Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

The Great Chief, Tuscaloosa


The cacique of Acoste and his warriors greatly enjoyed the spectacle of the governor beating his own men, being so diverted thereby that they neglected to secure him a prisoner while he was in their power. When they awoke to the fact, it was too late, for, meanwhile, De Soto had sent a message to the main army, which came hurrying forward to his rescue. Then their positions were reversed, for the cacique found himself a prisoner, together with his chiefs. He was greatly taken aback, and at first was disposed to be ugly; but when the governor explained to him that it was his custom to honor every cacique he met, by surrounding him with an armed guard, he became quite tractable. A message arrived from Ichiaha at this juncture, informing him of what had occurred in that province, and he immediately gave orders for supplies of maize to be furnished the Spaniards, at the same time assuring De Soto that he and his people were entirely at his service. He was then liberated, and he not only calmed the ruffled feelings of his warriors, but assisted the Spaniards in crossing the river, by furnishing them with rafts and canoes.

The Spaniards were then in the province of Cosa, or Coosa, a name which is now applied to a county of Alabama, through which, doubtless, De Soto passed on his way to Pensacola. It was a vast and fertile province, also very populous, and nearly every night, during several weeks, the Spaniards encamped at or near an Indian village, the inhabitants of which received them hospitably, supplied them with provisions, and furnished carriers from one place to another, so that there was no need of demanding either, and no conflicts occurred by the way, of any kind whatever.

Such a rich and fruitful country the Spaniards had not seen in many a day. The fields of Indian-corn were of unknown extent, their green billows sweeping away to the horizon on every side, and there were beans and pumpkins, mulberries, wild plums, and grapes, in great variety. In the centre of the province was the village of Coosa, which was reached by the army about the last of July. The cacique had sent numerous and friendly messages to De Soto, and "came out to receive him at the distance of two bow-shots from the town," borne in a litter on the shoulders of four chiefs, and surrounded by many attendants playing upon flutes, singing, and dancing. Over his shoulders he wore a rich robe of marten-skins, and on his head a diadem with plumes. He was a young man, with a winning and expressive countenance, and behind him marched at least a thousand warriors, tall and stately men, with feathers adorning their head-dresses. When arrived opposite the governor he made a little speech of welcome, and together they set out for the village, the Indian chieftain in his palanquin and De Soto riding alongside on his war-horse.

Coosa was advantageously located for a colony, though a long distance from the sea-coast. De Soto was urged by his new friend to remain there, but he was anxious to meet Maldonado at the bay of Pensacola, and, though deeply sensible of the cacique's kindness, felt constrained to refuse his offer of territory. He remained with him twenty days, and when he departed took the cacique with him, an "honorable hostage," but actually a prisoner. As the narrators are divided on this point, we would allow De Soto, again, the benefit of the doubt; but two of them are agreed that the cacique was constrained to go against his will. One, his own secretary, says: "The Indians went off and left their chief in the power of the Christians, with some principal men, and the Spaniards went out to round them up, and they took many, and they put them in iron collars and chains. And verily, according to the testimony of eye-witnesses, it was a grievous thing to see. But God failed not to remember every evil deed; nor were they left unpunished, as this history will tell." "When they reached the frontiers of his territory," says the Fidalgo of Elvas, "the chief was released; but he went in anger and in tears, because the governor would not give up a sister of his that they took, and because they had taken him so far from his country."

Another account, and that which we would rather believe, is to the effect that the cacique of Coosa went with De Soto to punish a refractory sub-chief, who was disposed to transfer his allegiance to a more powerful ruler named Tuscaloosa. This redoubtable chieftain, whose name, in Choctaw, is said to mean the great Black Warrior, governed the territory now chiefly comprised in the states of Alabama and Mississippi. He was probably a Choctaw, and the most haughty and warlike of his tribe. He had heard, through his scouts and runners, of the arrivals on his frontier, and sent his son to meet them. Though only eighteen years of age, this youth was taller than any Spaniard in the army, agile and strong. He was kindly received by De Soto, who entertained him at a banquet and gave him a quantity of beads, as a present for his father. When he returned to Tuscaloosa, he was accompanied by Luis de Moscoso, master of the camp, and fifteen cavalry, who were to observe what they could and report to De Soto, who followed leisurely after and encamped in a grove two leagues from the cacique's town.

Apprised by a courier from De Soto that the Spaniards were approaching, Chief Tuscaloosa took his stand on the crest of a hill which commanded a wide and beautiful prospect, and, seated on a concave block of wood, which was his chair of state, or throne, awaited the coming of the strangers. Around him were his chief commanders, to the number of a hundred, while on the plain below lay his army, containing many thousand men. By his side stood a young warrior, who held aloft a lance, upon which was supported a banner of dressed deer-skin, dyed in bright colors and extended by crossed sticks to the shape and size of a Spanish buckler.

