Saturday, July 16, 2016

Singleton imagines Indian life in South Alabama before De Soto's arrival

Hernando de Soto
(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “Take a trip through the pages of the past” was originally published in the July 15, 1993 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

It would be beyond describing if it were possible to twitch the nose or rub the ear and return in time to a period long past to visit with the native Indians of the area. But let us imagine that we are able to perform this impossible act and return in time to the 16th century.

The year is 1510, long before the time when DeSoto and his army pillaged their way through what is now the state of Alabama, raping and destroying almost everything in their path.

The area we selected to visit is the northeastern part of Monroe County, in and around what is now the Pine Orchard community. This area is selected because of the many Indian villages that are to be found there at this time in history.

We find ourselves on a well-beaten trail that runs north and south. As we approach one of the large villages, the time is shortly before sunrise. The smell of burning word is in the air as the cook fires are being prepared to begin the busy hours of the coming day.

Ghostly figures

Ghostly figures can be seen, bending over the fires, turning the meats and moving the wild yams that have been placed in the coals for roasting. A dog barks at the edge of the village; the morning activity increases among the straw and brush huts as the village comes to life.

Small children begin to race around the fires, as they chase each other in a game of catch. Some of the grown-ups make their way to the edge of the village, soon to return with fresh corn, or maize, to be roasted over the fires. Squash and wild berries can be seen in the hand-woven baskets nearby. The entire village seems at peace.

But something is about to happen; large bundles and rolled-up sleeping mats rest against the brush huts as though the people of the village are about to move. Then, you hear a conversation about the coming trip soon to start.

The journey will be south to the great ocean for a time of fishing and gathering of oysters. These will be smoked and dried and brought back to the village for the time when the chilled winds howl down from the north and ice and snow blanket the landscape. It is now the time of the Moon of the Blood Red Cherries; soon the time of the Moon of the Changing Seasons will be upon the land. The season is at hand to begin preparations for the coming chills of winter.

Other villages

People from other villages begin arriving, each carrying bundles of food and clothing and sleeping mats; many empty baskets can be seen also. The activity in the village is at an all-time high as the large groups slowly begin to move to the large gathering place in the center of the village.

From one of the brush huts steps a tall figure of a man. The holy man, or the Wind Walker, steps to the center of the crowd; a quick silence settles. Even the morning winds in the treetops nearby seem to stand still. The Wind Walker raises his arms toward the heavens, and the words of a prayer float upward with the morning mists.

O Great Spirit that guides the moon and sun across the heavens, guide our steps as we journey to the great waters that flow beyond the sunset. Fill our net so that when we return to our villages, our baskets will be laden with plenty for the coming winter.

Let us be ever mindful that without your hands to guide us, we are nothing. Push from us the evils that may cause us to stray. And cast to the winds the sickness and pain that sometimes befall us when we forget.

May our campfires ring with happiness, and the sounds of laughter ride the winds of the evening. As we grow old from the passing of many winters, may we rest forever in that land where the water is pure and the sky is forever blue.

Winding south from the village can be seen several hundred, slowly making their way southward, toward the great waters somewhere in the distance. Quietness has settled over the area, as the elder members of the tribe who are left behind slowly mend the fires and gather the corn and squash.

Cook fires

As the evening sun sinks on the western horizon, the shadows of darkness slowly gather across the fields and brush huts. The cook fires grow dim from lack of attention, and the old ones gradually disappear from around the fading fires and make their way inside the huts for the night.

Another day dawns as the eastern skies slowly turn to a bright red with the coming morning. The hurried activity of yesterday is not to be seen around the cook fires. Many of the fires have been allowed to burn out.

As the morning creeps across the quiet village, the old ones slowly emerge from their protective shelters. The faint smell of food cooking slowly mounts the morning air. A time of waiting has begun within the village. When the moon becomes full once again in the skies above, the time will have arrived for the return of the villagers from the great waters of the gulf.

We, who have ventured on this journey back into the pages of yesteryear, have witnessed the dawn of two mornings. We have witnessed the beginning of the journey as many headed south to the great ocean. We have witnessed total happiness that is unknown within our century. But time won’t permit us to wait for the joyous return of the villagers.

Return to present

The moment is at hand when we must return to our place in time and begin our lives once again. A feeling of sadness hovers over those who are to return to the present. We have seen happiness and contentment in its purest form. Such a pity we cannot bring with us the tribal secrets of peace and contentment into our moments of time.

As we begin our journey southwest to the place we know as Monroe County, we see strange goings-on. The old Indian trail that we walked earlier is not made of sand as it was yesterday. It is now covered with an asphalt-type covering. The surface of the trail burns our feet.

We know that we have returned to the present when the loud blast from the horn of a speeding log truck causes us to dive for safety. As the wild and careless driver races his speeding vehicle down the hard-surfaced trail toward the community of Burnt Corn, we become fully aware that we are once again in the rat race of the present.

Home, to a time of war and hunger; home to our world of make believe.

(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County, graduated from Sweet Water High School, served in the Korean War, lived for a time among Apache Indians, moved to Monroe County in June 1964 (some sources say 1961) and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. For years, Singleton’s column “Somewhere in Time” appeared in The Monroe Journal, and he wrote a lengthy series of articles about Monroe County that appeared in Alabama Life magazine. Some of his earlier columns also appeared under the heading of “Monroe County History: Did You Know?” He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)

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