“The Great Necessity”: Salt and Power in the Late Mississippian Native South

Image Description: Excerpt from Guillaume L’Isle’s “Carte de la Louisiane et de cours du Mississippi, 1718.” This map provides estimates of various French and Spanish incursions into the territories of the Caddo, Tunica, and other Indigenous polities in the western Mississippi Valley and Red River region. The map’s highlighted routes include De Soto’s original route as well as Luis de Moscoso Alvarado’s route toward present-day eastern Texas. Though failing to offer exactly precise locations of resources, sites, and peoples, the map highlights some critical points – including Naouadiches and Lac de Sel, both squarely within Caddoan domain – that illuminate the enduring centrality of salt in the region centuries after De Soto’s invasion. Image from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. 


By Annabel G. LaBrecque

When Hernando de Soto’s expedition invaded southern North America in the 1540s, the colonizers gradually found their search for gold hindered by a lack of a comparatively mundane mineral: salt. The expedition’s documents reflect a gradual understanding of salt as an unexpectedly strategic resource, its availability dictated by Indigenous polities already entrenched in salt production and trading. Long before European invasions, salt figured largely into the lives, politics, consumption, and labor practices of various Indigenous polities. This was especially true for some Tunica and Caddo communities, many of whom, at the time of De Soto’s invasion, occupied  salt-rich regions west of the Mississippi River. A focus on one universally desired yet dynamically exploited resource and its place in a longer regional history of changes, continuities, disruptions, and responses renders more clearly the economic, political, and ecological circumstances of Euro-Native encounter and interaction during the mid-sixteenth century.

Archaeological studies of Tunica and Caddo territories in regions of present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, and east Texas indicate a long history of salt production and trade. Since at least the early Mississippian period, various sub-polities across the western Mississippi watershed engaged in salt production using various technologies, some of which remained in practice upon Spanish arrival.[1] Observing production techniques in the salt-rich Cayas region, one colonizer described how “salt is made along a river, which, when the water goes down, leaves it upon the sand,” which was “thrown together into certain baskets,” strained, and boiled over a fire, “leaving salt at the bottom.” According to the same account, Tunica traders “carry it thence to other regions to exchange it for skins and blankets.”[2]

Salt was especially critical to the Caddo community residing at Naguatex. Situated on the Red River and pronounced nawadish in the Caddo language, Caddos had inhabited the “place of salt” since at least the early 1400s.[3] In 1542, Luis de Moscoso Alvarado led what remained of the expedition to present-day East Texas. [4] After sending the “right arm and nostrils” of a captive to the caddi of Naguatex, Alvarado invaded the “very extensive” village and demanded the caddi show him how and where to cross the Red River. By the time the expedition went to cross, however, “it had swollen greatly,” despite that “it had not rained for more than a month” in the region. The Caddo at Naguatex “conjectured that it might be the sea which came up through the river.”[5] Caddos remained key salt producers and traders at Naguatex until at least the 1780s. Here, the presence of salt, manifested in political power as well as ecological uncertainty, proved a considerable hindrance to Spanish movement.

Yet for much of the expedition, salt remained an elusive resource. From Cofitachequi to Pacaha, expeditionary narratives reflect increasing desperation among colonizers physically weakened by insufficient sodium intake.[6] Upon entering Tunican territories immediately west of the central Mississippi River, De Soto interrogated eight “strangers and merchants who had traversed many provinces” to “bring salt to sell,” informing De Soto “that in some mountains forty leagues away there was a great deal of very good salt, and to the repeated questions they asked them, they replied that there was also in that country much of the yellow metal they asked for.” “After eleven days of search” two Spanish soldiers and the kidnapped merchants returned “with six loads of rock-salt crystals, not made artificially, but found in this state” and “the Spaniards consoled themselves with the salt for their disappointment and misunderstanding regarding the gold.” [7]

In moments of significant disruption, salt offered stability for some and insecurity for others. The caddi of Naguatex, whose access to salt likely contributed to their regional influence, was capable in mustering a considerable force that successfully delayed the De Soto expedition’s advance westward. Tunican peoples faced the opposite; through the Tunica-occupied provinces the Spanish invaders interrogated traders and leaders, took supplies, and quartered for extended periods of time at salt marshes, creeks, and licks.

Regardless of one’s place, salt was (and is) a biological necessity for the human body.  Compounding its essentiality among Europeans and Indigenous peoples are salt’s myriad purposes. For centuries Tunican and Caddoan peoples periodically facilitated regional changes in the production and circulation of salt. When Europeans inserted themselves into longer processes of change and continuity across the Late Mississippian continental south, salt’s political, cultural, and economic power assumed even more strategic value. The role of salt in the bodies, minds, and movement of individuals brought into contact by European arrivals shaped the very nature of these invasions—and responses to them. As Tunica and Caddo responses to De Soto’s invasion show us, the politics of salt could be as serious a matter of life and death. It often was.


Author’s bio: Annabel LaBrecque is a PhD student in the Department of History at University of California, Berkeley, where she specializes in Indigenous North America, economic and environmental history, colonialisms, and resource extraction.


Further Reading

The De Soto Chronicles (Vols. 1 and 2): The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543.

Edited by Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight Jr., and Edward C. Moore. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1993.

Brian, Jeffery P. On the Tunica Trail. Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiquities Commission:

Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism. Third Edition, 1994. https://www.crt.state.la.us/dataprojects/archaeology/virtualbooks/TUNICA/tunica.htm.

Brown, Ian W. Salt and the Eastern North American Indian: An Archaeological Study. Cambridge, MA:

Harvard Univ. Peabody Museum, 1980.

