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Authors: John B. Garvey,Mary Lou Widmer

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The French Period

La Salle was gone, but France’s desire for an empire was still strong. For ten years, France had been in no position to attempt further colonization. She had been at war with England until 1697 and now looked to the New World for an empire. A favorable time had come for colonization plans to be presented at the court of France, and Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, a young French Canadian, had his plans ready at the right time.

One of the first views of the Place d’Armes was this watercolor from 1726 by Jean Pierre Lassus.
(Courtesy Leonard V. Huber Collection)

Iberville’s father, Charles Le Moyne, was a successful fur trader with a wealth of eleven sons. Two of his sons, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, and Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, could foresee that the fur-trading business would not provide for them all. They had made other plans for their future. Iberville, the older of the two, had just distinguished himself in the war against England. He presented his plans to found a colony near the mouth of the Mississippi River to the king, who received them favorably. Iberville, however, needed more than just permission. He was not a wealthy man. Seeking a sponsor in this enterprise, he was fortunate in finding Louis de Phélypeaux, Comte de Pontchartrain and Secretary of State, to fund his venture.

Iberville left France in October 1698 with two large frigates and two freight ships, a company of marines, and two hundred settlers, including women and children, for his colony. In his company were his brother Bienville and Father Anatase Douay
, a survivor of La Salle
’s expedition.

Iberville had been commissioned to build forts at the mouth of the river to protect the settlement against British encroachments. In Santo Domingo
, he was joined by the Marquis de Chateaumorant
, in command of a war vessel, who presumably was to protect him in this venture. He sailed to Apalachicola Bay, Florida, and then followed the coast in search of the river. On January 29, 1699, he reached Pensacola, Florida, but the Spanish governor did not allow the Frenchmen to enter the harbor. They set sail again, and in February arrived at Mobile
Bay, where the Indians told Iberville that the Mississippi was only a short distance to the west. Moving on, Iberville anchored before the Chandeleur Islands
. He landed on Ship Island
, which his men so named because it had a good harbor. He built some huts there and then went on with his brother to explore the coast of what are now Biloxi
and Ocean Springs
. From there, he and his men set out in small boats to look for the river.

Iberville found many other islands. One they called Massacre Island, because there were so many bones there (later called Dauphin Island). Another was christened Horn Island because a powder horn was left there. They also found Cat Island, so called because of the many raccoons, which they mistook for cats; and Deer Island, because deer were plentiful there.

On March 2, 1699, Iberville arrived at the mouth of the river, where there was fresh water and a strong current. The following day, Shrove Tuesday, they began their travels up the river. Finding a bayou twelve miles upstream, they named it in honor of the holiday, Mardi Gras
, and thus was Mardi Gras introduced to the Louisiana territory.

Father Anatase Douay said Mass the following Sunday for Iberville’s company at the village of the Bayogoula Indians, who informed them that a letter had been left by Tonti to La Salle in 1686. The letter was found in the possession of the Mongoulacha Indians. In addition to the letter, there was a prayer book, a list of names of La Salle’s companions, and a coat of arms from La Salle’s expedition. At last, Iberville knew he was on “La Salle’s River.”

At the bluff above the river, which Iberville considered a good spot for a settlement, he saw a red stick, the maypole used by the Indians for hanging up offerings of fish and game. Iberville called the place Baton Rouge.

The Indians asked him if he would like to return to Ship Island by a different route. Enthusiastically, and with commendable courage, he agreed. The Indians knew that Iberville had come on a serious mission to establish settlements for white colonists. This could only work to their detriment. Iberville had no way of knowing that they would not murder him and drop his body in the river. But curiosity is the essence of men like Iberville, and eagerly, he went with them.

From Baton Rouge
, they took him south on the Mississippi River
as far as Pass Manchac
(which means “back door”), then by way of the bayou to the Amite River
, and then through two lakes and a bay before returning him to his fleet at Ship Island
. Iberville named the larger lake Pontchartrain, for his benefactor; the smaller one Maurepas
, for Pontchartrain’s son; and the Bay St. Louis, for the patron saint of the king.

Sailing on to Biloxi
, Iberville established colonies at Ocean Springs
and Biloxi in March 1699. Then, having sewn the seed of his Louisiana colony, Iberville made a trip back to France, leaving command in the hands of Sieur de Sauvole
, a brave and capable young French officer.

English Turn

In his brother’s absence, Bienville often left the fort at Biloxi to explore the Mississippi. On September 15, 1699, on returning from such an exploration with a small band of friends, he was surprised to encounter the English corvette,
Carolina Galley,
towering over him. The ship loaded with settlers and bent on colonization had dropped anchor some twenty-seven leagues (approximately seventy-five miles) from the mouth of the river. The British officer in charge asked Bienville for directions to the Mississippi River. Bienville told the officer that the Mississippi was much farther west, that he was in French territory heavily guarded by forts, and that he was in danger in those waters.

The British vessel weighed anchor and, turning around, sailed to the Gulf. The bluff had worked. To this day, the point in the river where the meeting took place is called English Turn. It is about ten miles below New Orleans. It was an unlucky day for the British that they chanced to meet Bienville in that place. Had they not, it might have been the English who headed up the river and founded a city at the site of New Orleans instead of the French. A century later, not far from English Turn, the Battle of New Orleans was fought, and once again the British were turned back.

By 1700, Bienville’s colonists had built Fort Boulaye as a protection below English Turn. On Biloxi Bay, they built Fort Maurepas, one of the few forts in North America that was stoutly built, according to the European style. It has out-lasted all of the others in the area. For twenty-four years, from 1699 to 1723, the capital of Louisiana remained on the Gulf Coast.

