The bloodiest recorded battle in North America up to 1540 left the new world forever changed.
Given its consequences to subsequent white settlement and development of North America over the next two centuries, the Battle of Mauvila may have been the most important fight in North American history. Diseases carried by Hernando de Soto’s soldiers—the first large-scale European force on North American soil—killed millions of American Indians, depopulated entire areas, broke up Indian villages and cities and disrupted the alliances between tribes. This crippling of the social structure destroyed much of their ability to unite against European encroachment, clearing the way for white conquest. Spanish horses that escaped or were captured by Indians became the foundation stock of the first horse populations in America. And the aggression of the gold-seeking Spaniards set the tone for future relationships with the indigenous population. The de Soto expedition’s records provided Europe with the earliest known geographic and biological information of southeastern North America, stimulating European interest, particularly in Spain, which had previously focused on Mexico. After de Soto, nothing would ever be the same again.
But no one could have foreseen such dramatic historical impact on the cool, crisp day when Hernando de Soto, conquistador and general of a large Spanish expeditionary force, rode into the fortified town of Mauvila around 8 a.m. on October 18, 1540, with an advance guard of about 40 cavalrymen. With him was Chief Tascaluza, the Indian chief of an area that stretched from what is now Montgomery, Ala., to the Gulf Coast, wearing the scarlet cloak de Soto had given him when they first met, and astride the largest packhorse the Spanish had. Even then, the chief’s feet nearly touched the ground, for by all accounts he towered over the Spanish soldiers and was possibly close to 7 feet tall, with a muscular, well-proportioned body.
Also accompanying the two leaders were numerous Indian bearers and servants carrying the Spanish army’s supplies, including weapons. Most of them were in chains, and even Tascaluza, nominally an ally, was for all intents and purposes de Soto’s captive. Behind the civility of the two men lay an undercurrent of mistrust. Before the day was over, it would erupt in the largest battle to be fought on the North American continent in the 16th century.
It had been 16 months since de Soto’s arrival in the land that Juan Ponce de Leon, who discovered it on Good Friday in 1513 during Pascua de Florida (the Easter season), had called La Florida. Born in the town of Extremadura on Spain’s border with Portugal in 1500, Hernando de Soto had eschewed his parents’ hopes of his becoming a lawyer. Instead he sailed to the New World as a 15-year-old page. A superb horseman, considered one of the finest lancers in all Spain, he rose to captain’s rank by age 20. His share of spoils in the conquistadors’ wars in Central and South America made him a very wealthy man, and he returned to Spain in 1536 to marry his childhood sweetheart, Ysabel de Bobadilla, who had kept her vow to wait for his return. De Soto was tall for his time, perhaps 5 feet 8 inches, with chiseled good looks and piercing black eyes.
Petitioning King Carlos I of Spain for territorial rights in the New World, de Soto was ultimately given the exclusive right to explore, subjugate and control La Florida—then thought to be an island. He was appointed governor of Cuba, but was required to supply and finance his expedition at his own expense. He bought 10 ships for the transatlantic voyage and, though men flocked to his command, he was selective in choosing them. Some were Portuguese, their average age was in the early 20s, and almost all were veterans of campaigns in America or Italy. They would receive no pay, their only reward being shares of the future wealth—such as gold, silver and precious jewels—that so many of their predecessors had found there, including their general.
When he landed on the south side of what is now Tampa Bay, Fla., on June 2, 1539, de Soto commanded the first large organized force of white men in North America, with more than 600 foot soldiers and cavalrymen, probably another 200 pages and servants, a group of clerics and 225 horses. In addition they had a herd of pigs that eventually swelled to more than 200, and copious supplies including extra boots, chains and ropes, tack, armor, weapons and everything an army of its day would need, except food. The plan was to live off the land. After traveling 300 miles in 4l⁄2 months, they bivouacked at Anhaica (now Tallahassee, Fla.) for the winter.
In the spring of 1540, de Soto headed north, toward what is now South Carolina. He and his group were cordially greeted by the local Indians, but found none of the gold rumored to be there. Turning northwest, the Spanish passed through what is now Asheville, N.C., across the Blue Ridge Mountains, through Swannanoa Gap and arrived near present-day Knoxville, Tenn.
