colonial South.

[1]An entrada, or entry, was a Spanish expedition of military reconnaissance and conquest into the interior of a region.

[2] Tamemes were Native porters or laborers.

[3]  Joseph M. Hall, Zamumo’s Gifts: Indian-European Exchange in the Colonial Southeast (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 10.

[4] Gentleman of Elvas, ‘‘True Relation of the Hardships Suffered by Governor Don Hernando de Soto and Certain Portuguese Gentlemen in the Discovery of the Province of Florida,’’ trans. and ed. James Alexander Robertson with footnotes and updates by John H. Hann in The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539–1543, ed. Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight Jr., and Edward C. Moore, 2 vols. (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1993), 1: 94.

[5]Rodrigo Rangel, ‘‘Account of the Northern Conquest and Discovery of Hernando de Soto,’’ trans. and ed. John E. Worth, in The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539–1543, ed. Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight Jr., and Edward C. Moore, 2 vols. (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1993), 1:284.

 Elvas refers to Itaba as Ytau.

[6] Rangel, ‘‘Account,” 1: 284.

[7]Eric Everett Bowne, Mound Sites of the Ancient South: a Guide to the Mississippian Chiefdoms (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 155-156.

[8]Bowne, Mound Sites, 147.

[9]Bowne, Mound Sites, 155.

[10]Bowne, Mound Sites, 156.

[11]Bowne, Mound Sites, 156.

[12]Bowne, Mound Sites, 157. 

[13] Christina Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country: the Changing Face of Captivity in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012), 15-16.

[14]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 16.

[15]Hall, Zamumo’s Gifts, 2. Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 16.

[16] Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 16.

[17]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 16.

[18]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 16.

[19]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 16.

[20]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 16.

[21]Hall, Zamumo’s Gifts, 2.

[22]Hall, Zamumo’s Gifts, 2.

[23]Hall, Zamumo’s Gifts, 2.

[24]Hall, Zamumo’s Gifts, 7.

[25]Hall, Zamumo’s Gifts, 2.

[26]Hall, Zamumo’s Gifts, 7.

[27]Hall, Zamumo’s Gifts, 2.

[28]Hall, Zamumo’s Gifts, 2.

[29]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 29.

[30]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 30.

[31]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 30.

[32]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 27.

[33]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 26.

[34]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 27.

[35]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 37.

[36]Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 37.

[37]Hall, Zamumo’s Gifts, 2.