Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

Desperate Encounter at Mauvila


Mauvila, the cacique Tuscaloosa's stronghold, was more like a fortress than a town. It contained eighty or a hundred houses; but they were huge, barrack-like structures, capable of holding from five hundred to a thousand people each, and were surrounded by an immense wall made of tree-trunks planted in the ground, wattled with vines, and plastered together with mud. Square towers, with platforms inside for fighting-men, rose above the wall at intervals of fifty paces or so, and it was pierced with numerous loop-holes, through which darts and arrows might be discharged.

As De Soto viewed this rude fortress, which seemed erected as a citadel for final defence, he acknowledged to himself that nothing short of artillery could breach its woven walls, and that it would be next to impossible to carry it by assault. He hoped there would be no occasion for attempting such a thing; but as it is a soldier's duty to consider every contingency, he looked Mauvila over with a critical eye. He noted that there were but two gates, or entrance-ways, and these were strongly defended; while outside the walls the ground had been cleared of all trees, and even shrubs, so that, for more than a musket-shot around the town, there was no spot in which an enemy could hide.

Sentinels were posted on the walls, and as De Soto (with his advance-guard only, comprising about a hundred men) approached the eastern gateway, troops of warriors swarmed forth to greet him. They were all fighting-men, and fully armed; but grim-visaged war was skilfully masked by bands of native musicians, lustily pounding wooden drums and evoking shrill sounds from Indian fifes, while bevies of graceful dancing-girls capered around and among them.

The warriors deployed on either side the gateway, while Tuscaloosa led the way within, the reluctant governor still by his side, but with suspicions all aroused. His martial instinct sounded the alarm; but though a scout whom he had sent in advance sought his side and reported that a dark and treacherous plot was brewing, he was compelled by circumstances to go with the chief. Ten thousand warriors were already assembled within the town, the scout informed him, the pick of Tuscaloosa's fighting-men, and armed to the teeth. They were concealed in the largest houses, which, he said, were veritable arsenals, filled with weapons of every sort. If the governor would look around him, he would see that, while the streets were alive with men-of-arms, there was hardly a single woman or child—in a word, scarcely a non-combatant—left within the walls. These had been strengthened, the towers filled with armed men, and quivers full of arrows hung at convenient stations.

Never before, perhaps, had De Soto walked deliberately into such a trap, and prepared, too, by one whom he already suspected. Still, he could not do else than dissemble; and when the cacique, with a grim smile that bared his cannibal fangs, indicated one of the houses as quarters for the governor and his officers, he thanked him courteously. He even consented to the tethering of their steeds and the encamping of the troops at a distance outside the walls, though he knew that this division of his army, separating officers from their horses and both from the main body of foot and cavalry, might insure their swift destruction.

Having disposed his guests to his satisfaction, the cacique dismounted, and was about to depart, when De Soto halted him with a request that he remain and share his quarters, also the noonday meal, which would soon be ready. Drawing himself up to his full height, and wrapping around his burly form the scarlet robe which the governor had given him, Tuscaloosa replied, with a snarl: "I have had enough of your company; I am tired of walking and of riding. This is my own land, and not any of it is yours. So, go you in peace, and when you will; but do not think that I, Tuscaloosa, shall go with you out of my own country. I shall stay in my stronghold." With these words, or others to their purport, the haughty chieftain strode away and entered a house which had been observed to be filled with Indians armed with bows and arrows.

The governor bit his lip with vexation; but he was, at the moment, helpless, for the main body of the army, including many of the cavalry and all the infantry, was yet at a distance. Captain Luis de Moscoso, master of the camp, had command of the rear-guard, and was responsible for its dilatory movements. He had said to the governor, that morning, that, since the Indians were so evil-disposed, it would be better to camp in the woods, to which De Soto had answered: "I am impatient of sleeping out, and purpose to lodge in the town." And he had his way, as he always had it, with the result that we have noted. While Moscoso and the main body were lagging behind in the forest, the governor was being consumed with anxiety. At any moment the trap might be sprung, the fire-brand be thrown, that would explode the mine beneath his feet.

