The barbecue, recorded by Spaniards from the Hernando de Soto expedition, consisted of turkey and deer and took place in 1540 in what is now the state of Georgia in the southeastern United States.
Hernando de Soto and his men were trekking from the Gulf Coast toward what they thought was a powerful Mississippian chiefdom in what is now North Carolina.
De Soto set sail from Cuba and landed in 1539 near present-day Tampa with 650 soldiers and 220 horses on a quest to find gold, riches and glory.
In his book Knights of Spain: Warriors of the Sun anthropologist Charles Hudson (1932-2013) made note of this barbecue milestone. In 2008 I spoke with Hudson about the barbecue that de Soto and his men encountered on March 25, 1540 and what de Soto expected to find on his journey through the Southeast.
“They expected to find another great society that they could conquer and plunder, a society like they conquered in Central America,” Hudson said.
De Soto had become a rich man during the Spanish conquest of the Inca in Central America. But unsatisfied with those riches, de Soto turned his eye toward North America.
From Tampa Bay, de Soto moved his army toward the land of the Apalachee Indians and spent the winter at present-day Tallahassee, Fla, then called Anhayca. The Spaniards departed Anhayca on March 3, 1540, and moved north toward a rendezvous with barbecue and destiny.
Desoto’s men traveled through a sparsely settled region of what is now south Georgia. On the morning of March 25th they crossed the Ocmulgee River and discovered a town on an island there.
De Soto’s men attacked the town. There, they captured some people and were about to cross the river again. De Soto’s secretary Rodrigo Rangel picks up the account:
“But first,” Rangel said, “they had for lunch some hens of the land, which are called guanajas, and loins of venison that they found roasted on a barbacoa, which is like a grill.”
Barbacoa,” Hudson said, “really means a platform or grill raised up over fire.”
Hudson said this technique of cooking on a small platform was probably first seen by the Spaniards on the island of Hispaniola, which was inhabited by Arawak Indians. He said barbacoa is an Arawak Indian word.
“They learned the word there and that became the word for the technique. It was done much like meat is cooked now. The grills were made of split sections of cane. They used green wood to make the frame,” Hudson said.
Though Rangel may have recorded the first barbecue in the Southeast, another use of the barbacoa was discovered by Juan Ortiz years earlier in Florida.
Ortiz was a member of the ill-fated Narvaez expedition that landed in Florida in 1527. Ortiz, who was about 18 years old at the time, was captured by a Native American chief named Ozita. Ozita wanted to torture Ortiz as revenge for the death of his wife; Narvaez had allowed his dogs to attack and devour one of Ozita’s wives.
Ozita strapped Ortiz naked to a large barbacoa grill and situated him about 3 feet above a bed of red-hot coals. Ortiz began to slowly cook.
After a while, the screams of Ortiz were so great that Ozita’s daughter begged her father to relent. Ozita ended Ortiz’s barbecue and allowed him to live. Ortiz will go down in history as the first Spaniard who was barbecued and lived to tell about it. Because Ortiz was not flipped, he lived the rest of his life with a huge scar on his backside.
But, Hudson also noted that cooking meat wasn’t the only use of barbacoas. The Indians also built platforms 5 or 6 feet high that would hold corn, much like a corn crib that was once popular in the rural south. They too were called barbacoas and the Indians also built small fires under the cribs. “They used the smoke as a preservative and as a means to keep insects and rodents away,” Hudson said.
So as the spring and summer barbecue season moves into full swing in the southeast and you happen to find some corn on a grill next to some meat over a slow burning fire, know that you are carrying on a tradition that has been going strong for at least 475 years. And don’t forget to turn the meat.
For more about de Soto's journey click here.