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|First militia in Natchez country armed in Concordia in 176|
ACADIANS IN CONCORDIA: 1768-1769
(Sixth in a Series)
Administrating a military post in the wilderness of Concordia in 1768 was a full-time job for the commander, Lt. Pedro Piernas. He found himself managing people, both military and civilian, and projects, including ongoing construction inside the fort and the settlement of 149 Acadians.
Additionally, in this remote region of Natchez country, a fighting force was needed in case there was a conflict with Indians or with a foreign nation, such as Great Britain, which possessed the land across the river in Mississippi. At Natchez, about three to four miles upriver from the Spanish fort in Concordia, a British garrison of 44 soldiers and four officers manned Fort Panmure, previously called Fort Rosalie by the French.
While the Concordia fort and Acadian settlements were being built on the west side of the Mississippi to offset British forts and settlements on the east side, the biggest threat faced in this remote region was from the Native Americans whose former lands were now being settled by Europeans.
Both the Spanish and the English had Indian allies. The English could claim part of the Choctaw Nation on its side, some 2,000 hunted in Natchez country every winter. The Spanish had allies, too, including the Tunica, located at a place known as Portage of the Cross down river where the Red flowed into the Mississippi.
To help soldiers assigned to defend the Concordia fort, the Spanish formed a militia made up of the Acadian males, married and single, who were settling along the river. On Tuesday, May 24, 1768, the first militia ever organized in Natchez country was formed inside the walls of the first fort ever constructed in Concordia Parish.
"The only time that the French could have formed one (militia) would have been prior to the 1729 Natchez Indian massacre at Fort Rosalie and I don't know of one then," says Jack Elliott, Historical Archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and Lecturer at Mississippi State University, who has written extensively about colonial Natchez. "After 1729 there was an insufficient civilian population on either bank of the river until the 1760s when the British began granting land on the east bank and Cajuns (Acadians) began settling the west bank."
Elliott said that "in June 1768 Peter Chester, governor of British West Florida, speaking before the colony's general assembly in Pensacola, called for the establishment of a militia, which implies that there was no militia on the British-held east bank prior to that time. So the Spanish-organized militia on the west bank (in Concordia) would apparently have been the first militia" in this region.
MOST SERENE PRINCESS OF ASTURIAS
Commander Piernas said he gathered the Acadians at the fort "to organize a militia and, from among them, I selected the eldest and most respected person as their captain. My selection was also based on his favorable disposition (toward the Spanish)...I named him captain, and I had the other official positions, such as sergeant and corporal filled by lots cast by the eldest and most venerable (Acadians) in order to avoid any complaints and resentment should others be preferred because of their personality or other reasons."
Arms and ammunition were issued to the Acadians and a ceremony followed with Piernas and the garrison in full uniform and the troops in formation on the parade ground. The fort flag was raised and the militia officers recognized.
Piernas then did something to "instill" in the new militia "a sense of honor and to make the ceremonial organization more solemn." He "observed the necessary formalities, and, in the king's name, I advised them of the distinguished honor that was conferred on them by naming it (the newly-formed company) the Spanish militia of the Most Serene Princess of Asturias."
This title was in honor to Maria Luisa, herself of royal lineage, who was married to the future King of Spain, Carlos IV. Maria and Carlos were paternal first cousins. Carlos IV, once on the throne, would be remembered as an ineffective King but as a man who loved to hunt and played the violin.
But Maria Luisa would be remembered as domineering, especially in her husband's, the King's, business. And her affair with Spain's Prime Minister would cause all kinds of problems.
But in Concordia, in 1768, Piernas was honoring the future Queen, then a Princess, in one of the few ways available to him. By naming the Acadian militia "the Spanish military of the Most Serene Princess of Asturias," Piernas said the "distinction should stimulate them to show gratitude and obedience to all that is asked of them in the royal service and defense of the fort."
The Acadians seemed to appreciate the honor, said Piernas, "being very satisfied with this favor and all of the others received."
Piernas then outlined a defense plan when danger was at hand. Each family was provided with a document, written in the French language of the Acadians, "so that they may learn all the signals that I told them they must observe and that the fort might issue by cannon or flag, and (explaining) what each of them should do for each of the three signals in any type of incident..."
The Acadians were also shown where "they would gather in the event of an Indian raid, and I have instructed them regarding the manner in which they should behave towards them (the local Indians) to insure their own security."
