Native Village Youth and Education News
November, 2009   Volume 1

Real razorbacks first came to state in 1540 with Hernando de Soto

 By Michael Palmer
Condensed by Native Village

The word "razorback" may bring to mind University of Arkansas and its team mascot. But long before 1909 when UA adopted the mascot, a "razorback" had been introduced to the New World in 1540 by the Hernando de Soto expedition.  The black Iberian pigs joined the Spanish conquistadors during their journeys through the Southeast.

“These were long-legged pigs, not fat hogs that we know today. They were a lean animal,” said Jim Knight, University of Alabama archaeology professor.”

De Soto went ashore near present-day Tampa, Fla., with 620 men, women and children, 220 horses, and a large heard of pigs.   King Carlos V of Spain wanted him to establish a colony and spread the Catholic faith on the North American continent. De Soto had permission to conquer and enslave the natives of North America, much as he had already done in Central and South America.

The pigs were to be used as starters for pig farms in the new Spanish colony. Some were gifted to local chiefs who soon enjoyed the taste of cooked swine and adapted the meat to their barbacoas (barbeque) or raised cooking platforms. The remaining pigs served as emergency food sources during De Soto's trek through Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas.

But these same pigs may have left a terrifying invisible legacy. In their book, “The Hernando de Soto Expedition,” Ann Romenofsky and Patricia Galloway suggest that millions of Native people died because they lacked previous exposure to swine borne diseases, This previous exposure was critical in building their immune systems against the deadly diseases.  These diseases include brucellosis, anthrax, leptospirosis, tuberculosis, trichinosis, cysticercosis and various strains of flu.

“And considering the fact that many swine diseases can be transmitted to deer and even turkeys, the two most important food animals used by southeastern Indians, the likelihood that this occurred becomes even greater, ” the authors write.

University of Arkansas archaeologist George Sabo III cites 16th- and 17th century eyewitness descriptions comparing southeastern Native American population numbers.

“The de Soto chroniclers describe Eastern Arkansas and the Mississippi River valley as a place of large extensive Indian communities and numerous, populous villages. They describe groves of nut trees and crop fields extending from one village to the next. The chronicles are expressive of a well-populated landscape.”

But Sabo says that when the French traveled down the Mississippi River about 130 years after de Soto, they described Eastern Arkansas in far different terms. “They describe the land as being sparsely populated with only a few Indian villages. It’s fairly certain the de Soto expedition had an impact on the Indian demographic,” Sabo said.

Wild pigs are now causing trouble for West Alabama farmers. Jeff Makemson, a wildlife biologist, says locals call the wild pigs razorbacks, porkers and wild hogs. He sees these hogs' effects  in the Oakmulgee Division of the Talladega National Forrest where he works.

“The old-timers call them piney ridge rooters because they tear up the ridges of pine thickets,” Makemson said.

Makemson estimates more than 2,000 feral swine live in the in the 45,000 acre Oakmulgee Forest. They were introduced to the forests by hog farmers in the mid-1990s.

“When the bottom fell out of the hog market, farmers just started releasing them. They compete with the flora and fauna for food and habitat. They will suck up acorns faster than a deer ever thought about.”

The wild hogs can destroy a corn patch overnight. They also carry diseases that affect cattle. “Wild hogs are a huge concern to cattle growers because of swine brucellosis, that can transfer to cattle and cause death in unborn calves.”

Makemson says it takes about two generations for the pigs to revert back to a wild state and begin to grow long course hair, develop a long snout and a thick shield of cartilage on their head and shoulders. He says the wilder the hogs become, the less fearful they are in a large herd.

“If they are surrounded by dogs, they are much more likely to attack, especially if there’s a large number of them.”

Makemson has been dealing with the feral pig problem for about 10 years and says it wouldn’t hurt his feelings if there were no feral pigs in Alabama. He says Arkansas University fans returning home from games with Alabama "can take all the wild pigs back with them and keep them in Arkansas.”

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