Alabama researchers move closer to the site of a crucial battle

For a century, researchers have sought the spot where the Spanish explorers of Hernando de Soto clashed with the warriors of Chief Tascalusa in a devastating battle that changed the course of history in the South.

Spanish survivors wrote about the Battle of Mabila in documents that survived the doomed expedition. But historians and archaeologists have never found the exact location of the confrontation that killed hundreds of Spaniards and thousands of Native Americans.

Archaeologist Ashley Dumas, a professor at the University of West Alabama, has announced the discovery of Spanish and Native American artifacts at several sites in Marengo County, located between Montgomery and the Mississippi border. The newly identified settlements are now believed to be Mabila Province.

Although the exact site of the battle has still not been located, Dumas said the findings suggest it likely occurred a few miles from the territory identified by his team.

“It has been a really fascinating puzzle trying to solve using multiple sources of evidence and multiple types of expertise,” said Dumas.

The Battle of Mabila played a key role in shaping the culture of the South, Dumas said. De Soto led hundreds of men on an expedition across the region in search of treasure and land to settle. In Mabila, they lost their treasure and supplies and encountered fierce resistance from native warriors who turned them to the north into more inhospitable terrain. The few who survived the trip eventually made it to Mexico with nothing to show for their efforts.

“It was a dramatic event and it marked a major turning point in southeastern European colonization,” Dumas said. “The Battle of Mabila is the reason we don’t speak Spanish in the South East today. “

The Battle of Mabila was the Gettysburg of its day, said Jim Knight, a retired anthropology professor at the University of Alabama. Generations of historians and archaeologists have researched the site of the battle, described as a walled city.

Over time, two camps have formed. Mabila was believed to be in southwestern Alabama. The other placed the site in central Alabama. Steven Meredith is an archaeologist who joined Mabila’s research in 2019.

“It’s hard to be an archaeologist in Alabama without having an opinion on it,” Meredith said.

To find it, the researchers began with accounts of the expedition in four chronicles that survived the trip. They tried to identify the geographic locations where crucial events occurred. Charles Hudson, historian and anthropologist in Georgia, created a map of de Soto’s route that remains widely accepted, Dumas said.

Archaeologists have used this information, which could be vague and contradictory, for decades to search for sites without success. Several federal and state commissions dating back to the 1930s sent research teams to central and southern Alabama, only to see them return empty-handed.

In 2005, Knight helped organize a new panel of experts to take a fresh look at the evidence. The panel consisted of a wide range of historians, archaeologists, geographers, geologists and folklorists. Neither had close ties to the two camps that had staked their claims to locations in southern or central Alabama.

The group had to answer a key question that seemed to rule out southern Alabama: How many miles could the group travel each day?

“A big mistake people made was deciding that the wait could go 25 to 26 miles a day given that they had a herd of pigs and burden carriers chained to their necks,” Knight said.

The new group estimated that the expedition could cover about 12 miles per day and focused on areas of the river valleys that had traditionally been settled by Mississippi tribes. Knight and other researchers examined three potential sites where Native American artifacts were found but written off.

Knight said he almost gave up when a geographer friend from North Carolina urged him to make a last ditch effort. Instead of looking at river valleys, the new research turned to black belt grasslands.

His team included many other researchers, including Charles Cobb, a Spanish metal expert at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and Tony Boudreaux, an archaeologist at Mississippi State University, specializing in contact between Native Americans and early explorers. Volunteers and students also participated in the surveys.

Dumas and her husband began by surveying the plowed fields. The soil in this part of the black belt is difficult to find, and private pine plantations cover much of the land. In the fields, they found shards of pottery.

Then they discovered pieces of metal that dated back to the time of Spanish exploration.

“I never had chills and tears in my eyes like I did when we found that unmistakable 16th century first piece of metal,” said Dumas. “And then we found more and more. And we are up to 52 pieces confirmed.

Researchers are still looking for the exact site of the battle, a walled city that burned down after the clash. Chief Tascalusa’s forces lost the battle but pulled heavy losses from the Spaniards. In Spanish chronicles, Tascalusa was described as a giant and eventually his name would be used for the town of Tuscaloosa. The discovery of the settlements considered to be the chiefdom of Tascalusa led to new understandings of Native American culture during the time of de Soto’s expedition.

“We are now certain that we have Mabila province,” Dumas said.

Meredith said the discovery could help expand knowledge about life in 16th century Alabama, when early explorers caused great disruption in Native American society. The settlement of Mabila probably lasted only a few generations and represented a period of great transition.

“If there was ever a dramatic time for Alabama, the 16th century was one of them,” Meredith said, “It was a time of tremendous change. “

Dumas said private landowners in Marengo County played a key role in helping his team make his discoveries. Sometimes fears that investigations would disrupt agriculture and business have made it difficult to find artifacts, she said. His team made sure to work with the owners and protect the exact locations of key sites. Researchers will also work with Native American tribes on efforts to repatriate some artifacts.

The exact location of the Battle of Mabila could be at hand. Or it could be lost in time, covered with pine trees, or hidden by development. If research continues, archaeologists will continue to learn more about Indigenous cultures before and after de Soto.

“Even though we don’t understand this point of origin, and maybe it’s a big catfish pond, we have a better picture of the society at this time,” Meredith said.

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