By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM
De Soto’s Famous Battle Site at Mabila, Still Lost After 474 Years
It’s amazing that the site of one of the largest battles between Native Americans and Europeans in the history of North America is still lost to antiquity. Researchers from numerous disciplines have closed in on the site, but the specific location remains lost.
Hernando De Soto landed in what is now Tampa Bay, Fla., in May 1539 with an entourage of more than 600 men, a few women, more than 200 horses and several hundred pigs. His intent was to explore the interior of “La Florida,” hoping to find riches in gold and silver that would rival that of the Spanish conquests of the Incas.
Three years later, De Soto and nearly half of his army were dead. The remaining survivors straggled into Mexico, bedraggled and destitute. Because of diseases and social disruption brought by the army, the region’s native population declined sharply, never to recover to pre-De Soto levels. The turning point of the expedition, however, occurred at a fortified Indian town in present-day South Alabama called Mabila (maw-BE-lah).
In 1540, De Soto’s army engaged in North America’s largest battle between Europeans and Native Americans at Mabila. Twenty-two Spaniards were killed and nearly all sustained wounds. De Soto’s soldiers killed an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 natives. Had De Soto ended his expedition at this point and turned to the Gulf of Mexico where a ship awaited, he might have lived, but his expedition still would have been a failure.
Researchers are fascinated with prospects of finding the battle site of Mabila. A recent book, The Search for Mabila (The University of Alabama Press, 2009), is the latest effort by researchers from across the Southeast. (Neal Lineback, co-author of Geography in the News, was a contributor to the book.)
Some of De Soto’s trail has been documented from four chronicles written after the expedition. Three of the four De Soto chroniclers were present on the expedition, but arrived in Mexico afterward with little more than their memories of events. Hence, the chronicles disagree on distances, landscape descriptions and times of travel, leaving researchers to “tease” out the truth. Archaeologists have been able to find only a few Spanish artifacts that help determine De Soto’s general trail, but not Mabila.
Briefly, the De Soto party arrived on the west coast of Florida probably at Tampa Bay in May 1539 and spent the first winter near present-day Tallahassee, Fla. In the spring of 1540, they headed northeast into South Carolina and North Carolina and crossed the Appalachian Mountains into Tennessee. They then turned southward toward Montgomery, Ala., and followed the Alabama River to Mabila. In general, the trail through Alabama after Montgomery is in dispute.
In their search for riches, De Soto’s soldiers were particularly cruel to the Native Americans, kidnapping and abusing both men and women and confiscating villagers’ corn and other foods to feed themselves and their animals. The pigs were particularly important to the Spanish, providing a guaranteed protein source along the trail. The army was equipped with body armor, shields, metal swords and spears, and some horses. The Indians had no comparable offensive or defensive weapons.
Because the Spaniards’ reputation for brutality preceded their arrival near Montgomery, a Native American leader named Tuscaloosa agreed to take them to one of his villages, promising to provide the army with porters. When De Soto and his lead group entered the fortified village, 2,000 to 3,000 warriors hidden inside attacked. Barely able to escape, De Soto assembled his men and a bloody battle ensued until the village was burned and all of the Native Americans killed.
The Spanish dead soon were buried and the wounded recovered. The expedition departed the area four weeks later, heading northward and eventually crossing the Mississippi River. The Spaniards ventured into Arkansas, then back to the Mississippi River. De Soto died of a fever in 1542 and his body placed in the river.
The remaining group led by Luis de Moscoso made another westward loop into Texas before returning to the river once more. In crudely constructed boats and canoes, mostly stolen from local tribes, they floated down the Mississippi, then westward around the Gulf Coast to Northeast Mexico, where they joined other Spaniards. Upon completion of their epic journey, they arrived with barely any clothes on their backs and nothing material to show for three years of their epic journey.
The Search for Mabila is truly a mystery story. The authors of The Search for Mabila took a fresh look at the details of the chronicles and the local landscapes using new techniques and new hypotheses. They were able to identify “best fit” locations for Mabila just north of the Alabama River near Miller’s Ferry, but it will be up to archeologists to find the site’s exact location. The book has reenergized De Soto scholars.
And that is Geography in the News.
Sources: GITN 1010, “De Soto’s Battle Site, Still Lost After 470 Years,” Maps.com, Oct. 9, 2009; Knight, J. Vernon, Jr. ed., The Search for Mabila, University of Alabama Press, 2009; and Hudson, Charles M., Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando De Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms, University of Georgia Press, 1997.
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.