Four hundred and eighty-one years ago this month, an epic clash occurred between Native American and Spaniard at a village called Mabila, somewhere in south central Alabama. The village’s exact location has been the subject of much speculation since the 18th century, with sites proposed from Clarke to Hale counties. The latest scholarly consensus, backed by exciting archaeological discoveries, places it somewhere to the west of Selma, in the heart of the Black Belt.
By the autumn of 1540, Hernando de Soto’s 600-man army had marched down the Coosa River Valley and into the fertile region between the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers. Here, the Spaniards encountered numerous small villages that abounded in maize, beans and squash. This was the province of the feared Chief Tascalusa, whom one of Soto’s men described as “an Indian so large that, to the opinion of all, he was a giant.” Cacique and conquistador first met at Athahachi, near present-day Montgomery.
Soto’s standard operating procedure was to take the chief, or cacique, of each province hostage to ensure the army’s safe passage to the next chiefdom. Additionally, he demanded food, bearers and women. Tascalusa was well aware of these practices and had no intention of tolerating them. When Soto asked him for bearers, the proud cacique responded that, in the words of eyewitness Luys Hernández de Biedma, “he was not accustomed to serving anyone, rather that all served him before.” Unmoved, Soto took Tascalusa prisoner, a brazen act that enraged the cacique and his people. Biedma declared this was why the formidable Native American chief “committed the ruin that afterward he inflicted on us.” Helpless amidst the heavily armed conquistadors, Tascalusa promised that he would supply their needs at Mabila, another of his towns nearby. Soto soon reached Mabila with his advance guard, Tascalusa and some bearers. The rest of the army lagged behind, pillaging as it traveled.
According to Biedma, Mabila was “a small and very strongly palisaded town” situated on a plain. It contained 80 buildings. The walls consisted of wooden poles with cross pieces and interwoven vines, the whole clay-slathered to look smooth. There were at least two gates, numerous loopholes and several spaced towers. Rather than wait for the rest of his army to arrive, Soto elected to enter Mabila with his small party and the chief. Once inside, the bearers dropped their baggage, the horsemen dismounted and all gawked at the surroundings.
In an effort to distract the Spaniards, Tascalusa had 20 young women dance for them. Pleasing as this was to the soldiers (their average age was 24), there was a palpable tension. Other than the dancing girls, there were no Native American women or children visible, only men. One Spaniard peeked into a structure and spotted cached weapons and crouching warriors. Tascalusa abruptly excused himself and retreated into a dwelling. Soto asked him to come back out, but he would not. When another Spaniard grasped a Native American and ordered him to retrieve the cacique, the brave wrenched free and refused. The infuriated conquistador swung his sword, severing the Native American’s arm.
It was as if he had slashed a hornet’s nest. Native Americans boiled out of the huts and down off the walls while raining down clouds of arrows. Five Spaniards instantly fell with ghastly eye or neck wounds, and the panicked horses yanked at their tethers. The conquistadors were at a decided disadvantage in a crowded space where they could not fight on horseback. Soto desperately ordered his men outside and stumbled twice racing for the gate. Arrows continually flew, hitting the horses, snagging in the men’s quilted armor and glancing off their iron morions.
Battles, whether ancient or modern, are unsubtle affairs, and the turmoil at Mabila — soldiers and Native Americans shouting, weapons clashing, wounded horses and men screaming, Spanish trumpets blaring, Native American drums pounding and an immense cloud of dust — all rose above the plain. Alerted by the ruckus, the rest of Soto’s army hurried to the scene. Locked out of the town, they could only watch as the triumphant Mabilians taunted them and displayed their plundered baggage from the walls.
Despite his surprise at the suddenness and violence of the assault, Soto was a blooded veteran who had helped Francisco Pizarro conquer Peru. He understood strategy and was adept at killing native people. In an attempt to draw out the Mabilians, he ordered his horsemen to feign a retreat. The ruse worked, and once outside the protective walls, the Mabilians were alarmed to see the conquistadors wheel and thunder after them. They fled in all directions, chased by yelling lancers and howling war dogs. Even on the defensive, the Native Americans lost none of their ardor. “We fought that day until it was night,” recalled Biedma, “without one Indian surrendering to us, rather they fought like fierce lions.”
With the remaining enemy bottled up inside the walls, Soto ordered his men to attack from all sides and burn the town. His soldiers hacked the clay walls and scaled them, hurling torches onto the thatch rooftops. Others dropped down wielding their weapons. Biedma was brutally succinct: “We killed them all, some with the fire, others with the swords, others with lances.” Estimates of Native American losses vary, but a figure of 2,500 or so is likely. Tascalusa presumably died in the blaze. Conversely, 20 conquistadors were killed, and the survivors counted 750 arrow wounds.
The aftermath was bleak. Soto’s army remained at Mabila a month licking its wounds and ravaging the chiefdom. Eager to see the Spaniards gone, surviving Native Americans reported ships on the coast, but rather than end his ill-starred adventure, Soto turned his demoralized army northward. Mabila did not destroy him, but it dashed his hope. These newly discovered chiefdoms did not contain riches like Mexico or Peru, only corn and mounds and a defiant people determined to die free.
John S. Sledge is the author of “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.”