Skip to comments.Mysteries of Mauvilla[Alabama][Hernando De Soto Battle]
Posted on 07/27/2007 1:26:49 PM PDT by BGHater
Archaeologists continue debate, search for battle site lost for centuries in Alabama
It's out there. Somewhere underneath cat claw briars or mud flats or even modern subdivision tracts, there are shards of Spanish metal, burned clay and a palisaded wall waiting to be found, answering one of the South's famous mysteries: Where is Mauvilla?
Historians gleaning descriptions from written accounts of Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto's expedition across the South say the earliest and bloodiest battle between Europeans and Indians happened at Mauvilla, a fortified village that researchers spell a variety of other ways, including Mabila and Mavila.
It sat between two rivers likely somewhere in Alabama. The accounts describe the landscape, the village, the day-long battle and the weeks of recovery that the Spanish spent there after Mauvilla burned to the ground.
"It's the holy grail of sites in Alabama," said Stacye Hathorne, archaeologist for the Alabama Historical Commission. "It's fun to look for it. There are enough clues in the four known accounts of De Soto's travels here for it to be tantalizing. It's definitely findable, and could add volumes to what we know about early European contact with Indians."
Mauvilla, said Hathorne, "would be a world-class find."
But gathering evidence that would confirm Mauvilla's location among a host of potential sites will take field research, experts say, costing tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps even millions in some cases.
And once research has turned up pottery, Spanish metals, bits of weapons and other artifacts to match the time frame, the state will need more money to buy the site to thoroughly preserve it.
For years, scholars and archaeologists have pored over the four known accounts of the 16th century Spanish explorer's trip. Three were written by people who made the trip. The fourth was written by the son of a Spaniard and an Inca princess decades later from oral accounts told by survivors.
According to the accounts, De Soto met an imposing chief, Tascalusa, kidnapped him, and demanded slave labor, grain and women as he had across most of the South. Tascalusa led De Soto to Mauvilla, where an ambush awaited him that October day in 1540.
Accounts say the battle lasted all day, with thousands of Indians killed, most of De Soto's supplies captured, dozens of his men dead and scores more wounded. Rather than head to Pensacola Bay, where supply ships were waiting, De Soto turned the remnants of his band northward, still searching for gold and riches.
But his expedition never recovered. De Soto died in the Mississippi wilderness and was buried in the Mississippi River. His followers eventually made their way to Mexico and South America.
In more recent times, two commissions have sought to make judgments about De Soto's probable route through the South. The first, billed as the U.S. De Soto Commission headed by John R. Swanton, reported findings in 1935.
As technology and research improved, Hathorne said, most of those first findings were discredited. Alabama appointed its own commission in the 1980s, but debate within the membership grew so heated that it never agreed on one route. The best that the Alabama De Soto Commission could do was present three possible routes, all with some convincing arguments for and against them.
One route placed Mauvilla near Old Cahawba in Dallas County. A second placed it near the Mississippi line west of Old Cahawba. The third pointed to the Forks area of Clarke County, to flatlands between the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers.
That area has been the focus of several amateur archaeologists over the years, including Andrew Holmes who found a mound he believes could be Mauvilla.
Holmes, who has been involved in archaeology for decades, works conducting archaeological studies of construction sites. The Press-Register published a story earlier this year about his discovery.
Meanwhile, Billy Callahan, who manages property in Clarke County, said he found a site near Holmes' site 15 years ago that he thinks is the village or at least connected to the battle. Callahan has long pursued archaeology as a hobby.
"The researchers said a palisaded wall would prove it," Callahan said last week. "I went to the site and got a small bulldozer." Professional archaeologists disliked the bulldozer approach, he said, "but we scraped a few inches of soil at the time and found the burned wall. We found about a half mile of it, and where it cornered."
Callahan said he found Indian burials and pieces of metal that matched 16th century Spanish metalwork.
"In my opinion, that's Mauvilla," Callahan said. "The palisaded wall convinced me, but state researchers who came to see it didn't seem convinced. They have the tools now to prove it one way or the other. Why don't they do it?"
The answer is money and resources, according to Hathorne and University of Alabama professor Vernon J. Knight.
