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|Dogs, buzzards feasted on headless bodies|
(19th in a Series)
By Jack Elliott
On the morning of November 28, 1729, the Natchez Indians infiltrated the French settlement apparently for the purpose of peaceful trade.
However, on signal they opened fire on the unsuspecting colonists, focusing primarily on the males, who, unable to defend themselves, fell almost without resistance.
Although most of the French women and children and African slaves were not killed, yet sizable numbers still died. Dumont notes that several French women "attempting to defend their husbands, or avenge their death, were themselves pitilessly cut down by the savages." Fr. le Petit records that "they ripped up the belly of every pregnant woman, and killed almost all those who were nursing their children, because they were disturbed by their cries and tears." Presumably they were weeding out all the young, weak, and vulnerable whose maintenance might prove a hindrance. The list of casualties assembled by Father Philibert indicates that 35 women and 56 children were killed.
The attack was so sudden and well planned with such odds in their favor that the Indians took very few casualties. Oddly, all of their casualties were inflicted by one man and his household, that of Marc Antoine la Loire des Ursins, a prominent name in French Natchez history. In 1714 Des Ursins and his brother had established the first trading post at Natchez, and he had lived there for much of the next 15 years, eventually becoming the Clerk of the Company of the Indies. Shortly before the massacre Des Ursins had been replaced as chief clerk by Sieur Bailly and subsequently established a farm on the road between the fort and the St. Catherine concession.
On the morning of the 28th he received word that an attack was imminent. He armed his workers and his young son who was half-Natchez, leaving them at his house, while he set out to alarm the fort. As he approached the fort the shooting began, so he turned his horse to race back home. However, Indians blocked his path and shots were exchanged. He turned again back toward the fort and encountered other Indians. By the time they shot him he had managed to kill four. Those fortified inside the house were besieged until nightfall. Although some were killed they reportedly killed another eight Indians, which -- combined with the four attributed to Des Ursins -- was a total of twelve. These were the only known fatalities suffered by the Indians.
Most, if not all, of the French victims were beheaded, often after death. The heads were taken as trophies to the newly constructed tobacco warehouse which stood near the fort, overlooking the terrace and landing below. The site is approximately on the location of the current Rosalie Bicentennial Garden where a commemorative marker stands today. Blacks who escaped to New Orleans reported seeing, according to Perier, "the heads of our officers and [company] employees arranged in a row apart and those of the colonists opposite." The line-up was like a grisly roll call for the Natchez colony: on one side the heads of Chepart, Bailly, Des Ursins, Desnoyers, the Kollys, and so on. On the other side, a much larger collection -- the habitants and their families with lesser known names such as: Bideau and wife; Pierre Billy; Madame Canterell, the midwife; Louis Henry, nicknamed Le Petit St. Louis, and his wife and two children; and on and on the list could go. The heads covered with brown, dried blood stared sightlessly with eyes wide open. The headless bodies were left where they had fallen to be scavenged by dogs and buzzards for days afterward.
When there were no more Frenchmen to kill, the Indians began plundering the French properties: houses, the warehouses of the Company of the Indies, and the boats which were docked and still loaded at the river. In order to help them with their acquisitions, they kept alive two Frenchmen: Mayeux, a carter, and Lebeau, a tailor. Mayeux was used to organize the transportation of the French possessions to the Grand Village. These included furniture, clothing, provisions, guns, ammunition and even the cannons from the fort. The Africans who had been acquired from the French, were initially promised their freedom but were soon hauling goods to the Grand Village. At the village the Great Sun divided the spoils, except for the weapons which were kept together in an improvised arsenal. The tailor Lebeau was used to alter the French clothes to fit the Indians.
The Indians also began intemperately consuming the French brandy. As Fr. Le Petit recorded: "While the brandy lasted, of which they found a good supply, they passed their days and nights in drinking, singing, dancing, and insulting in the most barbarous manner, the dead bodies and the memory of the French." Their goals had been accomplished. They had effectively destroyed the French settlement and suffered only minimal casualties and had acquired substantial spoils of war which allowed the luxury of extravagant consumption. In the euphoria of drunkenness it seemed like there would be no eventuality they could not handle, no army they couldn't whip.
Meanwhile with the fall of night, the French besieged in Des Ursins' house were able to slip away. Making their way to the landing they found a pirogue tied to the stern of the large galley. There were several Indians on board the large boat. However, according to Dumont, "the Indians . . . in the galley were dead drunk, and . . . had there been thirty Frenchmen together, they could have destroyed all the butchers." The men untied the pirogue and quietly paddled out into the river to safety.
An estimated twenty Frenchmen and six blacks escaped from Natchez that day. The first arrived in New Orleans on December 2 to break the news which would stun the colony, first because a major settlement had been destroyed, and second because of the fear that there was a wide-spread conspiracy among the tribes to destroy French Louisiana in its entirety. Such a tribal alliance could indeed have been successful.
(Jack Elliott is historical archaeologist for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at 662-325-7892 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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