Moving south to Coosa, the largest Indian community on the continent, de Soto and his men still found no gold. After a month they marched south and west into southern Alabama. There, they were cordially met by Tascaluza’s son, accompanied by a retinue of more than 100 nobles elaborately dressed in animal skins and wearing large feathered headdresses.
De Soto finally met Chief Tascaluza himself at Atahachi. Tascaluza, which means Black Warrior in Choctaw, seemed reluctant to offer assistance. Despite the fact that the chief and his people had never seen a horse before, much less men encased in metal armor and carrying such strange war instruments as crossbows and arquebuses, he refused to be intimidated. Spanish cavalrymen who displayed their prowess by almost charging into Tascaluza were regarded with disdain by the chief. Although the chief arranged for the Spanish army to sleep in Atahachi and made sure they and their horses had adequate food, he hesitated to grant de Soto’s request for young women and hundreds more bearers, telling him that all would be provided when they reached his capital of Mauvila—located somewhere in present-day south or central Alabama. The next morning the entire retinue proceeded onward, but the general prudently dispatched two trusted men to proceed to Mauvila ahead of him, with orders to report to him when he arrived.
Mauvila was not a large town, perhaps 80 thatched houses, but it had the best fortifications the Spanish had seen. A circular wall about 15 feet high, made of heavy timbers imbedded vertically in the earth, with branches interwoven between the timbers and covered with mud or clay troweled smooth, encircled the town. Guard towers big enough for six or seven men stood about 150 feet apart, and there were numerous openings in the wall for bowmen. Only two gates permitted entry and exit. The surrounding fields were level and had been cleared of dwellings, bushes and small trees, although some lean-tos had been built there in anticipation of the Spaniards’ arrival.
As the party approached Mauvila, the local chieftain welcomed the Spaniards outside the town, and attractive young women welcomed them with dances and songs. When they entered the town, Tascaluza pointed out houses where members of de Soto’s party could stay, and all the advance guard’s horses except for two or three were led outside and tethered. While the Spanish soldiers tried to talk with the warriors and ogled the girls, Tascaluza quietly slipped away into a large house. Meanwhile, de Soto’s two advance scouts told him what they had found, which was ominous. There were no children or old people in the town. Other than the dancers, the only other women they had seen were all young, and the Spanish were well aware of Indian women’s skill with bows and arrows. The scouts had managed to peek into several houses and had seen arms caches and warriors. De Soto quietly passed the word to his men to remain alert, and they put their helmets on.
Some in de Soto’s entourage were greatly concerned; they were a small group inside a walled compound, with an unknown number of warriors hidden in the houses. The rest of his army was moving raggedly out of Atahachi, scattering in small groups to hunt, find food and “negotiate with the sword.” There had been occasional skirmishes with Indians over the past year, usually involving attacks on individuals or small groups who wandered from the main column, but there had been no serious Indian attempts to challenge the Spaniards. Two men had recently disappeared, however, and Tascaluza, when asked, made it clear that he should not be expected to safeguard Spanish soldiers.
De Soto’s servants put out the morning meal. De Soto sent his translator, Juan Ortiz, to the house Tascaluza had entered to ask the chief to join them for the meal, as he had done every day since their first encounter. This time de Soto demanded that Tascaluza join them. In response, a tall, muscular noble stepped out through the door and said: “Who are these thieves and vagabonds here calling on my lord Tascaluza to come out…speaking with as little reverence as if they were talking to themselves? By the Sun and Moon, one is not able to endure the boldness of these devils, and it is only just that they die for it today….”
Another warrior had come out and placed a bow and arrow in the hand of the noble, who, throwing his martenskin cape off his shoulder, notched an arrow and prepared to let it fly. Captain Baltasar de Gallegos, standing nearby, drew his sword, took a few steps and, in one swift motion, cleaved the man’s entire shoulder and arm from his body. As Gallegos shouted a warning, Indians poured out of the houses with shrill cries and war whoops.