Tuscaloosa was a man of commanding appearance, and, though more than seven feet in height, was so symmetrically proportioned that he might have been chosen as a model of manly beauty. He was taller than any of his people by more than a foot; but, though his shoulders were broad and massive, his waist was slender, while his hands and feet were small and well moulded. His eyes and hair were black as coal; his face was expressive and intelligent; but his mouth was large, with teeth ivory-white and fanglike, giving him the appearance of a cannibal.

When the cavaliers attending De Soto pranced before him, forcing their horses to curvet and caracole, he paid no more attention to them than the Inca of Peru had bestowed upon their commander himself in the environs of Caoyssamarca. He remained unmoved, hardly deigning to give them a glance; but when De Soto approached he extended his hand in welcome. He thanked him for the gifts he had sent, declaring that he esteemed them the more highly because they were from one whom he "regarded as a brother." The two conversed awhile, then, hand-in-hand, wended their way to the village, where quarters were assigned the troops, and a house given to the governor next to that occupied by the chieftain. There was no lack of hospitality in Tuscaloosa's town but the coldness and hauteur of the cacique kept De Soto constantly on guard. He cautioned his captains to post their sentinels discreetly and not for an instant relax heir vigilance, as he felt certain the cacique meditated treachery. He had observed him in close and frequent converse with his sub-chiefs, and had noticed that warriors were gathering from every quarter.

After remaining two days in the village, De Soto gave the order to march, and with him went Tuscaloosa, either voluntarily or as a hostage. The town of Talise, or that first entered by the Spaniards, was on the frontier; forty or fifty miles farther lay the capital, Tuscaloosa; and still farther, by several days' march, was Mauvila, his great stronghold. Whether the cacique went along a prisoner or not, he was mounted on a horse and accompanied the governor unfettered of limb or movement. Considerable difficulty was experienced in finding a steed sufficiently strong to bear his mighty frame; but finally he was placed upon a pack-horse, the sturdiest beast in the troop, and, while his feet nearly touched the ground, he rode proudly, though fearsomely, at the head of the cavalcade. One of the governor's gifts to the cacique was a voluminous robe, scarlet in color, and a mantle to match, which, together with the chieftain's gigantic size and lofty plumes, made him "the observed of all observers." He might have been pardoned for indulging in a feeling of pride, even of exultation, for he outmatched De Soto in size and gorgeous garments, while in his heart he believed he was leading him to destruction. He coveted those wonderful animals, the horses, the armor and the weapons of the Spaniards, and after Mauvila was reached he determined to effect their capture.

Tuscaloosa town, like Talise, was built on a peninsula formed by the windings of a river supposed to be the Alabama. It was a place of strength, but not so strong as Mauvila, which, though it stood on a plain, was fortified with palisados. A short stay was made there, but only long enough to cross the river in canoes and on rafts furnished by the Indians. Thence the route lay through a very populous country, dotted with hamlets and swarming with warriors who, loosely gathered in troops and detached bands though they were, yet seemed converging towards a common centre, which was Mauvila. A few hundred only accompanied Tuscaloosa and the Spaniards; but the chieftain was proudly confident in his strength, for he knew that at a signal the fields and the forests would be alive with his hardy warriors, who by sheer force of numbers would overcome the Spaniards and destroy them utterly.

It was, perhaps, difficult for the grim cacique to restrain his wild braves, scattered as they were throughout the wilderness, and though he desired to commit no overt act until fully prepared to carry out the scheme of destruction in its entirety, a few of the Spaniards disappeared, having probably been murdered by Indians in ambush. Two soldiers were missing one morning, and Tuscaloosa was asked if he knew what had become of them.

"Do I know?" he growled. "Why should I know? I have people of my own to care for. Why do you ask me about yours? Did I ask you to place them in my charge? I am not their keeper. Look for them yourself."

The Spaniards looked, but in vain. The missing soldiers never answered at roll-call, nor were they heard of again. De Soto's suspicions were confirmed by several circumstances on the march, and he exchanged hard words with Tuscaloosa, who finally became sullen and refused to speak after he had been taxed with treachery, but continued to supply the Spaniards with provisions and carriers, though acceding to their requisitions with evident impatience.

It was plain to the governor that the cacique was anticipating his arrival at Mauvila, and could scarce contain himself until the town was reached. It lay above the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, less than a hundred miles from Pensacola. What the exact distance was De Soto did not know, but he and his soldiers realized that they were nearing the projected rendezvous with Maldonado, and were already looking forward to a period of rest, as well as to news of their loved ones in Havana and Spain.

For, in the bay of Pensacola, Maldonado was to meet them with the brigantines, in the month of October. That month had already arrived, as it was on the 18th that they reached the town of Mauvila. After a few days here, devoted to rest and recuperation, they hoped to strike directly southward for the gulf. Already, they imagined, they could feel the sea-breezes kiss their cheeks, hear the roaring of the surf, and the cries of sea-birds as they skimmed the waves.