A mis-recognized landscape

Prominent among those who seized and melted Atawallpa’s ransom was Hernando de Soto, sometimes described as the “discoverer” of the Mississippi.

… It does not matter that he was the “first”. What matters here is that he was the last outsider to see this part of North America in anything like its pre-Columbian state. By the time the British and French trod the same ground more than a century later, it had been utterly transformed by the microbes that were the true conquerors of the New World.

…There were roads and paths for them to follow, and whenever they approach a town they speak of riding for miles beside great fields of maize… [In Florida] they attacked large towns with thousands of inhabitants. They plundered elaborate temples on top of earthen pyramids. They met rulers who wore cotton and feather-mosaic tunics, traveled on splendid litters, and styled themselves children of the sun. Almost every fertile valley was intensively farmed. The only thing missing was the thing they had come for: a great empire with a hoard of gold. Since this was the sole purpose of their journey, they could never arrive.

… “About the place,” wrote one eyewitness, “were large vacant towns, grown up in grass, that appeared as if no people had lived in them for a long time. The Indians said that, two years before, there had been a pest in the land.” Garcilas adds that the capital itself was a ghost town: “The Castillians found the town of Talomeco without any people at all, because the recent pestilence had raged with more virulence and cruelty in this town than in any other of the entire province. [Near] the rich temple it is said they found four longhouses filled with bodies from the plague.”

Soto saw such places in their last days. The temples and pyramids were still in use, but the people would never again be numerous enough to build them. The plague that killed the kings of Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru, and half their subjects… had struck equally hard in the unknown kingdoms of the north. More had followed. The “tribes” the English would find, though still considerable, were remnants of once-powerful states. Houses had rotted away and woods had crept back into fields. America seemed a virgin land waiting for civilization. But Europe had made the wilderness it found; America was not a virgin, she was a widow.

– Exerpted from the book “Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas” by Ronald Wright, chapter 4.