The Spanish soldiers, all seasoned veterans, quickly formed into protective groups, facing outward toward the attackers. Some cavalrymen raced for the horses outside the gates. The fastest of them managed to mount up, others cut the bridles and the rest watched in dismay as Indian arrows killed their horses. Within the walls two knights raced for the few horses tethered inside, but Juan de Solis was shot down by Indian arrows before he could mount. General Rodrigo Ranjel managed to throw himself into the saddle of his warhorse, and he and his men slowly cut a path through the Indians to where de Soto and others were fending off hordes of attackers. De Soto, Ranjel and his men eventually managed to beat a fighting retreat through the howling mob and out the gate.
A young brave rapidly fired several arrows at Gallegos, but the arrows merely stuck in his quilted armor. The brave then charged him, using his heavy bow as a club. He managed to strike Gallegos three or four times before he himself was dispatched by a sword thrust. Blood streamed down Gallegos’ face from wounds under his helmet, but he continued to wield his sword vigorously as he slowly retreated. Nearby, Luis de Moscoso, who was also fighting ferociously, shouted to Gallegos, “Señor Baltasar, come forth, or I will have to leave you, for I cannot wait any longer.”
The Spanish finally managed to get outside the gate, with the loss of five killed and many wounded. The Indians closed and locked the gate, not realizing that a small party of de Soto’s personal staff was trapped inside a house. As soon as the Spanish were driven outside, Tascaluza’s men opened their enemy’s stores. Shouting and beating drums, they fired arrows and hurled insults at the Spanish, then flaunted the captured goods from atop the palisaded walls.
In close combat the Indians fought with clubs and tomahawks, and like all the natives the Spanish encountered in North America, they were tough, courageous and determined. They usually fought in small groups. Extremely agile, they would rapidly fire several arrows and then change position. These southeastern Indians were basically farmers, growing crops of corn, beans and squash. They had no cattle or domesticated animals except dogs and had never seen horses before the Spanish arrived. Their use of metals was limited—small amounts of copper and occasionally gold for ornaments. They wore no protective garments in battle.
Spanish arms and armor gave the conquistadors a distinct advantage. The Indians’ powerful bows were generally 5 or 6 feet long and could deliver arrows with such force that they easily penetrated coats of mail, but de Soto’s men learned early on to use very thick quilted coats instead. Outside Mauvila, Rodrigo Ranjel pulled more than 20 arrows from the padded armor de Soto was wearing. The Spaniards also learned to always break any arrows they found, so the Indians could not reuse them.
Once outside the town, de Soto called for a horse and directed other mounted men to circle the walls and lance any Indians on the outside. In the brief moments before the battle resumed, he sent men to urge the rest of his slow-moving army to move up rapidly.
Suddenly the gates to Mauvila opened and Indians surged out. With de Soto in front, the Spanish soldiers fought to stop the onrush, but were slowly driven back across the field. When the few available cavalrymen stalled the Indians’ advance, de Soto’s foot soldiers paused, then countercharged. The Spanish pushed their assailants back all the way to the gates, which were then closed. Pelted with arrows and stones, the Spanish were forced to move away from the walls. Tascaluza’s warriors then sallied out, and the Spanish retreated again—much farther than was necessary, since they had a clear advantage in the open. Another counterattack compelled the Indians to withdraw inside their fort.
The to-and-fro battle continued over the next three hours—attack and withdraw, attack and withdraw. Don Carlos Enriquez, a well-liked cavalryman married to one of de Soto’s nieces, was moving forward when he felt his mount stagger. He stopped, shifted his lance to his left hand and reached down to pull out the arrow that had penetrated his horse’s chest. At that instant an Indian arrow pierced the cavalryman’s throat. He died the next day.
Almost four hours had passed since the battle was joined, and the fields were littered with dead and wounded Indians. The Spanish foot soldiers and most of the rear guard had all arrived, but Mauvila’s walls and gates had still not been breached. Changing tactics, de Soto divided his men into four groups and directed a group to each side of Mauvila. In each group was one man who carried a firebrand. All but a handful of the mounted men were ordered to dismount and prepare to force the main gate, since the cavalrymen were the best armed—most carried axes as well as their other weapons.
