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October 24, 2014

Hardy Jackson: De Soto slept here

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Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2014 7:00 pm

In October 1540, at the Indian town of Mabila, soldiers of Hernando de Soto clashed with the forces of Chief Tascaluza. When the fighting was done, one Spaniard estimated that between 2,500 and 5,000 Indians lay dead. If the count is anywhere close to correct, this was the bloodiest battle fought on North American soil until Union and Confederate armies slaughtered each other at Shiloh.

Mabila was in Alabama.

We don’t know where.

Soon, we might.

Thanks to a grant from the Alabama Power Foundation, a two-year, three-university archaeological expedition is setting out to find where the battle was fought.

It won’t be easy.

We are not even sure of the route de Soto traveled.

In 1939, a national commission set up to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Spanish invasion. It identified what it felt was de Soto’s route and put Mabila in Clarke County, where I grew up. Locals were so tickled with the honor that they named a Boy Scout camp after the battle.

Years later, a cadre of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians did another study and concluded that Mabila was likely located farther north, where the Cahaba River empties into the Alabama, near the site of Cahawba, Alabama’s first state capital.

Clarke County rejected the new findings and continued to claim Mabila as its own, an intransigence that reveals just how much it means to a community to know that history once touched it.

I got into this de Soto routing tussle innocently enough. In the 1990s, I was working on a history of the Alabama River system. The Spanish invasion was an early part of the story. Relying on the work of folks I respected, I told of how de Soto entered the northeast corner of what would one day be Alabama and followed the Coosa south to where it joined the Tallapoosa. Then the expedition turned west along the Alabama River, until it reached Mabila, which I put at Cahawba. Since no one could prove it wasn’t there, why not?

Shortly after that, the scholarship hit the fan.

A colleague at Jacksonville State University was interested in what I had written about Mabila. I showed it to him. He asked if he could pass it on to a friend in Florida who was big into de Soto. I said sure. Historians often read each other’s yet-to-be-published work, a sort of academic fact check. I expected the Florida guy would accept what I thought was a pretty non-controversial assessment and maybe even give me an “atta-boy.”

I was wrong.

Shortly, I received a scathing letter accusing me of selling out to a bunch of pseudo-scholars who were pushing the Cahawba site in order to land big research grants — grants the Florida guy thought should go to him. Central to his argument against the site I picked was that the accounts written by people traveling with de Soto told of Indians wearing hats made of palmetto fronds and eating chestnut bread.

Ain’t no palmetto or chestnut anywhere around the Cahawba site, he said.

Bruised from this bashing, I turned to scholar friends who reassured me that no one knew for sure what route de Soto traveled through the state, much less where Mabila was located.

Harry Holstein, Jacksonville State’s pre-eminent archaeologist, pinpointed one likely Spanish camp site with the discovery of the hubcap from a 1952 De Soto, though, naturally, some naysayers claim the connection is sketchy at best.

There were other theories, most proposed by boosters who wanted to add “de Soto slept here” to the history of their town or county.

The most intriguing route-tracing scheme was advanced by Doug Jones of the Alabama Museum of Natural History. At one of the few confirmed de Soto sites, archeologists found pig bones.

Jones suggested that scientists extract DNA from de Soto pigs and clone modern pigs that would have the route imprinted in its genetic structure — OK, I don’t understand either, but it sounds good. Then the cloned pigs would be released; following them would confirm, once and for all, the route de Soto took.

On that route they would find Mabila.

Is the Alabama Power-sponsored team using this approach? I have not heard. But if it does, I hope it will follow Jones’ suggestion, and when the pigs reach their destination, the power company will host a wing-ding barbeque.

As for the Florida guy who wrote all upset about my choice for the location of Mabila, I simply sent him a picture of palmetto-covered wetlands not far from my selected site, along with an article about “Chestnut Hill,” a nearby plantation that I observed was not named after the pine trees on the place.

Palmetto for hats and chestnuts for bread!

I never heard from him again.

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