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|French commander at Natchez chief colonial authority in early 1700s|
(Eighth in a Series)
Three centuries ago in French Louisiana, which included the land on both sides of the Mississippi River, a party of Frenchmen traveled near Manchac.
When the French built Fort Rosalie at Natchez, the wilderness of this country was amazing. The men on this particular journey were swarmed by mosquitoes and had killed 50 deer earlier during a three-day hunt in south Mississippi.
André Penicault, a ship's carpenter, recalled when he first laid eyes on the Mighty Mississippi and the wildlife that abounded:
"Leaving our boats we passed through a cypress forest, even through a heavy canebrake, and at length stood on the bank of the great river. We gazed in silent admiration. It's banks were covered with splendid trees, and its soil seemed the richest in the world. We camped there that night, and by moonlight killed many wild turkies that roosted, in vast numbers, over our heads, and did not seem disturbed by our guns. I never saw any in France so fat and so large."
But how did the French get to Natchez and what type of man would move through a wilderness so beautiful yet dangerous?
Historian Jack Elliott continues to lead us this week on our journey to the days of the Natchez Indians and the French settlement here as we move toward the historic blood bath known as the Fort Rosalie Massacre.
THE FRENCH JOURNEY TO NATCHEZ
ELLIOTT: Because Louisiana was based on using the waterways of North America as connecting highways and because it was linked by ocean to France, boats and ships were of extreme importance. They ranged from ocean-going vessels to dugout canoes.
This was of course long before steam engines — the first steam boat on the Mississippi River was the "New Orleans" in 1811-1812. During the 18th century boats were all propelled by sail, oars, or paddles.
The biggest problem in inland navigation was traveling upstream which meant fighting the current. Ocean-going sailing ships were able, after the early 1720s, to enter the Mississippi River and sail as far upstream as New Orleans. The current is relatively slow in this area. In early 1729 the vessel la Flore attempted to sail upstream to Natchez to pick up a cargo of tobacco but was stopped because of the increased swiftness of the water. The tobacco had to be brought downstream to the Flore on barges
Fighting the current usually entailed brute manpower in rowing while simultaneously avoiding the swifter parts of a stream. Such transportation often involved batteaux, large flat-bottomed boats, pointed at least one end, that could be propelled by oar and/or sail. The larger ones, used in transporting numerous people and larger cargoes, were often referred to as galleys.
Smaller boats, often paddled, included the pirogue (pronounced PEE-roe). Many of these were dugout canoes. When Le Page du Pratz and company ascended the river from New Orleans to Natchez in late 1719-1720 they traveled on a petty-augre, apparently a variation of a pirogue.
THE LEADERS OF FRENCH NATCHEZ
ELLIOTT: In general we know very little about the overwhelming majority of these people as individuals, whether French, Indian, or African. For most -- if they left any mark in the written records -- it was probably only a listing in a census, or perhaps a mere mention in an isolated incident recorded in a letter or a lawsuit.
The most prominent group of people in the colony were the succession of commandants who were the chief leaders of both military and civilian inhabitants. By virtue of their role they were mentioned fairly frequently in correspondence and historical narratives. Yet even they tend to appear only sporadically. We might know quite a bit about their role during a certain campaign or some other incident, however their life in general -- their family, strengths and weaknesses -- often eludes us.
We have a pretty good biography of Bienville, who founded Fort Rosalie in 1716, and served as governor of French Louisiana four times. However, he was at Natchez only sporadically during his many travels throughout the colony.
I would name three people about whom we know a relatively good bit, all three of whom lived at Natchez for a considerable time, and all three of whom left records -- both written and pictorial -- that illuminate the Natchez settlement. They are: (1) Ignace François Broutin, commandant at Natchez, architect, engineer, and later Engineer-in-chief for the Louisiana Colony; (2) Jean-François Benjamin Dumont de Montigny, soldier, author; and artist; and (3) Antoine-Simone Le Page du Pratz, farmer, author, and plantation administrator for the Company of the Indies.
COMMANDANTS WERE NAVY MEN
ELLIOTT: Commandants at Natchez as at many other settlements were the chief colonial authority overseeing both their troops and the civilian settlers within their jurisdiction. Within their jurisdiction they were effectively the chief executive and the chief judiciary.
Commandants were generally of the rank of captain, although in his absence he could appoint his lieutenant to serve as commanding officer. It might also be added that the French military in North America served under the jurisdiction of the Minister of the Marine (Navy) and were thereby Navy troops not regular army, which were confined to Europe. The Minister of the Marine was a nobleman-counselor of the king, and we might recall that for many years (1699-1715) this position was held by Jerome Phelypeaux, Comte du Pontchartrain, after whom Lake Pontchartain was named while Fort Rosalie was named after either his wife or daughter..
Besides their salary, some commandants in Louisiana often used their position to their own economic advantage, using their troops to work on their own personal commercial enterprises.
