Hunter-gatherers were the earliest inhabitants of the area now called Alabama. Excavations at Russell Cave have revealed that Native Americans dwelled in northeastern Alabama more than 8,000 years ago, and many archaeological sites suggest that people lived in Alabama 2,000 to 3,000 years before that. Later, highly organized groups, called Mound Builders for the ceremonial earthen platforms they built, lived in the Alabama, Tombigbee, and Black Warrior river valleys.
When Europeans first came in the 16th century, Alabama was well populated. The local Native American nations had highly developed sociopolitical groups with complex trade and family networks. Central locations, often stockaded towns, were hubs of economic, social, religious, and political activity. Agriculture centered around the cultivation of beans, corn, and squash. The pottery, stone carvings, and metalwork of these peoples show sophisticated artistic skill and complex symbolic systems.
The first Europeans to reach Alabama were Spanish explorers looking for gold. Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda and Pánfilo de Narváez explored the coast early in the 16th century. The first expedition into the interior was led by Hernando de Soto, starting in 1539. With a force of several hundred soldiers, de Soto intended to find and conquer a kingdom rich in gold that he believed existed in the region.
De Soto used coercion, raiding villages and taking hostages, to try to get information about the golden kingdom, as well as food and supplies. News of his tactics preceded him, so that he met resistance along most of his route and had to fight several battles. At Mauvila, a village on the Alabama River, de Soto’s forces fought and defeated Chief Tascaluza and his warriors.
The Spanish explorers then marched west into Mississippi, but their numbers were much reduced by battle casualties, disease, and hunger. They were harassed by sporadic attacks, and were denied food and medicine that might well have been shared with them if they had come in peace.
De Soto died near the Mississippi River, and only a small number of his force survived to return in 1543 to Mexico, their starting point. They never found gold, and they decided the golden kingdom was a myth. They left behind some mixed-blood children and several European diseases.
In 1559 Don Tristán de Luna, with 500 soldiers and 1,000 Spanish colonists from Mexico, arrived in Mobile Bay to start a settlement. However, a storm destroyed many of their supplies, and starvation forced them to abandon the colony and return to Mexico. The Spanish made no further effort to settle the area, but their horses, hogs, and cattle were adopted by the local population.
The Native Americans had no immunity to the new diseases brought by the Europeans, and their societies were drastically changed. Thousands of people became ill and died. Many towns and villages were abandoned. The survivors merged into larger groups, so that by the 18th century few of the peoples that de Soto met were still organized under the same names.
Most of the native Alabamians became members of four major Native American nations: the Cherokee in the north, the Chickasaw in the northwest, the Choctaw in the southwest, and the Creek Confederacy in the center and southeast. These nations for many years dealt with the Spanish, French, British, and Americans, forming alliances according to their own best interests. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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