The New World
The Hernando de Soto Expedition
On May 30, 1539, a party of 600 led by Spanish explorer Hernando de
Soto arrived on the west coast of what is now Florida. For more than
four years, while searching for gold and silver, they explored the southeastern
region of what was to become the United States of America. Hoping to
discover another society that was enriched with stores of precious metals
and gems like that of the Incas, de Soto continued the quest. He was
disappointed to find, however, that items precious to the peoples of
the area consisted of only freshwater pearls, seashells, copper, and
mica. Spain's imperial ambitions and interest in the eastern United
States waned. Chronicles of the expedition, however, reveal rare descriptions
of native societies and contacts with sophisticated mound-building cultures.
European contact with these societies devastated the American Indian
cultures through pillage and the introduction of diseases to which the
population had no resistance. By the beginning of the eighteenth century,
the region's native population declined dramatically. The social texture
had changed irreversibly. By the end of the eighteenth century, a majority
of the large chiefdoms had dissolved and the moundbuilding cultures
had largely vanished. The survivors began coalescing and reorganizing
themselves into tribes known today as the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws,
Cherokees, and Catawbas.
Aaron Burr and Territorial Mississippi
1807, the intrigues of Thomas Jefferson's former Vice President, Aaron
Burr, reached a climax at Natchez on the Mississippi. Here, Burr's alleged
plot to create his own empire in the southern United States and
Mexico was thwarted. After the American Revolution, both Spain and the
United States claimed the land in present-day Mississippi. Spain finally
abdicated its claims by 1798. Immediately thereafter, Congress established
the Mississippi Territory, making the region the nation's southwestern
frontier and the town of Natchez its southernmost port on the Mississippi.
Conflicting Federalist and Jeffersonian politics and continuing military
threats from the Spanish sparked tension along the Lower Mississippi.
Several territorial forts, under the command of General James Wilkinson,
controlled travel along the Lower Mississippi River and hand-led Indian
and military affairs. These included Fort Adams, at the nation's southwestern
border, and Fort Dearborn, near the territorial capital of Washington.
When the United States boundaries extended to the Gulf of Mexico after
the Louisiana Purchase, the forts were abandoned. Believing that Burr
and several dozen followers were headed down the Mississippi with a
flotilla of armed boats intending to seize New Orleans, General Wilkinson
sent troops to reoccupy Fort Adams and ordered Burr's arrest. Burr went
ashore north of Natchez, where he was arrested by territorial officials.
Arraigned on February 2, 1807, Burr was freed after successfully arguing
that his actions were directed at Spain and not at the United States.
Still a fugitive from federal charges, Burr set out overland toward
Spanish Pensacola. He was arrested north of Mobile at Fort Stoddert
in present-day Alabama and was escorted to Richmond, Virginia, where
he was tried on charges of treason in the U.S. Circuit Court under Chief
Justice John Marshall. At the end of one of the young nation's most
sensational trials, Burr was acquitted.