Bishinik, August 1991

Tascaluca meets de Sota

By Michael Wilson

Editor’s note: The spelling Tascaluca has been left as submitted, but the spelling differs in individual publications. Some variations are Tushkaloosa, and Tushkalusa – all meaning “Black Warrior”. (Note that the author originally used some characters in the name that were not reproduced correctly in HTML.)

When Hernandez de Sota met the great Choctaw Chief Tascaluca (Black Warrior) in the late fall of 1540, his purposes were clear: he wanted slaves to carry his supplies, a guide through Choctaw country, and women. Tascaluca, after he had been taken hostage, agreed to supply 400 carriers and told DeSoto that he would give him 100 women when they reached Mabila, some six days away. But it is very likely that Tascaluca had no intentions of giving De Sota anything at Mabila except a strong fight. By all accounts, Tascaluca was no ordinary man, and he recognized very quickly in his first encounter with the white conquistadors that the only way to deal with them effectively was through warfare. Mabila was a very heavily fortified stockade, surrounded by walls 15 to 18 feet high. There, Tascaluca knew he stood his best chance to defeat the armored cavalry.

At the time of this first meeting between Choctaw and Spanish people, Spain had only recently emerged from its own inner turmoil to create a single unified state under the rule of Isabella and Ferdinand. Once it had established its power, the state sought to create a racial and religious purity within its borders by means of expulsion, warfare, torture, and death. Jews, for example, were forced to become conversos (ones who accept Catholicism) if they wished to remain alive. But even after accepting Catholicism, thousands of converso Jews were burned during the terror of the Spanish Inquisition. The Muslims in the southeast part of Spain, who had at one time ruled Spain but had been beaten back, were defeated in 1492 and were also forced to become Catholics in mass conversions (which caused an unusual problem: there were not enough priests who spoke Arabic to convert everyone). This rage for racial and religious purity characterizes Spain during the 1500s and 1600s.

Christianity for the Spaniards was therefore highly militant; anyone who they encountered who did not believe their articles of faith was subject to death. This was especially true for Native people of South America, who not only had different religions, but often had considerable wealth in gold and silver. Tribes whose wealth was not measured in metal, such as the Chickasaw and the Choctaw, represented for De Soto hostile terrain and possible slaves. By the time De Soto met Tascaluca, he had given up all pretense of converting native peoples into Christians.

When De Soto left Spain in his attempt to conquer Northern America, he was a very wealthy man. Seven years before his landing in North America, while under the command of Pizarro, De Soto was a captain in the army that battled the Inca and their great chief Atahualpa, whom they captured, ransomed, and then killed. Afterwards, while in Spain, De Soto lived luxuriously and married well, but that was not enough. He strongly desired his own kingdom, and petitioned the King of Spain, Charles I, to grant him parts of South America. Instead, Charles I gave him Florida.

In his first encounters with Native people in Florida, De Soto discovered that they wished to have very little to do with him. When he attempted to use them for messengers, they wisely vanished and never returned. It should be said that De Soto made peaceful relations with the first tribe he encountered, the Mococo, primarily because Juan Oritz, a Spaniard, was taken in by them some time before and established relations, which lasted as long as the Spanish remained in Florida. It is very difficult to understand why thereafter De Soto decided to enslave and plunder everyone in his path, having had such success with peace.

Many historians explain his behavior by looking at the embattled history of Spain with the Muslims, or at the knightly code of honor for the Crown, or by understanding that he is simply a man of his times. But I think it is worthwhile to look at this heart, his motives, and judge him in precisely that light. When asked by a member of his company why he took prisoners (as we read from the diary of his private secretary Ranjel), De Soto replied: “That they took these carriers or tamemes to keep them as slaves or servants to carry the loads of supplies which they secured by plunder or gift, and that some died, and others ran away or were tired out, so that it was necessary to replenish their numbers and to take more; and the women they desired both as servants and for their foul uses and lewdness, and that they had them baptized more on account of carnal intercourse with them than to teach them the faith; and that if they held the chiefs and principal men captive, it was because it would keep their subjects quiet, so that they would not molest them when foraging or doing what they wished in their country.”

In this frame of mind, carrying with them manacles to enslave the Indians, and bringing bloodhounds to track down those who escaped, De Soto and his men crossed through Creek Country and met the Choctaw people for the first time.

Bishinik, September 1991?

