It was in 1541 when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto ventured through Southeastern Oklahoma. With a little less than 300 men, de Soto set out on a quest to find El Dorado, or “the gilded one.” The phantom El Dorado proved to be elusive, and de Soto, miserable and in deep despair, decided to abandon his quest. He died in June of 1542 on the banks of a great river, mere months after reaching his decision.
Nearly 400 years later, during the Great Depression, Hernando de Soto’s quest inspired rumors of a great deposit of Spanish gold buried in Southeast Oklahoma. In search of limitless wealth, many Oklahomans began hunting for this fabled cache of gold.
In 1935, six treasure hunters secured a mining lease in Spiro, Oklahoma, where several unexplained mounds formed a circle around a plaza in a field northeast of town. They believed that this was where the Spanish explorers stashed their gold for safekeeping, however, the treasure they found there wasn’t gold, but something much more than that. Instead of finding a chest full of gold doubloons, they unearthed the remains of an American Indian culture dating back hundreds of years.
Soon after the men started mining, they began to find stunning artifacts, including detailed engravings on conch shells to highly stylized effigy pipes. The treasure seekers knew they had found valuable items, but they had no idea of the historical magnitude of their discovery. In their quest for gold and silver, they had unearthed one of the most significant prehistoric American Indian sites east of the Rocky Mountains.