When the expedition of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto crossed the Mississippi River in the summer of 1541, he and the hundreds of people accompanying him entered what is now Arkansas. They spent the next year roaming through the state until Soto’s death in 1542. The surviving group decided to abandon the expedition and head to Mexico, which they did after many tribulations.
Shortly after crossing the Mississippi, they heard of a powerful chief named Casqui, who ruled over a number of settlements in some of the river valleys. Soto traveled to Casqui’s village, where he was welcomed with gifts and hospitality. He remained there a few days, and one of the things he did was to have a wooden cross constructed and raised atop the mound that was the platform for the chief’s house. Some Catholic priests among the expedition members conducted a Mass, and the cross was apparently left in place by the residents of Casqui’s village.
Since the 1960s, several artifacts have been found at the Parkin site that came from the Soto expedition. Based on these objects and the location and configuration of the settlement, many archeologists believe that the Parkin site is the location of Casqui’s village. Limited excavations atop the mound at Parkin in 1966 encountered part of a large wooden post that had been burned in place. After some samples were taken, its location was mapped, it was covered with a sheet of white plastic, and then it was covered back up. In the 1990s, some analyses were performed on the wood samples, finding that the post was of bald cypress and dated between 1515 and 1663. These tantalizing results whetted the appetites of the archeologists and staff at Parkin Archeological State Park, who dreamt of digging down to this post to see if a tree ring date would show that it was cut in 1541. If so, this would be strong evidence that the Parkin site is probably Casqui.
Through the aid of Mark Michel of The Archaeological Conservancy, this dream finally came true in April, 2016. Mark directed Dr. Jeffrey M. Mitchem to a private foundation, the Elfrieda Frank Foundation, who awarded a grant to cover the costs of such a project. A small team of highly skilled archeologists from the Arkansas Archeological Survey were brought together, and Arkansas State Parks provided Rangers to guard the site from disturbance at night. The excavations went quickly, and the post remnant was located, along with the 50-year-old remains of the plastic sheet that had covered it. The post appeared to have been set in a place where another post had stood before, possibly immediately before. The earlier post had been burned in place, then a hole was dug down for setting the new post/possible cross. The project attracted a fair amount of media attention.
The charred wooden post remnant and its soil matrix were carefully excavated and meticulously documented. The best preserved portion was removed intact, wrapped securely, and driven across the state to the University of Arkansas campus, where Dr. David W. Stahle, Professor of Geosciences and a leading expert in tree-ring studies, examined it, but unfortunately it was too broken and incomplete to derive a tree-ring date.
The grant included funds for six AMS radiocarbon dates, a technique which requires only a small amount of material for processing. Samples taken included individual growth rings (primarily from outer rings) and one from the core of the tree. These were submitted to Beta Analytic, Inc. in 2016. The results on all six samples were essentially identical, with calibrated date ranges of A.D. 1445–1650. The wide ranges are due to the age of the wood being only a few centuries before the present: as one approaches modern time, the standard deviation increases. While we had hoped for more precision, these results demonstrate beyond any doubt that the tree came from a time range that included 1541.
In early 2017, the Elfrieda Frank Foundation granted permission to use some of the unexpended funds for additional AMS dates. Rather than take more samples from the possible cross itself, two were selected from remains of the charred post that was found below the possible cross. The post remains below the possible cross yielded calibrated date ranges of A.D. 1435-1615. This appears to confirm that the lower post probably predates the possible cross by a few years or decades (although this is by no means certain). This would confirm the hypothesis that there was an existing post already in place on the mound, which had been burned in place before digging the new posthole and setting the possible cross into it. Ceremonial posts on mounds are known from other Mississippian sites, and this was probably a factor in the Casqui people’s ready acceptance of a cross atop the mound where the chief’s house stood.
While we were unable to get the “holy grail” of a tree-ring date, the archeological context and dates, together with the Spanish artifacts and other archeological information about the site, allow us to make a compelling argument that the post is indeed the remnant of the cross raised by Soto in 1541. The Parkin site in Parkin Archeological State Park is one of the most historically important places in Arkansas, a location of local, state, and national significance.
About This Series
The Arkansas Archeological Survey celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017. Our mission to study and conserve the state's archeological heritage and to communicate our knowledge to the public was established by the Arkansas legislature with passage of Act 39 in 1967. In honor of that occasion, we are posting weekly “Historic Moments” to share memories of some of our most interesting accomplishments and experiences.