EDITORS'S NOTE: In honor of Women's History Month, The Augusta Chronicle will run a series of articles in March on historically significant women from this area.
In the spring of 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto met a young Indian woman floating on the Savannah River near Augusta. She was accompanied by warriors and bore a gift of pearls.
A federal government commission in the 1930s called her the Cleopatra of Georgia. She was the niece of the only female chief in the Cofitachequi tribe.
"She was one of the ruling elite of the native Southeast, a society that had a little flash in history and then was gone," says Dr. Charles Hudson, professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia and author of the book Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun.
New evidence suggests that the lady of Cofitachequi wasn't actually from the Garden City but lived a little closer to Camden, S.C., on the Wateree River, Dr. Hudson says.
The Cofitachequi was a matrilinear tribe -- the crown was passed down through the mothers -- but this South Carolina tribe was the only one in the Southeast with a female chief. They believed she descended from the Sun God, so her hut was on a mound above the people, like the sun shines above the Earth. She controlled the distribution of food, mica and shells for ornaments.
When the chief spotted De Soto and his men wandering along the river, she sent her niece to greet them. Then the chief took off.
"Seemingly, she absconded, she left," Dr. Hudson says. "They couldn't find her."
In a decorated, roofed canoe, the chief's niece was carried across the river drawn by her warriors' canoe. De Soto's men thought she looked like Cleopatra, the queen of the Nile, so they dubbed her the Queen of Georgia. They called her "La Senora de Cofitachequi," the lady of Cofitachequi, Dr. Hudson says.
De Soto gave her a ruby and gold ring. In return, she gave him a string of freshwater pearls long enough to wrap around his neck three times and still touch his knees.
De Soto had been expecting gold and silver, which the Aztecs and the Incas had offered other explorers. But all she had were Tennessee pearls.
She gave them access to the tribe's burial grounds, where hundreds of pounds of river pearls were stored. But that wasn't enough for him.
When De Soto decided to leave, he took her too. That way, he made sure her subjects obeyed him.
They made their way through Georgia and were just about to cross the Tennessee Valley (near Morgantown) when she excused herself to go to bushes. She never came back.
"If they had gone over the valley, she may have been among enemies," Dr. Hudson says. "That's why she may have quit."
A black slave left with her. He never came back either.
The Cofitachequi tribe vanished after the conquistadors' visit.
"The whole social order collapsed after De Soto left," Dr. Hudson says. That's when the Creek, Cherokee and Choctaw developed. Smallpox, diphtheria, measles -- diseases the Indians were not protected against -- killed them one by one.