No doubt there were a few moments of relative quiet as the Spanish moved into their positions and the Indians watched from inside the walls. All of de Soto’s men knew there would be no mercy, no retreat and no prisoners. It would be win or die.
When all was ready, de Soto ordered an arquebus fired, and as the sound echoed across the fields his soldiers rushed forward shouting their battle cry, “Santiago” and “At them, men!” Infantrymen quickly broke down the gate, and the armored cavalrymen poured through. Other Spaniards hacked at the walls to break away the clay cover and expose the wood core, then helped each other to climb over and engage the Indians. The streets were too confined for arquebuses, crossbows or longbows and arrows, so combat was hand-to-hand, with swords, halberds and daggers against clubs and tomahawks. In the midst of that desperate melee, Captain Diego de Soto, the general’s nephew and Don Carlos Enriquez’s best friend, learned of his brother-in-law’s mortal wounding. He leaped down from his horse, dropped his lance and rushed into the fray with sword in one hand and buckler in the other. Moments later he was shot down.
Thanks to their armor and metal weapons, the Spanish slowly gained the upper hand, forcing the warriors back through the streets. Soon the torchbearers did their work, and clouds of smoke and flames arose from the houses, killing many Indians inside and neutralizing the braves firing arrows from rooftops. Often the smoke would blow in the faces of the Indians, and the Spanish soldiers would surge forward, only to be pushed back as the wind changed and hindered their own vision. Outside the town, cavalrymen struck down any Indians who left the protection of the walls.
De Soto had been fighting on foot, but after a time he went outside and called for a horse. He mounted, lance in hand, and immediately his old friend and fellow conquistador Nuño Tovar mounted a horse and joined him. With cries of “Make way” and “Santiago!” the two old campaigners entered the fray back inside the town, lancing and slashing at groups of Indians in the central plaza and in the streets, then turned and charged through them again. Soldiers on foot took advantage of the confusion created by mounted charges to press their own onslaught against the scattered braves.
Outside the walls many wounded Indians lay helpless. By midafternoon, the battle was still raging. From time to time, exhausted soldiers would come to lie on their bellies and drink from a pond outside the walls—even though the water was tinged pink with blood.
Tovar was not wounded, although an arrow had penetrated his lance with such force that it remained in place just forward of his hand. He broke it off, leaving remnants that reminded him of a cross. De Soto was not so fortunate. During one Spanish charge, an Indian arrow fired from behind him barely cleared the cantle, penetrated the chain mail over his left buttock and lodged deep in his thigh. Unable to pull it out, he spent almost four hours standing in the saddle as he and Tovar charged and fought on. By late afternoon, Tascaluza’s men inside Mauvila were being steadily reduced. In desperation, women shot arrows or picked up melee weapons to continue the fight, their energy and courage matching that of their kinsmen.
Throughout the fighting in Mauvila, the Spanish tried unsuccessfully to fight their way to the house where the members of de Soto’s personal guard had remained behind and were now trapped. When the Indians realized this, they attacked the house. Inside were three crossbowmen and five halberdiers, an Indian deserter who had become a Spanish ally, two priests and de Soto’s two female servants. As the priests prayed, the others fought, and when Tascaluza’s men chopped holes in the roof, the crossbowmen and Indian archer loosed well-placed volleys into the breaches to fend them off. Finally Spanish foot soldiers carved a path to the house and rescued all of the party.
Late in the day, the fighting raged on a smaller scale. Ten or 12 mounted cavalrymen entered the town and repeatedly charged, often knocking down Spanish foot soldiers as they broke through the Indian ranks. As the sun went down, the exhausted Spanish faced the last few remaining Indian warriors, who gathered together and placed a screen of women in front of them. The women suddenly moved aside, and the braves fired volleys of arrows at the advancing Spanish. It was not enough. In minutes there was only one warrior left. Realizing the battle was lost, he raced to the top of a nearby palisade, unstrung his bow, knotted the bowstring into a loop and hanged himself.
Almost nine hours after it began, the battle was over. Casualties were heavy. By one account 82 Spanish soldiers were killed. In addition, 45 precious horses were lost and 70 wounded.
