Mabila, the golden city of Alabama

These are not the Golden Cities of the famous television cartoons. But Mabila, a fortress where a bloody battle took place between the natives of Alabama and the conquistador Hernando de Soto in 1540, has been the dream of archaeologists for two centuries. The discovery of the ruins of Mabila would allow us to understand the intra-indigenous dynamics of the XVIe in the XVIIIe century. In that sense, Mabila is worth gold.

New research

Vernon James Knight dedicated his career as an archaeologist at the University of Alabama to researching Mabila, a fortress town of several thousand people. “We searched a dozen sites where we found nothing,” says Knight, who is now professor emeritus. We now have a new hypothesis. The excavations had started before the pandemic, but they were significantly slowed down. We will have to finish them next spring. The site is located in the south of the state, near the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s an area called the black belt or the black prairie, between the two main rivers in Alabama. We had not looked there because it is more arid and we have always assumed that the proximity of large rivers was essential to the agriculture of this indigenous civilization. But a smaller town of the same civilization has just been found in Mississippi, in a similar semi-arid area. It is believed that there could have been at the time a series of ponds thanks to beaver dams, which made this area more suitable for agriculture. “

The battle of 1540

The Battle of Mabila, which pitted 600 Spaniards against some 2,500 to 3,000 natives, took place in October 1540, in the midst of the three-year expedition that the conquistador Hernando de Soto led in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards, commanded by Hernando de Soto, massacred their enemies, who had ambushed them on the pretext of helping them. Subsequently, several surrounding villages were razed by the Spaniards in retaliation. De Soto arrived in Florida in May 1539, died in May 1542 on the banks of the Mississippi, Louisiana. His ride led Spain to abandon the idea of ​​establishing colonies in northern Mexico, with the exception of Florida, but microbes introduced by Spanish soldiers wiped out local indigenous populations.

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The discovery of Chickasaw

The site in Mississippi that prompted Mr. Knight to search the Black Prairie is probably Chickasaw, where Hernando de Soto’s expedition spent the winter of 1540-1541. “This is one of three villages described by the expedition’s reports,” says Tony Boudreaux, of the University of Mississippi, who led the dig in the eastern part of the state.

“We found European objects from the XVIe century and evidence of a very high population density at that time. The only two other formally identified sites of de Soto’s expedition are in Tallahassee, Florida, where the conquistadors spent the winter of 1539-1540, and Casqui, an ancient native village in Arkansas located an hour west. of Memphis, where a cross and Spanish military objects from the beginning of the XVI were found in 2016e century.

the ancestors of the Creeks

Why look for Mabila? “There is obviously an interest in tracing the exact route of the Spanish expedition,” said Mr. Knight. But first and foremost, we would like to know how the populations described by the Spaniards lived. After the 1539-1542 expedition, there was a 200-year hiatus before the French settled in Mississippi. There was then a political organization very different from the one Hernando de Soto had observed. It is believed that the trauma of contact with Europeans prompted the different tribes to ally themselves. They would have formed the civilization of the Creeks. Steve Hahn, author of the book The Invention of the Creek Nation, confirms the importance of Hernando de Soto’s bloody but short-lived expedition in establishing a relatively autonomous indigenous nation in the region. “The formation of the Creek Confederacy was a rational and particularly effective response that enabled the Creeks to survive in a buffer zone between the French, English and Spanish colonial empires,” says Mr. Hahn, who teaches at St. Olaf College, in Minnesota. “They were relatively powerful until the beginning of the XXe century and their culture has survived until now. The area was previously home to the “Mound Civilization,” which erected mounds and pyramids and flourished 1,000 years ago.

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Like the Iroquois

An interesting parallel can be drawn with the confederacy of the Iroquois. “Like the Mohawks, the Creeks were in contact with Europeans in the XVIe century and then had a century to organize and respond to microbial and technological shock, says Knight. It is very interesting that independent peoples chose as a response to form a confederation, both in the northern United States and in the south. “

Steve Hahn adds that an even more specific connection exists between the Iroquois and the Creeks. “It seems that the Creeks were inspired by the Great Peace of Montreal of 1701 in their negotiations with the colonial powers,” says Mr. Hahn. They promised in 1717-1718, during negotiations with the English and the Spanish in Coweta, Georgia, that they would remain neutral, as in the treaty of 1701. Spanish sources and oral traditions noted by French and English travelers show that at this time, in Coweta, there was a delegation of Mohawks. Coweta’s negotiations ended a bloody war with the English colony in South Carolina and Georgia.

Spanish colonization over the years


Christopher Columbus docks in Hispaniola (Haiti) and Cuba


First establishment in Santo Domingo, in Hispaniola


Christopher Columbus explores Central America


Conquest of Cuba


Conquest of Aztec Mexico


Conquest of Inca Peru


Founding of St. Augustine Florida

Source: Brown University


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