Published on May 1, 2012 by Amy
Tuskaloosa (aka Tuskalusa, Tastaluca, Tuskaluza) (died 1540) was a paramount chief of a Mississippian chiefdom in what is now the U.S. state of Alabama. His people were possibly ancestors to the several southern Native American confederacies (the Choctaw and Creek peoples) who later emerged in the region. The modern city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama is named for him.
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Tuskaloosa is notable for leading the Battle of Mabila at his fortified village against the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. After being taken hostage by the Spanish as they passed through his territory, Tuskaloosa organized a surprise attack on his captors at Mabila, but was ultimately defeated.
Contemporary records describe the paramount chief as being very tall and well built, with some of the chroniclers saying Tuaskaloosa stood a foot and a half taller than the Spaniards. His name, derived from the western Muskogean language elements taska and losa, means “Black Warrior”.
Tuskaloosa and his chiefdom are recorded in the chronicles of Hernando de Soto’s expedition, which arrived in North America in 1539. De Soto had been appointed Governor of Cuba by Carlos I of Spain, who directed him to conquer Florida, which was taken to comprise what is now the Southern United States, as adelantado. In 1539, De Soto landed near Tampa, Florida with 600-1,000 men and 200 horses and began a circuitous exploration of modern-day Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, often engaging in violent conflict with the indigenous American Indians. As they traveled, the expedition kidnapped natives to act as bearers and interpreters of the many different language families (Muskogean, Yamasee, Iroquoian Cherokee, and others) of the Southeast. The conquistadors frequently would take a local chief hostage to guarantee safe passage through his territory. By October 1540, the Expedition had reached the middle of modern-day Alabama.
Tuskaloosa’s province consisted of a series of villages, mostly along the Coosa and Alabama Rivers. Each village had its own chief who was a vassal to Tuskaloosa, the paramount chief. After traveling through the Coosa Province, the De Soto expedition came to the village of Talisi on September 18, 1540, near the modern town of Childersburg, Alabama. The chief of Talisi and his vassals had fled the town before them, but de Soto sent messages to the chief, who returned on September 25.
Once Chief Talisi had showed his obedience by supplying the Spaniards with requested deerskins, food, bearers and women, de Soto released the paramount chief of Coosa, whom they had held hostage while traveling through his territory. Chief Coosa was angry that he was taken so far from his home village, and because de Soto still held his sister. She was probably the mother of his successor as chief, according to their system of matrilineal descent. De Soto evidently thought that Talisi was subject to Coosa, although the village was closer to Tuskaloosa. As such the chief may have had dual allegiances to both chiefdoms and balanced between them.
While they were in Talisi, the Spanish were visited by an envoy from Chief Tuskaloosa, led by his son and some of his head men. The envoy intended to assess the capacity of the Spanish expedition to prepare a trap for them. The Spanish rested at Talisi for several weeks, then departed on October 5. During the next several days, they reached about one village of the Tuskaloosa province per day. These included Casiste, situated on a stream; and Caxa, another village on a stream, possibly Hatchett Creek, the boundary between the Coosa and the Tuskaloosa. The next day they camped on the Coosa River, across from the village of Humati, near the mouth of Shoal Creek. On October 8 they came to a newly built settlement named Uxapita, possibly near modern Wetumpka, Alabama. On October 9, de Soto crossed the Tallapoosa River, and by the end of the day, his party was within a few miles of Tuskalusa’s village, Atahachi.
De Soto sent a messenger to tell the chief he and his army had arrived, and the chief responded that they could go to the court whenever de Soto liked. The next day de Soto sent Luis de Moscoso to tell 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 was taken to meet the chief under a portico on top of the mound.
Moscoso and his men mounted their horses and galloped around the plaza, playing juego de cañas, a dangerous sport involving jousting with lances. The men occasionally feinted toward Tuskaloosa, hoping to frighten him, a technique of manipulation de Soto had used against the Inca Atahualpa at Cajamarca. The chief sat as though unconcerned. Afterward the Spaniards were served food, and the residents of Atahachi danced in the plaza. The Spaniards were reminded of rural dances in their own country. When de Soto demanded porters and women from the chief, the chief said 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 told 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 October 12, and the next day, 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 claimed his people did not have any. The expedition was forced to wait two days as they built rafts to cross to the north side of the river. After crossing, they noticed that two Spaniards were 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; the chief said only that the men would be returned 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. 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, they saw an older warrior haranguing younger men, or leading them in mock skirmishes and military exercises.