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Story Archives: Natchez Fort, Part 4 -- Company of Indies, French Louisiana, Bigfoot & UFO
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|Natchez Fort, Part 4 -- Company of Indies, French Louisiana, Bigfoot & UFO|
(Fourth in a Series)
After construction of Fort Rosalie in 1716, the French established a military presence in Natchez and soon began serious efforts to settle here.
This week, historian Jack Elliott describes French Louisiana and the Company of the Indies, two important subjects to know in understanding the beginning of white settlement in Natchez.
He also provides information on two events which left European and Native American inhabitants of Natchez spellbound in the 18th Century -- the fear of a creature similar to "Bigfoot," and the sighting of an unidentified flying object in the nighttime sky.
Some readers may recall that last summer we wrote about William Dunbar's sightings of a meteor and a comet.
In April 1800, Dunbar spotted a meteor while in Baton Rouge. He called it -- "the phenomenon" -- and described it as it raced through the night sky. The chuck of rock was as big as a house, he said, maybe 80 feet long, "wholly luminous," streaking from the southwest to the northeast in 15 seconds. Darting across the sky only 200 yards above the ground, Dunbar said that after the meteor went out of sight he heard a "violent rushing noise" and seconds later heard a loud crash. He didn't report if the location of the crash was ever identified.
Dunbar also described the comet of 1807-08, which was a big topic of conversation throughout the Mississippi Territory, some seeing it as sign of impending doom. Dunbar found the sighting to be a powerful experience as people throughout Natchez country beat a path to his Forest Plantation to see the comet through his Gregorian telescope he designed and had constructed in London in 1805.
The comet was first spotted on September 20, 1807, by Seth Pease, the surveyor-general of the territory. He made nightly observations of the comet and every so often noted the comet's position.
This was a time when many Americans were familiar with the night sky. Many a Natchez country couple took a walk through a meadow or along a river bank after twilight and gazed into the expanse of the night sky. People sat outside at night and viewed the spectacle of the universe.
Eight decades earlier, the Natchez Indians and the French settlers had a similar experience. That story will follow, but first, Elliott explains the governmental and corporate reasons for the settlement of Natchez in the early 1700s.
THE EXPANSE OF FRENCH LOUISIANA
ELLIOTT: Historically speaking, "French Louisiana" refers to an administrative district of New France, and New France was France's North American colony with its capital, Quebec City. Louisiana was by far the largest part of New France, extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. Because of its vast size and the problems associated with developing such a vast area, the colony was always underpopulated and underfunded.
New France had its beginning in the early 1600s with settlements in Acadia and Quebec and population that largely concentrated around the St. Lawrence River. French exploration proceeded inland into the heart of the continent along an extensive network of waterways that began with the St. Lawrence and led to the Great Lakes. From there explorers discovered streams that led to the Mississippi River.
In 1682, Robert de la Salle traveled the Mississippi to its mouth, claiming the river basin for France and naming it "la Louisianne," or Louisiana, after the reigning King Louis XIV (1638-1715). This vast tract of land didn't become a colony until the French actually began to settle it. Settlement began, not in the north from the Great Lakes, but from the south at the Gulf of Mexico, and was initiated by the Le Moyne brothers, Iberville (1661-1706) and Bienville (1680-1767). The thrust of their colonization work was to gain control of the mouth of the Mississippi and thereby control the great river highway into the heartland of North America.
This goal was accomplished in the city of New Orleans, which was founded in 1718 and which became the capital of French Louisiana in 1722. With the addition of Louisiana, New France effectively constituted a vast territorial belt extending from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1763 following the French and Indian War, France lost Louisiana to Great Britain and Spain. Spain which acquired the western bank of the Mississippi along with New Orleans continued to use the term Louisiana for its portion, while Great Britain did not use the term for its eastern bank portion. So whereas under the French, Louisiana referred to the entire Mississippi River basin (and additional land), Louisiana later referred only to the western half of the river basin.
COMPANY OF THE INDIES/MISSISSIPPI BUBBLE
The chief representative of the Company of the Indies had an office in Natchez, located below the fort.
