Rivers of History: Life on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba, and Alabama

Rivers of History: Life on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba, and Alabama

by Harvey H. Jackson

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Four streams make up the Alabama River system, the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba, and Alabama. Together they flow for more than 900 miles, through some of the most historic regions of the state. This book looks at the way these streams have shaped the lives of the people who lived along them, and how, in turn, people have used the rivers to their own ends. This is the story of the people of the Alabama River system: the Indians, traders, steamboatmen, passengers, slaves, loggers, "deadheaders", divers, river rats, fishermen, industrial giants, factory workers, business boosters, environmentalists, and those who simply love the rivers because of something that seems to have been a part of them from the first time they saw the water flowing. This is a book for and about these people. They, and the rivers, are the main characters in the story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817390273
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 10/21/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 316
File size: 4 MB

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Rivers of History

Life on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba, and Alabama

By Harvey H. Jackson III

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1995 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-9027-3


The Alabama Invaded

Every careful student of the route of DeSoto will agree with Professor Wyman that DeSoto crossed the Alabama River much higher up than Pickett and Meek have stated, and if so, the battle of Mauvilla was fought not at or near Choctaw Bluff in Clarke county but further up the river.

M. in Montgomery Advertiser reprinted in the Clarke County Democrat, June 15, 1893

"Then how will you reconcile the statement of DeSoto's historians that Mauvilla was only about 85 miles from the sea at Ochuse — Pensacola?"

Reply to M., Clarke County Democrat June 15, 1893

In October of 1540 at the Indian town of Mabila, on or near the Alabama River, soldiers of Hernando de Soto clashed with the forces of chief Tascaluza. The battle raged for several hours, and when it was over one Spaniard calculated that between twenty-five hundred and five thousand Indians were dead and hundreds more were wounded. If this estimate is accurate, it was the bloodiest battle fought on North American soil until Union and Confederate armies met at Shiloh in 1862.

For generations of Alabama school children, the battle of Mabila was the first great "event" in the state's history. Yet despite its significance, the site where it occurred remains a mystery. This is unfortunate, for if researchers could determine the specific location of the battle, then de Soto's route might be traced with more certainty, for Mabila could serve as a point of reference to verify locations mentioned in the often imprecise accounts left by chroniclers of the expedition. Finding Mabila would greatly narrow the options facing archaeologists and enable them to concentrate their efforts. The result might be new and important discoveries that would enlarge our understanding of Alabama Indians and their early contact with Europeans.

Though no one can say for certain where Mabila was, there has been no shortage of opinions as to where it might have been. Among early historians the most popular site was near the Alabama River in present-day Clarke County, and local citizens, proud of this distinction, were quick to take issue with anyone who was so bold as to suggest that the Spaniards had not visited their region. Fears that another location might present a better claim were calmed in 1939, when a national commission established to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the de Soto expedition published a study that recreated the route taken by the invaders and put Mabila safely in Clarke. Residents of the county were overjoyed, and soon they confirmed their title by naming a local Boy Scout camp after the battle. The issue seemed settled.

It was not. With the approach of the 450th anniversary of the Spanish campaign, scholars began to try once again to trace the route and locate the places that were visited — including Mabila. The effort divided the academic community. To the distress of Clarke County citizens, one cadre of anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians concluded that Mabila was not in their county but farther north, perhaps at the point where the Cahaba River joins the Alabama. Another group of researchers argued that earlier calculations were correct and that Clarke's claim was valid. The result was a standoff, with both sides aware that until confirmed by archaeological evidence, everything was theory. Amid all this controversy, one thing was clear. Scholars were not the only ones interested in the location. The reaction of Clarke County residents to the possibility that their historical markers would be ripped up and replanted in Dallas County revealed how much it meant to a community to know that history had touched it.

Despite deep divisions between de Soto devotees over where to find Mabila, there was consensus on other points. All sides agreed that de Soto's expedition traveled down the Coosa River valley and along at least some of the Alabama. They also agreed that de Soto and his men were among the first and probably also the last Europeans to see the Indian river civilizations at their height.

Indians had lived along the rivers for centuries before the Spaniards arrived. Drawn to the rich vegetation and animal life close to the streams, hunting and gathering groups wandered in, settled, and in time developed farming communities capable of sustaining large populations. Theirs was a seasonal way of life, and the rivers played an important part in it. Spring floods deposited rich soil on their fields and regenerated the land, so they did not need to move their villages frequently or far. Planting schedules were dictated by receding waters; and while the crops matured, the community turned to the river for food.

