The Lady of Cofitachequi (Flourished Mid 1500s)

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The Lady of Cofitachequi (Flourished Mid 1500s)


Chief of Cofitachequi

Native American Biography. Uncovering the histories of Native American individuals in North America before 1600 is difficult. Since few natives wrote, scholars have to depend on the descriptions recorded by Europeans of the Native Americans they encountered. Part of the problem with such sources is that Europeans often misconstrued the motives to which they attributed the behavior of the Indians. To compensate for such biases historians attempt to match what they can discern about the culture of the individual in question with what the Europeans actually wrote about him or her. In so doing it is possible to uncover some of what the individual might have thought as he or she tried to cope with European explorers, soldiers, colonists, and priests.

Early Life. One of the most interesting leaders in early North America was the Lady of Cofitachequi. From sources written by the Spanish, we know a bit about her adult life but absolutely nothing about her childhood. Based on archaeological investigations and later sources it is nevertheless possible to put together a rough sketch of how she might have grown up. In Mississippian societies such as Cofitachequi, women farmed, so the Lady of Cofitachequi probably had experience clearing fields, planting seed, weeding rows of corn, and harvesting crops. Women also made pottery, so she was probably a skilled artisan. The fact that she belonged to a chiefly lineage, however, may have restricted her from participating in such activities. Instead, she may have been raised by temple priests who taught her the myths and sacred powers that enabled her and her people to prosper. It is also probable that she grew up in a matrilineal society, where infants traced their ancestry and family through the mother rather than through the father. As chief she probably inherited the title from her mother and then passed it on to either a son or a daughter.

Contact with De Soto. In 1539 Hernando de Soto started out on his long trek through the Southeast. Having failed to find gold among the same Apalachees that Narváez had visited, he headed for Cofitachequi, a chiefdom in present-day South Carolina rumored to be teeming with wealth and to be governed by a woman. When the Spaniards reached the riverbank across from the chiefdoms principle town, six delegates came out and inquired of de Soto Sir, do you wish peace or war? He assured them that the former was his goal, and he requested rafts to carry his men across the river and food to feed them. The delegates deferred any final decision to their chief, a young marriageable woman, who had just inherited her office.

An Alliance Is Made. Nearly every time a Mississippian chief met a European explorer, he or she tried to enlist the newcomers in a military alliance aimed at a rival chiefdom. The Lady of Cofitachequi was no different. Across the river from de Soto she boarded a canoe over which an ornamented awning was stretched. Eight women accompanied her while several men in another canoe towed the royal vessel ashore. She seated herself before de Soto and offered to do what she could to help the expedition, opening a large storehouse of corn to the Spaniards, vacating her own home for de Soto, and ordering that the newcomers be given use of half of the residences in the town. She also provided rafts and canoes for the Spaniards to cross the river. As a final gesture she took off a great length of pearls as large as hazelnuts and handed it over to de Soto, and he returned the favor with a ruby ring. Acutely aware of the importance of generosity, the Lady of Cofitachequi constantly apologized that she could not help more. What the Spanish did not understand was that by accepting her hospitality they had entered into an alliance with Cofitachequi.

Opposition. Because the Cofitachequans were matrilineal, mothers had a considerable amount of power. When the Lady of Cofitachequis mother learned of the alacrity with which her daughter had made an alliance with de Soto, the woman expressed her hearty disapproval and refused to come to see a people never seen before.... De Soto wanted to see her, however, so he dispatched his accountant, Juan de Añasco, to convince the elderly woman of his noble intentions. On the way to her house, however, Añascos Indian guide committed suicide because he did not want to displease the widow by leading the Spanish to her, and she, having gotten word of the suicide, moved to a house farther away. Añasco decided to call off the expedition and returned to the main town of Cofitachequi.

End of the Alliance. De Soto wanted gold and silver, so he asked the Lady of Cofitachequi to bring out samples of the minerals her people had. They presented beautiful copper objects that the Spanish admired, and they showed de Soto a chunk of mica, neither of which satisfied his appetite for riches. Gold and silver, not copper and mica, were the ores of fame and fortune. To retain the Spaniards interest the Lady of Cofltachequi pointed them in the direction of a temple where the bodies of former chiefs were kept and told them to take as many [pearls] as you like.... The Spaniards took from the temples bags of pearls and bundles of skins, but it was not enough to warrant a longer stay. Having consumed nearly all of the food in the town, de Soto and his men asked the Lady of Cofltachequi about the location of other nearby chiefdoms where they might find more treasure.

Escape. De Soto typically captured the chiefs he visited and forced them to lead him to the next chiefdom whereupon he would either kill them or turn them loose. In May 1540 the Spanish left Cofltachequi and forced the chief to accompany them. Rather than let her ride on a horse, de Soto forced her to walk with the partys Indian slaves. The party headed for the Appalachian Mountains where de Soto hoped to find Chiaha, a tributary town of the Coosa chiefdom. As they marched, the governor ordered, one of the Spaniards wrote, a guard to be placed over [the Lady of Cofltachequi] not giving her such good treatment as she deserved.... Just before the expedition entered the adjoining province of Xuale, which the Lady of Cofitachequi also governed, she stepped aside from the road and went into a wood saying that she had to attend to her necessities. After a brief search the Spaniards failed to find her. They continued on their way, but they never forgot the remarkable welcome they had received from the Lady of Cofitachequi.


Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight Jr., and Edward C. Moore, eds., The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 15391543, 2 volumes (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993);

Charles Hudson and Carmen Chaves Tesser, eds., The Forgotten Centuries: Indians and Europeans in the American South, 15211704 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994).

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The Lady of Cofitachequi (Flourished Mid 1500s)

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