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|News of carnage at Natchez terrifies French Louisiana colony|
(20th in a series)
BY JACK ELLIOTT
On November 28, 1729, the Natchez Indians effectively destroyed the French settlement at Natchez. The estimated number killed was approximately 230-250, including -- according to Fr. Philibert's report -- 138 men, 35 women, and 56 children.
Of the garrison of 28 soldiers and officers, only one soldier escaped by hiding in an oven. About 55 women and 100 children survived as did most of the approximately 280 African slaves.
The surviving women and children were made slaves of the Indians, often becoming the property of those who had captured them. Most became the property of the Great Sun and the Natchez noblewoman known as "the White Woman." Fr. Le Petit provides a graphic account of their treatment:
"[The Indians] treated them with every indignity during the two or three months that they were their masters. The least miserable were those who knew how to sew, because they kept them busy making shirts, dresses, etc. The others were employed in cutting and carrying wood for cooking, and in pounding the corn. . . . But two things, above all, aggravated the grief and hardness of their slavery; it was, in the first place, to have for masters those same persons whom they had seen dipping their cruel hands in the blood of their husbands; and, in the second place, to hear them continually saying that the French had been treated in the same manner at all the other posts, and that the country was now entirely freed from them."
The status of the African slaves isn't certain. Several were apparently killed during the massacre and about six escaped and made their way to New Orleans. However, many were apparently led to believe that they would be given their freedom if they sided with the Indians. This might have been the case, although it is equally plausible that the Indians would have eventually sold the blacks to other tribes as slaves.
One night while the Indians were drunk or asleep, one of the women, Angelique Chartiou, Madame Desnoyers, widow of Ensign Desnoyers, director of the Terre Blanche concession, attempted to ally the blacks in a plot to attack the Indians. However, she was betrayed and came close to being burned alive for her efforts.
On December 2, the first of the survivors of the massacre straggled into New Orleans with their horror stories of what they had witnessed. This was Ricard, the storekeeper, who had jumped into the river after the first shots were fired. His story sounded so incredible that many thought he was out of his mind. However confirmation soon emerged in the form of other survivors, all with the same story.
The impact was devastating. Natchez with a population of about 700 had constituted about one tenth or more of the entire population of French Louisiana. To have it destroyed and its populace either killed or captured was horrifying in itself. One might compare this with the 9/11 attack in which about 3000 were killed. Although the number is far greater than killed at Natchez, yet the Natchez massacre was far worse percentage wise in terms of its destruction of the French Louisiana population.
Furthermore, the news from Natchez suggested something far worse, namely that other French settlements could just as well attacked and wiped out. To make matters even more troubling, there were rumors of a conspiracy between the tribes to turn en masse on the French. If enough Indians were involved, they could potentially destroy Louisiana itself. Governor Perier immediately sent Captain Merveilleux, former commandant at Natchez, with a contingent of troops to alert other settlements along the river of impending attacks.
Almost in confirmation of everyone's worst fears came news of another attack in which the French settlement on the Yazoo River (northeast of present-day Vicksburg Miss. This settlement was much smaller than Natchez) was wiped out on December 12. The two attacks, one coming shortly after the first, was certainly suggestive of a conspiracy. Yet in reality the attack on the Yazoo settlement wasn't part of a large-scale conspiracy.
Shortly before November 28, the Yazoo fort's commandant, Du Codere had arrived at Natchez accompanied by a few Frenchmen and a contingent of Yazoo Indians. He died in the massacre, while the Yazoo Indians stood aloof and neutral. However, after consultation with the Natchez they determined that if the Natchez could wipe out a French settlement, they could too.
After returning to their village on the Yazoo River, they allied themselves with the neighboring Koroa tribe and on December 11 murdered a Jesuit priest and his black attendant at the mouth of the river. The following day they launched a surprise attack on Fort St. Pierre, located on a bluff overlooking the Yazoo, and wiped out all the men -- both military and civilian -- a total of about 20. Only four women and five children were spared to be taken as slaves.
With news of attack following attack, Governor Perier knew that the existence of the colony was possibly at stake. He immediately began constructing defensive earthworks around New Orleans. Furthermore, to quell the attacks he knew he would have to strike fast and hard against the culprits and to that effect began assembling a task force of French regulars and Indian allies. In particular he sent an emissary to the Choctaws, a tribe that was numerically superior to the Natchez and with reason to dislike the Natchez.
The Natchez realized that after the opening of hostilities a retaliatory strike would soon follow. In preparation they began constructing two fortifications on either side of St. Catherine Creek near the Grand Village. It will be recalled that the guns and cannons taken from the French had been transported to this village from whence they could then be deployed to the new forts. Furthermore the Indians did not want to leave any buildings that might aid the French in establishing a beachhead. They finished salvaging everything of value, using some of the women prisoners to complete the unloading of the galley. About two weeks after the massacre they began torching hundreds of structures including the fort, houses, warehouses, and the large galley. All went up in flames.
Afterward anyone landing at Natchez would be confronted with an eerie landscape marred by patches of burned ground interspersed with scattered human remains and permeated by the stench of rotting flesh.
(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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