Parkin's Ancient Native Village May Have Welcomed De Soto

Article follows the photos:
Exhibits located in Parkin's visitors center
Exhibits located in Parkin's visitors center
The annual Living History Fair at Parkin
The annual Living History Fair at Parkin
Parkin's annual Living History Fair
Parkin's annual Living History Fair
Parkin features many interpretive programs.
Parkin features many interpretive programs.
November 12, 2002


Parkin's Ancient Native Village
May Have Welcomed De Soto

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By Craig Ogilvie, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Arkansas's 44th state park, Parkin Archeological, is the site of a once-thriving Mississippi Period Native American village. Today the park interprets the history of the village through tours, educational programs and a visitors center with an exhibit hall. Parkin is located at the junction of U.S. 64 and Ark. 184 about 20 miles northwest of West Memphis. For more information, phone (870) 755-2500 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

PARKIN -- The first Europeans to enter what is now Arkansas were most likely surprised to receive a friendly greeting. They had spent the two previous years battling natives and the elements through regions later to be known as Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.

Less than 50 years after Columbus sailed to the New World, Hernando de Soto and his Spanish army crossed the Mississippi River and made their way to a native village that many archeologists believe was just north of present-day Parkin. Today, the site is preserved as Parkin Archeological State Park.

Named for its chief, Casqui, the native village was an important social, political and religious center when the Spaniards arrived. Written accounts and rare finds of European-made items from that era help support theories that De Soto's expedition visited the Parkin site. Casqui reportedly met De Soto and offered food and lodging.

The 600-man force that landed in Florida in 1539 had dwindled to about 400 by June 18, 1541, when the river crossing was made on four crude barges. The Spanish expedition wandered the lowlands of eastern Arkansas, visiting numerous native villages in search of gold. Eventually they turned west and explored parts of central and southwest Arkansas. It is believed the Spaniards spent the winter of 1541-42 on the lower Ouachita River. De Soto died the following spring but the remainder of his army built boats, floated down the Mississippi, and made their way to Mexico.

The exact route of DeSoto's Arkansas travels has been debated for two centuries. Other than conflicting written accounts, archeology offers the only clues. Due to the historical significance and the presence of a well-preserved ceremonial mound, Parkin was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964, one of only ten such sites in the state. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places in America.

The 1965 Arkansas General Assembly authorized a state park to preserve and protect the Native American village site at Parkin, but funds were not made available for acquisition of the property until 1975 and 1979. Initial development started in 1991, and the new visitors center was dedicated on Oct. 29, 1994. Sen. Dale Bumpers was the principal speaker at the event.

The prehistoric village, on the eastern bank of the St. Francis River, covered about 17 acres and was occupied from about 1000 to 1550 A.D. It was surrounded by a moat and a log palisade for protection. Fields surrounding the village produced corn, beans, squash and other crops. A large, earthen platform mound, created by the natives, overlooked the river and still exists.

Villages similar to the Parkin site were once numerous in northeast Arkansas, but erosion, careless digging and farming practices destroyed virtually all during the last century. Initially, the Parkin village was protected in a most unusual way. Cotton farmers couldn't cultivate across the "dip" that once served as the village moat. Also, after the town of Parkin was established in the late 1800s, houses and a sawmill were constructed within and around the historic site. The construction actually protected the village and helped reduce looting.

Dr. Jeffery M. Mitchem of the Arkansas Archeological Survey has headed all studies at the park since 1990. "We now believe this is the most intact village of its time period remaining in northeast Arkansas," he said.

The Parkin site is from the Mississippian Period, an age when heavily populated native towns were scattered throughout the Delta. Important "capitals" featured earthen mounds and defensive moats. Parkin has both and was probably the home of a chief who may have controlled 20 or more other villages. Experts surmise that when De Soto arrived, eastern Arkansas had as many native villages as there are towns today, and the populations probably equaled those of today.

Sometime after the Spaniards left, the great villages described by De Soto's chroniclers were abandoned and only sparse numbers of natives remained in eastern Arkansas when the next Europeans (Marquette and Joliet) arrived in 1673. It is believed that diseases such as smallpox and influenza introduced by the Spanish expedition resulted in numerous deaths among the natives. In some cases, entire villages may have been wiped out.

Among the artifacts uncovered at the Parkin site were two Spanish-made brass bells (and fragments of two others) that were carried on the De Soto expedition as gift or trade items. Also, a multi-layered glass bead, called "chevron," was uncovered in 1966 by an archeological student. It is known that the Spanish handed out the colorful beads freely during the early part of their trek, but they are rarely found west of the Mississippi. In more recent years, a lead shot that may have been from a 60-cal. harquebus, forerunner of the musket, was discovered in the park. The heavy and cumbersome firearm was carried by some of De Soto's men.

Another intriguing find at Parkin was the remains of a large wooden post in the platform mound. Narratives of the De Soto visit mention the erection of a huge wooden cross during their stay at the Casqui village.

Most of the finds from Parkin are exhibited in the park's large exhibit hall, located in the visitors center, which also houses an audio-visual theater, archeological laboratory (with viewing windows), restrooms and a gift shop. A one-half mile trail winds through the ancient village site. The park also offers a modern group pavilion (currently under construction), a picnic area, a playground, restrooms and a boat launch ramp on the river.

Park interpreters offer educational tours and conduct programs throughout the year. The annual Living History Fair each fall celebrates a past era with re-enactments, exhibits, entertainment and food.

Parkin Archeological State Park, which is operated in partnership with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, a unit of the University of Arkansas, is open Tuesday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is charged. Educational and group rates are available with advanced notice.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"