SIX MILES DISTANCE - FORT TO FARMS
A visitor traveling the Mississippi River and passing by the fort and Acadian settlement sites would have witnessed a flurry of activity in the late spring and early summer of 1768. Carpenters were busy constructing homes for officers and officials living inside the fort palisade, woodsmen were swinging axes and handling saws in a nearby cypress swamp as giant trees were fell.
Two teams of oxen, yoked and reined, pulled logs to a worksite where the wood was split and finished for use in homes, shelters, barns, sheds and warehouses. The Acadians were clearing land, burning stumps and planting crops, while gardens were sown with vegetables and fruit for consumption as well as herbs and other plants for medicinal purposes.
Everybody worked -- men, women and children.
In a letter to Louisiana's first Spanish governor in May of 1768, Piernas reported to Antonio Ulloa that two boats with supplies had docked on the 12th, and that the storehouse keeper had paid some of the craftsmen previously sent to work at the fort who were now preparing to return to New Orleans, including a master carpenter and his assistant, a blacksmith and his apprentice, and a master stonecutter.
The stonecutter, said Piernas, was not able to practice his craft because "there is not anywhere around here, nor for many leagues around a quarry to support a project with stones." So the craftsman, Agustin Chavez, had spent his time helping clear land.
Piernas liked him: "He is a man of peace and a volunteer for all that has been assigned him (and) is always obedient.."
As a couple of dozen Acadian families settled in, Piernas learned that Spanish Bayou which ran by the fort "dries out for two or three months. Knowing the damage that this could cause the settlers, and because they are living behind islands (Natchez Island) without ventilation or communication with the river, I have arranged to settle them farther below..." at their request.
That location would prove to be so remote that it's easy to understand why the Acadians complained so often about the distance between the fort and the farms.
Coastal Environments, Inc. in Baton Rouge completed a cultural resources investigation in 2004 from Vidalia to Morville in conjunction with the levee work now underway south of Vidalia. An archeologist with the firm, Joanne Ryan, was involved in the project.
Overlaying old French and English maps with current maps, and taking into account that the river has changed its course in this area over the last 200-plus years, she ascertained that the distance from the Vidalia bridge to the fort site was 3.16 miles as the crow flies. The distance from there to the first Acadian farm house was about six and one-half miles, also as the crow flies.
Old maps show the fort located north of Natchez Island and the first Acadian farm house on the south side of the island. Just across the levee from where Hwy. 15 from Ferriday connects with Hwy. 131 (Vidalia-Deer Park Road) is Natchez Island, although it long ago fused into the Concordia bank of the Mississippi.
A road from the first Acadian farm to the fort was opened by the Acadians "so that one may come comfortably by land from the farthest house to the fort, thereby facilitating transportation and enabling us to provide assistance in any eventuality." All parcels of land were surveyed, including about 200 acres for each Acadian family.
Piernas also reported that the "list of land grants, indicating boundaries and arpents, has been compiled so that the title of each individual to his property can be established. In addition, we have made a book entitled 'List of Families' in which those now present are listed, with enough blank space to note (future) marriages births, and deaths."
These records, notes Joanne Ryan, are probably still hidden away in some remote Spanish archive and may be one day be discovered.
ROMANCE IN THE AIR
Despite all of the flurry of activity in the spring and early summer, Piernas reported to Ulloa that romance was making its rounds.
"Juan Baptista Beloti, sergeant at this post," wrote Piernas, "two squad corporals, two sailors, and Jayme Catalan, a master mason, have entered marriage contracts with daughters of Acadians at this post, and, since Your Excellency's intention is to encourage the population growth and to assure the permanency of the Acadians in this country by binding them to the Spaniards, I have raised no objections."
While the grooms-to-be were Spaniards, the brides-to-be were French Canadians. Sgt. Beloti and the other men received permission to go to New Orleans "for the execution of their marriage contracts with the Acadian girls...and also to obtain some furniture and clothing necessary for the new status to which they aspire." Plus, Piernas said two more couples were hitched.
All in all, things were going fairly well. But that would change. Illness and disease would soon ravage the Acadian population and the Spanish governor would face the wrath of an angry, predominantly French populace.
(Editor's Note: Photos, maps, illustrations, etc., often included with Stanley Nelson's weekly column in The Concordia Sentinel, are not duplicated on website. To subscribe to Sentinel, call 318-757-3646.)
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