Tales of Tuscaloosa: Flags (October 10, 1540) Featured

This artist’s concept of Chief Tuscaloosa’s flag is based upon descriptions in the DeSoto Expedition chronicles and images from Mississippian Stage Indian cultural artifacts. In some representations, it is red and white. This artist’s concept of Chief Tuscaloosa’s flag is based upon descriptions in the DeSoto Expedition chronicles and images from Mississippian Stage Indian cultural artifacts. In some representations, it is red and white. Jim Ezell

A group of Spaniards were led before the great Chief Tascalusa (Tuscaloosa) at an Indian town somewhere in what is now central Alabama. He sat on cushions, while nearby stood an elite warrior “holding a sort of fan of deerskin which kept the sun from him, round and the size of a shield, quartered with black and white, with a cross made in the middle ... It was set on a small and very long staff. This was the device he bore in his wars.” This scene was described by a DeSoto Expedition chronicler known as “A Gentleman of Elvas.” It was Sunday, October 10, 1540.

The “device” described by Elvas bore a Native American image that dates back 2000 years or more in archaeological records and has been found on pendants, pottery, and other artifacts throughout much of North America. Some historians and archaeologists speculate that it may represent the sun or a four-part world view. Since it was held aloft and used as a symbol of authority and leadership in war by Chief Tuscaloosa, it could be considered the first known flag to fly over the land that would become Alabama.

During the nearly five centuries that ensued, a number of flags represented empires, colonies, and nations that claimed much of the state and the Tuscaloosa area. These include Spain, France, Great Britain, the Georgia and Carolina Colonies, and finally, the United States. 

DeSoto likely flew the first European flags in central Alabama. One of them may have been the Cross of Burgundy, which represented the gnarled X-shaped cross upon which the Apostle St. Andrew was crucified. It came into use in the early fifteenth century and was used by Spain’s Colonial Army until 1843. It is still used as part of the royal standard of the Spanish Monarchy.

After mostly unsuccessful Spanish attempts to colonize the Southeast, the French in 1682 annexed huge swaths of North America, including the Alabama area, into New France. Mobile was established, and several inland forts were built, including Fort Tombecbe, about 50 miles from Tuscaloosa. The flag of New France featured fleur-de-lys (lily flowers), an ancient symbol particularly associated with the French monarchy.

The French and Indian Wars were a series of intermittent European conflicts spanning nearly a century that spilled over into the American colonies. The final war ended with the loss of New France to Great Britain. What is now the Tuscaloosa area became part of British North America; the Royal Union Flag flew over a vast portion of the continent.

In some ways, the loss of New France spurred American independence. With vast new territories to settle and little need for the British military, many in the American colonies believed a new nation should be created. The American Revolution ensued, and in 1783, a treaty was signed that separated 13 colonies and led to the creation of the United States.

On December 14, 1819, Alabama was admitted to the Union as the 22nd state, one day after the incorporation of the City of Tuscaloosa. A star was added to the field of blue, and an updated flag flew over the little frontier town. 

Over the course of nearly half a millennium, many flags have represented or flown over Alabama and the Tuscaloosa area. Besides those already discussed, there were flags of the Alabama Republic (1861) and the Confederacy (1861-65), plus those of numerous military units from colonial wars to more recent conflicts. The US Flag, and often the Alabama Flag, are prominently displayed in Tuscaloosa and are especially prevalent on holidays such as the 4th of July, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day.

*The Spanish Main was the coastlines of what are now the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America that encircle the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. These areas were part of New Spain, a vast colonial empire that in some areas endured for more than 300 years. 

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Jim Ezell

Local author and historian Jim Ezell is busily writing a collection of historical stories about the Druid City and surrounding areas, in hopes of publishing a book ahead of Tuscaloosa’s bicentennial celebration in 2019. What began as genealogy search in 1992 quickly turned into a much larger project. As Ezell searched through over a century of newspapers on microfilm at the University of Alabama’s Hoole Special Collections Library, he became fascinated by other articles about Tuscaloosa’s rich history.

Ezell was recently named Writer of the Year for 2015 by the Tuscaloosa Writers and Illustrators Guild. 

Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.

 

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