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|Campaign against the Natchez January-February 1730|
BY JACK ELLIOT
(22nd in a Series)
January 1730. The Natchez Indians waited around their two fortifications as two forces readied to strike in retaliation for the massacre of the French Natchez settlement on November 28.
The forts were located a few hundred yards south of the Grand Village, one on either side of St. Catherine Creek. How many of the possibly 3000 Natchez remained there is unknown. One suspects that many had departed given that the two forts weren't large enough to shelter such a large number. What was going through their minds, we do not know. However, we can certainly surmise that they anticipated an attack, or they wouldn't have built the forts.
Marching from the east was a force of 500-700 Choctaw warriors led -- or at least accompanied -- by Jean-Paul Le Sueur, a French Canadian long experienced in Indian affairs and frontier warfare. Given that alliances aren't necessarily based on friendship so much as mutual interest, Le Sueur must have wondered if the Choctaws were marching merely to aid the French or if they had their own goals in mind.
Downriver from Natchez, a smaller force led by Major Henry de Louboey waited at the village of the Tunicas, a tribe friendly toward the French. The force consisted of approximately 90 French regular troops, 110 French irregulars, and about 300 Indians from various small tribes. Governor Perier had informed Louboey that the Choctaws would strike on February 19, so the French waited in order for the Choctaws to reach the Natchez vicinity before they would move upriver to join them.
In the meantime on January 16, Louboey sent a reconnaissance party to the Natchez vicinity to check out the situation. Unfortunately the party was detected and its members killed or captured. One was sent back to the French base camp with a ransom note demanding large quantities of munitions and supplies in return for the release of their hostages. The remaining soldiers were executed; the leader Mauplex was tortured to death over a fire.
While the Natchez waited for an answer to their demands, time ran out. The Choctaw force arrived far earlier than expected, in fact more than three weeks before scheduled. Before daybreak on the morning of January 27, they attacked, catching the Natchez by surprise. As the guns began to fire in the semi-darkness, chaos reigned as Natchez warriors sought to rally and defend themselves and their families while the women and children sought shelter. The only thing preventing their total destruction was their managing to take refuge in the forts. Daylight found the survivors huddled there with the Choctaws controlling the surrounding terrain, now marked by the bodies of the dead, dying, and wounded. It was later reported that about one hundred of their warriors were killed and 15-20 were taken captive and probably tortured to death. We have no idea how many women and children died.
It is not known how many Natchez warriors were present that morning. One could estimate anywhere from 200 to 400, which means that 120 casualties were an enormous percentage of the total.
Other than their own loss in lives, the Natchez also lost many of their hostages: 54 of the French women and children were recovered along with about a hundred slaves.
When word reached Louboey at the Tunicas, he was almost certainly angered by having not been notified of the impending attack. However, reports of the Natchez casualties would have done much to assuage his anger. On February 2, his troops loaded into boats for the journey upriver and reached Natchez on the 8th. The first boats to arrive landed on the west bank -- probably the location of present-day Vidalia – in order to assess the situation on the east bank. A reconnoitering party sent across the river found the area controlled by Choctaws, who boasted of their victory and that the Natchez remained besieged in their forts. Upon receiving the good news, the main force crossed over and began to unload troops, munitions, and supplies.
One can only imagine the soldiers's thoughts as they reached the bluff top and witnessed the burned spots where buildings once stood and scattered bones of French settlers and soldiers. Pulling four small field cannons the force of about two hundred moved inland to the Choctaw camp located on the ruins of the St. Catherine Concession (near Natchez High School).
It was probably then that the Choctaw leaders informed Louboey that the "freed" hostages were not really freed; they were now the Choctaws' hostages until a suitable payment was made. So the Choctaws had not been motivated merely by the wish to help the French; they had their own interests in mind. But what could Louboey do? He couldn't force the Choctaws to hand over the hostages, because the Choctaws were a larger force than the French – and furthermore, the Choctaws were still needed in the campaign.
In the following days the French and Choctaws established a base of operations on the site of the abandoned Grand Village from whence they could attack and even shell the Natchez forts. However, the Natchez were not defenseless. For one, they were in possession of cannons taken from Fort Rosalie, so they could retaliate in kind. Over the next two weeks the opposing factions carried out attacks and counter-attacks: all in all a stalemate. Yet the Natchez were on the defensive with little chance of winning against numerically superior forces. Their only bargaining chip was the hostages they still retained.
After a speech informing the Natchez that they had little chance of winning, the Choctaw chief, Alibamon Mingo, negotiated terms of disengagement. The French were to deploy to the banks of the Mississippi, and in return the Natchez would release the remaining hostages.
On February 24, the French returned to the bluffs at the ruins of Fort Rosalie, and the Natchez released their prisoners . . . to the Choctaws, giving the tribe control over many French and Africans. Meanwhile, the following night of February 25, the Natchez quietly slipped away from the forts and vanished. One French officer observed: "They had [either] crossed the river or sought the cover of swamps and cane-breaks, and were beyond pursuit."
In the following days, Louboey had the onerous task of bargaining for the hostages with individual Choctaw chiefs who usually demanded exorbitant payments which a military force in the field was ill-equipped to pay. A partial payment was agreed upon and made. Subsequently under cover of darkness, the women and children were quietly evacuated downriver by boat.
The Choctaws eventually marched home carrying the spoils of war and assisted by African slaves they had retained. Meanwhile, the French faced the task of rebuilding Fort Rosalie and re-establishing themselves at Natchez. Although the Natchez had vanished, they could reappear when least expected.
(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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