The People of Maubilla in early Alabama were Exterminated
This story is an excerpt from the book ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Exploration: Lost & Forgotten Stories (Volume 1)
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When Hernando De Soto was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who led the first European expedition deep into the territory of modern-day Alabama. He entered the beautiful and fertile province of the Coosa River in present-day, Alabama in 1540, and at first, he experienced the hospitality of the generous natives.
Alabama historian, Albert Pickett, wrote about De Soto’s visit in History of Alabama and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the earliest days. His account below is based on the words of a Portuguese narrative of De Soto’s travels in America.
Maubilla welcomed De Soto
The trail was lined with towns, villages, and hamlets, and many sown fields which reached from one to the other. The numerous barns were full of corn, while acres of that which was growing bent to the warm rays of the sun and rustled in the breeze. In the plains were plum trees peculiar to the country, and others resembling those of Spain. Wild fruit clambered to the tops of the loftiest trees, and lower branches were laden with delicious Isabella grapes.
Far in the outskirts, De Soto was met by the Chief, seated upon a cushion, and riding in a chair supported upon the shoulders of four of his chief men. One thousand warriors, tall, active, sprightly, and admirably proportioned, with large plumes of various colors on their heads, followed him, marching in regular order. His dress consisted of a splendid mantle of martin skins, thrown gracefully over his shoulder, while his head was adorned with a diadem of brilliant feathers.
Around him many Indians raised their voices in song, and others made music upon flutes. The steel clad warriors of Spain, with their glittering armour, scarcely equaled the magnificent display made by these natives of Alabama.
Five hundred houses
After a speech of welcome by the Chief and a response by De Soto, they advanced together into the town, the former riding ‘in his sedan chair,’ the Spanish leader on his fiery war horse. This capital city contained five hundred houses, and here the adventurers remained twenty-five days, and again marched southward.
Passing through Indian towns, gathering wild grapes which grew in great abundance, encamping at various places, De Soto arrived on September 18, at a large town called Tallassee, surrounded by a wall and terraces. This town was on the Tallapoosa, along the banks of which river were extensive corn-fields, and Indian villages among these fields of ripening maize.
Invitation from Chief Tuskaloosa
While encamped at this place, (Tallassee) De Soto received an invitation from a renowned chief named Tuskaloosa to visit his capital city, a town called Maubila. De Soto accepted the invitation. He crossed the Tallapoosa, sent a small body of his cavalry to inform the chief that the Spanish leader was near, and soon presented himself before the proud Mobilian. He was found seated upon two cushions, on a large and elegant matting, and on a natural eminence ‘which commanded a delightful prospect.’
His address of welcome was very short. De Soto’s reply was conciliatory. A large pack horse was selected of sufficient strength to carry the huge frame of Tuskaloosa, and side by side, the Spanish leader and the Indian ruler, journeyed toward Maubila.
They crossed the Alabama, marched over what is now the county of Wilcox, passed October 17, through populous towns well stored with corn, beans, pumpkins, and other provisions, which may have been the eastern part of the present county of Clarke.
De Soto was suspicious
De Soto was suspicious in regard to the intentions of Tuskaloosa so before daylight on the morning of October 18, 1540, at the head of one hundred horsemen and one hundred footmen, he took the haughty Chief with him and marched rapidly southward. This proved to be for the Maubilians and Spaniards alike, an eventful day.
The trail was lined with towns, villages, and hamlets. At eight in the morning, they reached the town, the capital of Tuskaloosa’s dominion. It is described as situated on a beautiful plain, beside a river, a river large in the eyes of Spaniards, containing eighty handsome houses, each capable of holding a thousand men. They were built doubtless of wood, but few of the Spaniards had an opportunity to examine them minutely, and no special description seems to have been given, except that these houses all fronted on a large public square.
