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|Chepart's arrogance, land grab fueled the Natchez Massacre of 1729|
(11th in a Series)
Details of the belief system of the Natchez Indians remain a mystery. Jim Barnett of Natchez, who has written about these Native Americans for years, tells a fascinating story about a man named Archie Sam, a Natchez descendant who lived in Oklahoma prior to his death in the 1980s.
One day Barnett asked Sam about the belief system of the Natchez, a system Sam had learned from tribal elders. Wrote Barnett: "Sam politely replied that he could not talk about them. He said that when he died and went to meet his ancestors he wanted to be able to tell them that he had kept the ancient tribal secrets."
This week historian Jack Elliott continues our series on the Natchez fort with the arrival of Chepart, who quickly fueled an explosion known as the Natchez Massacre.
CHEPART THE PALE RIDER
ELLIOTT: Although tensions between French and Indians had flared up at various times and continued to exist, yet when it came to the source of the Natchez Massacre of 1729 all who knew the situation and knew the people involved unanimously pointed to one person, the enigmatic Commandant of Natchez, Chepart (alternately spelled as De Chepart, De Chopart, and Detchéparre). Abusive to all, both French and Indians, Chepart managed to so inflame the Indians that they eventually lashed out without mercy bringing a holocaust upon all the French. It was the arrival of the Pale Rider of the Apocalypse: "I looked and beheld a pale horse and the one that rode on it was Death, and Hell followed after."
When Chepart arrived to command at Natchez he had been in Louisiana for almost a decade. Of ethnic Basque origin, he received a commission as lieutenant in February 1719 -- so he was probably fairly young then -- and set sail onboard the Duc de Noailles in September from Chef de Baye, France, bound for Louisiana where he arrived probably in December.
Within a few years he was promoted to captain and was stationed at several posts including Natchitoches, New Orleans, Mobile, and Arkansas Post. He was even in Natchez in 1723-24, probably arriving with Bienville's forces during the Third Natchez War. His behavior during these years seems to have been quite good, if not exemplary. In 1721 he was evaluated as a "Good officer. Very capable."
When the blocks and streets of New Orleans were initially laid out under Engineer Adrienne de Pauger, Chepart coordinated the work and attempted to set an example for his men. An acquaintance Jean-Baptiste Delay, militia captain at Point Coupee, said that Chepart consistently distinguished himself after arriving in Louisiana. His appointment to the commandancy of Natchez in 1728, was the result of the many "good accounts" people gave of him. However, when he arrived in Natchez, he changed . . . and for the worse.
The decade before had seen a love-hate relationship between the French and the Indians. Periods of quiet with trade and social intercourse were interrupted by flare-ups of violence when anti-French factions came to the fort. Then in the mid-to-late 1720s several years passed without notable violence; matters seemed to be improving. Dumont de Montigny, lieutenant at Natchez, noted that if Commandant Merveilleux had continued in office -- if he had not been replaced by Chepart -- peace might have continued to reign, and the colony to thrive.
CHEPART'S FATAL BLUNDER
ELLIOTT: As noted, people who knew the situation at Natchez were unanimous in pointing to Chepart as the spark that ignited the massacre. After arriving to begin his command, his first by all accounts, his behavior changed so radically for the worse that we are led to wonder what happened. Perhaps the situation was similar to that described by Joseph Conrad in his novel "The Heart of Darkness," (and later the film "Apocalypse Now") in which a company official, Kurtz, is sent on a mission deep into the wilderness where, freed from the shackles of civilization and dominant within his own small and isolated world, he is driven mad by power. One cannot but wonder if Chepart upon receiving his command, operating without the supervision of immediate superiors, went mad too.
According to Dumont de Montigny, Chepart "was no sooner in his post, than, instead of seeking to secure the friendship of the people, whom he came to direct, thought only of tyrannizing, ill-treating all whom he suspected of not being his friends, trampling on all justice and equity, always inclining the balance in favor of such as he wished to favor. . . ." With such behavior he antagonized both French and Indians alike.
Chepart soon risked losing his command after his actions toward one of the habitants was challenged by Dumont de Montigny. For his temerity Dumont was locked up by Chepart but later escaped and went to New Orleans where he told his story to then Governor Perier. The governor called Chepart to the capital where the commandant was given a reprieve and allowed to return to Natchez, setting off a ticking time bomb.
According to Dumont, Chepart returned to Natchez accompanied by several African slaves and with the intent to establish his own plantation. We recall that several commandants used their power to support their own private enterprises for personal gain. Rather than dispossess French habitants -- small farmers -- who occupied the land between St. Catherine Creek, he set his sights on White Apple village, one of the anti-French Indian settlements. In dispossessing them from their lands he probably thought that he could kill two birds with one stone: acquire prime farm land while forcing a group of potential trouble-makers to move further away from the core of French settlement.
He called the Sun (or chief) of White Apple Village to the fort where he announced to him that he would have to vacate his settlement which consisted of "more than eighty cabins," according to Du Pratz. These were apparently scattered out in a loose cluster of small hamlets on the upper reaches of St. Catherine Creek. Stunned by such arrogance, the Sun and his council later requested that they be allowed time for the crops to ripen and to be harvested before having to move. This was done to buy time. In the meantime they planned an uprising against the French, one that would not hit merely the chief culprit Chepart, but all the French: military and civilian; men, women, and children.
