Pearls of Great Price
By Gary Wright
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Great Gatsby.’
Hernando de Soto was the first European to venture into the southeastern part of the United States, and particularly into what we now know as the State of Alabama. He came ashore near Bradenton, Florida with a party of 620 soldiers, priests, and workers bent on savaging the land, as Cortez had ravaged Mexico, and Pizarro had laid waste to Peru. He dreamed of glory, gold, and bringing the Indians to God. From their winter location in the western panhandle of Florida, having heard of gold being mined “toward the sun’s rising,” the expedition turned north-east through Georgia and South Carolina to what we know now as Columbia.
Somewhere in present-day South Carolina, de Soto was received by a friendly female Indian chief who offered him a long string of pearls and told him more lay in nearby burial grounds. No gold however, other than pieces from an earlier coastal expedition, presumably that of Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, could be found.
The offer of pearls was made with the clear notion that de Soto would take his soldiers and leave the village alone. An account of de Soto’s exploits, written by one of his men, records that de Soto received these “pearls of great price,” and legend has it, that he collected 350 pounds of the freshwater pearls. History is silent as to whether or not de Soto made good on his part of the bargain, but based on his reputation and accounts of how he treated the Indians before receiving the gift; one would assume that he massacred and enslaved every one of them. Then, with pearls in tow, de Soto’s party continued northward into present-day North Carolina, across the Smoky Mountains into Tennessee, and southward into Georgia and Alabama.
Though de Soto and his men fought many skirmishes with local inhabitants over food, water, slave labor, and sexual lust, their fiercest battle with Indians, which resulted in the loss of many Spaniards, thousands of Indians, as well as the pearls, occurred in southeastern Alabama. Somewhere in south central Alabama, de Soto’s party fought a bloody battle with the Mauvila Indians and their allies, all under Chief Tuscaloosa. The Indians fared poorly against the disciplined Spaniards, their firearms, and their armor, and were defeated in battle and nearly annihilated as a people.
De Soto’s dreams of vast wealth and ‘Gold, God, and Glory’ ended with his miserable death in the swamps of southeastern Arkansas. His men could not even give him a decent burial, for the Indians feared de Soto, and if they had found out he had died, they would have fallen mightily upon the remaining Spaniards. De Soto discovered no gold on that journey but would find the glory of a sort many years later as the “first white man in the southeast U.S.” He did, however, find his God, who called him home to account for his many murders, greed, and brutality.
A small band of his conquistadors survived the momentous trek through the southeastern United States and made their way back to Spain to tell the story. According to these survivors, several bags of pearls, which de Soto had carried over a thousand miles, had to be abandoned at the battle of Mauvila, somewhere in south central Alabama. The exact location of that battlefield has never been pinpointed, but that locale is still being sought today by archaeologists, grave robbers, thieves, and adventurers. There has never been any report, or even whispered rumors, of the recovery of these “pearls of great price.” A swampy stretch of land near Selma, close to the old town of Cahaba, appears to be the site of Mauvila. Could it be that these pearls are still lying in the woods or at the bottom of a creek in the hinterlands of Dallas County? What would 350 pounds of pearls be worth today? They would still be “pearls of great price!”
Would the lure of such a great fortune still have the attraction that affected de Soto? Would it turn the average, law-abiding, God-fearing person into a brutal killer and a savage treasure seeker as it did de Soto? Would today’s treasure hunters fall victim to the madness of power, lust, and fortune?
Somewhere in the untamed wilds of Dallas County, Alabama, a fortune awaits a bold seeker of riches. Pearls never rust. They never dissolve. Pearls last forever. Sometimes, in the wilds of that centuries-old inhospitable, forested swamp, I hear the moans and cries of the vanquished, dead ghosts of the Tuscaloosa Indians as they mourn their murdered comrades, as they curse the memory of de Soto, and as they guard their treasure of “pearls of great price.” They beckon, “Come, seek the treasure! That is if you are worthy and you can take it from us.”
If you can take it, all that it will cost you will be your life, your soul, and your eternal damnation! But you will be rich beyond your wildest imaginings.
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