Although there was an officers quarter inside Fort Rosalie, yet the commandant had his own house outside the fort on the terrace between the fort and the river. Many of his troops also lived in houses outside and even away from the fort which did little for defensive preparedness against attack.
FRENCH MILITARY SERVICE IN AMERICA
ELLIOTT: It appears that most officers and soldiers were from France, some were from Quebec and Switzerland. For example, Charles Henry Desliettes de Tonti (commandant ca 1724-1725) was from Quebec while François-Louis de Merveilleux (commandant ca 1726-1728) was a Swiss Calvinist.
After signing up they were sent to New France (if not already from there), either Quebec or Louisiana and were shifted about from post to post. For example, Claude Charles du Tisné, a native of Paris, enlisted and came first to Quebec as an ensign then worked his way up through the ranks to lieutenant and eventually arrived in Louisiana. There he served in various posts helping with the construction of Fort Rosalie in 1716, then was transferred to Natchitoches on the Red River, back to Natchez, then New Orleans, Natchez, Fort Chartres in the Illinois, back to Natchez where he served briefly as commandant, then back to the Illinois to serve as commandant there, where he was shot through the cheek by a Fox Indian and died in 1730.
Several other Natchez commandants served as commandant at other posts in the colony: Barbazan de Pailloux, the first commandant also served later as the first commandant at New Orleans; Philippe Blondel, the second commandant, was afterward commandant at Natchitoches. Charles Henry Desliettes de Tonti (commandant ca 1724-1725), nephew of the famous Henri de Tonti, companion of La Salle during his exploration of the Mississippi River, commanded Fort de Chartres in the Illinois country after he left Natchez.
Prior to John Law's Company taking control of the colony in 1717, the military presence was extremely sparse. The population of Lower Louisiana in 1717 is estimated at 550-700, with less than 100 military. As the frequency of arriving ships increased so did the number of new immigrants -- both European and African.
Between October 25, 1717 and May 1721, 7020 European immigrants arrived including 122 officers and 977 soldiers. Although many of the new arrivals soon died, yet this short period transformed the demographics of Louisiana and provided the basis for establishing more military garrisons. This wave of immigration also brought the three men under consideration -- Broutin, Dumont de Montigny, and Le Page du Pratz -- to Louisiana.
THEIR FAMILIES & LIFESTYLES
ELLIOTT: Commandants, and for that matter all officers, were allowed to bring their families from Europe at no charge. Others married locally. Du Tisné, after being transferred from France to Quebec, married there in 1713 and had a son, Louis du Tisné, who became a prominent officer who was killed following the premature attack that Pierre d'Artaguette led against the Chickasaws in 1736.
Broutin married on 26 September 1729 in New Orleans just weeks after returning from Natchez. And yes there were apparently many liaisons between French officers and Indian women. Dumont de Montigny, a longtime resident of Natchez, wrote an epic poem about the massacre which recalled that on the night before the massacre Commandant de Chepart visited a Natchez village where he:
"Demanded from the chief to spend the night with
Several native girls; he was given them,
And they slept together."
BOATS AT NATCHEZ LANDING IN 1730 (SEE IMAGE ABOVE)
A French galley and pirogues are shown docked at the Natchez landing on the Mississippi River below Fort Rosalie in this portion of a 1730 map of Natchez by Ignace François Broutin.
Elliott notes: "Apparently there was a small stream there (entering the river) -- long since vanished in which boats could be docked. This was by no means a large stream in that it apparently had only the most minuscule of drainage basins."
Father Charlevoix provided this description of the landing in 1721: "On the 15th we arrived at the Natchez. This canton, the finest, the most fertile, and the most populous of all Louisiana...The landing place is over against a pretty high hill, and very steep; at the foot of which runs a little brook, that can receive only boats and pettiaugres. From this first hill we ascend a second smaller one, at the top of which they have built a kind of redoubt, inclosed with a single palisade. They have given this intrenchment the name of a fort." ("Historical Journal of Father Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix," in B.F. French (ed), Historical Collections of Louisiana, part III, D. Appleton & Co., NY, 1851.)
Elliott says that "by 'boats and pettiaugres' I presume that he (Charlevoix) means that only the small boats could dock here while the larger boats, e.g. the galleys, had to dock on the river bank itself, which is what the map depicts: small boats inside, galley outside."
The location of the landing was about where the Isle of Capri boat is docked under-the-hill. But Elliot notes that much of the land area depicted "has diminished considerably in width. The erosion of this area -- sometime referred to as 'the batture' -- probably accounts for the disappearance of the small stream."
"Another cause of its disappearance beyond the erosion of the batture," said Elliott, "is probable leveling of the land on the terrace where the Isle of Capri parking lot is now. This was probably associated with the construction of the box factory on the site during the early 20th century which would have required extensive earthwork to prepare a suitable site. When they cleared the site in the 1990s for the parking lot there were still substantial brick and concrete remains (including a large brick smoke stack) left over from the box factory, remains that had been buried in trees and undergrowth for ages."
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