DeSoto's Tennessee Trails
Map: DeSoto's Conquest of Tennessee

Written by Donald E. Sheppard
Drawings by Cheryl Lucente


TENNESSEE East Tennessee

Having crossed the Tennessee River near Muscle Shoals, Hernando de Soto's army followed an Indian trail up Shoal Creek into Tennessee, through Loretta (photo below), to Chicasa at Lawrenceburg, forty miles northeast from his army's river crossing place.

Lawrenceburg's Fields today

Davy Crockett's Home in LawrenceburgDeSoto rode that distance in one day, December 17th, 1540, under a Bright Moon, as his select riders had done elsewhere. Most of his other horsemen rode that distance in two days, while the army spent several more proceeding up that trail to Lawrenceburg. DeSoto's Personal Secretary, Rangel, says, "They were (all) there in Chicasa that Christmas." Chicasa would later become the place Davy Crockett called Home on land taken from the Chicasaw Indians by America's 1816 Treaty with the Chickasaw, (Mapped Here in 1805).

Chicasa Conquest Data, from simple to detailed, by Conquistadors:
DeSoto's Tennessee Chronicles by Biedma, Rangel, Elvas  &  Inca

The Gentleman of Elvas says, "After they were in Chicasa they suffered great hardships and cold, for it was already Winter, and most of the men were lodged in the open field in the snow before having any place where they could build houses. This land was very well peopled, the population being spread out as was that of Mabila (in Alabama). It was fertile and abounding in corn, most of this being still in the fields. The amount necessary for passing the winter was gathered. Certain Indians were captured, among whom was one (from today's Huntsville, Alabama - lying east of DeSoto's Tennessee River crossing place) who was greatly esteemed by the (local) chief." © 1993, University of Alabama Press

Hernando de Soto's Winter Camp at Lawrenceburg, TN The army's camp at Lawrenceburg was described by Inca's informant: "It was situated on a level elevation extending from north to south between two streams (at Shoal Creek's bend) having little water but much timber, consisting of walnuts, oaks, and live oaks, at the foot of which was the fruit of two or three years. The Indians let it go to waste because they had no cattle to eat it and they themselves did not use it, having other, better and more delicate fruits to eat... the army collected all the necessary provisions and brought from outlying small villages much wood and straw from which to make houses, because those of the principal village, though they numbered two hundred, were not enough. Our men were in these lodgings almost two months, enjoying some degree of quiet and rest..."

Elvas says, "By means of an Indian the governor sent word to the chief (of Chicasa) that he desired to see him and wished his friendship. The chief came to offer himself to him, together with his lands and people. He said that he would cause two (other provincial) chiefs to come in peace. A few days afterward they came with him... one being named Alibamo (of Nashville) and the other Nicalasa (Chief Chicasa's close relative from Chickasaw Old Fields at Huntsville). They presented the governor with 150 rabbits and some clothing of their land, namely blankets and skins."

Elvas says, "The chief of Chicasa came to visit him (DeSoto) frequently and sometimes the governor ordered him summoned and sent him a horse to go and come."

Rangel says of that encounter, "Monday, the 3rd of January of 1541, the chief of Chicasa came in peace and gave guides and interpreters to the Christians in order to go to (Nicalasa), which had renown... (it) is a province of more than ninety towns, not subject to anyone, of ferocious people, very bellicose and very feared, and the land is prosperous in those parts." Scouts may have been deployed there but nothing was reported of that.

Elvas says, "The chief of Chicasa made complaint to him (DeSoto), that one of his vassals had risen against him, withholding his tribute." (Rangel says, "The Governor commanded that half of the people of his army should go to make war on Sacchuma") the province of the principal man was called... who had rebelled against him."

Located at today's Savannah, west of Lawrenceburg on the north flowing Tennessee River, that roundtrip across broken land, along with 200 Chicasa warriors, would last for several weeks. Elvas says, "They found an enclosed town which had been abandoned by the Indians (they probably fled across the Tennessee River, taking their canoes with them), and those (Indians) who were with the chief (of Chicasa) set fire to the houses." Rangel says, "On their return the chief of Nicalasa (Huntsville) made peace, and messengers came from Talapatica (probably today's Lewisburg)."

Elvas says, "The governor invited the chief and certain of the principal Indians (to visit) and gave them some pork to eat. And although they were not accustomed to it, they lusted after it so much that Indians would come nightly to certain houses a crossbow shot away from the camp where the hogs were sleeping and kill and carry off as many as they could."

Later Elvas says, "On Tuesday, the eighth of March, (1541) the governor went to where the chief was to ask him for servers. He (the chief) said he would send them next day. When the governor had (come back) to Chicasa (from Sacchuma), he (had) told Luis de Moscoso, the maestro de camp, that the Indians (of Chicasa) looked ill-disposed to him, and that night he should keep careful watch, which the latter heeded but slightly."

Inca's informant says, "(That) night... the north wind, which was blowing furiously, was favorable to them, at one o'clock the Indians came... In order to set fire to our encampment..." Biedma, the King's Agent, says, "more than three hundred Indians entered in the camp without the sentries detecting them, two by two and four by four, with some little jars in which they brought fire, in order not to be noticed or seen..." They set fire to the north end of the camp and the wind pushed the fire southward into the Spanish camp.

