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Also see: Mauvilla.

The town of Mabila(or Mavila, Mavilla, Mauvilla) was a small fortress town known to Chief Tuskaloosa in 1540, in a region of present-day central Alabamamarker. The exact location has been debated for centuries. Mabila was a Trojan-horse, fake village concealing over 2500 native warriors.

When Hernando de Soto had first met Tuskaloosa at his home village, and asked him for supplies, Tuskaloosa advised them to travel to another of his towns, known as Mabila, where supplies would be waiting. A native messenger was sent ahead to Mabila, but when Tuskaloosa and the first group of Spaniards arrived, Tuskaloosa simply asked them to leave. When a fight broke out between one soldier and a native, many hidden warriors emerged from houses and began shooting arrows. The Spaniards fled, leaving their possessions inside the fortress. The full conflict that resulted is called the Battle of Mabila.

The fortress town

The walled compound of Mabila, one of many that the Spaniards encountered in their travels, was enclosed in a thick stuccoed wall, 16.5-ft (5-m) high, made from wide tree trunks tied with cross-beams and covered with mud/straw stucco, to appear as a solid wall. The fortress was defended by shooting arrows or throwing stones.

The town of Mabila was described by Garcilaso de la Vega as:

Artist's impression of Mabila: note walls appear solid (stuccoed tree trunks).
"...on a very fine plain and had an enclosure three estados (about 16.5 feet or 5-m) high, which was made of logs as thick as oxen. They were driven into the ground so close together that they touched one another. Other beams, longer and not so thick, were placed crosswise on the outside and inside and attached with split canes and strong cords. On top they were daubed with a great deal of mud packed down with long straw, which mixture filled all the cracks and open spaces between the logs and their fastenings in such manner that it really looked like a wall finished with a mason's trowel. At intervals of fifty paces around this enclosure, were towers capable of holding seven or eight men who could fight in them. The lower part of the enclosure, to 'the height of an estado' (5.55 feet), was full of loopholes for shooting arrows at those on the outside. The pueblo had only two gates, one on the east and the other on the west. In the middle of the pueblo, was a spacious plaza around which were the largest and most important houses." 

The Battle of Mabila

The greatest losses suffered by the Spaniards occurred during the battle at Mabila. De Soto had taken the powerful Chief Tuskaloosa, from his own town, to another town where the chief had promised to provide supplies.

On October 18, 1540, de Soto and the expedition arrived at Mabila, with the heavily fortified village situated on a plain. It had a wooden palisade encircling it, with bastions every so often for archers to shoot their longbows. Upon arriving at Mabila, the Spaniards knew something was amiss. The population of the town was almost exclusivley 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.

When the Spaniards reached the town of Mabila, ruled by one of Tuskaloosa's vassals, the Chief asked de Soto to allow him to remain there. When de Soto refused, Tuskaloosa warned him to leave the town, then withdrew to another room, and refused to talk further. A lesser chief was asked to intercede, but he would not. One of the Spaniards, according to Elvas, "seized him by the cloak of marten-skins that he had on, drew it off over his head, and left it in his hands; whereupon, the Indians all beginning to rise, he gave him a stroke with a cutlass, that laid open his back, when they, with loud yells, came out of the houses, discharging their bows."

The Spaniards barely escaped from the well-fortified town. The Indians closed the gates and "beating their drums, they raised flags, with great shouting." De Soto determined to attack the town, and in the battle that followed, Elvas records: "The Indians fought with so great spirit that they, many times, drove our people back out of the town. The struggle lasted so long that many Christians, weary and very thirsty, went to drink at a pond near by, tinged with the blood of the killed, and returned to the combat."

De Soto had his men set fire to the town, then by Elvas account,
"breaking in upon the Indians and beating them down, they fled out of the place, the cavalry and infantry driving them back through the gates, where losing the hope of escape, they fought valiantly; and the Christians getting among them with cutlasses, they found themselves met on all sides by their strokes, when many, dashing headlong into the flaming houses, were smothered, and, heaped one upon another, burned to death.

"They who perished there were in all two thousand five hundred, a few more or less: of the Christians there fell two hundred... Of the living, one hundred and fifty (150) Christians had received seven hundred wounds..."

Elvas noted later that four hundred hogs died in the conflagration.

