The Battle of Mobile - Hernando de Soto 1540

Nov 2010
De Soto left Habana on 18th May 1539 for Florida with 650 men and 223 horses. Although he had won both fame and immense fortune in Mexico and Peru, the promise of further riches and glory in North America was enough to entice him away from an easy retirement.

Although he didn't have the mindless brutality of the previous visitor - Panfilo de Narvaez (with his war dogs) - he would deal severely with any perceived unfriendly acts by the natives, naturally distrustful because of their experiences with Narvaez. Exploration and knowledge came as a side benefit, because, like Narvaez and Vasquez de Coronado (in the west), the main purpose of the trip was - rather idealistically - to find cities made of gold like in Mexico. In less than 5 years de Soto's expedition travelled through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, Illionois as far as the Chicago area. Although de Soto himself died of illness (malaria?) and exhaustion in Guachoya, now Lake City, Chicot County, Arkansas in 1542, the expedition finally retired in relatively good order with around 300 survivors reaching a very surprised Spanish outpost in Mexico, Panuco. They had long since been given up for dead.

On first landing in Tampa they found Juan Ortiz, a survivor of Panfilo de Narvaez' expedition, who had been held by natives for 10 years and saved from death by the chief's daughter (later a story copied by John Smith). Ortiz was invaluable in translation along the way, although he never made it back to Spanish territory.

De Soto found friends and hostiles in equal measure along the way, but always turning down friendly offers to start a settlement/colony, in favour of the eternal search for the City of Gold!

In October 1540 the Spanish arrived at Manbila or Mauvila - now Mobile - and found a walled settlement possibly on what today is Choctaw Bluff. The chief of the place was the giant Tuscalosa or Tascaluza, of the Choctaws. He received de Soto with great pomp and invited them to rest in the village. The third day De Soto and his men carried on accompanied by the chief to the village of Tascaluza(from where the chief got his name). It was a strong village seated on a river peninsula. 2 soldiers disappeared and De Soto realised that the chief was playing a double game, waiting for his opportunity to finish off the Spanish. He sent out scouts and discovered that one and a half leagues away the chief had gathered up to 10,000 warriors armed with arrows and javelins.

Mauvila was surrounded by a thick wooden wall protected by towers, and De Soto arrived there with 100 cavalry and 100 infantry, keeping himself very alert despite the chiefs apparent friendliness, as he knew a trap was being prepared. De Soto sent Ortiz with an invitation to dine together, which the chief rudely rejected, so the tense peace was over and battle began.

The natives fought well and expelled the Spaniards from the village but, although injured by an arrow in the backside, De Soto led a cavalry charge up into the mass of indians and ejected them in turn from the village. After ferocious hand to hand fighting for nine hours the natives had been expelled and the village destroyed by the fire of the battle.

All the Spanish were injured, 90 seriously and in total 82 men died (half in some accounts) and 45 horses were lost. So were the medicines, bandages etc, destroyed in the fire. The wounded were treated using the fat off the natives' bodies.

Concerning the number of indian deaths the sources vary a lot. Some cronicles speak of 2,500, although Garcilaso says that 11,000 people died 'by fire and sword', not only in the village but in the surrounding areas, with bodies being found for 4 leagues distance.

To avoid his exhausted and disillusioned men having a mutiny and heading for the ships of Maldonado off the coast, De Soto headed inland again, fighting vengeful indians at Chickasa, in Yalobusha County, where the only Spanish woman on the trip (Francisca de Hinestrosa) was killed in a burning hut on the point of giving birth. They fought again at Chickasa Bluffs in Tunica County, before carrying on in now totally hostile territory.

On his death De Soto was buried in the river Mississippi, to avoid any desecration by the locals, and the expedition was carried to it's lengthy conclusion very effectively by Luis de Moscoso Alvarado, nephew of Cortez' celebrated lieutenant.

Modern-day estimates calculate the number of natives killed in the 9-hour struggle at about 2000, with about 6000 hunted down afterwards. There was nothing to equal it in North America until the Civil War, 300 years later.

Source - Precis of a small extract from 'Bandas Lejanas (faraway standards/flags) - The Exploration, Conquest and Defence by Spain of the Present-day USA' - Fernando Martinez Lainez & Carlos Canales Torres.
Last edited:
Nov 2010
DeSoto is a local legend here. He's one of the few historical figures we learned all about in elementary school.
I think the stories of most of the Conquistadores - north and south - are incredible in what they achieved, the hardships they faced and the unknowns they dived into. A product of the hardships of life in Spain, the politics of the minor 'hidalgos' and 'communidades' and the fact that the country had been on a war footing for centuries - people were bred to fight.

The effect on the indigenous peoples is, of course, another matter. I doubt Panfilo de Narvaez was ever a local hero! It is also worth noting that this obsession with finding cities of gold prevented them getting a properly supported colony anywhere for 50 years, giving the French and British an eventual foothold.

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