Yet, with a calm countenance, he ordered his baggage taken to quarters and dinner prepared. It had been his custom to have the cacique at meals with him, as well as within sight all the time. When dinner was announced he sent the interpreter, Juan Ortiz, to call him, but he was not allowed to enter the house in which the cacique had concealed himself, though a young warrior promised to give him the message. After a while of waiting, De Soto sent again, and, receiving no satisfactory reply, despatched Ortiz a third time on his errand. This time, though he was again halted at the door of the house, he shouted so loud that all within might hear: "Tell the chief, Tuscaloosa, to cone forth; for the food is on the table, and his excellency is tired of waiting."

Scarcely were the words out of his mouth than an Indian brave burst through the doorway, and, shaking his fists menacingly at Ortiz, exclaimed furiously: "Who are these robbers, these vagabonds, who keep calling to my chief, 'Tastalusa come out, come out!' as if he were one of them? By the Sun, our god, and the Moon, his wife, such insolence cannot longer be borne! Come out, brothers, come out, and let us cut them to pieces!"

His eyes flashed fire, he frothed at the mouth; but he may have meant nothing more than mere bravado. Still, when an Indian behind him placed a bow with arrows in his hand, he threw back his cloak of marten-skin, which hung over one shoulder, and made as if to use the weapons instantly. Fixing an arrow on the string, he drew it to its head, and was about to let fly at a group of Spaniards gathered in the square. In doing this he exposed his naked side, and Baltasar de Gallegos, a cavalier who had come with Ortiz, gave him such a gash with his sword that it was laid open in a gaping wound, through which his life-blood gushed in a crimson flood.

He fell dead on the spot; but an avenger appeared in the person of his son, a noble-looking youth, who sent six or seven arrows at Gallegos as fast as he could speed them. Seeing that they glanced harmless from his armor, he rained blows from his bow upon the helmeted head of the cavalier, with such force that the blood ran down his forehead. But he was soon laid low beside his father, with two thrusts of the sword, and the dazed Gallegos retreated with what speed he could.

At the same instant, as if at a preconcerted signal, a terrible war-whoop burst from ten thousand throats, and the concealed warriors poured forth into the streets. They attacked the Spaniards furiously, giving them scant time to seize their arms, and cutting off the cavalry from their horses, which were tethered outside the walls.

All within the town ran for the gates, and the governor was by no means a laggard in the race, though, encumbered by his armor as he was, he fell twice or thrice before he reached his horse. Leaping to the saddle and cutting loose the reins, he shouted to the soldiers: "Into the open, sons!—into the open! Draw the heathen away from the walls and then make a stand and fall upon them!" Some of the troopers followed him, and a little band was gathered; but some others were not so fortunate, for, unable to gain their mounts, they lost their horses, as they were shot to death with arrows, and most of them lost their lives.

De Soto received a severe wound early in the action, an arrow having struck him in the thigh; but, though unable to sit in his saddle, and compelled to fight standing in his stirrups, he continued in active conflict nine long hours, during which time the battle raged unceasingly. His wound was very painful; but he ignored it in the heat of battle, and his concern for himself was swallowed up in that for his men. Among those killed that day were his two nephews, Carlos Enriquez and Diego de Soto. Both were shot with Indian arrows, the one in the eye and the other in the neck.

Having drawn many of the savages out into the plain, De Soto turned upon them with his cavaliers and inflicted great slaughter before they could regain the gates. The survivors retreated precipitately within the walls, and, shutting the gates, greeted the Spaniards with howls of defiance and derision. They considered themselves safe from attack, within their impregnable stronghold, and, having secured nearly all the baggage of the command, which had been brought in by the carriers, they proceeded to divide the plunder. As fast as the carriers came in, they had relieved them of their burdens, which they took inside the walls; then they broke their chains, and, placing weapons in their hands, sent them to join Mauvila's defenders.

In the midst of the tumult, the advance of the rear-guard, under Moscoso, came up, and, when all had arrived, a cordon was formed about the doomed stronghold, through which it was next to impossible for the invested force to break. As the fortress was well provisioned, the beleaguered Indians did not concern themselves as to the immediate future, but seemed to have resolved to await the dispersion of the Spaniards. Then they would sally forth and fall upon them in the forest, by their great numbers overcoming any advantage the strangers might have as to weapons and armor.

