- Historic Sites
The Passion Of Hernando De Soto
In Florida the great conquistador hoped to find a Golconda. Instead, he found a Golgotha. An American Heritage Book Selection
April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
And still the fortune hunters found no fortunes. As the hopes of the Spaniards declined, their discipline began to sag, particularly among the foot soldiers, who bore the brunt of the hardships. One by one they began to desert, slipping away at night to seek an oblivious life of ease among the natives. De Soto was obliged to post sentries at night to guard against desertions. He could not allow his army to stop for rest. At each village a show of force persuaded the Indian chief to co-operate in providing food, shelter, and porters. If the soldiers wanted women, a few mirrors, combs, and other trinkets were considered a fair trade. Before the expedition left a settlement, de Soto would arrest the chief and take him along as a hostage to prevent an attack on the rear of his line of march. It was a callous policy which, sooner or later, would anger a warlike tribe.
The Indians who struck back at the Spanish were the Choctaw of south-central Alabama. De Soto entered their territory early in October, and was greeted by their chief, Tuscaloosa, the Black Warrior. It was an impressive meeting: the Spanish general clad in armor on his charger and the Indian chief seated on a pile of cushions, wearing a full-length mantle of feathers. Tuscaloosa greeted de Soto warily, but seemed willing to let the Spaniards cross his lands. De Soto responded in his usual high-handed style. He accepted the offer and then ordered his halberdiers to seize Tuscaloosa and take him with the column. It was a fatal mistake; Tuscaloosa managed to send runners to his war chiefs, summoning them to his capital at Mobila, where they set an ambush for de Soto and his soldiers. (This Indian town, probably located near the juncture of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers in present-day Alabama, has been variously spelled Mavila, Mauvila, Mabila, etc.)
When Tuscaloosa told him that Mobila held ample supplies of food, de Soto decided to march on the capital. He moved straight into the trap; to make matters worse, he allowed his troops to disperse and forage. When the main column reached the town, de Soto was accompanied by fifteen troopers and a huge, surly mob of slaves, hostages, and prisoners. Despite the warnings of a Spanish spy who told de Soto that Mobila was swarming with Choctaw warriors, the stiff-necked general decided to enter the town with Tuscaloosa at his side. As the handful of Spaniards passed through the gates, their attention was diverted by a team of dancing girls stationed there as decoys. Then Tuscaloosa signalled his braves to attack, and they rushed out from the houses. De Soto and his companions backed toward the gate with blows ringing off their armor. Five of the white men were hacked to pieces protecting their general, and de Soto himself narrowly escaped.
De Soto’s life was saved, but his negligence was still to prove the ruin of his expedition. The Indians in the baggage train had seized their opportunity to escape. They had streamed into Mobila, taking with them all the Spanish supplies, spare weapons, and gunpowder. By the time the main body of the Spanish army arrived, the situation was desperate. On the other side of Mobila’s palisades lay all the equipment needed to survive the march down to the coast. Already the ramparts were lined with self-liberated slaves, jeering and holding up their booty to mock the white men.
For de Soto there was no alternative: he had to capture Mobila and regain his equipment. The siege lasted all day, and it was a blood bath. The Spanish infantry hurled themselves against the palisades, hacking at the logs with axes, but were beaten back by the crazed Choctaw. Finally de Soto had to fire the town and risk his equipment in the conflagration. Mobila was built of wood and straw, and it burned like tinder. But with the flames behind them and the halberdiers in front, the Choctaw warriors refused to surrender. They stubbornly resisted and inflicted heavy casualties. De Soto himself received an arrow in the rump and spent the rest of the battle standing in his stirrups. The siege became a massacre of the Choctaw, but not until their last warrior had hanged himself from the ramparts with his own bowstring did the fighting stop, and by then it was clear that the Spanish equipment had burned with the town.
The battle was a victory for the Spanish, but a victory they could not afford. In addition to losing their matériel, they had 22 dead and 148 wounded, some with multiple arrow wounds. Scarcely any soldiers had come through unscathed; they were burned, hungry, and exhausted. De Soto had put himself in an impossible tactical position and had paid the price for his stupidity. By rights, his Florida expedition was finished; they should all have limped to the coast to rendezvous with the ships. But that was not de Solo’s style. He was stubbornly convinced that somewhere in Tierra Florida he would build his empire, and he was too proud to return to Spain a failure. When a messenger arrived to report that the supply fleet was waiting, he suppressed the news, fearing that the men would desert and make for the coast. By sheer force of character, de Soto led his men away from their salvation and took them, ill equipped and battered, into the interior for three more years of fighting. The fleet waited in vain to provide them with fresh supplies. Then it sailed back to Cuba, not knowing what had become of the Florida expedition.