The Fires of Chicasaw

Elvas says, "...and the Indians not finding any resistance came and set fire to the camp and awaited the Christians outside behind the doors, who came out of the houses without having time to arm themselves; and as they rose, maddened by the noise and blinded by the smoke and flame of the fire, they did not know where they were going nor did they succeed in getting their arms or in putting saddle on horse; neither did they see the Indians who were shooting at them. Many of the horses were burned in their stables, and those which could break their halters freed themselves. The confusion and rout were of such a nature that each one fled wherever it seemed safest (they fled into the forests of the creeks on three sides of their camp, away from the attack), without anyone resisting the Indians... The Indians thought that the horses, which were running about loose, were the horsemen gathering together to assault them... and fled away... The camp was consumed by fire."
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Biedma says, "The Indians did us very great damage, and killed that night fifty-seven horses and more than three hundred hogs, and thirteen or fourteen men, and it was a great mystery of God why, without our resisting them or doing a thing, the Indians turned to flee and left us, because if they had pursued us, not a man of all of us would have escaped."

An old grist mill at LawrenceburgRangel says, "Next the Spaniards passed to a savanna one league (two and a half miles) from the camp in which they were, the place had huts and supplies, and they established camp on a slope and hill (Lawrenceburg northwest, mapped above) and they made haste to set up a forge, and they made a billows from hides of bears; and they tempered their weapons and made new saddle frames and provided themselves with lances, since there were very good ash trees there..."

"On Tuesday, the fifteenth of March, during the morning watch, the Indians attacked the Christians (again), determined to finish them, and they struck on three sides..." the camp's west side ridge precluded attack from that direction.

Biedma says, "Thanks to God it rained a little, so that because of the water they abandoned their plan... We were here about two months (40 days), making what we had need of in the way of saddles and lances and shields, and then we departed toward the northwest for another province that is called Alibamo..." headquartered at today's Nashville.

Tennessee Conquest TrailsElvas says, "The land (of Chicasa) was flat and suitable for the Christians to profit thereby (a giant plain, over ten miles square, extending northward from Lawrenceburg toward Natchez Trace and, thereby, to a good trail to Alibamo Province). Some Indians were captured, from whom the governor got information relative to the land beyond. On April 25th (1541; the day before New Moon), he left Chicasa (marching across Lawrenceburg's plain, camping at its northwest end) and went to sleep at a small village (in the province) called Alibamo. It had very little corn and it was necessary after leaving there to commit themselves to an unpopulated region for seven days' journey. Next day, the governor sent three captains with horse(men) and foot (soldiers), each one taking a different direction, to search out provisions in order to cross the unpopulated region. Juan de Anasco went with fifteen horse(men) and forty foot along the road where the governor was to go (north), and found a strong stockade where the Indians were waiting..." at the plain's northern opening to Natchez Trace (on map at left).

DeSoto's Trail to Fortress Alibamo THE LOCATION OF FORTRESS ALIBAMO IS WORTHY OF NOTE. Three accounts of that event follow; two are first-hand and one, the last, is based on interviews with survivors. The first account from Biedma, the King's Agent: "Here something happened to us that they say has never happened in the Indies, which was that in the middle of the road where we were to pass, without having food to defend nor women to guard there, but rather only to prove themselves against us, they made a very strong barricade of poles in the middle of the road, and about three hundred Indians placed themselves there, with determination to die before they relinquished it. As they saw us appear, some Indians came forth from the barricade to shoot arrows at us and threaten us that no man would remain alive. From this we considered that barricade differently, and with the people that defended it, we believed they had some food there or something that they were guarding, of which we had much need, because we were expecting to cross an uninhabited region of twelve days' duration, in all of which there was not one thing to eat, except what we carried there. About forty of us dismounted and placed ourselves on two sides, so that at the sound of a trumpet we would charge the barricade all at once. We did it thus and entered, although we suffered some damage, for they killed seven or eight men and wounded twenty-five or twenty-six of us. We captured some Indians and others we killed, and we found out from them that they had done that only with the intent of proving themselves against us, and for no other purpose. We looked for food there, although with difficulty, in order to enter into our inhabited region."

The second account from the Gentleman of Elvas: "As soon as they saw the Christians approach, with loud cries and beating two drums, they came out in great fury to meet us. It seemed best to Juan de Anasco and those with him to keep away from them and to inform the governor. He withdrew over a level ground for the distance of a crossbow flight from the barricade and in sight of it. The men of foot, the crossbowmen and those having shields placed themselves before the horsemen so that the horses might not be wounded. The Indians came out by sevens and eights to shoot their arrows and then to retire. In sight of the Christians, they made a fire and seized an Indian - by the feet and head - and pretended they were going to throw him into the fire, first giving him many blows on the head, signifying what they would do to the Christians. Juan de Anasco sent three horse(men) to inform the governor. The latter came immediately, and since he thought he should drive them thence, saying that if he did not do so they would become embolden to attack him at a time when they could do him more hurt, he ordered the horsemen to dismount and having divided them into four companies gave the signal and they attacked the Indians. The latter resisted until the Christians reached the barricade; and as soon as they saw that they could not defend themselves they fled along a way where a stream flowed near the barricade, and from the other shore shot some arrows. And inasmuch as no crossing was found for the horses for the time being, they had time to get away. Three Indians were killed there, and many Christians were wounded, fifteen of whom died on the march a few days later. It seemed to all that the governor was much to blame in not having had an examination made of the disposition of the land which lay on the other side of the stream and of ascertaining the crossing (place) before attacking them..."