Choctaw History … 500 years ago

by Michael Wilson

Michael Wilson of the American Indian Program at Cornell University has offered another installment of Choctaw history. In the August issue of BISHINIK, Mr. Wilson told us of Choctaw Chief Tasculuca’s first contact with De Soto.

Hernando de Soto’s method of dealing with people in North America was to enslave the leaders or close relatives of the leaders, using them as guides and interpreters, knowing well that the people within the tribes would be unwilling to endanger the lives of their leaders by attack or revolt. Prior to his meeting with the Choctaw Chief Tascaluca, De Soto encountered the Upper Creek Tribe at Coca, a fortified town located in the upper half of what is now Alabama. The chief of Coca presented himself as a powerful and glorious figure; he was carried, according to Ranjel (De Soto’s private secretary), on a litter covered with “white mantles” and “born on the shoulders of sixty or seventy of his principle subjects.” In the town, the people of Coca greeted the Spaniards with much feasting and dancing, but soon after De Soto determined the military strength of the town, he imprisoned the chief of Coca and gave orders for both carriers and women. Naturally, many of the people immediately left the town, but De Soto sent thirty armed men to find as many people as they could and placed them in collars and chains.

The Spanish plunderers remained in Coca for about a month and a half, at which time they began moving southward, taking with them both the chief of Coca and manacled carriers. After traveling 10 days, they reached Ulibahali, where warriors waited to attack the soldiers and free their leader. The chief of Coca, however, prudently maintained an uneasy peace and told his men to lay down their arms. Finally, after almost three months of captivity (from June 6 to September 20), the chief of Coca was released at Talisi, in the southern portion of Alabama near Choctaw country, but not without severe loss. According to Ranjel, the great chief was “in tears because the Governor (De Soto) would not give up a sister that they took, and because they had taken him so far from his country.”

De Soto clearly thought he could subject the Choctaws to similar treatment. Ranjel says that De Soto greeted the messengers from Tascaluca with charge of cavalry and the sounding of trumpets in order to frighten them. When the messengers returned to Athahachi, home of Tascaluca, De Soto sent two soldiers with them to find out what they could about the Choctaws. On Sunday, October 10th, in the year 1540, De Soto and his men rode into Athahachi and met Tascaluca.

Very little is actually known about Tascaluca. He is described by all historians as a very tall figure, taller than any Spaniard by at least a foot. Dressed in a long feather mantle, attended by his son (equally tall) and several leading men, Tascaluca was civil to the Spaniards but wholly unimpressed. Ranjel tells us that Tascaluca was seated on top of a mound at one end of the square, a very significant detail because at that time the Choctaws were part of a network of mound-building societies and religions that ranged from Mezo-America (the cradle of Indian civilization) all the way to New York State. The Spaniards entered the town, displaying the full range of their horsemanship with parades and jousts. “The Field Marshall,” Elvas tells us, “advanced with his company, their steeds leaping from side to side, and at times toward the Chief, when he, with great gravity, and seemingly with indifference, now and then would raise his eyes, and look on us as in contempt.” De Soto dismounted and walked to Tascaluca, who remained seated, passive,” Ranjel says, “in perfect composure and as if he had been a king.”

Tascaluca and De Soto spoke for a short time. What was said will never be known, but De Soto was probably concerned at this time to find out information about gold and other kinds of wealth. In any event, he apparently did not make demands during this initial conversation, and the remainder of the afternoon was passed with eating and dancing. Later that evening, however, when Tascaluca was ready to leave, De Soto ordered him to remain in the town under supervision, Tascaluca “scoffed” at the demand, but nevertheless remained, assembling with him his principle men. The following day, as he did with the Creeks, De Soto demanded carriers and women. Biedma tells us Tascaluca replied that “he was not accustomed to serving anyone, but it was rather for others to serve him.” He told De Soto, however, that he would provide 400 carriers, and, when they reached Mabila (what is now Mobile, Alabama), he would give him 100 women.

It is clear that Tascaluca resolved to give De Soto nothing else but a strong fight. He sized up the opposition and determined that his best chance of defeating the armored Cavalry was at Mabila, a heavily-fortified Choctaw stronghold. Before they arrived at Mabila, the people there had cut down fields in preparation for open-field warfare. They also assembled over 3,000 warriors, armed and ready for battle. Despite the superior armory and weaponry of the invading Spaniards, the Choctaw people stood ready to fight to the death.