(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “Oct. 12, 1540 was a day of decision for DeSoto,” was originally published in the Oct. 14, 1993 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)
The 12th of October 1540 was a typical autumn day along the high banks of the river that would later come to be known as the Alabama. There was much activity along the west bank, just about a mile down river from where the new bridge now stands at the old town of Claiborne.
The Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto and his army of more than 400 soldiers were about to take a major step into history. Along with many others, such as herdsmen, bearers and many Indians who had been forced to come along against their will, this group would spend the entire day crossing the river.
Due to the time of the year, the waters of the great river were at a very low level. Only a narrow space out in the center of the great stream was deep enough that the horses and cattle and a large herd of hogs had to swim. The soldiers of DeSoto’s army were busy stacking body armor and weapons on rafts that had been hurriedly assembled from fallen and decaying timbers found along the river bank.
DeSoto was growing more and more restless as he sat his horse and watched the activity of his followers. His army scouts had reported to him that the natives had grown very suspicious of his being in this area. And, too, the natives were not in agreement of the many of their men who were being used as slave labor by his army. The women of the tribes had suffered, too, from the abuse of this army of rapists and killers.
The journey, to now, had been a long one. The legendary Seven Cities of Gold seemed as far away as ever. DeSoto and his whole army were suffering from severe dysentery. He had been told that this illness could be cured by a medicine man who lived in the village was reported to be only a few hours march up the east side of the river, once the crossing was accomplished.
The welcome at Piachi was not the kind that DeSoto had hoped for. A feeling of unrest and suspicion lay over the village as the army rested and their illness were treated. A certain weed had been burned, and the ashes were mixed into the food of the army; the illness became less severe.
DeSoto and his followers would stay at Piachi for almost three days. During this time, it was reported to him that two of his soldiers were missing; no evidence could be found as to their whereabouts.
DeSoto threatened to burn at the stake his prisoner, Chief Tuscaloosa, if his men were not returned to him by the time he reached the town of Maubila. But this never happened. Chief Tuscaloosa would escape from the army’s grasp upon their arrival at the gates of the village of Maubila. Little did DeSoto realize that this large, fortified Indian village would be the downfall of him and his army.
As he and his men rode into the village of Maubila and dismounted their horses, little did they know that some of them would never see another sunrise.
The large thatched huts within the heavy log walls were filled with armed warriors who had assembled there earlier. Word had preceded DeSoto of the rape and pillage his army had committed against the Indians who had befriended the Spanish.
The battle of Maubila would cost DeSoto’s army almost a hundred of its best soldiers, not to mention 120 of its best war horses. Many of the army’s weapons would be lost or destroyed by the attacking Indians. The village ground would turn red with the blood of the dead and wounded. DeSoto would, himself, receive a serious wound to the head that would affect his ability to reason for the remainder of his life. This serious head wound would be later instrumental in the cause of his death.
No true figure is known as to the number of Indians who were killed in this great battle. But many historians believe that well over 4,000 fell beneath the sharp sword blades, crossbows and smoking muskets of DeSoto’s army.
As the battle for Maubila raged within the village and open fields nearby, the dead and dying lay everywhere. Due to inexperience, the army’s only physician was unable to answer many of the cries of the wounded and dying. Many of the dead would later be found with dried grass and weeds forced into their wounds as they tried in vain to stop the bleeding.
It is believed that not one Indian warrior was left alive in the village of Maubila. Although the body of Chief Tuscaloosa was never found, the son of Tuscaloosa was found dead with a Spanish lance through his chest.
Seeking shelter within the shattered remains of the village of Maubila, DeSoto and his army would linger here for a period of 28 days. This time was spent trying to heal their wounds of battle and burying the decomposed bodies of their fallen comrades. Those who were able gathered and repaired weapons and body armor that had been damaged in the battle.
Against the advice of his officers, DeSoto declined to turn south and rendezvous with the fleet of ships that awaited along the coast for the return trip to Spain. Instead, he and his army turned to the northwest.
It is my belief that the great river was crossed again from east side to west side near the area of what is now known as Ghee’s Bend in Wilcox County. They would journey through the lower portion of the now Marengo County, near the community of Dixons Mills.
Discouraged and sick from the head would that he received at Maubila, DeSoto’s hopes of finding the fabled Seven Cities of Gold were vanishing on the chilly winds of the coming winter.
Hernando DeSoto’s journey would end in the chilly waters of the mighty Mississippi River.
Death overtook Hernando DeSoto after he and his weary army crossed the great river that later was to bear the name Mississippi. His frail and crippled body was placed inside a hollow log and buried beneath the swift waters of the mighty river. His search for the mythical cities of gold had ended in defeat and heartbreak.
Should you travel Highway 84 and cross the Alabama River at Claiborne, look down river to the south and remember that here is where it all started. This was the beginning of the end for the explorer and gold-seeker Hernando DeSoto.
Oct. 12, 1540 – 453 years ago Tuesday was the day of decision. Had he not chosen to cross the river here that fateful day, history might have been different, but then that would be another story.
(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)