             The Role of Salt in Eastern North American Prehistory. Baton Rouge, LA: Department of

Recreation and Tourism, Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiques Commission, 1981.  https://www.crt.state.la.us/dataprojects/archaeology/virtualbooks/SALT/SALT.HTM.

Carter, Cecile Elkins. Caddo Indians: Where We Come From. Norman, OK: Univ. of Oklahoma Press,

             “Caddo Nation.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas, 2018.             https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/caddo-nation-549/.

Early, Ann M. (ed.). Caddoan Saltmakers in the Ouachita Valley: The Hardman Site. Research Series No.

  1. Fayetteville, AR: Arkansas Archeological Survey, 1993.

             “Saltmaking.” Arkansas Archaeological Survey.


             “Salt Making.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Last updated January 13, 2017.             https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/salt-making-567/.

Eubanks, Paul N. “The Effects of Horses and Raiding on the Salt Industry in Northwest             Louisiana.” Caddo Archeology Journal Vol. 28 (2018): 5-20.             https://doi.org/10.21112/.ita.2018.1.14.

             “Salt Production, Standardization, and Specialization: An Example from Drake’s Salt      Works.” North American Archaeologist Vol. 37, No. 4 (2016): 203-230.

             “A Reconstruction of the Caddo Salt Production Process at Drake’s Salt Works.” Caddo Archeology Journal Vol. 25 (2015): 145-166.

             “The Timing and Distribution of Caddo Salt Production in Northwestern Louisiana.”      Southeastern Archaeology Vol. 33, No. 1 (2014): 108-122.

Muller, Jon. “Mississippian Specialization and Salt.” American Antiquity Vol. 49, No. 3 (1984): 489-507. https://www.jstor.org/stable/280356.

             “Pans and a Grain of Salt: Mississippian Specialization Revisited.” American Antiquity           Vol. 51, No. 2 (1986): 405-409. https://www.jstor.org/stable/279955.



[1] For comprehensive studies of salt technologies in the central and lower Mississippi Valley, see Ian W. Brown, The Role of Salt in Eastern North American Prehistory (Baton Rouge, LA: Department of Recreation and Tourism, Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiques Commission, 1981); Ann M. Early (ed.), Caddoan Saltmakers in the Ouachita Valley: The Hardman Site (Research Series No. 43. Fayetteville, AR: Arkansas Archeological Survey, 1993); and Paul N. Eubanks, “A Reconstruction of the Caddo Salt Production Process at Drake’s Salt Works,” Caddo Archaeology Journal Vol. 25 (2015), 145-166; “The Timing and Distribution of Caddo Salt Production in Northwestern Louisiana,” Southeastern Archaeology Vol. 33, No. 1 (2014), 108-122; and “Mississippian Salt Production at the Stimpson Site (1Ck29) in Southern Alabama,” Journal of Alabama Archaeology Vol. 59, Nos. 1 & 2 (2013), 1-21.

[2] Excerpted from the Gentleman from Elvas’ account in Edward Gaylord Bourne (ed.) Narratives of the Career of Hernando de Soto in the Conquest of Florida as Told By A Knight of Elvas, and in a Relation by Luys Hernandez de Biedman, Factor of the Expedition (New York, NY: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1904), 136. This translation is clearer than the translation given in the Clayton, Knight, and Moore volumes. For a slightly different translation, see eds. Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight Jr., and Edward C. Moore, The De Soto Chronicles (Vols. 1 and 2): The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1993), 124-125.

[3] The widish suffix also described a particularly salty region in present-day northwestern Louisiana, known today as Upper Lick. In the middle of the Upper Lick Salt Flat is Widdish Island, or “Salt Island” in Caddoan language. Upper Lick is one of several salt licks in present-day northwestern Louisiana at which archaeologists have found evidence of both seasonal and year-round salt production. For more see Eubanks, “The Timing and Distribution of Caddo Salt Production in Northwestern Louisiana,” 113. Caddo tribal historian Cecile Elkins Carter cites archaeological records that indicate “a single great Caddo settlement, within the area identified in the De Soto documents as the province of Naguatex, had persisted from about A.D. 1400 through 1788 to 1790 and that ruins of compounds in that settlement were observed and identified by members of the Freeman-Custis expedition in 1806 as the last village of the Kadohadacho.” Cecile Elkins Carter, Caddo Indians: Where We Come From (Norman, OK: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2001), 363.

[4] In mid-1542, after De Soto’s death, Alvarado led the expedition in search of gold as well as an outlet to Mexico. According to Elkins Carter, “the Naguatex caddi was powerful enough to direct three other caddis and many warriors in an attack on the Spaniards,” in 1542. See Cecile Elkins Carter, “Caddo Nation,” Encyclopedia of Arkansas, 2018, accessed online: https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/caddo-nation-549/.

[5] All quotes from “Account by a Gentleman from Elvas” in The De Soto Chronicles, 143-144.

[6] Contemporary primary and secondary accounts of the expedition from the Gentleman from Elvas, Luys Hernandez de Biedma, Rodrigo Rangel, Rocio Sanchez Rubio, and Garcilaso de la Vega all describe various instances of complaint (and, on occasion, physical weakness) among expeditioners attributed to the expedition’s inability to locate salt. For some examples, see Vol. 1 of The De Soto Chronicles, 65, 230, 261, 410; and Vol. 2 of The De Soto Chronicles, 42, 377, 383, 384, 410, 548.

[7] Excerpts from Garcilaso de la Vega, The Florida of the Inca: A History of Adelantado, Hernando De Soto, Governor and Captain General of the Kingdom of Florida, and other Heroic Spanish and Indian Cavaliers in Vol. 2 of The De Soto Chronicles, 407.