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Tuskaloosa (aka Tuskalusa, Tastaluca, Tuskaluza) was a paramount chief of a Mississippian group, the possible ancestors of the several southern Native American tribes (the Choctaw and Creek peoples), in what is now the U.S. state of Alabamamarker. The modern-day city of Tuscaloosa, Alabamamarker, is named for this Native American chief. He is famous for leading a battle against the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. His name is of western Muskogean origin (taska, losa), meaning "Black Warrior".He is described as being very tall and well built, with some of the chroniclers saying he stood a foot and a half taller than the Spaniards.

Hernando de Soto was appointed Governor of Cubamarker by Carlos I of Spainmarker and was directed to conquer what is now the Southern United States. In 1539, De Soto landed near Tampa, Floridamarker with 600-1,000 men and 200 horses and began a circuitous and often violent exploration of modern-day Floridamarker, Georgiamarker, South Carolinamarker and Alabamamarker. By October of 1540 the Expedition had reached the middle of modern day Alabama. Along the way the expedition kidnapped members of the native population to act as bearers and to function as translators amongst the many different language families (Muskogean, Yamasee, Cherokee, and others) of the southeast. Another technique of the conquistadors was to take a local chief hostage to guarantee their safe passage through his territory. Chief Tuskalusa was held captive as the Spaniards passed through his territory, until reaching the village of Mabila. There the chief's people mounted a surprise attack on the Spanish expedition.

The Province of Tuskaloosa

The province consisted of a series of villages, mostly along the Coosa and Alabama Rivers. Each village had its own chief, who were vassals to the paramount chief, Tuskaloosa. After traveling through the Coosa Province, the expedition came to the village of Talisi on September 18th 1540, near the modern town of Childersburg, Alabamamarker. The chief of Talisi and his vassals had fled the town in anticipation of their arrival. De Soto sent messages to the chief, who finally arrived on the 25th. Once the chief had showed his obedience by supplying the Spaniards with deerskins, food, bearers and women, de Soto released the paramount chief of Coosa, who had been held hostage while they traveled through his territory. Chief Coosa was angry to have been dragged so far from his home village, and because de Soto still refused to release his sister, who in a matrilineal society would have been the mother to the next heir to the throne of Coosa. The chief of Talisi may have had dual allegiances, playing a delicate balancing act between the two paramount chiefdoms. While there, the Spanish were visitied by an envoy from Chief Tuskaloosa, lead by his son and some of his head men. Unbeknownst to the Spaniards, the envoy's purpose was to spy on them, learning their weaknesses, in preparation for a coming trap. After resting at Talisi for several weeks, the expedition left on October the 5th and continued south to the village of Casiste, a pretty village situated on a stream. On October the 6th they arrived at the village of Caxa, another village on a stream, possibly Hatchett Creek, the boundary between the Coosa and the Tuskaloosa. On October the 7th they camped on the Coosa River, across from the village of Humati, near the mouth of Shoal Creek. On October the 8th the expedition came to the next village, a newly built village named Uxapita, possibly near modern Wetumpka, Alabamamarker. On October the 9th, de Soto crossed the Tallapoosa River, and by the end of the day the expedition was within a few miles of Tuskalusa's village, Atahachi. De Soto sent a messenger to the chief informing him that he and his army had arrived. The chief sent a return message that he could come to his court whenever he liked. The next day de Soto sent Luis de Moscoso to inform the chief that they were on their way. The paramount village was a large, recently built, fortified community with a platform mound and plaza. Upon entering the village, de Soto went to meet the chief under a portico on top of the mound.

Moscoso and his men mounted their horses and then galloped around the plaza, playing juego de caƱas, a dangerous sport involving jousting with lances. The men occasionally feinted toward Tuskaloosa, hoping to frighten him, a technique of manipulation previously used by de Soto against the Inca Atahualpa at Cajamarcamarker. The chief sat as though unconcerned, only deigning to look their way occasionally. Afterwards the Spaniards were served food, and the residents of Atahachi danced in the plaza, reminding the Spaniards of rural dances from Spain. When de Soto demanded porters and women from the chief, the chiefs reply was that he was accustomed to being served, and not vice versa. De Soto had Tuskaloosa taken hostage. The expedition began making plans to leave the next day, and Tuskaloosa relented, providing bearers for the Spaniards. He informed de Soto that they would have to go to his town of Mabila (or Mauvila) to receive the women. De Soto gave the chief a pair of boots and a red cloak to reward him for his cooperation.

The expedition departed Atachaci on the 12th, and on October the 13th they arrived in the village of Piachi, situated high on a cliff overlooking the Alabama River. Here the Spaniards began noticing signs of resistance from the native population. De Soto demanded canoes from the people of Piachi, but the chief of the village claimed his people didn't have any. The expedition was forced to wait 2 days as they built rafts to cross to the north side of the river. After they crossed the river, they noticed 2 Spaniards missing, Juan de Villalobos( who liked to explore the countryside) and an unnamed man looking for a runaway Indian slave. De Soto ordered Tuskaloosa to have his people produced or he would be burned at the stake, but the chief only replied that the men would be returned to the expedition at Mabila.

