Casqui was a Native American chief who ruled over a province in northeast Arkansas in the 1500s. He was the first Indian leader in Arkansas whose 1541 dealings with the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto are recorded in detail in the accounts of the expedition. Casqui was thus the earliest Arkansan about whom we have written historical information. In the Spanish writings, his name was variously recorded as Casqui, Casquin, or Icasqui. The explorers used his name to refer to him, the town in which he resided, and the area over which he ruled.
Knowledge of Casqui himself is limited, but the narratives provide interesting details about his people and the territory under his control, as well as some of the events that occurred when the expedition traveled through the region. Archaeological, geographical, and historical evidence indicate that the town where Casqui lived was the Parkin Site in what is now Parkin Archeological State Park in Cross County. The Spanish accounts describe Casqui’s town as well-fortified and next to a river, with the chief’s house upon a manmade mound next to the river. Both the geographical features of the site and Spanish artifacts excavated there support this identification.
The de Soto expedition crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas in the summer of 1541, and the explorers soon heard of two powerful chiefs in what is now northeast Arkansas: Casqui and Pacaha. As the expedition headed north, they entered the land under Casqui’s control. Word was sent to Casqui from residents of his outlying towns that the strangers were approaching. Along with a large number of his people, Casqui walked some distance from his town—bearing gifts of food, clothing, and animal hides—to welcome de Soto and the members of his expedition. This was in marked contrast to most initial encounters between Indians and the de Soto expedition, which were violent. The Spanish accounts indicate that there were probably two reasons for the peaceful reception. First, a prolonged drought had afflicted the region for several years, causing a failure of the crops upon which Casqui’s people depended, and second, Casqui was at war with the neighboring chief Pacaha.
According to the de Soto expedition chronicles, Casqui believed that the de Soto entourage had come from heaven. Casqui asked de Soto to intervene with heaven to end the drought and brought two blind men to be healed by him. De Soto had twelve Catholic priests accompanying the expedition, and he tried to explain his Christian beliefs to Casqui through interpreters, as well as why he could not grant Casqui’s requests. The priests celebrated a Catholic mass, and de Soto had a large cross made from a tall tree and erected it atop the mound upon which Casqui’s house was located. (This does not mean that Casqui or any of his subjects became Christian, however.)
Casqui’s war with Pacaha had probably been going on for years, maybe even for generations. All of Casqui’s settlements were fortified by defensive moat-like ditches and palisade walls. Pacaha’s towns were similarly fortified, suggesting that warfare had been a fact of life in northeast Arkansas for a long time. By the 1540s, the conflict probably consisted of small skirmishes and ambushes in which a few enemy people were either captured and made slaves or killed. Casqui hoped that de Soto and his soldiers, with their formidable weapons and horses, would help defeat Pacaha. To Casqui’s disappointment, de Soto made a tenuous peace between the two chiefs before moving on to other parts of Arkansas.
The accounts of the de Soto expedition offer some details of events that occurred during their stay in northeast Arkansas, including the sacking of Pacaha’s main town by Casqui’s people and subsequent efforts by de Soto to make peace between the two. Unfortunately, they tell us little about Casqui himself. One of the accounts indicates that he was about fifty years old (in 1541), and the narratives suggest that he was the aggressor in the ongoing warfare. When the de Soto expedition moved farther west after about a month in the area, Casqui’s name disappears from the written record, and there exists no other information about him or his ultimate fate.
For additional information:
Clayton, Lawrence A., Vernon James Knight Jr., and Edward C. Moore, eds. The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539–1543. 2 vols. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.
Hudson, Charles. Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
Williams, Nancy A., ed. Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Jeffrey M. Mitchem
Arkansas Archeological Survey
This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.