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Story Archives: 'Howling to the ghost' -- a royal funeral -- and agriculture at French Natchez
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|'Howling to the ghost' -- a royal funeral -- and agriculture at French Natchez|
(12th in a Series)
In 1704, a ship's carpenter named Andre' Penicaut witnessed the funeral of a Natchez Indian Great Female Sun. Natchez historian Jim Barnett has written that the royal leader of the nation, the Great Sun, could not under the matrilineal system of the Natchez "pass on the royal blood to his children." That line continued through the Great Sun's oldest sister, who always married a commoner.
Barnett, who has researched and written about the Natchez Indians for years. says: "Europeans only documented two funerals of Natchez chiefs, the one Penicaut saw in 1704 and the funeral of the Tattooed Serpent in 1725, which is recorded in narratives by Le Page du Pratz and Dumont de Montigny. The proceedings of these two events, 21 years apart, are remarkably similar. Europeans apparently did not witness the funeral of the Great Sun (brother of the Tattooed Serpent), who died in 1728. The Natchez may have held the Great Sun's funeral in secret to avoid French meddling. Du Pratz and Dumont had both left the Natchez colony by 1728."
When Penicaut watched the funeral of this particular female royalty, he learned that her husband, as custom, was sacrificed so that he, not of the royal bloodline, could enter the afterlife with his royal wife, and "be her submissive attendant and howl to her ghost!" The husband was strangled to death by the couple's eldest son, now the tribal leader.
Penicaut said the Great Female Sun and her husband, along with all of her possessions, were placed on the scaffold as were the bodies of 12 children just strangled by their parents. Their deaths were ordered by the eldest son of the dead couple, who, said Penicaut, "had the right as her successor to put to death as many as he thought necessary to wait on her in the land of spirits."
Fourteen other scaffolds were soon erected. On these were to be placed the bodies of adults also headed for the afterlife as attendants.
Four days later the village began the "March of Death" and proceeded from the square to the house of the deceased Great Female Sun. In the processional were the parents of the 12 dead children, the oldest child less than three years of age. The parents had closely shaven their hair, and, said Penicaut, howled "in the most frightful manner."
Meanwhile, the adults who were about to be sacrificed on this fourth day "danced around the house of the dead princess until finally it was set on fire..." Then everyone marched to the temple, where the parents carrying their strangled infants threw their dead children on the ground and danced. The adults to be sacrificed calmly undressed and were seated on the ground where a "cord with a noose was passed around each of their necks, and deer skins thrown over their heads."
Serving as their executioners were their own relatives who stood behind both shoulders of their kin. At the signal the relatives yanked the cord and squeezed the life from their loved ones. When dried, the bones of the dead, said Penicaut, "were deposited in blankets in the temple, and this constituted a sort of patent of nobility. It was a privilege and an honor to die with the Sun."
Says Barnett: "Penicaut called the funeral of the female chief 'the most horrifying tragedy that could be seen. It made us shudder with horror, me and all my comrades.' The French (and succeeding generations who read the writings of Penicaut, Du Pratz, and Dumont) beheld the human sacrifices with morbid fascination. These detailed descriptions of babies trampled under the feet of pall bearers and strangulation of the deceased chief's entourage (so that these people could accompany the chief into the next life) became part of the mystique surrounding the Natchez that inspired romantic writers like Chateaubriand."
A quarter century after the funeral of the Female Sun, French commander Chepart arrived at Fort Rosalie and so outraged the Natchez that they rebelled with a fury unseen in this region before or after. This week historian Jack Elliott continues our series on the Natchez fort, the symbol of French authority, leading up to the Natchez Massacre of 1729. To follow is Elliott's snapshot of the French agricultural operation.
ELLIOTT: The only systematic list of all farm acreage at French Natchez is the 1727 census which included all the concessions (plantations) and habitants (small farms) at Natchez. According to this census there were about 382 arpents (323 acres) of land in cultivation. An arpent is a French unit used for both area and length. As a unit of area the arpent is equal to about 0.85 acres and as a unit of length it is equal to about 192 English feet. Of the total reported 382 arpents, the St. Catherine Concession cultivated 150 arpents (127.5 acres) and the Terre Blanche Concession cultivated 100 arpents (85 acres), both combined cultivated about 2/3 of the acreage at Natchez. The concession of M. Pellerin and associates farmed 21 arpents (18 acres) while the numerous habitants farmed anywhere from one to five arpents each.
Despite the comprehensiveness of this list, its acreage figures seem questionable in part because they simply seem too small and in part because they don't square well with other sources. For example in 1721 Faucon Dumanoir purchased a large farm at Natchez on which to establish the St. Catherine Concession. At the time of purchase the farm consisted of 160 arpents (136 acres) of cleared land. Yet the 1727 census tells us that after five or six years of work there were only 150 arpents of farmland, less than it had in 1721! After that much time one would expect there to be considerably more farmland than 150 arpents. Similar problems arise with the 100 arpents (85 acres) reported for the Terre Blanche Concession in 1727. Following the 1729 massacre documentation from a civil suit stated that this concession was farming 280 arpents (238 acres) at the time of the Indian uprising. Increasing from 100 to 280 arpents in two or three years doesn't seem credible.
While sources tend to exaggerate numbers to make the picayune seem grandiose, in this case the opposite seems to have happened. I suspect that in 1727 there was far more land in cultivation by the French than the modest 382 arpents (323 acres) reported in 1727. The acreage figures could probably be multiplied by 2 or 3 times to give a more reasonable figure, so total acreage farmed in the late 1720s was probably more like 700-1100 arpents.
Regardless of the precise figures, the vast majority of land at Natchez lying between the Mississippi River and St. Catherine Creek was probably uncultivated. The Natchez settlement must have looked like an archipelago (a cluster of islands) of farms of varying sizes --cleared patches of land each with a few buildings, separated by woodland and prairies on which grazed the livestock.
According to the 1723 map of the Natchez settlement, the largest farms, that is the two concessions, were located in the alluvial plain along St. Catherine Creek. The smaller farms of the habitants were located on the uplands, much nearer the fort than the concessions. Because the habitants were located on the uplands they farmed loess soils of a wind-born origin. The alluvial soils along the creek were of water-born origin. Both were quite fertile.
Crops produced by all farms -- small and large alike -- included tobacco as the primary commercial crop while corn, wheat, and vegetables were grown for subsistence.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|