The native warriors’ losses were never actually counted, but chroniclers would later estimate them as high as 11,000. Modern scholars believe it may have been as low as 3,000, but a much higher number is likely because Indians perished not only in the fighting but also by being trapped in burning houses or being slaughtered in the fields outside the village. Not a single Indian warrior was captured that day. Days later Spanish soldiers were still finding wounded or dead Indians miles away from the battle site. The engagement effectively wiped out warriors and nobles from 50 miles around who had answered Chief Tascaluza’s call. The chieftains in the area were devastated, and would never again regain their prominence.
The body of Tascaluza’s son was found in the field just outside the town, but nothing conclusive was ever heard about the chief himself again. One story, told by captured Indian women, was that as the fighting intensified Tascaluza’s captains urged him to leave against his will, for the sake of the future. They told him they were fully able to direct the fighting in his absence. It will probably never be known if this was true. The women insisted that he did leave, wearing the scarlet cloak that de Soto had given him and escorted by a bodyguard of some 20 or 30 braves. Some Spanish soldiers believed he must have perished in the fire.
Eighteen Spanish soldiers died after the battle. One of them, Portuguese knight Mem Rodriguez, was an experienced cavalryman who had served in Africa. After the battle he lay down and remained in the same position for three days, neither eating nor drinking. On the third day he quietly died. He had no signs of wounds.
After the battle ended, the evening turned cool, and de Soto’s army tried desperately to reorganize and regroup. Great bonfires were built. Seriously wounded men were transferred to lean-tos put up against the outside walls. The general posted sentries, dead horses were skinned and their meat prepared. Wounded soldiers and officers helped one another. Bodies were gathered for burial the next day. A reasonably organized band of warriors could have annihilated the weakened Spanish at that point, but Indians captured later said that almost all their warriors were dead or injured.
Spanish problems were now compounded because all their supplies had been consumed in the conflagration. They stayed at Mauvila for 28 days, recuperating from wounds, resting and reequipping as best they could. With fall approaching, it was absolutely essential that they find food and a suitable place to bivouac. Raids into the surrounding countryside obtained some food, but it was not enough to carry them through to spring. On November 14, de Soto and his army left Mauvila.
The exact location of Mauvila has never been determined. Despite the fact that there was an intense fight in a relatively small area and the ground should still contain hundreds of artifacts—including bolts, lance heads, arrowheads, chains, etc.—archaeologists have never pinpointed the location. When another Spanish force under Tristan de Luna came to the area 20 years later, Tascaluza’s name had been all but forgotten. The towns de Luna’s force found in their travels were poor, and the roads overgrown as a result of disuse.
As devastating as the battle was for the Indians, it was also a disaster for the Spanish. All of their supplies, equipment and food had been lost. The sensible thing to do would have been to march south about six days to Pensacola Bay (then called Achuse), where supply ships and reinforcements awaited. De Soto never considered that. He realized that in all likelihood his discouraged men would refuse to go on and he would be faced with mutiny.
It was the turning point of the expedition. De Soto became withdrawn, moody and irritable. He deliberately turned north toward unknown lands and ultimately crossed the Mississippi River, the first white man to do so. De Soto died on the banks of the Mississippi on May 21, 1542. Taking to the river in crude boats, some 300 survivors sailed down the river to the Gulf of Mexico and arrived at Panuco, near what is now Tampico, Mexico, on September 10, 1543. There, dressed in rags and animal skins, weak from their ordeal, they were treated kindly.
By leading the first large-scale penetration of North America by Europeans, Hernando de Soto proved that Florida was not an island and also provided information on its peoples, their living habits, bison and other fauna and flora, arousing widespread interest throughout Europe. He had also left behind a legacy of death and disease that ravaged the Native American population far beyond the slaughter wrought at Mauvila. He and his men never did find the gold and precious jewels that had beckoned them there in the first place.
Florida-based history writer Lee Rothenberg is researching Hernando de Soto’s explorations through 11 southern states. For further reading, he recommends: The de Soto Chronicles, edited by Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight Jr. and Edward C, Moore; and Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun, by Charles Hudson.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.