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|Uprising against the French in the land of the Natchez|
(16th in a Series)
By JACK ELLIOTT
The leaders of the Natchez were of the Sun class and served as chiefs of the Natchez settlement districts such as Flour, White Apple, Grigra, etc.
Over the entire tribe was the head chief, the Great Sun, who resided at the Grand Village. Unfortunately Natchez leaders who were friendly toward the French had recently died. These included the Tattooed Serpent in 1725 and three years later the Tattooed Serpent's brother, the Great Sun, and the chief of the Flour settlement.
Following these deaths, leaders came into power who were less friendly toward the French and less restrained in their behavior. An experienced leader -- even if anti-French -- would have remembered the retaliatory actions endured in past conflicts with the French -- including the scorched earth destruction of villages -- and must surely have anticipated what would happen if they attacked the French settlement. The short term gains should certainly have been weighed in balance with long term.
All population figures for the Natchez are little more than rough estimates and often vary dramatically. After considering several early sources, the ethnohistorian John Swanton estimated that there were about 3500 Natchez Indians and that about 1000 of them were warriors. However, prior to the massacre one of the Natchez groups, the Tioux, had departed. This would have lowered the population by perhaps a sixth, providing a rough estimate for 1729: a population of 3000 and 800 warriors.
In his account of the massacre, Father le Petit estimated the number of warriors in 1729 as about 700 and following the fighting in 1730 -- about 500. Even if large numbers of warriors opted out of the attack, the Natchez still possessed a strong numerical superiority over the French. If one adds in the element of surprise then they were effectively unstoppable.
We can not really be sure how much time lapsed between French commander Chepart's land grab attempt and the massacre. Dumont de Montigny implies that it was about two months. Le Page du Pratz, on the other hand, states that the crops were only beginning to grow when Chepart made his demands which implies that the land grab was initiated in the spring. If this was the case there would have been a period of about a half year leading up to the massacre of November 28. So our sources are contradictory on the time that elapsed. Both agree though that the Indians were given enough time to harvest their crops. This would almost have certainly occurred prior to November 28.
MYSTERIES OF THE MASSACRE
Secrets are notoriously hard to keep. The plan to massacre the French was no exception. As Dumont de Montigny related, several Natchez women who were mistresses of Frenchmen notified their lovers of the impending attack, warning them that when "the great chief came to present the calumet to the commandant... [this] sign of peace [would serve] to cover their design of massacring all the French in the country." The interpreter Papin and sub-lieutenant Masse were both informed of the attack as were "four or five others."
According to Du Pratz, the Tattooed Arm informed Lt. Massee of the attack. When the lieutenant approached the commandant with the information, Dumont related: "the commandant treated him as a coward and visionary, charged him with trying to impose on him, by exciting unseasonable suspicions against a friendly tribe, by whom he had but a few moments before been so well received, and as a reward for his report, he ordered him to put himself under arrest. The next moment, Sieur Papin came to make the same report; far from listening to him, he put him and four or five others in irons. After this he went to bed, first telling the sentry at his door to let no one into his room till nine o'clock the next morning."
We often think that modern scholarship leads to complete understanding of historical events. It does not; many things are and will remain mysteries, including the motivations of Commandant Chepart. About them, we can only speculate. It appears that his first command at Natchez brought out a heretofore unseen side of his character. As with many, absolute power can breed ruthlessness and paranoia, a fear that any sign of moderation and humility will be interpreted as weakness, thereby undermining the respect and fear which they believe is the basis of their authority.
The treatment of those who attempted to warn Chepart suggests this: rumors of impending doom might lead both the French and the Indians to believe that he was not in absolute control. Better to silence them -- to "kill the messenger bearing bad news" -- less they undermine social order and his authority. And indeed, despite his ability to silence the messengers, he was after all not the master of events -- as he was to learn too late.
A NEW DAY
Before sunrise on the morning of November 28, a contingent of Natchez warriors led by the Great Sun began to wind its way over the trails leading from the villages to Fort Rosalie. The warriors bore with them the calumet, a symbol of peace. Other warriors began to spread out -- ostensibly in a desultory fashion -- bearing with them items of trade, bound for the scattered houses of the habitants and to the two concessions. Everything was in order.
For the French awaking that morning it seemed like a good day. The boats from New Orleans were docked with supplies that would make life easier and more enjoyable, and they would carry the harvest to market. Certainly there were troubling rumors in the air, but perhaps that is all they were.
Jack Elliott is historical archaeologist for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at 662-325-7892 or email@example.com.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|