Tascalusa ~ Mobile

Published on December 15, 2010 by John

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Tascalusa was the paramount chief of the Mobile Indians, who led his people first in diplomacy with Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto{$ISoto, Hernando de} and then in opposition. The first-contact experience ended for the Mobile with a valiant but deadly battle, the largest and deadliest in sixteenth century North America between American Indians and Europeans, but it did stop de Soto’s advance.

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Not much is known of the early life of Tascalusa. The legendary parameters of Tascalusa’s spare biography never entered the folk storehouse of Southeast Indian stories for a number of reasons. First, the Mobile Indians began to disappear as a tribe after 1540, eventually being absorbed into the Choctaw Nation in the early eighteenth century. Second, the North American Indian cultures in the path of de Soto’s expedition suffered almost complete cultural annihilation, wiping out any form of oral history that might have been passed on about Tascalusa and his tribe. Third, Spanish versions of Tascalusa’s life focus solely on his final days serving as the worthy counterpart to de Soto.

Tascalusa, whose name means “black warrior” in the Choctaw language, governed one of the most developed and complex of the Mississippian Indian cultures at the end of what had been an approximately eight-hundred-year period of growth and development before the first European contact in the sixteenth century. The hunter-gatherer society had metamorphosed into a more complex farming society that included one of the southernmost examples of moundbuilding. The Mobile Indians, in their daily religious practices, paid religious honor to the sun, a behavior de Soto himself attempted to exploit by introducing himself to the Southeast Indians as the “child of the sun.”

Tascalusa appears to have been married, though there is no specific mention of him having a wife. There are, however, multiple references to groups of tribal women expressing both their homage to and their concern for him as he fought in the nine-hour Battle of Mabila. Tascalusa had a namesake son who was old enough to fight at Mabila and whose grisly death in combat is recounted by several different Spanish eyewitnesses. Interestingly enough, although all the Mobile men and virtually all the women were reported to have been dead or dying by nightfall on October 18, 1540, there is a single transcribed report of captured Indian women by a Spanish lieutenant that claims that Tascalusa was encouraged to leave the fortress walls of Mabila, repeatedly refused to do so, but finally relented and left with thirty men. This report, however, might simply be flawed understanding. The report assumed that many Indians, presumably twenty-five hundred or more, died outside the fortress walls of living trees and daub, even as another three thousand died inside the walls by the sword or lance; another thirty-five hundred died horrible deaths, either burned or suffocated in the huge structures to which de Soto and his men set fire and often blocked egress to the mostly women and children inside.

Tascalusa, as the leader of the largest village among North American Indian tribes of the Southeast of his day, made every attempt to remain a diplomat rather than become a warrior-leader. Indeed, he seems to have been well-prepared to play both roles. Tascalusa had welcomed de Soto initially and sent amicable, if somewhat cryptic and reserved, messages by courier to de Soto as the expedition moved west and north toward Tascalusa and his people.

On October 11, 1540, the two men finally met face-to-face. De Soto asked for several hundred men to serve as guides and carriers and seems to have asked for at least one hundred women as well, presumably for sexual favors. Tascalusa apparently provided a significant number of burden-carriers but told de Soto that the women would be provided at the next town to the north, the fortress town of Mabila. Over the next few days, Tascalusa traveled with de Soto toward Mabila. Extremely tall, Tascalusa’s stature was such that one of de Soto’s lieutenants noted that only a pack horse would be large enough to support his impressive frame.

De Soto seems to have become suspicious as he approached the walled fortress of Mabila, since houses that were outside the tree-and-mud walls had been dismantled, which would have provided a more open plain for fighting. De Soto also seems to have received some information from a Christian missionary at Mabila, who reported to de Soto that the Indians were acting suspiciously and that an inordinate number of armed men were collecting within the huts and meeting halls of the town, including Tascalusa, who had been in one of the larger houses near the central plaza and had refused to emerge from the structure. The largest and bloodiest battle of the century on the North American continent soon ensued during all nine sunlight hours of October 18, 1540.

The Spaniards were not ready for the scope or organization of the Indian attack, so they gathered outside the gates of the city to regroup. The Spaniards fought for hours, then launched a four-pronged attack on both gates and two points of the wall of the city, entering the fortress to kill the remaining soldiers and set fire to all the houses inside the walls of Mabila.

Despite the extent of the battle, the ferocity of the ensuing firestorm was so complete that to this day, scholars debate the exact location of the battle, though it was most likely at what is now known as Choctaw Bluff in Clarke County, Alabama. Somewhere in south-central Alabama, there is an archaeological library of information embedded in the swampy earth, containing at minimum more than ten thousand skeletal remains, pottery, arrowheads, and the remnants of a remarkable village, palisaded with live (likely, pine) trees daubed into city walls.

Tascalusa and his entire retinue of subordinate chiefs died that day, but so did a number of significant officers on the Spanish side, notably de Soto’s two nephews, Don Carlos Enriquez and Diego de Soto. De Soto died two years later of a fever, and his men hurriedly buried him in the Mississippi River so that his demigod stature would not be mitigated. Therefore, the Battle of Mabila and de Soto’s confrontation with Tascalusa constitute the critical points not only in the lives of these two leaders but also in the history of their cultures in North America.

Tascalusa was the paramount chief of forces who engaged in the largest and most significant sixteenth century battle involving North American Indians and Europeans. His name has been given to both a city and a county in Alabama (Tuscaloosa), and his life is emblematic and representative of first-contact experiences with Europeans: With diplomacy, guile, and pitched and valorous battle, the Spaniards followed through by annihilating and then essentially ending the chiefdom-level leadership within tribal cultures that faced colonialist Europeans.

Source: enotes.com

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