Native Village Youth and Education News
October, 2009


Experts work on mystery of Mabila

Book details search for site of battle between De Soto, Tascalusa
by Adam Jones
Condensed by Native Village


Tuscaloosa, Alabama: It's been 2 1/2 years since scholars met in Tuscaloosa to search for the exact location of Mabila, a Native American city lost to history.  The scholars' findings have led to a new book,  “The Search for Mabila: The Decisive Battle Between Hernando de Soto and Chief Tascalusa.”

Despite the scholars' best efforts, however,  Mobila's was never found. They only narrowed the search to the Wilcox County area and the old town of Cabaha.

“The truth is that to this day, nobody knows where Mabila is — neither the editor, nor any of the fifteen contributors to the volume, nor any of the historians and archaeologists, amateur and professional who have long sought it,” said Jim Knight from the University of Alabama. “One can rightfully say that the lost battle of Mabila is the predominant historical mystery of the Deep South.”

Mabila disappeared nearly 470 years ago after the Spanish conquistador, Hernando de Stoto, fought Chief Tascalusa in a bitter battle. 

 Finding Mabila isn’t like the adventures of Indiana Jones, where tripping ancient booby traps opens a door to a magnificent lost city. Mabila is, in fact, buried and lost since that fateful day in 1540.

De Soto began criss-crossing La Florida, (today's southeast United States,) in search of wealth — namely the gold he helped find in an earlier conquest of Peru. He staked his fortune, reputation and his life on the expedition.  After his forces entered Alabama, they found a series of villages on a great river. One was Tascalusa’s chiefdom, Atahachi.

In Atahachi, Chief Tascalusa refused the Spaniard’s request for men to carry equipment. Tascalusa had heard of de Soto’s brutal tactics with other chiefdoms, so he hoped to delay a fight. He promised the forces they could find slaves and women at Mabila, which he claimed was under his control.

De Soto entered Mabila on the morning of Oct. 18, 1540. While part of his army was ransacking other settlements, de Soto was ambushed by Native Americans hiding in the town. It took the Spanish a day to fight their way out, burn the palisaded town to the ground, and kill those who fled. The accounts of Natives killed in battle range between 2,500 - 11,000.  Only 18-22 Spaniards died.

No one is sure if Tascalusa died, but Mabila and neighboring cities were razed.

The battle was a deep wound from which de Soto’s force never recovered. They lost animals and much of their gear in the fire.  De Soto ignored advice to turn south toward Mobile Bay and the ships that could take them home. Instead, he pressed on.

De Soto died in 1542 on the bank of the Mississippi River. His body was sunk to avoid it being desecrated by Native Americans.

UA history professor Lawrence Clayton says Mabila represents a battle in the struggle for human rights. For without Mabila and other Spanish atrocities, later reforms signed into law that restricted conquistadors would not have come.

“Perhaps it is not the hallowed ground of a Gettysburg, but it opens a window into the past, revealing a panorama of what the human heart is capable of feeling and doing, for great evil and for great good,” he wrote.

Artwork: The Search for Mabila by Herb Roe

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