THE WEDDING OF ORTEZ AND SAOWANA - CHRISTMAS, 1540 was painted in the Pontotoc, Mississippi post office in 1939 by artist Joseph Pollet. Pollet was born in Albbruck, Germany in 1897 and immigrated to New York with his parents in 1911. He studied at the Art Students League in New York with John Sloan, Robert Henri, and Homer Boss. Pollett received an honorable mention in the Carnegie International Exhibition in 1929 and was the recipient of a Guggenheim scholarship in 1931. He was noted for his landscapes and portraits, and his early work reflects the influence of European impressionists. Pollet lived in Paris and Italy between 1954 and 1961. He held one-man shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Julien Levi Gallery, and the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, and his paintings are owned by the Whitney, the Newark Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and others. Pollett was considered an influential member of the artists’ colony in Woodstock, New York. He died in 1979.
The area now known as Pontotoc, Mississippi, was occupied by the Chickasaw people before the arrival of Europeans. Members of the Muskogean language family, the Chickasaw people’s traditional territory was in the Southeastern states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. Chickasaw homelands included numerous traces, or pathways. This network of pathways extended across the eastern continent and was used for trade, transportation and conflict negotiation. The most well-known of these trails is the 444-mile-long Natchez Trace Parkway, currently maintained by the National Park Service. The Chickasaw descend from mound builder societies who constructed large ceremonial complexes and worked agricultural fields that fed entire communities. The first reported contact with Europeans occurred in the winter of 1540, when the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his company arrived in the area and spent the winter in an abandoned Chickasaw village. Though the Chickasaw successfully drove the Spaniards out of their territory, their arrival brought disease and more European encroachment followed. The Chickasaw were allied with the British and fought against the Choctaw and French in the French and Indian War. As encroachment on Chickasaw lands continued, the Chickasaw Nation signed several treaties with the United States government. However, the Chickasaw continued to lose their land. Following the passing of the Indian Removal Act by Congress in 1830, the Chickasaw were forced to sell their land east of the Mississippi and remove to another home, to be chosen and purchased by them. Other tribes had already been forced to relocate to Indian Territory, today’s Oklahoma, including the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole tribes. After five years of negotiation, the Chickasaw signed the Treaty of Doaksville with the Choctaw. This treaty arranged payment for the right of the Chickasaw people to settle in their own district within Choctaw Territory. In 1837, the Chickasaw were one of the last Indian peoples to remove to Indian Territory, walking the infamous Trail of Tears on which as many as 500 Chickasaw died of smallpox and many more of other diseases, starvation, exhaustion, and exposure to the elements. Today, Pontotoc is the seat of the county by the same name and recorded a population of 5,904 people according to the 2013 U.S. Census. The post office featuring Joseph Pollet’s mural was converted into a museum in 1998, though the post office is still operational. It is now known as the Town Square Post Office and Museum.