Early on the Indians began altering the streams to serve their purposes. They built weirs by piling tons of rocks in a V shape with the point upstream, to divert the current and force spawning fish into reed traps and nets. These man-made obstructions required the same high degree of engineering skill, energy, and community organization that mound building demanded, and today they might be considered in the same category were not most lost beneath the waters of power company lakes. Weirs also created pools and eddies where schooling fish were easily poisoned with the pounded pulp of buckeye and the root of devil's shoestring that the Indians spread on the water. In this season they also hunted waterfowl that migrated along the river route, and they stalked animals in the swamps and canebreaks near the shore.

Spring gave way to summer, a time of fewer fish and game but a season when Indians could depend on a variety of edible plants, including the "horticultural trinity" of maize, beans, and squash. During these more leisurely months, the tribes held contests and celebrations, including the Green Corn Festival or Boosketah (busk) that marked the point in the agricultural cycle when the crop matured. This pattern of activity was common to farming people in a warm climate, and it characterized life in the river valleys long after the Indians were gone and cotton had been crowned king. Fall brought not only the harvest but also better fishing and the return of migratory birds. This was the best time for hunting, as deer and turkey were fat and plentiful. Much of the fall bounty was stored in public granaries, for winter was a period of stress for the community. Sufficient supplies in the final weeks before the fish and birds returned in the spring were essential to the survival of the weakest members of the tribe — particularly the young and the old. As it was for the animals they hunted, winter was the critical season.

The rivers drew tribes and towns together. In dugout canoes, Indians visited neighboring settlements, often for trade and sometimes for war; and through these contacts the river civilizations grew. The rapids on the Coosa and Tallapoosa made it difficult for these streams to become great avenues of communication and commerce, so north-south trade in the area depended heavily on woodland trails. Still, trading tribes knew the value of the rivers and used them when they could. Commerce passing through the region on an east-west axis was not so fortunate. For these travelers, the streams were obstacles to be crossed, so fords were their most important features. As this regional trade grew, control of these strategic spots was critical. The Indians soon recognized their importance; in time others would recognize it as well.

What de Soto found when he arrived in the valley of the Coosa and Alabama rivers was a mature Indian civilization, organized around planned permanent towns and ceremonial centers, governed through a heirarchial social, political, and religious system, and linked to similar civilizations by an extensive regional trading network. Their population growing and communities expanding, the Coosa and Alabama Indians were an energetic people with a sense of self-worth that easily matched that of the Spanish. They were masters of a vast domain and a force with which to be reckoned.

In September of 1540, de Soto, with about six hundred men, a few priests, assorted camp followers, perhaps 250 horses, some dogs, and a large drove of pigs, entered the territory of Coosa, somewhere near the modern juncture of Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. From there they pressed southward, down the valley, along a stream described as "large, swift, and hard to enter" and "no small venture" to cross. Here they "found some muscles that they gathered to eat, and some pearls," which encouraged dreams of greater wealth deeper in the interior. They also found flourishing towns and villages, from which they took supplies, porters, and hostages. Some Indians resisted, while others greeted the Spaniards courteously and offered to help however they could. But the natives always told the invaders that the riches they sought were farther on and made every effort to hurry de Soto and his men along their way.

After weeks of marching near the river, the army reached the town of Atahachi, possibly at the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa. This was the seat of paramount chief Tascaluza, who the Spaniards had been told could provide supplies, porters, and women and could guide them to the wealthy cities to the west. The invaders entered the town and found Tascaluza "full of dignity," seated on a cushion atop a mound. De Soto spelled out his needs; the chief offered some help, then revealed that more supplies — and one hundred women — waited at Mabila, a town farther west. It had been a long journey, and with only the priests in the party pledged to celibacy, the inducement worked. Taking a less-than- enthusiastic Tascaluza with them, the Spanish army resumed its march down the Alabama River.

During the week that followed the soldiers, stock, shackled porters, de Soto, and Tascaluza (with an attendant carrying his sunshade) made their way along a "craggy" gorge, where steep banks often towered a hundred feet above a winding river that they estimated was over four hundred feet wide. When they finally reached their destination the commander sent a party ahead to "discover the temper of the Indians," and it returned to report that the natives were collecting weapons and strengthening the town. The European arrival had united the region. Not only were Indians loyal to Tascaluza gathered at Mabila, but natives had come from all along the Coosa-Tallapoosa valley. The tribes of the river region were prepared to repel the invaders.

Mabila was a fortified town built on a level plain, in the vicinity of the river that marked the frontier between Tascaluza's chiefdom and its neighbor. This was as far as the royal traveler intended to go. When de Soto, the chief, and a small detachment of soldiers entered the town, Tascaluza slipped away from the group and into a house where Indians waited, armed and ready. De Soto called for him to come out, but Tascaluza responded that if the Spanish commander "wished to go in peace, he should quit at once, and not persist in carrying him away by force from his country." With those words the issue was drawn.