"There are thousands of recorded Indian sites in Alabama," Knight said. "If there was enough money available to fund it, there are not enough archaeologists to do the work. The costs are almost entirely labor, with a major project running $100,000 to $500,000. Some projects have cost way over $1 million."
Alabama has a number of sites rich with artifacts from Indians and early settlers, Knight said.
Near Demopolis lies Moundville, where mound-building Indians erected dozens of earthen structures. Fort Toulouse, near Wetumpka, is actually the site of two forts and an Indian burial mound. Mobile has Fort Conde and Old Mobile.
Old Cahawba, southwest of Selma, and nearby Indian villages are invaluable to efforts to learn about the past, Knight said.
"There is a map from the 1920s that shows all the known mound sites in Alabama at the time," Hathorne said. "Unfortunately, many people in those days thought the mounds were a great source for dirt, and many were used for road bed or railroad bed filler."
Hathorne said, "It's mind-boggling now, but it happened. We've lost a great deal to development in the last 80 years. Alabama has dozens of places already known, but located on private property, some underneath cotton fields."
The search for Mauvilla took a new turn last summer, Knight said, when he assembled a team of researchers from various disciplines to probe the location, what he calls "the single most prevailing mystery in the South."
Knight said he believes that by combining specialists in 16th century linguistics, pottery and archaeology, new details can emerge from the chronicles of the trip.
Knight, who participated in the Alabama De Soto Commission of the 1980s, said he would like to incorporate the old research and move forward. "We can narrow it down," he said. "We can take the best of what we had and bring a little sanity to the search. We can send some research parties into the field to eliminate some working hypotheses, and build others. I truly believe Mauvilla can be found, and the technology we have now should make it easier."
The group that assembled last summer wound up writing a book, Knight said, about the way that scientists must approach the search. The book, "The Search for Mabila," should be published sometime next year by the University of Alabama Press.
Greg Waselkov, director of the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of South Alabama, said that finding the village would help pinpoint other locations along De Soto's route, linking the narratives with specific places.
The Clarke County sites identified by Callahan and Holmes have promising qualities, he said, but there are problems, too.
Mauvilla, Waselkov said, was a palisaded town with houses made of tree limbs lined with mud. Because the town was burned in the course of the battle, the daub -- the clay placed over the interwoven wall elements -- would have become fired and turned to a soft ceramic. Fired daub from burned houses of that era is commonly found, but in this case the entire town was burned. Mauvilla should also include artifacts like pottery and bits of weapons, and evidence of mass burials, he said.
Waselkov doesn't know any current sites that fit all the descriptions. For example, studies of Callahan's site suggest that it dates to the 17th or 18th century. The Holmes site lies near the Alabama River, something that differs with known accounts. Both sites, he said, deserve more attention.
Artifacts recovered from Indian burials in northern Baldwin County just a few miles from the Callahan and Holmes sites are intriguing, but researchers have not identified them as definitely belonging to De Soto's expedition, Waselkov said.
Those brass items are part of the collection at the Center for Archaeological Studies, but have been on loan to the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery for more than a decade.
Some have speculated that the pieces belonged to a Catholic priest and were used in religious ceremonies. Chroniclers say the items were lost at Mauvilla.
"I know of no reason to consider them religious items," Waselkov said. "One is a brass candlestick of the capstan type, a standard Spanish household candleholder of the mid-16th century. The other is a brass pail, claimed by some to be a holy water container, but again I know of no basis for this claim."
Such debates seem likely to continue.
"When it's found, Mauvilla will teach us a wealth of things," Hathorne said. "In the meantime, people get very emotionally attached to their own theories. Wherever it is, time and science will yield the evidence to prove it."
Interesting article on DeSoto. Very informative, too.
I had the pleasure of visiting Moundville back in 2000 and found the tour & visit very interesting.
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A few Spanish metal artifacts in indian grave prove nothing. DeSoto was guided by Europeans who knew the trade routes north ward into Tennessee and then down the Tennessee river into Alabama.
I passed through murphy NC this morning where there was “Desoto was here” historical marker.
Mabila sounds like MoBile to me.
Sounds plausible, especially if when spoken so it sounds like Mau-billa. I wonder also, if it could it be what is now Malbis.
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