Girls danced and sang as they entered the town
The town was surrounded by a high wall made of the trunks of trees, set firmly in the ground, side by side, additional strength being given by cross timbers, and by large vines interlacing the upright trunks. The whole wood work is said to have been covered with a mud plaster, which resembled handsome masonry. Port holes were arranged in this wall, and towers, sufficiently large to hold eight men, were constructed, one hundred and fifty feet apart. There were only two gates, the one opened toward the east and the other toward the west.
Into the great public square of this walled town, on the morning already named. Tuskaloosa and De Soto entered, about two hours after sunrise, ‘amid songs and music from Indian flutes, while beautiful brown girls danced gracefully before them.’
Dismounting from their horses, the two leaders were seated together for a short time under a canopy, when Tuskaloosa, not receiving a satisfactory reply to a request which he had made, left De Soto and went into one of the large houses.
The Chief was insulted
It seems that De Soto, although an invited visitor at this town, had treated the Indian Chief as a hostage, and restrained his personal freedom. This had incensed the Chief and from the house in his own capital, where he had sought relief from the presence of De Soto, he refused to return to take breakfast with the Spaniards. He suggested to the Spanish interpreter, that it would be well for his Chief to remove his forces from that territory.
De Soto perceived that danger was near, and instructed his men to be ready for conflict A disturbance soon began. A Spaniard discovered that more than ten thousand warriors were in the houses, abundantly supplied with clubs and stones, with bows and arrows; that the old women and children had been sent away; and that the Indians were designing to capture the two hundred Spaniards and De Soto.
Blood was shed
Little time was given for that morning’s meal. An Indian drew a bow upon a group of Spaniards, then a Spanish soldier struck him down with his sword. The red streams of blood began to flow. De Soto had the first bloody encounter, but it was brief. From among more than ten thousand enraged warriors, De Soto at the head of his men, fighting hand to hand, led his little band outside the gate into the adjoining plain.
His cavalry rushed for their horses, tied outside the walls which the Indians had already begun to kill. Retreating from the Indians, the Spanish leader halted some distance out upon the plain.
By this time the Indian burden bearers of the expedition had arrived with nearly all the baggage and hurried inside the town. Having thus captured and disposed of the baggage and camp equipment, the excited warriors crowded without the gate tilled the air with their exulting shouts.
De Soto charged
This seems to have aroused the martial fury of the Spaniards. De Soto at the head of his hundred horsemen, followed by the footmen, charged furiously upon the Indians, and drove them again within the gate. But from the port holes and towers the missiles of the Indians drove the Spaniards back from the walls again into the plain.
Again, the Maubilians rushed outside the gate, or dropped from the walls, and fought fiercely, but vainly with Spanish swords and lances they were killed. Now and then small parties of fresh horsemen arrived and plunged at once into the thick of the fight. Three hours thus passed with terrible slaughter, one side receding and again advancing, clubs and arrows and bare flesh, forming but a poor defense against burnished steel, Spanish lances, and charging war-horses, when at length the Maubilians re-entered their walled town and closed behind them the heavy gates.
Mid-day passed, and the sun of that day seemed to be nearing the lofty tree tops when the last of De Soto’s forces under Moscoso, his camp-master, arrived.
Horrible destruction began
De Soto should have retired and left these natives of the soil in possession of their strong walled town, but such was not the custom of Spanish adventurers in American wilds, and his baggage and camp equipment were within, so more blood flowed and more carnage followed. Uniting all his force, forming his best armed footmen into four divisions for storming the walls, and armed with bucklers for defense and battle-axes for assault, a charge was made. The gates were at length forced open and the mortar broken from the walls.
Those ponderous battle-axes had before this day made impressions upon well defended European castles, and it could not be expected that Indian woodwork or masonry would withstand the assault of desperate and infuriated trained knights and warriors.
De Soto’s soldiers rushed into the enclosed square and horrible destruction was again resumed. The horsemen remained without to cut off all retreat, and the merciless Spaniards commenced the work of extermination. Often, it is said, the brave Maubilians drove the Spaniards outside the walls, but as often they returned with renewed impetuosity.