The last account from Inca's informant:"...having marched on the first day (from Lawrenceburg) four leagues through a level country dotted with many small villages having fifteen or twenty houses, they passed a quarter of a league (just over half-a-mile) beyond the inhabited region... When the Spaniards halted to make camp in that field they sent cavalry (horsemen) to scour the country on every side and see what was all around the camp. They returned with the information that nearby was a fort built of wood, manned by very select warriors... They had bridges over the river made of wood, but so shaky and ruinous that they could hardly pass over them... (the battle is described here, until)... they (the Indians) abandoned the fort within a short time, and those who were able to cross the river, now being safe (from the Spaniards on the near bank), formed themselves into a squadron. Our men remained on this side... DeSoto, who was desirous of punishing those Indians for their impudence and audacity, calling to the mounted men and crossing the river by a good ford that was above the fort, drove them forward across a plain for more than a league, spearing them all if they had not been overtaken by darkness..."

Alibamo fortress was located at the foot of this hillTHAT PLACE STILL EXISTS Traveling northwest from Lawrenceburg, one passes broad fields until reaching the north end of the plain where DeSoto's army camped. The land becomes hilly and broken there except at Buffalo River which flows northward from the plain. Indian trails went up that river's east bank to Natchez Trace then to today's Nashville, the Alibamo Indians' home. But DeSoto had no guides to lead him; his captives had died of starvation that winter. A pasture on Buffalo River's west shore (photo above), however, invites anyone headed north through it, between the river and the steep hills on the left.

As one precedes up that valley, however, Buffalo River becomes a steep muddy ravine, its west bank pasture narrows and the land inclines up a steep hill (in photo above) behind which Buffalo River bends left and cuts the hill's northeast side into a cliff. Fortress Alibamo Area Map Alibamo fortress was located at the southern foot of that hill at the north end of Buffalo River's west bank field (mapped above), just out of view of the army's camp at the north end of Lawrenceburg's plain. DeSoto's scouts had been enticed up that valley.

Sandy Buffalo River, at today's BridgeThere is a broad pasture on the east bank of the river's ravine opposite the cliff, but to get there one must back-track to the valley entrance, turn east, cross Buffalo River at a sandy ford which is hidden by the creek's forest (in photo at left, at today's bridge), then follow the creek's east bank north to the pasture northeast of the cliff - the way the Alibamo Indians knew how to get to Nashville.

After the army attacked the fortress, the Alibamo Indians escaped up the hill to the cliff. They crossed the river's ravine on an inclined rope bridge to the northeast shore pasture, then headed for home. The Spaniards had to go back to the valley entrance to find the ford to get to the cliff's east side. Most of the Indians had crossed their bridge by the time the Spaniards arrived at dark. With no moon light on the new moon of April 26, 1541, DeSoto resolved not to chase them; he had more important things to do. He would continue north, according to Inca's informants, instead. The Mound at the Alibamo Barricade Site

DeSoto's humiliation at the barricade probably spared Alibamo women and children his torment and was, most likely, cause for local celebration. Buffalo River's Westside pasture, just south of the hill, is marked by a large earthen mound near the spot where DeSoto's army found Alibamo barricade. That mound (in photo at right) may well memorialize the brilliant natives who deceived DeSoto's powerful army.

Since DeSoto's scouts had observed that rivers and creeks flow northward from Lawrenceburg's plain (map at left), he surmised that the north shore of this Island of Florida lay just ahead. Along his way the rivers continued to flow northward until, alas, he reached the Ohio River.

DeSoto didn't worry about deserters any more, he knew his army would catch up or die in hostile Indian Country. His army spent three days recuperating near the fortress, burying the dead, gathering food and building travois' for horses to draw the seriously wounded through an "unpopulated region for seven days' journey..." according to Elvas.

Rangel says, "On Saturday, the last day of April, the army departed from the site of the barricade and traveled ("...always toward the north..." according to Inca's informants) through an unpopulated region (Tennessee's Highland Rim west of Nashville) of many swamps and thick woods, but all passable on horseback except several marshes or swamps which were crossed by swimming..."

Spring floods had come and gone in that part of Tennessee so the waters were down. They first crossed Buffalo River above the barricade then Duck River at Centerville then the Cumberland River near today's Cumberland City. The Chroniclers left little record of this trip, probably due to their casualties and starvation. Once across the Cumberland River they followed native trails through Northern Tennessee's rolling hills into broad meadowlands, the first broad flats they had seen in a week, at today's Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, having trudged 88 miles in seven days.

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