Mentone Alabama: A History
By Zora Shay Strayhorn
Copyright © 2001 Mentone Area Preservation Association, Inc. All rights reserved.
Wherever one turns in Mentone, long shadows of the past cast their reflections of events and of people who traveled through here as explorers and adventurers. Towns, villages, rivers, parkways, atomic sights, and cities all carry the names of people or events in Alabama history. Credit may be given to the English, Irish, and Scots for the language. The French contributed, among other things, the flowering shrub azalea that is native to Mentone. The English were among the first to build churches and schools and to establish law and “blue laws.” The popular dances at the Crafts Festival held each summer in Mentone reflect the Irish jig and the Highland fling which started in the mountains of North Carolina. The Indians and the African slaves brought here first by the French have also influenced the culture:
Mrs. Paul White, great-granddaughter of John Mason, renowned as Mentone’s founder, is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution which erected a historical marker at Fort Morgan on Mobile Bay. The marker reads: “In memory of Prince Madoc, a Welsh explorer, who landed on the shores of Mobile Bay in 1170 and left behind, with the Indians, the Welsh language”.
Many authorities vigorously agree that Madoc landed in Alabama and came on up into Tennessee and Georgia and that there are three forts which are of pre-Columbian origin. The forts were built in defense of a people, apparently in deadly fear of their lives.
The forts are at DeSoto Falls in Mentone; Old Stone Fort, 70 miles west of Chattanooga in Tennessee; and Fort Mountain in Georgia, 70 miles southeast of Chattanooga. The forts show engineering expertise. They reflect the type of structures in Wales and not Indian construction.
At DeSoto Falls on the west bank of Little River below the falls is a cliff that has been aided by sharp cutting tools (although crude) to form four caves. Delicate footwork is needed to descend the precarious narrow path downward.
One of the four caves is rather large with an arched top. Man carved a passageway to a second room. At the edge of the third room, one looks from a ledge to a direct drop of 150 feet below into the frothy waters of Little River. The fourth cave is entered by crawling. The first cave room has a heavy dusting of ancient black smoke.
Ascending over the same narrow path to the top, one may view the site of an ancient fort whose rocks have been carried away by modern cliff dwellers to construct their summer homes. The contour of the solid ground indicates a peninsula has been formed by the bend in the river. There appears clear evidence of the remains of an ancient fort by the crumbling rocks and old stones that still remain. It would be a safe, secure hiding place; only one guard would be needed since only one person could enter at a time.
Several historians agree that the forts were built before the time of Columbus. A seed fell into one of the 20-foot-high walls and when its tree was cut down Aug. 7, 1819, the 337 annual rings counted dated the stump to be 1,482, but the fort had been built before that date.
The Mandan Indians of North America of light-colored skin are said to be descended from the Welsh expedition. There is one bit of evidence that is a rebuttal to the Welsh story. Thomas Stephens, a Welsh scholar, submitted an essay in a contest in 1858 that stated the voyage of Madoc was conjured up because of jealousy of Columbus.
Zella Armstrong, in Who Discovered America, states that ancient Roman coins have been found in several places where the Welsh forts were constructed. There was commerce between Rome and Wales, and the Welshmen with Madoc could have carried coins of great age. During the Roman occupation of Wales, Roman coins were minted.
The first Spanish explorer to see Alabama was Alonzo Alvarez de Pineda when he sailed into Mobile Bay in 1519 and drew a map of the coast as he sailed along it. The first Spanish explorer to penetrate the interior of Alabama was Hernando de Soto.
DeSoto shouts at one in Mentone, Alabama:
DeSoto Falls, DeSoto Parkway, DeSoto Park, caverns, hotels, movie houses. The science of archaeology is now finding evidence of remains of Spanish artifacts linking names and places of the route Hernando de Soto took through Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
DeSoto, from Castile, Spain, had been part of the looting of Peru with Pizarro. He had returned to Spain a wealthy hero at 35. He asked permission from the king of Spain to outfit an army for an expedition to the New World in search of gold. The blessings of King Charles V of Spain were bestowed upon him as well as title of Governor of Cuba, but no money.
Before leaving Spain, he outfitted seven large ships and three small ones in the spring of 1537 at the Spanish port of San Lucas. The ships were laden with cargos of oranges, dates, figs, salted meat, rope, kegs of nails, ingots of iron, and timber. His crew included blacksmiths, carpenters, scribes, sword-makers, shoe-rnakers, priests and slaves. Also on board were horses, pigs for rneat and shoe leather, steel swords, and guns. He recruited hundreds of men, both rich and poor. DeSoto chose young men for his adventure, but one man, Juan Mateos, had gray hair.
During the year he spent in Cuba, DeSoto sent his best navigators to search out the best harbor in Florida. At this time, the entire southeastern portion of the U.S. was called Florida.
DeSoto had decided before he left Spain that instead of being cruel as he had in Peru, he would proffer friendship, but earlier adventurers had mistreated the Indians, and they swore vengeance.
He arrived in Tampa Bay, Fla., in 1539. He penetrated inland and met thousands of Indians in baffle. The Indians were afraid of DeSoto’s horses; they thought horseman and horse were one animal. The Indians’ arrows were no match against the Spaniards’ spears. The Spaniards were cruel to the Indians and took them as slaves and killed thousands of them, but sometimes the Indians outwitted them by being more clever.
Fired by the lust for gold, DeSoto marched northward toward the Savannah River and on up into the Carolinas and back into Georgia. He wandered for five years. Many groups of Indians got rid of the Spaniards by telling them of gold farther along their way.
No one yet knows the exact route DeSoto took. He did come near DeKaIb County because some of his men wrote about the Indian chief named Cosa for whom the Coosa River and County are named. Archaeologists and scholars believe DeSoto’s army crossed Sand Mountain as it left the Tennessee River and followed the Coosa down to the Alabama River.
On one of these treks through Alabama, DeSoto met the son of the seven-foot-tall giant Tascaluza (Tuscaloosa), who took him to his village to meet his father. Outwardly friendly, the Indians exchanged gifts at Mauvila (Mobile). The village had a high wall; the soldiers camped outside except for a few who went within with DeSoto. All of the soldiers were quartered and a battle started, lasting nine hours.
An arrow struck DeSoto and stuck to the thigh bone. He pulled out the shaft and told no one, but stood tall in his stirrups. The Indians retreated inside the wooden buildings of the walled village, and the Spaniards set fire to Mauvila.
Estimates vary as to how many Indians died, but Mauvila was destroyed. DeSoto lost 20 men and many were wounded. Nearly all of his horses, guns, gunpowder, food and medicine was destroyed.
His men wanted to return to Cuba, but DeSoto’s proud spirit would not allow him to return home without gold. In May 1541 at Memphis, Tennessee, DeSoto and his men were the first Europeans to view the mighty Mississippi.
DeSoto returned to the banks of the Mississippi. He planned to build boats with the help of friendly Indians and to sail south. He fell ill with malaria fever. He had exhausted himself. In the summer of 1542, he died; he was 42 years old.
He was first buried by the great river, then was moved to a spot 60 feet deep in the Mississippi, and his coffin was slipped into the watery grave. His remaining soldiers eventually walked and sailed until they came to Mexico City, Mexico.
According to John R. Swanton, chairman of President Roosevelt’s U.S. DeSoto Expedition Commission, DeSoto “appears to have traversed Jackson, Marshall and Etowah counties, but not to have entered DeKaIb though he may have passed near the southwestern corner of it.”
DeSoto’s army did make note of the great natural beauty of the area, but it is doubtful that he went near the falls that bear his name.
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