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Story Archives: Natchez Fort, Part 3 --French commanders, soldiers, settlers at Natchez in 1720s
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|Natchez Fort, Part 3 --French commanders, soldiers, settlers at Natchez in 1720s|
(Third in a Series)
To understand the French presence and life in Natchez during the early 1720s, says Mississippi historian Jack Elliott, is to understand the distinction between a "habitation" and a "concession."
Elliott said a "habitation" was "essentially a small, private farm usually a single family operation assisted, possibly, by a few black slaves. Concessions were much larger operations, often owned by a single absentee owner or a company. They involved numerous workers and slaves and had a headquarters that was a small village, very similar to the later plantations of the area."
During this period in Natchez, Elliott said the French "military component centered on the fort and under the jurisdiction of the commandant. The civilian settlements consisted of two concessions -- St. Catherine located near Natchez High School on St. Catherine Creek and the Terre Blanche Concession also located on St. Catherine Creek near the old International Paper plant -- and a number of habitations scattered between the fort and St. Catherine Creek."
To follow are historian Jack Elliott's answers to our questions about the fort of Natchez, the commanders, the soldiers and the settlers.
THE FORT COMMANDERS
ELLIOTT: I long thought that the list of commandants was fairly well worked out. However, in sitting down to copy the list, I discovered, when comparing the list to numerous other sources, that there were notable errors. I have worked out the following based on very incomplete source material. Dates are probably not 100% accurate, but (I hope) it's an improvement on previous lists of commandants. Broutin may or may not fit in once if not twice.
• Jacques Barbazan de Pailloux (1716-1718)
Oversaw the construction of Fort Rosalie and served as its first commandant with Bienville's departure from Natchez. With the founding of New Orleans in 1718 de Pailloux was recalled from Natchez to serve as the commander of the new town and replaced by Philippe Blondel.
• Philippe Blondel (1718-1719).
• Barnaval (1719-1724).
• Charles Henry Desliettes de Tonti (1724-1725).
• Ignace-François Broutin, (1725-1726): An engineer who also directed the Terre Blanche Concession at one time and constantly lobbied for funds to restore and refurbish the decaying Fort Rosalie.
• Claude Charles du Tisné (1726-1727).
Dumont de Montigny wrote that du Tisne in order "to acquire the friendship of the Indians, showed them how to build palisade forts, in the French fashion, acting here against my advice."
• François-Louis de Merveilleux (1727-1729).
Dumont de Montigny wrote that de Merveilleux "protected the inhabitants of the post, by whom he was equally loved, and under whose government the French always lived in perfect harmony with the Indians."
• de Chépart (1729) (first name unknown) was killed during the 1729 massacre. Much of the blame for the massacre has been placed upon his callous and inept behavior. He was reported to have been intoxicated on the night before the battle.
As one might imagine the commandants varied in terms of experience, skill, temperament, and diplomatic abilities. Lack of these traits could be disastrous as demonstrated by Commandant de Chépart, who was one of the reasons that Natchez animosity against the French eventually led to the massacre.
A FRENCH SOLDIER'S LIFE AT NATCHEZ
ELLIOTT: Their primary duties were of course military, more specifically policing travel on the Mississippi River and protecting the trading post and civilian settlements at Natchez. The latter was made difficult by virtue of the settlement consisting of numerous habitations and two large concessions scattered over several square miles between the river and St. Catherine Creek. Many of the soldiers were even stationed at the concessions which left them spread thin given that there were usually only about 30 present in the settlement at any given time. Although there were barracks in the fort, by 1729 many soldiers were living in homes outside the walls.
Above and beyond their military duties, there were quite a few other activities to occupy the soldiers, one was obtaining food. Except possibly for grain, garrisons apparently didn't have much food shipped in from New Orleans or elsewhere. Most if not all food generally had to be obtained locally and this meant trading with Indian farmers or, if available, French farmers.
Because of this dependency on local supplies of food, French forts were usually placed in proximity to Indian settlements that could supply them. In this case the suppliers were, at least initially, the Natchez Indians.
Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz, who settled at Natchez as a farmer during the 1720s and later wrote the first history of Louisiana, noted that the trade with the French garrison was very advantageous to the Natchez Indians in that it provided them with gunpowder, lead, brandy, and cloth. Furthermore, the first French settlers to arrive at Natchez had to purchase food from the Indians while they established their own farming operations. For much of the 1720s the French and Indians maintained a symbiotic relationship, advantageous to both parties. As French farms developed at Natchez during the 1720s it is likely that they too would have helped supply the garrison with food.
