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|Bienville said new Fort Rosalie key to Natchez future|
(26th in a Series)
BY JACK ELLIOTT
When thinking of Fort Rosalie, one tends to envision the rectangular palisade with bastions that was erected during the summer of 1716 and destroyed in the aftermath of the 1729 massacre. However, this fort was very short-lived, existing for only thirteen years. On the other hand, its replacement was not so short-lived. It was built in 1731 and abandoned about 1800, seeing use for about seven decades during which time Natchez evolved from a fort to a territorial capital. The first fort was used only by the French, while the second fort was used by successive French, British, Spanish, and American garrisons. When nineteenth century accounts described ruins of the fort, they described those of the 1731 fort not the 1716 one. This is the story of the construction of the second fort.
Following the destruction of the old fort in 1729, construction on the new fort at Natchez began in the spring of 1731 under the supervision of the contractor Sieur Darby and the new commandant, Baron de Crenay. Apparently taking months to construct, the result was an elaborate fort with a pentagonal plan consisting of an earthen rampart surrounded by a wide, deep ditch. The rampart was surmounted by a palisade parapet and the entire fortification surrounded by an outwork palisade. There were also hopes that the structure would be revetted, or covered, with brick masonry which would certainly help make it more enduring.
The rate of progress in constructing this can only be estimated. On July 1, 1731, the Company made a payment of over 1600 livres for construction completed implying that some degree of construction had been completed by that date. This would also be the Company's final act in that it had returned control of Louisiana to the Crown. In December the Crown made the next payment of over 5000 livres. All in all considerable work had been completed by the end of 1731. That same month Governor Étienne de Périer sent a plan drawing of the fort to the Comte de Maurepas, Minister of the Marine, reporting that it was presently constructed "only of earth until Your Highness might order its revetment in masonry." The letter implies that the fort was nearly complete if not complete. Why they had not used masonry revetting as promised was not explained. One assumes that it was because of the perennial problem in colonial Louisiana: lack of resources.
In the same letter Périer also reported that he was changing commandants at Natchez, relieving De Crenay and replacing him with Captain Jean Charles de Pradel, an officer with much experience in the colony. Born in France in 1692, he came to Louisiana in 1714 and received his captain's commission in 1720. De Crenay returned to France in 1732.
On February 2, 1732, the Royal Court addressed a reply to Périer regarding whether or not to revet the fort with brick. Noting that in previous years when there had been a constant threat from the Natchez Indians, the considerable expense would have been justified. Now however with the Indians destroyed or dispersed it seemed totally unwarranted to spend such a large sum of money. Of course a few years earlier the engineer Broutin had pleaded with the powers-that-be to refurbish the fort and revet it with brick. By the time that his plan was approved in France in July 1729, it was too late. Time ran out before the renovation could take place.
In June 1732 a letter to Maurepas reported that De Pradel, who had been commandant for a half year, "had an earthwork fort built in this place," suggesting that the work was almost completed. The architect Alexandre de Batz was sent to Natchez where he drew a plan of the new fort. This plan isn't known to survive. However, a profile, or section, drawing of the fort survives dated 11 May 1732 and signed "De Batz."
Although the defensive structures were largely completed, work on interior structures was not. In 1733 work continued on the powder magazine and cellar, and the following year plans were being made to construct a barracks building.
In early 1733 with the fort largely completed, the contractor Darby petitioned the government for full payment for his work; he had only received half of his due payment. His petition pointed out that the government, furthermore, had only supplied him with half of the labor promised. While supporting Darby's claims to colonial administrators in France, Bienville, now governor once again (for the fourth and last time), nicely summed up the value of the fort to France and the Louisiana colony:
"This post can never be regarded as a matter of indifference at any time whatsoever. In time of war it assures us of communication with the Illinois and is an intermediate station for our voyageurs, and in time of peace it assures us of the possession of the finest lands of all this government and we are convinced that as soon as the Natchez are destroyed and we have nothing more to fear from the Chickasaws many small inhabitants who are not strong enough to form settlements on the lower part of the river where the operations are much more expensive… will withdraw to the Natchez where they will be much more successful. It is thus that this post was established the first time and had become so considerable that the colony has lost one-half of its establishment in losing this one."
In the new fort Louisiana had regained a valued item of infrastructure and re-established its claim to a vital piece of turf. Because of its value, France would continue to garrison the new fort for over three decades down to 1763 when it lost Louisiana to England and Spain in the aftermath of the French and Indian War.
However despite the amount of money and labor invested in the new fort, the extensive excavations appear to have destabilized the site. Even before construction was completed erosion began to be a problem. Anyone familiar with the loess soil of the Natchez Bluffs understands the soil's vulnerability to erosion. This might well have not been a problem if the structure had been covered with brick.
As Bienville reported, the fort was subject to "considerable deterioration" that required "continual repairs" for which eight Africans remained at the Natchez fort "to repair the breaches that the rains make in it." The erosion problem would continue over the years and may ultimately have been responsible for the collapse of large portions of the site during the nineteenth century.
(Jack Elliott is historical archaeologist for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at 662-325-7892 or email@example.com.)
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