Conflict lasted nine hours
The young Maubilian girls who danced so gracefully in the morning, fought and fell beside the bravest Indian warriors. At length De Soto, wounded and infuriated, passed out of the gate once more, mounted his war-horse, returned, and charged through the Indian ranks. Others followed his example. The fearful work of death went on. Coats of mail and bucklers protected the Spaniards from many fatal wounds, while their sharp swords and well tempered lances made terrible havoc upon muscle unprotected by shield or breast-plate or heavy clothing.
The day drew to a close. The conflict had been fought for over nine hours. Then the houses were set on fire. Amid flame and smoke, the fearful carnage was near its end. “The sun went down, far to the westward, beyond other and greater rivers which Spaniards had not yet seen.
Maubilia was destroyed
Maubilia was in ruins, and her inhabitants destroyed. The number slain was estimated by one chronicler at eleven thousand. Historian Albert Picket suggests six thousand as the lowest estimate.
This disastrous day decided not alone the fate of a mighty Indian tribe. It decided also De Soto’s destiny.
He lost eighty-two soldiers and forty-five horses, his valuable equipment and baggage, including camp furniture, instruments, clothes, books, medicines, the gathered pearls, the holy relics and the priestly robes, the flour, the wine, and nearly everything of value brought from the ships. One surgeon alone survived, and there were seventeen hundred wounds to dress.
Although he learned that his vessels were awaiting him in Pensacola Bay, “so thoroughly had many of the cavaliers become disheartened that they had determined to desert him and his cause when they reached the coast; and thus De Soto was obliged to change his plans.”
After a month’s delay while wounds were healing and provisions collected including “a number of Maubilian women of incomparable beauty” were brought into the camp. DeSoto, “in desperate sullenness,” led his disheartened troops into the northern and western wilderness instead of planting a colony “in that beautiful region in the heart of Spanish Florida” which is now Alabama.
De Soto threatened his men
The troops had expected to march southward toward the coast, and it was questionable whether they would, but De Soto threatened to put to death the first man who should show that he wished to go toward the ships, and although the order to march northward took the cavaliers by surprise, none refused obedience, and on-ward to a dark destiny the ill-fated expedition began again its course.
Passing northward through a fertile region now known as the counties of Clarke, and Marengo, and Greene, “like a thunder-cloud which has brought destruction to fields and forest, the sullen Spaniards crossed the Black Warrior and entered what is now the state of Mississippi.” They spent the winter among the Chickasaws.
Resumed their march in the spring
In April, 1541, they resumed their march toward the northwest, now numbering less than seven hundred men, and about one hundred horses. In May of that year they reached the “Father of Waters,” the Mississippi, and crossed that mighty current, wandered over trackless wilds, then returned to the Mississippi in May of 1542.
De Soto’s work as a warrior, an explorer and leader was over. He found no gold region, conquered no mighty empire, and was not to outrank Cortez and Pizarro in giving provinces to Spain. He was “no more to mount the war-horse, his right arm would wield the sword and hurl the lance no longer, he had fought his last battle, and a slow, malignant fever soon terminated his stormy career.”
De Soto closed his eyes in death when he had no superior in command upon the whole broad continent, and his body sunk to its last resting-place in the channel of that “majestic river the discovery of which is inseparably connected with his name.”
The remnant of De Soto’s army, numbered three hundred and fifty was under the command of Moscoso. In July of 1543, having with great effort constructed seven brigantines, “embarked upon that broad and rapid river, and kept with them “the beautiful women of Maubilia.” In September they reached Spanish settlements in Mexico, and sent to Cuba the tidings of De Soto’s fate.
Archaeologists have looked for Mabila for many years without much luck. The specific location of the Battle of Maubilla has never been found.
“A conference bringing a variety of scholars together was held in 2006 and published as The Search For Mabila in 2009 (Knight 2009). A consensus from that conference found that Mabila is likely to be somewhere in southern Alabama, on the Alabama river or its tributaries within a few miles of Selma.”
The location of Maubilla along with other questions concerning De Soto’s route through the southeastern United States remains a mystery.