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|The Natchez unalarmed at storm 'gathering against them'|
(21st in a Series)
BY JACK ELLIOTT
On December 2, 1729, when the first survivors straggled into New Orleans with word that the Natchez colony had been destroyed a few days before, panic spread through the city and the colony.
A few days later word came that two Frenchmen were murdered near Mobile and after that came news that the French settlement on the Yazoo River had been destroyed on the 12th. As horrible as the massacres were in themselves, they pointed to the possibility of yet other such horrors. The Louisiana colonies were very vulnerable to Indian attacks, scattered as they were like isolated islands across the interior of North America. With the situation left unchecked, the massacres at Natchez and Yazoo could have been repeated time and time again until French Louisiana was no more.
In New Orleans Governor Périer knew the consequences. In many ways his position was comparable to that of American leaders following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks. They knew they had no other choice than severe retaliation, and in all cases they began to inventory their resources and plan for counterattack.
Immediately upon hearing of the massacre, Périer sent a detachment upriver under Captain François-Louis de Merveilleux, a former commandant at Natchez. The detachment was small -- reflecting the shortage of soldiers in New Orleans -– and consisted of only Merveilleux, a sergeant, and six soldiers. Their purpose was in part to warn the colonists of impending attacks and urge them to begin erecting fortifications. It was also to gather intelligence regarding the standing of the smaller tribes on the river -- whether or not they might be enemies. They were also to establish a base from whence the campaign against the Natchez could be launched.
As Merveilleux stopped at each settlement, many colonists determined to do more than stay at home and build fortifications, opting instead to join the captain's party as irregular troops and continue with them up river. On December 10, the flotilla of military and civilian warriors arrived at the Tunica village (located in present-day West Feliciana parish), the last bastion of friendly Indians before the Natchez. Protected in part by the presence of the friendly Indians, they encamped and began fortifying in preparation for the arrival of more troops. Over the next few days regulars, irregulars, and even Indians would straggle in to expand the small base.
Back in New Orleans everyone was on alert. Realizing the vulnerability of the capital, the governor had entrenchments excavated around it and organized militia. In fear of attack, he sent a contingent of blacks to attack and destroy a small village of Chouachas Indians who lived nearby. Whether they posed a threat to New Orleans is doubtful.
On December 8, Périer delegated Captain Ignace-François Broutin, an engineer and like Merveilleux, a former commandant at Natchez, to travel upriver to Pointe Coupée, where he was to find Major Henry de Louboey, third highest in command in the colony, and notify him that he was being placed in charge of the campaign. De Louboey and 25 troops arrived at Merveilleux's base at the Tunicas on December 18. There they waited in order to coordinate their attack with that of a Choctaw force which, they were assured, would be marching on Natchez.
The Choctaws were an uncertain but key element in the French strategy against the Natchez. They were uncertain in that their friendship with the French was questionable. Indeed rumors were that the Choctaw had been invited by the Natchez to join a conspiracy to destroy all the French settlements and may have even wavered in that direction. Despite this, their support -– if it could be won –- would be critical. The French had less than 400 troops in all of Louisiana, and they were scattered between the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. Even if they could all be pulled together for the campaign –- which they couldn't because it would leave settlements defenseless –- they would not equal the number of Natchez warriors, estimated to be as high as 700. Defeating the Natchez would consequently depend upon using Indian allies in the campaign, and the Choctaws by virtue of their size and proximity were the logical choice. Fortunately, the French were adept at establishing Indian alliances.
Jean Paul Le Sueur (d. 1752) was selected for the mission to draw the Choctaws into the campaign. Nicknamed "the Canadian," Le Sueur was apparently the right man for the job. His father had been Pierre-Charles Le Sueur (ca 1657-1704), a famed fur trader and explorer of North America, and his mother was Bienville's first cousin. Furthermore, he was skilled in Indian diplomacy and, according to Dumont, "perfectly acquainted with all the Indian languages." On December 19th, the Canadian departed Mobile for the Choctaw villages. Because it was not known for sure as to where the Choctaws stood, he could have been walking to his death.
However, as it turns out the Choctaws were not on good terms with the Natchez at the time. As one story goes, a group of Choctaws arrived at Natchez shortly after the massacre and, as partners in the conspiracy, demanded a portion of the loot. Although they were hoping for guns and ammunition, the Natchez offered them only trifles much to their indignation. Furthermore, while there they witnessed the killing of a small French boy which might have unsettled them. Consequently, if the Choctaws had been part of the conspiracy, they were not after being treated so cavalierly by the Natchez.
When Le Sueur arrived in the Choctaw settlements, he was well received and within a few days was leading an army of 500-700 Choctaw warriors marching toward Natchez. Whether they were marching as friends of the French or merely to retaliate against the Natchez is unclear. Regardless, they were marching to war, and for the time that is what counted.
Meanwhile Louboey's force was waiting at the Tunicas from whence they intended to link up with the Choctaws at Natchez. By early January the force had grown to approximately 90 regular troops, 110 irregulars, and about 300 Indians from various small tribes. This force and Le Sueur's Choctaws -– altogether totaling over a thousand -- would soon converge on the Natchez Indians, who waited around two palisade forts built in preparation for the onslaught. Father Charlevoix later wrote that "The Natchez seemed to behold without alarm the storm gathering against them."
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