Left: Map of early Spanish explorations courtesy of luddist.com
This is an excerpt of a book project I am working on that deals with the role of epidemic disease in the European conquest of the Americas
Beginning with Ponce de Leon in 1513, the Spanish began a campaign of conquest and exploration in the land that they called La Florida. This territory encompassed not only that of present-day Florida, but parts of Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi.
The largest ethnic group in the region was the Timucua, who dominated the northern third of La Florida. Demographic estimates of the population size of the Timucua range from 200,000 to 500,000 people; the difficulty in quantifying population size is a function of the decentralized nature of Timucuan society. There were approximately 30 Timucua kingdoms of various sizes, and the lack of a formal system of writing has hampered efforts to determine the scope of Timucuan civilization.
The first epidemics in La Florida have not been as well-documented as those of Hispaniola, Mesoamerica, and Peru; however, there is strong evidence of catastrophic depopulation among Timucuan peoples. The number of chiefdoms had dwindled to 13 by 1595, and the population had fallen to an estimated 50,000 people.
The colonizing expedition of Hernando de Soto was instrumental in describing and cataloguing the various ethnic groups of La Florida. Without these narratives, it is possible that the names of entire indigenous groups might have vanished from history. Of course, de Soto’s expedition and the Eurasian microbes that tagged along may, in and of themselves, have triggered an initial wave of demographic disaster for the original inhabitants of the Floridian peninsula.
The century after initial European contact was, for the Timucua-speakers, one of massive depopulation. The exact date of epidemics is not known; what can be pieced together from contemporary accounts is the large number of empty villages in the southeastern United States that developed between the expeditions of de Soto and LaSalle.
The maelstrom of disease and death that may have been roiled by de Soto apparently extended across the entire Southeast. The Coosa city-states of western Georgia and the Caddoan-speaking civilization, centered on the Texas-Arkansas border, collapsed soon after the de Soto foray. The Caddo were renowned for their taste in colossal construction: public plazas, ceremonial platforms, mausoleums.
After the period of de Soto’s travels, the Caddo stopped building community centers and began digging community cemeteries. Between the expeditions of de Soto and La Salle, the Caddoan population plummeted from about 200,000 to an estimated 8,500 people - a drop of nearly 96 percent.