Joseph Pollet’s mural refers to that first encounter of the Chickasaw with Europeans during the de Soto expedition. However, the scene depicted is that of a wedding between a Spanish translator on the expedition, Juan Ortiz (misspelled in the mural title as Ortez), and an Indian “princess” who was not a Chickasaw. She was said to have followed them out of Florida and to have been the daughter of a cacique (chief) there. Juan Ortiz was born in Seville and first arrived in Florida with Panfilio de Narvaez, who attempted to invade and conquer Florida with a force of six hundred. Ortiz was one of about twenty men sent back to Cuba with messages for Narvaez’s wife. While they were away, Narvaez marched inland and was noted for treating the indigenous peoples he encountered, including the Timucuan-speaking people known as the Uzica, with vicious cruelty. After concluding a peace agreement with Uteca, the Uzica cacique, or chief, of a province referred to as Hirrigua, Narvaez allowed Uteca’s aged mother to be torn to pieces by dogs after she complained that a Spanish soldier had violated a young Uzica woman. Uteca, incensed, threatened revenge and was seized and lashed, and Narvaez ordered his nose cut off. When Juan Ortiz and his companions returned to Florida from Cuba, he and three others were enticed ashore by Indians who claimed that Narvaez had left a message for them. They were immediately captured and taken to Uteca, whose earlier traumas at the hands of Narvaez inspired his hatred of Spaniards and desire for vengeance. Uteca killed the first three and planned to kill Ortiz, possibly by roasting him over coals, but his daughter Uleleh (or Ulelah) intervened and asked him to spare Ortiz, who was as young as eighteen years old. Some accounts credit his pardon to his wife and several daughters. Ortiz was kept as a slave, and tortured repeatedly. Eventually, Uleleh informed him that he was to be sacrificed, and advised him to escape to the Mocoso (or Mococo) people. According to some accounts, Uleleh was betrothed to the cacique of Mocoso. Ortiz fled there and was received and sheltered. He remained there about nine years. When de Soto’s expedition was seen nearby in 1539, Ortiz was sent to him, and the Mocoso allowed him to join the Spanish. He then served as an interpreter and member of the de Soto expedition north. After traveling through Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas, de Soto and his expedition reached Mississippi in 1540 and camped in an abandoned Chickasaw village near present-day Pontotoc for the winter. Here is where the mural story becomes inconsistent.
The popular story local to Pontotoc tells that on Christmas Day in 1540 Juan Ortiz married a “Princess SaOwana” in a ceremony solemnized by a Catholic priest who was a member of the expedition. However, several first-hand accounts of the de Soto expedition, including the Inka chronicler, Garcilasso de la Vega, from Cuzco, Peru, all mention the encampment near Pontotoc, but none describe a wedding. Additionally, there are conflicting accounts as to who the bride actually was. According to the mural title, her name was SaOwana. Some sources, including the Pontotoc County Historical Society, claim that she was a Seminole princess who had been taken captive by de Soto and his men. However, historical sources bring doubt as to whether or not anyone by this name existed. To add to the confusion, a 1938 article in the Jackson Daily News names SaOwana as the daughter of Chief Uteca. This was likely caused by the stories of the kindness of the daughter of Uteca to Juan Ortiz during his captivity. However, there is no indication that she met Ortiz again and as previously noted, most accounts of the captivity of Ortiz clearly state that she married the Mocoso cacique and was named Uleleh, not SaOwana. Some have argued that early accounts of her intervention on Ortiz’s behalf inspired the fictional stories surrounding Pocahontas’s rescue of John Smith nearly 80 years later.
While these elements may have contributed to the popular imagination of the occurrence of this wedding, there is little first-hand evidence to support it. Rodrigo Rangel, de Soto’s secretary, provides the only primary source account that mentions Christmas in 1540: “They were there in Chicasa that Christmas, and it snowed with as much wind as if they were in Burgos, and with as much or more cold.” In the mural, however, there is no snow on the trees or the ground, and the clothing of those pictured looks insufficient for a cold and windy winter day. Additionally, the figure next to SaOwana, presumed to be Ortiz, is dressed as a conquistador in armor, but primary source accounts indicate that he chose not to dress like the Spaniards after he joined de Soto, and continued to dress as he had while living with the Mocoso. One feature of the mural that may recall a historical first is the appearance of many pigs on the ground and under the table, as well as a roast pig being served on a platter. According to Mississippi historian Rufus Ward, when de Soto and his party arrived in Florida in 1539, they brought with them 300 pigs for the purposes of emergency food, special feasts or celebrations, or for breeding if a settlement was established. Ward notes that either Saint Lucia Day (December 13th) or Christmas Day could have been the feast days that saw the first roast pork barbecue in Mississippi. It is also to be noted that after Hernando de Soto offered to share some pigs with the Chickasaw citizens, he shot two of them and cut off the hands of a third who dared to take a few without permission.
By Meghan A. Navarro, Smithsonian National Postal Museum 2013 Scholarship Winner
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