ELLIOTT: Founded in 1717 by John Law, the Scottish businessman operating in France, the Company was originally called the Company of the West, but became the Company of the Indies a year or so later following consolidation with other companies. The Company's initial purpose was to take control of French Louisiana from the French crown and make it economically viable through encouraging the production of trade commodities such as tobacco. The Company later grew in scope to conduct trade throughout the world.
In his marketing promotions, Law greatly exaggerated the wealth and economic potential of Louisiana which led in 1719 to wild speculation in company stock followed by collapse in 1721. This event is referred to as the Mississippi Bubble. Despite its negative overtones, it did produce a rapid -- but short term -- rise in the numbers of immigrants to Louisiana which greatly raised the colony's population. Most of the immigrants were destined for large concession plantations, such as the two at Natchez, both of which were founded in 1720 in the midst of the Bubble.
After its financial collapse, the Company was reorganized in 1722 and continued to manage Louisiana. One of the key personnel at Natchez during the 1720s was a representative, or clerk, of the Company of the Indies.
Following the massacre of its colonies at Natchez and the Yazoo River in 1729 and the subsequent war against the Natchez Indians, the Company decided that Louisiana was a bad investment and returned its control to the crown in 1732, so once more Louisiana became a Royal Colony.
UFO IN NATCHEZ SKY?
In 1723, new Natchez settler Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz recalled a nighttime sight that terrified many but seemed to intrigue him. It was definitely a UFO but could it have been a meteor? He wrote about it in his "History of Louisiana," Book 1, Chapter 7:
"Towards the autumn of this year (1723) I saw a phaenomenon which struck the superstitious with great terror: it was in effect so extraordinary, that I never remember to have heard of any thing that either resembled, or even came up to it. I had just supped (out) doors, in order to enjoy the cool of the evening; my face was turned to the west, and I sat before my table to examine some planets which had already appeared. I perceived a glimmering light, which made me raise my eyes; and immediately I saw, at the elevation of about 45 degrees above the horizon, a light proceeding from the south, of the breadth of three inches, which went off to the north, always spreading itself as it moved, and made itself heard by a whizzing light like that of the largest sky-rocket.
"I judged by the eye that this light could not be above our atmosphere, and the whizzing noise which I heard confirmed me in that notion. When it came in like manner to be about 45 degrees to the north above the horizon, it stopped short, and ceased enlargeing itself: in that place it appeared to be twenty inches broad; so that in its course, which had been very rapid, it formed the figure of a trumpet-marine, and left in its passage very lively sparks, shining brighter than those which fly from under a smith's hammer; but they were extinguished almost as fast as they were emitted.
"At the north elevation I just mentioned, there issued out with a great noise from the middle of the large end, a ball quite round, and all on fire: this ball was about six inches in diameter; it fell below the horizon to the north, and emitted, about twenty minutes after, a hollow, but very loud noise for the space of a minute, which appeared to come from a great distance. The light began to be weakened to the south, after emitting the ball, and at length disappeared, before the noise of the ball was heard."
BIGFOOT IN NATCHEZ?
Father Pierre de Charlevoix, a Jesuit priest, arrived in Natchez on Dec. 15, 1721. On his first night here, Charlevoix heard the terrifying cry of an unknown beast.
His experience was published in "Historical Journal of Father Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix in Letters Addressed to the Duchess of Lesdiguieres," in B.F. French (ed), Historical Collections of Louisiana, part III, D. Appleton & Co., NY, 1851, pages 157-159:
"The first night (15 Dec) I lay in this habitation (at Natchez), there was a great alarm about nine at night. I inquired the cause of it, and they told me that there was in the neighborhood a beast of an unknown species, of a monstrous size, and the cry of which resembled no animal that we knew. However, no person affirmed that he had seen it, and they only guessed at its size by its strength.
"It had already carried off some sheep and calves, and killed some cows. I said to those who told me this story, that a mad wolf might have done all this; and as to the cry, people were mistaken every day. I could bring no body to be of my opinion; they would have it that it was a monstrous beast: they had just then heard it, and they ran out armed with the first thing they could find, but all to no purpose."
|Frank Morris Murder Series|