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    trees and bushes in a dark woods

    The Hollow Lands

    By Andrew Wainer

    August 20, 2020
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    Sallying forth and coming home are the complicated underlying themes of “The Hollow Lands” by Andrew Wainer at Breaking Ground, a two-part profile of an Appalachian county that begins with a marauding colonizer and winds up in the present, where there is an abject decline in opportunity for anyone who wants to build a life there, all against the backdrop of a gorgeous mountain ridge. Is there any reason left for hope? “It might be that the healing that will come will begin quietly, unspectacularly, when more people refuse to give up and move on even when that’s the reasonable thing to do; even in places the world doesn’t know exist: places like the hollows of these mountains.”

    Hernando de Soto arrived at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in what would become North Carolina in 1540, four years after captaining the Pizarro brothers’ destruction of Atahualpa’s Incan Empire. The Spanish conquistador, in his late thirties, was the first European to venture into the American South and see the Appalachian Mountains.

    Francisco Pizarro, who led the conquest of the Andean Incan kingdom and became one of its Spanish viceroys, depended on de Soto to lead mounted lancing assaults on the Incan army. But in Peru – in spite of his victory – Pizarro denied de Soto the political leadership he craved, and in 1536 he returned to Europe.

    De Soto’s role as a warrior in the conquest of the Incas did earn him wealth – fabulous wealth – and a life of leisure in Europe. But he was dissatisfied. He departed Spain again in 1538 for Florida with an army of six hundred and fifty men to embark on a doomed four-year expedition marching a circuitous route from Tampa Bay to the Mississippi River. De Soto crossed oceans and invested his wealth, his honor, and ultimately his life pursuing one thing in the New World: power.

    His single-minded quest for command in the South was a disaster for the Native American communities and chiefdoms he encountered. De Soto’s army pressed them into service, using them as translators, guides, porters, and concubines. They routinely took food and supplies by force. If the natives resisted, punishment was bloody. It didn’t take long for the expedition to become feared and hated among the chiefdoms of the region. Consequently, when they could, his captives tried to escape.

    By May 1540, a year after disembarking in Tampa Bay, the de Soto expedition reached the territory of Chalaque, southwest of what is today Charlotte, North Carolina. The Anglicized version of Chalaque is Cherokee. This was their ancestors’ domain. De Soto’s army moved through Chalaque to the regional chiefdom of Joara in the Appalachian foothills in what is today Burke County, North Carolina.

    The mountains were natural obstacles to pursuit and recapture. Consequently, in May, a group of captives, including a native noblewoman and an African captive brought across the Atlantic, escaped de Soto’s army. They fled to Joara, the remains of which can be visited today, at a site near Morganton.

    The escape to Joara was perhaps the first recorded instance of fugitives using Appalachia as a hiding place from hostile outside authority. For centuries more, the mountains would serve as a refuge for those fleeing authority – first Native Americans, and then white colonial and American settlers. Almost five hundred years later, the Appalachian distrust of outside authority persists.

    Continue reading at Breaking Ground.

    Contributed By

    Andrew Wainer is a researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. His research has been published in the peer-reviewed journals Development in Practice and International Migration, and he has also written for the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic.

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