In the years after the 1729 massacre and the dispersal of the Natchez Indians, the fort was rebuilt and a remnant of the Ofogoula tribe settled there in part to supply the garrison with wild game. There was also a garden adjacent to the fort which suggests that some soldiers were producing some of their own food.
We may conclude that much of the soldier's life was linked to food procurement through trade with the Indians. Consequently we can well imagine the two communities -- French and Indian -- in constant interaction.
The arrival of boats ascending and descending the river would have certainly been notable occasions, encountering people from outside Natchez who were often accompanied by news, mail, and supplies.
Some of the soldiers were stationed at the two plantations -- St. Catherine and Terre Blanche -- so their daily lives were disconnected by a few miles from the center of their operations at the fort.
Consuming and even over consuming brandy were fairly common among the soldiers as was gambling.
At least a few soldiers and civilians took common law wives among the Natchez and other Indians. Le Page du Pratz, the planter and later historian, had a Chetimacha wife at Natchez. One of the soldiers was warned by his Natchez woman about the impending massacre, but all to no avail. The commandant had him incarcerated for upsetting the settlers.
LIFE OF FRENCH SETTLERS
ELLIOTT: The French settlers and their slaves were primarily farmers involved in raising cash crops, usually tobacco; subsistence crops, such as corn and vegetables; and livestock. Life on the small farms -- the habitations -- would have been considerably different than in the large concessions. The small farmer and his few slaves, if he had any slaves, would have had to do virtually all tasks from clearing and plowing fields, planting, chopping, and harvesting, along with build housing and look after livestock.
The concessions had much larger, more specialized work forces that involved agricultural laborers (usually the slaves), metal workers, millers, cooks, physicians, and skilled tobacco workers.
The small farms were more vulnerable to Indian predations because, having only a few people, they were less able to defend themselves. However, interaction between the French and Indians on a day-to-day basis was usually nonviolent and involved trade.
For social life, the equivalent of "going to town" would have been "going to the fort" or at least the area around the fort which was a center of social interaction. Not only was the fort itself there, but there was the river with the constant coming and going of boats, affording the only lifeline to the outside world. The house of the commandant, the effective judge and governor of the colony, was located below the fort, as was the house of the chief representative of the Company of the Indies. There was a rudimentary church and sometimes a priest located nearby. A large tobacco warehouse stood on the edge of the bluff near the trading post. A cemetery was nearby. The fort was the place to meet for a wide variety of purposes from attending mass to trading to simply meeting to drink and gamble.
ONE FRENCH SETTLER'S ARRIVAL
ELLIOTT: Here are a couple passages that describe life in Natchez in the early 1720s by Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz's upon his arrival at Natchez:
"At last we arrived at the Natchez, after a voyage of twenty-four leagues; and we put on shore at a landing-place, which is at the foot of a hill two hundred feet high, upon the top of which Fort Rosalie is built, surrounded only with pallisadoes. About the middle of the hill stands the magazine [trading post], nigh to some houses of the inhabitants, who are settled there, because the ascent is not so steep in that place; and it is for the same reason that the magazine is built there.
"When you are upon the top of this hill, you discover the whole country, which is an extensive beautiful plain, with several little hills interspersed here and there, upon which the inhabitants have built and made their settlements. The prospect of it is charming."
Le Page du Pratz purchased a home and farm from a Natchez Indian. This land was apparently at the site of the present home Hope Farm located on Homochitto Street, which to a large degree follows the path from the fort to the Grand Village.
Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz also writes;
"I found upon the main road that leads from the chief village of the Natchez to the fort, about an hundred paces from this last, a cabin of the natives upon the road side, surrounded with a spot of cleared ground, the whole of which I bought by means of an interpreter. I made this purchase with the more pleasure, as I had upon the spot, wherewithal to lodge me and my people, with all my effects: the cleared ground was about six acres, which would form a garden and a plantation for tobacco, which was then the only commodity cultivated by the inhabitants.
"I had water convenient for my house, and all my land was very good. On one side stood a rising ground with a gentle declivity, covered with a thick field of canes, which always grow upon the rich lands; behind that was a great meadow, and on the other side was a forest of white walnuts (Hickories) of nigh fifty acres, covered with grass knee deep. All this piece of ground was in general good, and contained about four hundred acres of a measure greater than that of Paris: the soil is black and light....
"After this I took up my lodging upon my own plantation, in the hut I had bought of the Indian, and put my people in another, which they built for themselves at the side of mine; so that I was lodged pretty much like our wood-cutters in France, when they are at work in the woods."
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