Parkin Archeological State Park & Hernando de Soto, Arkansas’ first tourist

Things were not going well for Hernando de Soto in 1541. Three years into his exploration of North America, the conquistador had not found gold or a passage to the orient. He’d encountered many native tribes, which were overwhelmed by the spectacle of armor-clad soldiers who were riding strange beasts – horses. They first honored him as a god, but his brutal treatment of the people he met soon soured relations. His trek degenerated into defending himself against constant attacks by angry natives.

Which makes the events at what is now the Parkin Archeological State Park all the more curious. This was the site of the village of Casqui, inhabited by the Casqui Indians, named after their chief – you guessed it – Casqui. Kind of a Native American version of George Foreman naming all of his kids “George.”

The Casqui were unique. No other native group bears any resemblance to the Casqui’s customs or lifestyle. Farmers, their fields covered the rich bottomland of the St. Francis River. They lived in a moated village of about 400 circular houses with peaked thatched roofs. Their most enduring artifacts are intriguing “head pots,” pottery made to look like human heads. Each one has distinctive characteristics, tattoos, piercings, and scars.

As far as anyone can tell, de Soto was the first European to travel to what is now Arkansas. When de Soto and Company showed up, Casqui welcomed them and invited the Spaniards to stay in the village. De Soto declined, probably fearing his reputation preceded him and that the Casqui would kill them as they slept. Instead, deSoto and his troops were feted.

The Casqui may have had an ulterior motive. They were enduring a severe drought; deSoto might be a god, or at least have a direct line to the Divine. No harm in asking if he could put a fix in.

A devout Catholic, de Soto was thrilled to oblige. He ordered his troops to construct a massive wooden cross; his priests conducted Mass in its shadow. According to diaries kept by his scribes, it rained the next day, cementing the Spaniards’ good relations with the Casqui.

Still looking for treasure, de Soto pressed on. Within a year, he was dead, felled by a fever. The Casqui also soon vanished. The Spaniards brought diseases for which the natives had no immunity, so the Casqui may have fallen to smallpox or measles. The village was abandoned.

That was a boon for archeologists, who are happily excavating and speculating on the mystery of the Casqui. They’ve dug up foundations of the houses, tools, and the unique “head pots.”

At the park visitor center – designed to evoke the style of the Casqui buildings – there’s a short film telling the story of deSoto and the Casqui and displays of artifacts, including “head pots” and a sizeable chunk of wood that may well be the remains of the cross deSoto erected. The archeological lab is in the center, too, where archeologists conduct the meticulous job of cleaning, evaluating, and cataloging artifacts. Outside, a self-guided walking tour includes the on-going active dig where visitors can watch the excavations, an overlook of the St. Francis River, and a one-room schoolhouse dating from the early 1900s, when a small town was on the site.

Parkin Archeological State Park is on Arkansas Highway 184, off US 64, about 30 minutes west of Memphis. It’s open 8-5, Tuesday through Sat and 1-5 on Sunday. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for kids. There’s a picnic area and playground for kids. For more information see the park website or call 870-755-2500.

Photos: De Soto: University of Arkansas. All others:Fran Severn