A brief skirmish followed as the invaders tried to seize the chief, but they failed and were soon driven from the town. Outside the stockade they joined the main Spanish force and at a given signal "commenced a furious onset" which breached the walls and brought them into the center of Mabila. Tascaluza's men fought bravely, and the outcome was in doubt until de Soto's cavalry joined the fray. In the confusion that followed, soldiers began setting buildings on fire, and Indian resistance crumbled. Some tried to fight and were killed; others fled "headlong into the flaming houses, were smothered, and, heaped one upon another, burned to death." It was a slaughter. Even if the casualty figures reported later were exaggerated, there is little doubt that it was one of the bloodiest battles between Indians and Europeans ever fought in North America. But though they were the victors, the Spaniards had learned a lesson. No longer would they assume that the Indians were theirs to command. It was a wiser captain who led his battered army away from the land of Tascaluza.

While the battle of Mabila was a turning point for the de Soto expedition, the expedition itself was a turning point for the Indians. Some twenty years later a Spanish party from Ochuse, on Pensacola Bay, arrived in the river region to find the Indian population so depleted and their society so disrupted that it bore little resemblance to that which de Soto's chroniclers described. What this expedition saw may have been early indications of a biological disaster of incredible proportion. The Europeans had brought diseases, especially smallpox and measles; and the Indians, with little or no resistance, perished by the hundreds. Over the next century and a half, epidemic after epidemic swept through the valley, and each time the tribes were decimated. Without concrete figures on the Indian population at the time the viruses hit, it is difficult to know how many died. But if it was true, as some claim, that over a million Indians lived in the southeast when de Soto invaded, later counts suggest a holocaust unrivaled in American history. By the eve of the American Revolution, the natives numbered less than a hundred thousand.

It is hard to conceive, much less comprehend, the cultural impact this depopulation had on the Indians. When the epidemics struck, the weak — especially the young and the old — succumbed first. The loss of the young was a devastating blow to the future of the tribes, for it depleted the generation that was expected to maintain and perpetuate tribal traditions. But given the course of the disease, there was little for them to maintain. In an oral culture, the loss of older members meant the loss of the collective memory on which the culture depended. If the death of the young threatened the future, the death of the old erased the past. Without this reservoir of ancient knowledge from which to draw, tribal customs were abandoned, and those practices that did continue had little substance to support them. Looking back, we can see the results. At the end of the eighteenth century, Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins inquired as to the purpose of five mounds situated on the left bank of the Alabama, just below the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa. Their location indicates that they may have been part of Atahachi, Tascaluza's principal town, and one may have been the very mound on which the chief sat when he greeted de Soto. Because none of the local Indians could tell Hawkins about the great tribe that built them or explain their ceremonial significance, the agent concluded that they were nothing more than a place of refuge from floods. By that time he was probably right.

During this period the Indians also underwent a political transformation as disease-ravaged tribes reorganized and some village sites were abandoned. Unfortunately, we know little of what actually occurred in these years or how the natives coped with the transition. This era, between the departure of the Spanish and the arrival of the next wave of Europeans over a century later, is Alabama's "dark age," a time when the historical record is virtually blank and is not likely to be filled. What we do know, however, is that when the next invaders arrived, they found a river region that was very different from the one "discovered" by de Soto.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Indians were at last bringing order out of the chaos left by the epidemics. Increasingly resistant to the diseases, their population growing, and their society more stable, the river tribes created a new and vibrant culture to replace the old. Important in this revival was a restored regional exchange system. Over woodland trails and navigable streams the natives swapped not only trade goods but ideas, which may have been the most important commodities of all. To reverse their political disintegration the Indians formed a series of river chiefdoms, with an organizational structure that was somewhere between that of a tribe and a state. At that moment, the future must have looked bright indeed. But what they did not know, could not have known, was that this revival would invite a second European invasion, one that brought with it an economic system that proved as destructive to their way of life as the epidemics that were brought before.


Excerpted from Rivers of History by Harvey H. Jackson III. Copyright © 1995 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: "Once There Were Rivers",
1. The Alabama Invaded,
2. Englishmen, Indians, and Americans,
3. The War for the Alabama,
4. Settling the Alabama,
5. The Age of the Alabama: Life along the River,
6. The Age of the Alabama: Life on the River,
7. The Orline St. John,
8. Alabama's Last Frontier: The Coosa and the Tallapoosa,
9. The Alabama in Transition,
10. The Rivers at War,
11. The War Comes to an End; the Coosa Comes of Age,
12. End of the Golden Age,
13. Putting "Loafing Streams" to Work,
14. Hard Times, Better Times,
15. Reviving the Rivers,
16. Fencing the River with Smokestacks,
Epilogue: "Pissing in the Rain Barrel",

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