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|French build provisional fort after massacre; Natchez conduct guerrilla warfare|
By JACK ELLIOTT
There have been three forts at Natchez that effectively served as the same outpost of colonial empires.
The first was the rectangular palisaded fort that was built in 1716 and burned in 1729 following the massacre. The third – and the longest used – was an earthenwork fort that was constructed using a pentagonal plan about 1731. It served successive French, British, Spanish, and American garrisons until finally being abandoned about 1800. Both of these forts were constructed on the same site.
During the gap in between the two forts, a temporary or "provisional" fort was constructed in 1730 (just north of the Visitor's Center) in the aftermath of the campaign against the Natchez Indians. Located about a hundred yards from the site of the first and third forts, the provisional fort served only briefly as a defensive emplacement while the third fort was being constructed. It represented the first semblance of a military base following the destruction of the original fort by the Natchez Indians in 1729.
The Natchez settler, and later historian, Le Page du Pratz reported that when Major Louboey, the commander of the Natchez campaign departed from Natchez, he left Baron de Crenay behind at Natchez with 120 troops to rebuild a fort. This is apparently incorrect. First, Louboey's total number of regular troops was less than 120. Furthermore, more reliable sources report that Crenay wasn't sent to Natchez until early 1731.
Troops were indeed left behind to rebuild but in numbers far less than 120 and probably less than 50. The commanding officer is uncertain, possibly Captain Ignace François Broutin, engineer and former Natchez commandant. Regardless of who was commandant, Broutin was in charge of building the provisional fort as his correspondence makes clear.
Against opposition from a rival engineer, Broutin chose the site for the fort on a ridge that ran from the original fort site westward until it terminated looking almost directly down on the river. This ridge was apparently incorporated during the 20th century into the grade that carried the railroad under Canal Street and then southward to International Paper.
He found the site to be "the most favorable spot and the one most quickly and inexpensively intrenched." The ridge was narrow with steep sides. Although there wasn't enough area to build a large fort, it probably didn't matter since the primary consideration was quickly erecting a fortification that could be defended easily. Although small, the site had natural defenses with steep slopes on three sides.
The fort had two sections. The one with more substantial buildings and the best defenses was on the end of the ridge. It was known as "le petit fort," the little fort. Just inland was a larger section, known as "le grand fort," the big fort, which was occupied primarily by tents and served to bivouac troops when no enemy threatened. Between the little and big forts a moat was excavated and crossed by a drawbridge, so in times of attack the drawbridge could be raised leaving the little fort defended on all four sides by steep slopes.
THE NATCHEZ REAPPEAR...AND STRIKE BACK
The need for defense wasn't unjustified. On July 5, a party of ten soldiers and twenty African slaves were sent several miles to a swamp to harvest cypress bark for covering the buildings in the fort. Du Pratz provides an interesting description of the process:
"To perform this the cypresses are felled in the season when the sap is rising, and incisions are made every six feet up the trunk. Then the bark is pulled off in pieces at least one foot wide, which is easily done because the bark is thin and supple. As the bark is removed it is flattened on a specially made bed and the pieces loaded crosswise one on top of the other. When covering the structures, they are arranged like tiles and held in place by laths of the same wood nailed with iron pegs."
Because they had had no recent encounters with the Natchez, the soldiers were lax and off guard. Then a party of 100 (by one account but probably less) Indians attacked. Surprised, the French and Africans were unable to defend themselves, and, according to differing accounts, only one or two soldiers and two or five Africans survived. One soldier who survived was, interestingly, the soldier named Belair who had survived the November massacre by hiding in the oven. He survived this time by hiding inside a hollow tree. One of the soldiers who died was "the little Parisian," who had distinguished himself by saving the flag during the skirmishing around the Natchez forts in February.
A few days after the attack on the work party, a group of six Natchez became even bolder. Approaching the fort in broad daylight, they informed the guard that they were Choctaws, allies of the French. Allowed entrance, they casually walked around inspecting the new construction, probably pretending to be friendly while the whole time waiting for the right moment to move. They attacked when the French least expected it killing five and wounding others. However, the call to arms was sounded and other soldiers rushed to the defense and eventually were able to kill five of the Natchez and capture the sixth. This person was subjected to the typical, but barbarous, method by which prisoners were often killed: being burned to death while tied to a wooden frame.
By early August Broutin had returned to New Orleans where he wrote that the provisional fort was completed. This was only the beginning in reestablishing the Natchez post; the French would soon have to start building a more permanent fort. In the meantime it had become evident that the Natchez Indians were still a threat and that threat had to be reckoned with. Reports were that many had established a new settlement west of the Mississippi River on Sicily Island.
(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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