Settlers came from France and Canada, some disembarking at Ship Island, Cat Island, and Dauphin Island, where they were to remain until a more permanent settlement had been established. The land was hard on newcomers. Sandy soil made farming difficult, and fresh water was in short supply. An account by Sauvole himself tells of the beauty of the white beaches on the Mississippi Sound, the magnolia and oak trees, and the infertility of the soil, explaining that the colonists relied on provisions sent from France.

It was not as difficult for the Canadian fur traders and trappers who were used to an outdoor life, but those who came from France were often debtors and vagrants, unaccustomed to the wilderness and to farming. In France, if a citizen was out of work for three days, he was given a free trip to Louisiana. Women of the streets, thieves, smugglers, dealers in contraband, vagabonds, and even prisoners were sent to populate the colony. Some had been imprisoned for little or no reason, but they still preferred Louisiana to the Bastille. Passengers on those first ships to arrive were not revered by their descendants, in the way of those who revered their Mayflower ancestors.

Advice coming from France wasn’t much help, either, since it was “to search for mines and pearl fisheries, to domesticate the buffalo for their wool, and to raise silkworms.” Tormented by mosquitoes, suffering from the heat, and itching from the sandy soil, the settlers profited little from such advice.

Members of the French court didn’t like the exotic names of the colonies: Biloxi, Natchez, and Massacre Island. They thought Mobile suggested instability. It is written that Bienville even considered changing the name to Inmobile.

Iberville returned to the colony in 1700, accompanied by the Jesuit priest, Father Paul du Ru, who was to found missions among the Indians on the Mississippi River. Iberville ordered a fort built in the Natchez country, which he could call Fort Rosalie (for the beautiful Duchess de Pontchartrain). He gave command of Fort Maurepas and the Ocean Springs settlement to Bienville, who stayed there until the death of Sauvole in 1701, when Bienville became commander of the Louisiana Territory at the age of twenty-two. The seat of government was changed from Biloxi to Fort Louis de la Mobile, which was established in 1702.

Iberville, the Father of Louisiana, died of yellow fever in 1706 in Havana, leaving Bienville the acting governor of Louisiana.

Very little help was forthcoming from France, and Bienville was often obliged to scatter his men among the Indians, who took good care of them. Penicaut, Bienville’s young friend, who was a carpenter and an Indian interpreter, took a few colonists and went to live with the Acolapissa Indians on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain for a year. He leaves a description of dining on buffalo, bear, geese, ducks, fruits of the season, and dishes prepared with corn. At evening parties, his friend played violin and the French danced with each other, while the Indians tried to imitate the minuet. Penicaut dined with the Chief on sumptuous meals and repaid the hospitality by giving the Chief’s daughter French lessons.

In 1705, the first commercial cargo came down the Mississippi, passing the site of the future city of New Orleans. It was a load of fifteen thousand bear and deer hides, which came from around the Wabash River in the upper Mississippi through the lake passages: the Amite River; Pass Manchac; Lakes Maurepas, Pontchartrain, and Borgne; the Mississippi Sound; and the settlement at Ocean Springs before moving on to France.

In 1707, word reached France that the limited supplies on Dauphin Island, which had been sent from France to support the garrison, were being sold for six times their worth. Martin d’Artaguette d’Iron was sent from France as Commissary General of Louisiana to investigate, and Bienville lost his position as commandant and acting governor. His replacement, Nicholas Daneau, Sieur de Muy, died en route, however, and Bienville was reinstated, but d’Artaguette stayed on to supervise the affairs of the colony.

In November 1708, the first concessions of land in what was later to be the city of New Orleans were made on the west bank of Bayou St. John. Bienville granted this tract to Louis Juchereau de St. Denys, a friend from Canada and an outstanding figure in Louisiana history. He was one of the first settlers in Louisiana, arriving on his second visit with Iberville in 1699 at the age of twenty-three. He later founded the city of Natchitoches, the oldest city in Louisiana. The St. Denys Concession is shown on a map drawn by Allou d’Hemecourt, which can be found in the Louisiana State Museum Library.

Other concessions along the Bayou were granted to Antoine Rivard de La Vigne, two and a half arpents; Nicholas “Alias Delon,” two and a half arpents; and Baptiste Portier, three arpents; three others were granted the same day, but were not recorded. “These concessions had narrow water frontages two and a half to three arpents each. They were long, narrow ribbons of land extending from Bayou St. John to Bayou Gentilly, granted by the French Colonial Government at Mobile” (Freiberg 1980, 30-31).

The village of Bayou St. Jean, as the French called it, and the suburb of Gentilly, which was built up on the natural levees of the Metairie-Gentilly distributary, were the earliest habitations and plantations in the region. Bayou St. John, in its present form, came into being four hundred to six hundred years ago, when all flow activity in the Metairie and Gentilly distributaries ceased.

By the year 1712, the Louisiana colony as a whole had not prospered. The sites were not self-supporting and war between France and Spain made it difficult for France to maintain a colony so far away, scattered over such an immense territory and protected by five forts. Therefore, Louis XIV, in 1712, transferred control of Louisiana to a wealthy banker named Antoine Crozat for a period of fifteen years.

In 1713, Crozat replaced Bienville with Antoine de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, the founder of Detroit, who was to be the governor of Louisiana. In his new position, Cadillac failed miserably. He lacked tact in dealing with the Indians, and the first Natchez War broke out in 1716.

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