But they did not understand those iron-hearted men of Spain, who never retired in defeat, who ever fought on to a victory. The savages had made it impossible for them to retire from the field, since they held their baggage, which contained, not alone all their surplus armor and clothing, their plunder of pearls, medicines, bandages for binding up wounds, and surgical instruments, but also many swords and arquebuses, which the careless soldiers had forced the porters to carry when weary with their weight.

Moreover, it was awesomely told De Soto that, in the hurry and confusion of the retreat, a small body of men had been left behind in the house he had occupied. There were five halberdiers and three cross-bow-men of the governor's guard, besides a friar, a priest, and two Indian slaves. These were in peril, and unless promptly succored would certainly be slain. Arms and equipment De Soto might, perchance, leave behind, but never a man of his command so long as there was hope that his life might be saved. Then, doubtless, the governor wished for the one piece of artillery which he had left with the cacique of Cofaqui, for with it he might have battered the walls and opened a breach through which to rush to the rescue of his comrades.

But rescued they must be—they should be—with the falconet or without it. He circled the walls in vain, looking for a weak place or any kind of an opening. Then he drew rein just out of bowshot from the eastern gate. "We must storm it," he sternly said. "One hundred with bucklers and battle-axes, one hundred with lance and sword. On, my sons! Santiago! and at them!"

Then at the gate he led them—a human battering-ram. Nothing could withstand the onset of those steel-cased cavaliers. Protected by their bucklers, they wielded the ponderous battle-axes with such effect that the gate went down with a crash.

Into the gap they poured tumultuously, shouting their battle-cries, slashing and lancing all who opposed, and in the midst of showers of arrows that glanced from their armor like hail. Not all escaped, however, for the savages had found their vulnerable points, and shot at their faces and necks, as well as at their horses from beneath as they passed over those who were overthrown. The house was reached and the inmates rescued just in the nick of time, for the Indians had removed the roof and were shooting their arrows at the little group of defenders huddled within. The rescue effected, the troopers fought their way back to the fields, carrying their comrades with them and inflicting such slaughter by the way that the Indians finally paused, aghast.

Battle of Mauvila


Hundreds had fallen, but the end was not yet. At the command of De Soto, the village was set on fire, and scarcely anything within it escaped the devouring flames. Constructed of dry wood and grass, that burned like tinder, the houses and towers were quickly consumed, and with them all they contained, including the baggage of the army as well as the brave defenders of Mauvila. Maddened by their sufferings, choked by the volumes of smoke that swept the streets, and scorched by the flames, the Indians broke down the walls and made for the fields; but, again and again, the Spaniards drove them back.

The carnage was horrible; the slain lay in heaps, in windrows, in masses, mingled with charred timbers and the burning wreckage of the town. The Indians fought to the bitter end, and if one escaped it was not by mercy of the Spaniards, who ranged around the fallen walls like demons incarnate. The last of the warriors seen to fall was a gigantic savage, who perished by his own hand. He had been the centre of a group which, fighting with fury and despair, had been crushed out of existence by the Spaniards. All save himself had fallen, and, in a dazed way realizing this, he sprang to the rampart, intending to leap over and escape. But, seeing his retreat cut off by the soldiers, waiting like crocodiles beneath for him to fall into their jaws, he snatched a bow-string and hung himself from the limb of a tree that projected over the wall.

That intrepid warrior was the last Indian seen in the town, either in fight or flight. The dead and the wounded numbered nearly three thousand. The Spaniards lost eighty men and forty horses, and among them counted up seven hundred wounds, which there was but a single surgeon to dress, and he unskilled. What became of Cacique Tuscaloosa could not be learned, but he was never seen by the Spaniards after he entered the house in which the battle began. The body of his son, covered with wounds, was found in a field; but the gigantic chieftain disappeared as utterly as if swallowed up by the flames that devoured two thousand of his warriors. More than a thousand were said to have perished in a single building, having been suffocated by the smoke.

Whether Chief Tuscaloosa perished with them, or whether he survived that day of disaster to his tribe and in some other part of his broad domain ruled afterwards the remnant of his people, is not known; but his proud name will never be dissociated from the land in which he lived.