Chiaha . . . an Itza Maya province in Western North Carolina – Part Three

Evidence provided by the De Soto Chronicles

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Excerpts from the De Soto Chronicles

Hernando de Soto became wealthy, plundering the Inca Civilization, as an officer of the Pizzaro Expedition in Peru. He used that wealth to buy political influence with the king and viceroy. They granted him the right to become governor of any lands in Southeastern North America that he conquered for Spain. He personally funded most of the cost of his expedition.  De Soto recruited a small army of men, who expected to become wealthy from plundering the Native Americans of the Southeast.  Things did not turn out well for these conquistadors.

The De Soto Expedition initially started out with approximately 622 men and a small herd of pigs.  The number steadily declined to the point that about 300 survived the entire route to Mexico City. However, many of the 300 pigs survived to become the ancestors of the endemic herds of wild pigs in the Southeast today. The pigs also carried several virulent European diseases that depopulated broad swaths of Alabama, central Tennessee and western Georgia, long before there were serious attempts to colonize those regions.   

A report by the king’s agent was submitted to Spanish King Charles V in 1544, but it does not contain any specific details on Chiaha. Several distinct journals or descriptions of the Hernando de Soto Expedition were published in the 16th or early 17th century.  They include:

1544 – Luis Hernández de Biedma – He was the King’s agent responsible for the royal property with the expedition. His report was filed in the Royal Archives and exists today. He mistakenly called Chiaha, Chisca, and provided very little geographical information . . . other than saying that the expedition ascended great mountains (the Blue Ridge) then came to the source of a great river (Little Tennessee or Tuckasegee) then followed it all the way.  The Tuckasegee merges with the Little Tennessee River upstream from the Little Tennessee River Gorge. Like all other credible sources, De Biedma places Chiaha on a long narrow island in a fast-running, broad mountain river.  Unlike the others, he did not mention that the island was at the base of a deep gorge. Another description that agrees with other versions is that the towns and villages in the Province of Chiaha were fortified with log palisades.

1557 – Gentleman of Elvas – He was a Portuguese hidalgo or knight of noble birth. His memoir was published and sold to the public. The location of the capital of Chiaha was a long, deep gorge, which was downstream from the convergence of several fast-running Maya cities.  In addition to cultivating salvia, corn and beans at a large scale, the people of Chiaha were very skilled at refining cooking oil from hickory nuts.

“The Governor departed from Xuale (at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountain Escarpment) Within five days the Governor came to Guaxule.”

“The Governor departed from Guaxule, and in two days’ journey came to a town called Canasagua.”

“From the time that the Governor departed from Canasagua, he journeyed five days through a desert; and two leagues before he came to Chiaha. On the fifth day of June, the Governor entered into Chiaha.”

1544/1556 – Rodrigo Ranjel – He kept a diary, which has been lost. It was apparently used by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés in writing his La historia general y natural de las Indias. Oviedo died in 1557. The part of his work containing Ranjel’s diary was not published until 1851.

“On Tuesday, May 25, they left Xuale and on that day went up a very high range.   . . . [five days transpired] . . . on the last day of May (May 31) they left Guaxule.  . . . on the next day, they passed by Canasoga and camped in open country.  . . . It was Saturday, the fifth of June that they crossed an arm of the river, it was very broad, and entered Chiaha.”

“On Monday, June 28, the Governor left Chiaha, and passing five or six villages, camped in a pine grove for the night.  . . . On Friday, the sixth of July, the Governor arrived in Coste. The village was on an island in the river, which there flows large, swift and hard to enter.  . . . There in Coste they found in the trunk of a tree, as good of honey and even better than could be had in Spain.”

1605 – Garcilaso de la Vega, known as El Inca (the Inca). He did not participate in the expedition. He wrote his account, La Florida, decades after the expedition, based on interviews with some survivors of the expedition. Some parts are considered by many scholars to be unreliable. On the other hand, it provides plausible details that other versions missed.  For example, it states that the people of Chiaha raised honey bees and also that the members of the expedition passed many fields of salvia that was cultivated along rivers in the province.  He uses Ychiaja for the name of the capital, which is correct Itza Maya grammar.

The key pieces of evidence

Chiaha is an Itza Maya word, meaning, “Salvia River.” A selectively cultivated variety of salvia, called chia in Itza Maya, is a major food source in the Mexican state of Chiapas . . . which means “Salvia-place of.”

The chroniclers of the De Soto expedition observed vast fields of Salvia flowers, growing along the rivers that flowed through the Province of Chiaha. Now, all those flowers would be a perfect place to live, if you were . . .
Honey bees! That’s right! Chiaha was the only place where the De Soto Expedition observed honey bees being raised. Almost every house had a “pet hive.” This is a Maya tradition. The Mayas domesticated an indigenous, stingless honey bee. Being smaller, it takes more bees to produce honey, but the flavor is superior to that of Eurasian bees. The farmers of Chiapas exported their surplus honey to other regions.

The Kingdom of Apalache, whose capital was in the Nacoochee Valley of Northeast Georgia, constructed a road from the capital of Chiaha in the Great Smoky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico, near the mouth of the Suwannee River. It was known as “the Great White Path.” US Highway 129 generally follows the route of the Great White Path. The location of that capital should be near the location, where US 129 meets the Great Smoky Mountains in Graham County, NC.

The Tallulah Mound is located adjacent to US 129 near the source of the Cheoah River. After a Florida archaeologist found artifacts in it, typical of Etowah Mounds in Georgia, its name was quietly taken off the official State Historic Preservation Office list of mounds in North Carolina, even though it is probably the best preserved Native American mound in the state. Tallulah is the Anglicization of the Itsate Creek word, Talula, which means “a small town with one mound.”

One would expect the place name, similar to Chiaha, to survive in some form, since Chiaha was described as a large and powerful province in the mountains. Indeed, the Cheoah River begins on the southern edge of Graham County, NC . . . then parallels US 129 through the county, before flowing into the Little Tennessee River Gorge, downstream from Fontana Dam. There is also a Cheoah Mountain overlooking the gorge.

The Cheoah River near Robbinsville, NC
1905 USGS topographic map of the Great Smoky Mountains – Chiaha was in a deep gorge, with high mountains rising up from each side of the gorge. It was downstream from the confluence of four rivers. The gorge continued to the west about 50 miles before reaching the Tennessee River Valley. The Little Tennessee River Gorge meets all of these criteria. At the eastern end of the gorge, the Tennessee River is joined by the Oconaluftee, Tuckasegee and Nantahala Rivers. Zimmerman Island, in the French Broad River, was selected as the site of Chiaha by a late 20th century academic consortium, but does not meet any of these criteria.

And now you know!


  1. Howdy. Concise!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    On Thu, Jan 27, 2022 at 10:07 AM The Americas Revealed wrote:

    > alekmountain posted: ” Evidence provided by the De Soto Chronicles by > Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner Excerpts from the De Soto > Chronicles Hernando de Soto became wealthy, plundering the Inca > Civilization, as an officer of the Pizzaro Expedition in P” >

    Liked by 2 people

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