DILAPIDATED FORT, TINY GARRISON
ELLIOTT: At the time of the massacre there were 24 troops and three or four officers stationed at Natchez. Eight of the troops out of the 24 were stationed three miles from the fort at the Terre Blanche concession, where second lieutenant Laurent Desnoyer, served as concession director. Several of the soldiers were listed as "soldier-workers," suggesting that they did double duty working on the plantation at Terre Blanche. The number of troops at Natchez represents a significant decrease from the 35 that had been stationed there only a couple years earlier. Of course troops were in short supply at the time; the total number for Louisiana was only about 375-400.
So the small garrison was further weakened through being split into two units -- of sixteen and eight -- and separated from each other by miles. Furthermore, many of the officers and soldiers at the fort had taken to sleeping in their own homes scattered around the fort rather than inside the fort.
The fort had been constructed during the summer of 1716 usually primarily Indian labor under the supervision of its first commandant Jacques Barbazan de Pailloux. The primary wall was of palisade construction, that is it was built of lines of tall posts embedded in the ground forming a large square with diamond-shaped bastions on all four corners. Inside were a variety of buildings to serve as housing for troops and officers along with a powder magazine. The construction however wasn't very well maintained and it soon began to deteriorate.
In 1726 Father Raphael referred to it as "an enclosure of poor piles, half-rotten, that permit free entrance almost everywhere." He also noted that "There are several pieces of cannon but very useless because this would-be fort, being at a distance from the edges of the eminence, cannot command any of the approaches, and if it were attacked, the enemy would be at the palisade before a shot could be fired at him." Engineer and former Natchez commandant Broutin had urged that the structure be replaced altogether. However, probably because of financial reasons, nothing was done.
During the spring of 1729 Broutin went upriver to Natchez with the intention of rebuilding the palisade walls among other things. However, Chepart, perhaps fearful of having Broutin usurping his turf, refused to let him do anything. After the massacre occurred Broutin wrote describing the fort as a place "where there weren't even 100 palisades when the Indians destroyed this post. . . It was possible to enter it on foot from all sides." His tone reflected bitterness that his warnings had been vindicated. . . . but too late. (I might call the reader's attention to the fact that these words are quoted in the logo (above) for this series. Note also on Broutin's plan of the fort that one of the bastions was gone. It probably deteriorated so that it was removed.)
THE FRENCH POPULATION
ELLIOTT: The French population at Natchez had continuously through the 1720s. At the time of the massacre the estimated civilian population was about 710 (200 men, 80 women, 150 children, and 280 African slaves). The military, as noted above, was composed of about 24 soldiers and three officers. So the total population was about 738, which was still far less than the surrounding Indian population.
The overwhelming majority of the slaves were located on the two concession plantations: St. Catherine (near Natchez High School) and Terre Blanche (near the International Paper Company plant). Terre Blanche apparently had 86 slaves in 1729, while St. Catherine owned a comparable if not larger number. Although the plantations were run by Europeans--many with specialized skills--yet most of the Europeans were habitants, or small farmers, and most had few if any slaves. At the center of each concession was a village headquarters composed of houses and storage facilities all surrounded by palisade walls. There were dozens of habitants living on their small farms scattered between the Mississippi River and St. Catherine Creek.
THE NATCHEZ POPULATION
ELLIOTT: There were no censuses for the Natchez Indians. Several contemporary sources provide population estimates which often varied dramatically. The ethnohistorian John Swanton provided a rough estimate of about 3500 including about a thousand warriors and 400 houses. The Natchez, of course, were divided into about half a dozen groups with each group living in its own settlement district, such as White Apple, Flour, and Jenzenaque.
The settlement districts weren't nucleated villages but dispersed clusters of small hamlets with each hamlet having a few houses. Interestingly these groups didn't always speak the same language. Whereas we usually think of the Natchez as speaking a Muskogean dialect (Chickasaw and Choctaw are Muskogean dialects also), two settlement districts among the Natchez -- the Tioux and the Grigra -- spoke Tunican languages. We can get a rough estimate of the population of each settlement district by dividing Swanton's estimated population of 3500 by 5 or 6, suggesting about 600-700 per district on the average. Le Page du Pratz did indicate that there were over 70 houses in the White Apple "village," or settlement district.
Although the Indian population had suffered a few setbacks during the Natchez wars, it still greatly outnumbered the French population. If the Indians felt threatened by the growing French population, yet they still had the numerical power to easily deal with it. There was little that the French population -- dispersed as it was across the land -- could do if caught unawares.
A FRENCHMAN'S PERSPECTIVE - 1729
ELLIOTT: A Frenchman living at Natchez in 1729 would have probably anticipated trouble. If he hadn't personally run afoul of the new commandant he would have certainly heard the gossip and been aware of the growing outrage against his treatment of people. Additionally some Indian women leaked word of the impending attack to the French men with whom they cohabited in hopes of saving them. However those who attempted to raise an alarm were promptly locked up by the commandant, to avoid upsetting the population. Nevertheless many must have heard the rumors. On the night of November 27, Chepart visited a Natchez village where he drank himself into a state of intoxication and had his way with young Indian women before riding back to his house. We can only imagine what the Indians were thinking as they watched the spectacle of the drunken commandant.
When the morning of November 28, 1729 dawned, the Indians began to disperse themselves among the French populations. If there was any apprehension of an attack and of the doom that lay before them, no one seems to have acted. Perhaps they felt that without a general call to arms and the support of numbers, there was little that they as individuals could do on their isolated farms except hope that the rumors weren't true.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|