Nearby fortified compounds

Staked fort

As de Soto continued westward, they were often opposed by the natives. After spending the night in a small town called "Alimamu" by Elvas, an advance force found a staked fort where the Indians were awaiting them. "Many were armed, walking upon it, with their bodies, legs, and arms painted and ochred, red, black, white, yellow, and vermilion in stripes, so that they appeared to have on stockings and doublet. Some wore feathers, and others horns on the head, the face blackened, and the eyes encircled with vermilion, to heighten their fierce aspect. So soon as they saw the Christians draw nigh they beat drums, and, with loud yells, in great fury came forth to meet them." DeSoto's men retreated quickly from the enclosure, but later the full army attacked it.

Four-palisade fort

Another fort had 4 nested palisades. Garcilaso gave a very elaborate account of an Alabama fort which Biedma thought was built to block the passage of the Spaniards: "It was a square, with four equal curtains made of embedded logs, the curtain of each wall being four hundred paces long. Inside this square were two other curtains of wood which crossed the fort from one wall to the other. The front curtain had three small doors, so low that a mounted man could not go through them... In line with these three doors there were three others in each curtain, so that if the Spaniards should take the first ones, the Indians could defend themselves at those of the second curtain, and of the third and the fourth.

The doors of the last curtain opened on a river which passed behind the fort. Though narrow, this river was very deep and had such steep banks that one could go up and down them only with difficulty on foot, and not at all on horseback. This was the intention of the Indians, to make a fort in which they could be sure that the Castillians would not attack them with the horses by entering through the doors or by crossing the river, but would fight on foot like themselves, for as we have said already on other occasions they had no fear whatever of the infantry, as it seemed to them that they were equal or even superior to them. They had bridges over the river made of wood, but so shaky and ruinous that they could hardly pass over them. There were no doors at all on the sides of the fort."

At a place called Piachi in what is now Alabama, De Soto was told that the Indians had no canoes, but they were furnished rafts of cane and dry wood with which to cross a river. Use of canoes in warfare was mentioned on the Mississippi River where over two hundred canoes blocked the army's passage. Garcilaso says, "the boats of the fleet were painted within and without, yellow, blue, white, green, red, or some other color, according to the fancy of him to whom the vessel belonged."

Elvas described how De Soto and his men watched from the river bank as a cacique (Great Chief) named Aquixo arrived with two hundred canoes filled with armed men: "They were painted with ochre, wearing great bunches of white and other plumes of many colours, having feathered shields in their hands, with which they sheltered the oarsmen on either side, the warriors standing erect from bow to stern, holding bows and arrows. The barge in which the Cacique came had an awning at the poop, under which he sat; and the like had the barges of their chiefs: and there, from under the canopy, where the chief man was, the course was directed and orders issued to the rest..."

They brought a great quantity of fish, and "loaves like bricks, made of the pulp of ameixas," but Elvas believed this was a pretext to discover if they could attack. "Finding the Governor and his people on their guard, the Cacique began to draw off from the shore, when the crossbow-men, who were in readiness, with loud cries shot at the Indians, and struck down five or six of them. They retired with great order, not one leaving the oar, even though the one next to him might have fallen, and covering themselves, they withdrew.

Afterward they came many times and landed: when approached, they would go back to their barges. They were fine-looking men, very large and well formed; and what with the awnings, the plumes, and the shields, the pennons, and the number of people in the fleet, it appeared like a famous armada of galleys."

Palisade with moat

At Pacaha (believed to be the Nodena Sitemarker) in Arkansas there was both a moat and a palisade. The inhabitants retreated before the Spaniards to a fortified island in the Mississippi River where there was a triple palisade. Attacks were sometimes accompanied by the playing of drums and "trumpet," probably made of conch shells. The playing of "flutes" (flageolets?) were "their sign by which they make known that they come in peace." As the expedition neared its conclusion, such signs of peace became ever less frequent.


  1. Sylvia Flowers, "DeSoto's Expedition", U.S. National Park Service, 2007, webpage: NPS-DeSoto.
  2. The single primary source about DeSoto's expedition was written by Hernández de Biedma. Another account usually described as that of DeSoto's aide Rodrigo Ranjel, survives only partially in a summary history written by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés. That secondary source had a strong influence on the formation of the text generally known as the Relaçam of the "Gentleman of Elvas" and then, in turn, on the writing of Garcilaso de la Vega's Florida del Inca. (see review of The Hernando de Soto Expedition: History, Historiography, and Discovery in the Southeast in Journal of Interdisciplinary History 30.3, Winter 1999, webpage: SIU-G.
  3. Related spellings: Mavila, Mavilla, Mauvilla.


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