I have always been fascinated and intrigued by the expeditions of early Spanish explorers Hernando DeSoto and Tristan de Luna, especially when it comes to their travels in present-day Southwest Alabama.
In the 1500s, both of these famous explorers visited what would eventually become Wilcox County. DeSoto, who would have been around 40 years old at the time, passed through Wilcox County in October 1540. De Luna, who was born in 1519, would have also been around age 40 when he arrived in Wilcox County in 1559.
DeSoto entered the area as part of an expedition to find gold in the unexplored areas of what we now call Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Georgia. According to “Dead Towns of Alabama” by W. Stuart Harris, DeSoto and his men passed through the Indian village of Humati on Oct. 7, 1540. Humati is believed to have been located on the west bank of the Alabama River, just north of present-day Camden, Harris wrote.
DeSoto’s travels through Wilcox County continued on the following day – Oct. 8, 1540 – when he and his men arrived in the “ancient town” of Uxapita, according to Harris’ book. This old Indian village was located at the mouth of Pursley Creek, where it runs into the Alabama River, about eight miles southwest of Camden, Harris wrote.
Ten days later, on Oct. 18, DeSoto and his group of about 200 soldiers arrived at the Indian village of Maubila, where they fought a battle with around 2,500 Indians led by Chief Tuscaloosa. Vastly outnumbered, 22 of DeSoto’s men were killed before the Spaniards fled the fortified town, barely escaping with the lives and leaving much of their equipment behind.
The exact location of Maubila has been debated for centuries with many Alabama scholars claiming it was located in Clarke, Monroe and Dallas counties. It is known that DeSoto was in Wilcox County just 10 days before the Battle of Maubila, and when you take into account how difficult it would have been for a large group of Spanish soldiers to travel through the undeveloped wilderness, you have to ask the question: Was Maubila located in Wilcox County?
Fast forward 19 years to 1559 when Tristan de Luna landed at Pensacola Bay and established a short-lived settlement that was destroyed by a hurricane on Sept. 19, 1559. To keep from starving to death on the coast, most of De Luna’s men traveled up the Alabama River and eventually arrived at a large Indian town called Nanipacna.
According to Harris’ book, many scholars believe that Nanipacna was located on Boykin’s Ridge on Pine Barren Creek, on the east side of the Alabama River, in the northern section of Wilcox County. De Luna and his men remained there until June 1560 before moving on. Nanipacna, which means “hill top” in the Choctaw language, remained on maps of the region as late as 1733, Harris wrote.
In the end, it’s interesting to imagine DeSoto and De Luna exploring early Wilcox County, and it stands to reason that they probably left more than a few artifacts behind. Perhaps someone reading this column right now has a Spanish helmet, sword or firearm buried in their backyard or beneath their home. Only time will tell if those artifacts will ever come to light, but one thing can be said for certain – the visits of DeSoto and De Luna marked the beginning of big changes for not only Wilcox County, but also for Alabama and for what would eventually become the United States of America.