Searching for Mabila

Where did Hernando de Soto and Chief Tascalusa Battle for America?

De Soto in America, by Frederic Remington
Circa 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto (c.1500–1542) and his men journey across America on one of their expeditions in search of treasure. Original Artwork: Painting by Frederic Remington. MPI / Stringer / Getty Images

One of the great mysteries of American archaeology is the location of Mabila, a Mississippian village somewhere in the state of Alabama where an all-out battle is known to have occurred between the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto and the Native American chief Tascalusa.

De Soto Meets Tascalusa

According to the four De Soto chronicles, on Oct. 9, 1540, Hernando de Soto's expedition through the North American deep south arrived in the provinces controlled by Tascalusa.

Tasculusa (sometimes spelled Tascaluza) was a paramount Mississippian chief rising in power at the time of the battle. Tascalusa's historical importance is reflected in place names that survive today: the city of Tuscaloosa is named for him, of course; and Tascaluza is a Choctaw or Muskogean word meaning "black warrior", and the Black Warrior River is named in his honor as well.

Tascalusa's major settlement was called Atahachi, and that's where de Soto first met him, probably west of where the modern town of Montgomery, Alabama is located. The recollections of the chroniclers described Tascalusa as a giant, fully half a head taller than their tallest soldier. When de Soto's men met Tascalusa, he was seated in Atahachi's plaza, accompanied by many retainers, one of whom held a type of deerskin umbrella over his head. There, as was their usual practice, de Soto's men demanded that Tascalusa supply porters to carry the expedition's gear and booty, and women to entertain the men.

Tascalusa said no, sorry, he couldn't do that, but if they would go to Mabila, one of his vassal towns, the Spanish would get what they asked for. De Soto took Tascalusa hostage, and together they all started for Mabila.

De Soto Arrives at Mabila

De Soto and Tascalusa left Atahachi on Oct. 12, and they arrived in Mabila on the morning of Oct.

18. According to the chronicles, de Soto led the way into the small town of Mabila with 40 horsemen, a guard of crossbowmen and halberdiers, a cook, a friar, and several slaves and porters bearing the supplies and booty collected by the Spanish since they arrived in Florida in 1539. The rear guard lagged far behind, scouring the countryside looking for more booty and supplies.

Mabila was a small village tucked inside a strongly fortified palisade, with bastions at the corners. Two gates led into the center of the town, where a plaza was surrounded by the houses of the most important people. De Soto decided to bring his collected booty and stay himself within the palisade, rather than camp outside its walls. It proved a tactical error.

Fighting Breaks Out

After some festivities, a battle broke out when one of the conquistadors responded to a principal Indian's refusal to run an errand by cutting his arm off. A great roar resounded, and people hidden inside the houses around the plaza began shooting arrows at the Spanish. The Spanish fled the palisade, mounted their horses and encircled the town, and for the next two days and nights, a fierce battle was played out. When it was over, say the chroniclers, at least 2,500 Mississippians were dead (the chroniclers estimate up to 7,500), 20 Spanish were killed and over 250 wounded, and all of their collected loot had been burned with the town.

After the battle, the Spanish stayed in the area for a month to heal, and lacking supplies and a place to stay, they turned north to look for both. They turned north, despite de Soto's recent knowledge that there were ships waiting for him at a harbor to the south. Apparently, de Soto felt leaving the expedition after the battle would mean personal failure: no supplies, no booty, and instead of stories of an easily subjugated people, his expedition brought stories of fierce warriors. Arguably, the battle of Mabila was a turning point for the expedition, which was to end and not well, after de Soto died in 1542.

Finding Mabila

Archaeologists have been looking for Mabila for quite a while now, with not much luck. A conference bringing a variety of scholars together was held in 2006 and published as the well-regarded book "The Search For Mabila" in 2009, edited by Vernon Knight.

A consensus from that conference found that Mabila is likely to be located somewhere in southern Alabama, on the Alabama River or one of its tributaries within a few miles of Selma. Archaeological survey has identified a multitude of Mississippian sites within this region, many of which have evidence which ties them, directly or indirectly, to de Soto's passing. But none so far fits the profile of a strongly palisaded village which burned to the ground, killing thousands of people in October of 1540.

It's possible the historic records are not as accurate as one might hope for; it's possible that later movement of the river or rebuilding by Mississippian or later cultures changed the configuration of the landscape and eroded or buried the site. Indeed, few sites with indisputable evidence that De Soto and his expedition members were present have been identified. One issue is that De Soto's expedition was only the first of three medieval Spanish expeditions along this river valley: the others were Tristan de Luna in 1560 and Juan Pardo in 1567.

Archaeology of Medieval Spanish in U.S. Southeast

One site tied to De Soto is the Governor Martin Site in Tallahassee, Florida, where excavators found Spanish artifacts at the right time period, and matched historical records to show that the site was where the expedition camped at Anhaica over the winter of 1539–1540. Five Native American skeletons at the 16th-century village at the King site in northwestern Georgia had wedge-shaped gashes and are hypothesized to have been either wounded or killed by De Soto, injuries that might have occurred at Mabila.

The King site is on the Coosa River, but it is quite a way upriver from where Mabila is believed to have existed.

The location of Mabila, along with other questions concerning de Soto's route through the southeastern United States, remains a mystery.

Candidate Sites for Mabila: Old Cahawba, Forkland Mound, Big Prairie Creek, Choctaw Bluff, French's Landing, Charlotte Thompson, Durant Bend.

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    Hirst, K. Kris. "Searching for Mabila." ThoughtCo, Mar. 13, 2018, thoughtco.com/mabila-battle-de-soto-chief-tascalusa-171575. Hirst, K. Kris. (2018, March 13). Searching for Mabila. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mabila-battle-de-soto-chief-tascalusa-171575 Hirst, K. Kris. "Searching for Mabila." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mabila-battle-de-soto-chief-tascalusa-171575 (accessed April 19, 2018).