On October 18, de Soto and the expedition arrived at Mabila, a small, heavily fortified village situated on a plain. It had a wooden palisade encircling it, with bastions every so often for archers to shoot from. Upon arriving at Mabila, the Spaniards knew something was amiss. The population of the town was almost exclusively male, young warriors and men of status. There were several women, but no children. The Spaniards also noticed the palisade had been recently strengthened, and that all trees, bushes and even weeds had been cleared from outside the settlement for the length of a crossbow shot. Outside the palisade in the field an older warrior had been seen haranguing younger warriors, and leading them in mock skirmishes and military exercises.

Battle of Mabila

As de Soto approached the town, the chief of Mabila came out to greet him, bringing him 3 robes of "marten" skins as a gift. De Soto and several of his men dismounted and entered the town, as the native bearers placed the Spaniards supplies next to the palisade. The Mabilians danced and sang to the Spaniards, seemingly to allay their fears and to distract them. While the spectacle was unfolding, Tuskaloosa told de Soto he was tired of marching with the Spaniards, and wished to stay in Mabila. De Soto refused, and the chief asked to confer with some of his nobles in one of the large wattle and daub houses on the plaza. De Soto sent Juan Ortiz to retrieve him, but the Mabilians refused him entrance to the house. Tuskaloosa told de Soto and his expedition to leave in peace, or he and his allies would force him to leave.
De Soto's men burn Mabila, illustration by H.Roe

When de Soto sent men into the house to retrieve the chief, it was discovered the house was full of armed warriors prepared to protect their chief. De Soto then asked the Chief of Mabila to demand the porters promised by Tuskaloosa, and the Spaniards would leave. The man refused, and a Spaniard grabbed him; in the ensuing scuffle, the chief had his arm cut off by the Spaniard's sword. With this, the Mabilians attacked the Spanish, who immediately ran for the gate and their horses. Natives poured out from all of the houses and began to attack the Spaniards. The Mabilians grabbed the provisions and equipment left outside the palisade and brought the supplies into the town. After making it outside, the Spaniards regrouped and began an assault on the village. After numerous assaults and many hours (the battle lasted 8 or 9 hours), the Spaniards were able to hack holes into the walls of the palisade and reenter the town.

After the battle


Mabila was burned down, and nearly all the Mabilians and their allies were killed, either in the battle, in the subsequent fires, or by suicide. Chief Tuskaloosa's son was found among the dead, although the chief himself was not. Biedma asserts that over five thousand were in the town, of which almost none were able to escape. For several weeks afterward, the Spanish made forays to neighboring villages for supplies of maize, deerskins, and other goods, and found many wounded and dead Mabilians in the houses. The natives had made two serious mistakes. They had failed to account for how much of an advantage the horses gave the Spaniards, and they had relied too heavily on their palisade. Once their palisade was breached, they were too crowded in the village to mount a successful defense.Over the next few centuries the Tuskaloosa peoples, Coosa peoples, Plaquemine Mississippian peoples from the Mississippi and Pearl Rivermarker valleys and other native peoples came together to form a confederacy which became the historic tribe known as the Choctaw.


Twenty-two Spaniards were slain, or died in a few days after the engagement. Among those lost or killed were Diego de Soto, the nephew of the Governor; Baltasar de Gallegos, Juan Vazquez de Barracarrota, Juan de Gomez de Jaen, Don Carlos Enriquez, who had married de Soto's niece; and Mem Rodriquez, a cavalier of Portugalmarker, who had served with distinction in Africa and upon the Portuguese frontiers. One hundred forty eight were wounded, some multiple times. Forty-five horses were slain -- an irreplaceable loss. All the camp material and baggage were consumed in the house where the Indians stored it, except that of Captain Andres de Vasconellos, who arrived late in the evening. All the clothes, medicines, instruments, books, much of the armor, all the fresh water pearls taken from Cofitachequi, the relics and robes of the priests, their flour and wine, used in the holy sacrament, and many other things which the wilderness could not supply were consumed by the flames. Even though the Spaniards "won" the battle, the loss of most of their possessions and so many horses was a crippling blow to their morale. The Spaniards were wounded, sickened, surrounded by enemies and virtually without equipment in an unknown territory. The battle "broke the back" of the campaign, and they never fully recovered.

De Soto had learned that his ships were anchored on the coast but fearing that word of his failure to find riches or found a colony would reach Spain if his men reached the ships at Mobile Baymarker, he convinced the men to kieep heading northwest instead of south. The expedition next proceeded to the village of Taliepacana and then on to Mozulixa. From there the expedition proceeded to Zabusta, a village on the Black Warrior River, possibly at the site of the Moundville Archaeological Sitemarker.

See also


External links

  • Explorer De Soto's Trail
  • Albert James Pickett, History of Alabama

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