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Story Archives: The end of French Louisiana and French Natchez
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|The end of French Louisiana and French Natchez|
(27th & Final in a Series)
BY JACK ELLIOTT
Beginning in 1731 the French rebuilt Fort Rosalie at Natchez.
Unlike the first fort built in 1716 of palisade construction, the new fort was much more substantial, laid out in a pentagonal plan with a rampart surrounded by a ditch all with two lines of wooden fence.
That the fort was essential for the Louisiana colony was explained by Governor Bienville in a 1733 letter to the Comte de Maurepas, Minister of the Marine:
"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."
Bienville hoped that after the fort was constructed and the threat of Indian attack was removed that farmers would begin to settle there as they had a decade before. However, this was not to be. The earlier settlement was associated with the only boom in population that the Louisiana colony ever saw, the boom times known as "the Mississippi Bubble" (ca 1717-1721). By the 1730s the French population was not growing any to speak of, and few colonists wanted to venture out to settle in a place so linked to memories of violence and death as Natchez.
So after its reconstruction, Fort Rosalie was in a very different situation than it had been in the 1720s. Instead of being surrounded by several hundred French and African settlers, there were virtually no civilian settlers. Furthermore, in the 1720s a couple thousand Natchez Indians had lived in the fort's vicinity and traded with military and civilian alike.
Without the Natchez there was a need to have other Indians living nearby to assist the troops in procuring food and providing security against Indian attacks while aiding the troops in backwoods maneuvers. To serve these purposes the small tribe of Ofos, or Offogoulas, with about fifteen warriors were enticed into moving to Natchez about 1733. The Ofos had formerly lived near the Yazoo River in proximity to the Koroas and the Yazoos. When the latter two tribes destroyed the French settlement on the Yazoo River in December 1729, the Ofos refused to take part and thereby continued to be friends of the French. After moving to Natchez they established a village in close proximity to the garrison -- "under the guns of the fort," as one writer described it.
For the next three decades the fort was manned by about 50 soldiers assisted by the Ofos. The garrison was fed in part through trading with the Indians for game, a beneficial relationship for both parties. The commissary was also authorized to purchase grain from voyageurs descending the river from Illinois for the purpose of making bread.
On September 25, 1739, a French force was heading upriver as part of a campaign against the Chickasaws. Stopping at Natchez a nameless French officer left a vivid description of the place: "we…slept that night at the foot of Fort Natchez, where we pitched our tents proposing to remain several days in order to allow our troops to recuperate to some extent from the fatigues of the journey thither. This fort is in the shape of a pentagon…tolerably secured against assault by its situation, being placed at a sufficient elevation to command the surrounding country. Its glacis is of green turf and its parapet of thick oaken planks, and the inner fortification and ditch well stockaded. It is provided with some few small cannon. Its garrison ordinarily consists of fifty men and three officers. . . ."
About this time the fort received a new commandant, Captain Henri le Grand d'Orgon, who had only arrived in Louisiana in 1737. He would command at Natchez for approximately two decades, far longer than any other had or would. Dying about 1757 he was replaced by Captain Gourdon, who had arrived in Louisiana in 1750. Gourdon was the last known French commandant at Natchez.
Although French Natchez was extremely isolated by today's standards with its small garrison connected to the outside world by only slow water transportation, yet its history, like that of the Louisiana colony was closely tied to international affairs.
The French and Indian War began in 1754 as France and Great Britain struggled for control of the Ohio River Valley. From there the fighting spread to many other parts of the world becoming something of a world war known internationally as the Seven Year War (1756-1763). Despite the fact that Louisiana and Fort Rosalie were close to the first area of fighting, they were almost untouched by the war, but not by its consequences.
Following the defeat of France in Quebec and other places, the treaties of Fountainebleau (13 Nov 1762) and Paris (10 Feb 1763) resulted in a shuffling of colonial possessions around the world. France was the big loser, giving up all of its possessions in North America except for the tiny islands of Sts. Pierre and Miquelon located off the coast of Canada. Louisiana was divided in two with Spain taking the west bank of the Mississippi River along with New Orleans and Great Britain acquiring the east bank. Like a pawn in a chess game, treaties signed thousands of miles away would determine the fate of Fort Rosalie which would go to the British. French Louisiana would be no more.
Watching all of these events from Paris was the man who could well be called the Father of Louisiana; he was certainly the father of New Orleans and Fort Rosalie: Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville. The tough old Canadian had been there at the very founding of Louisiana when, sailing with his brother and commanding officer, d'Iberville, he first arrived on the Gulf Coast in 1699. After his brother's death in 1706, Bienville came to dominate colonial affairs and served as governor on four occasions. He must have looked upon the loss of Louisiana as the loss of a child. He died four years later on March 7, 1767.
Ironically, while the French and Indian War ended French rule over Louisiana, it also increased the number of French speakers, namely the Acadians, or Cajuns, as they came to be known. During the war, they had been departed by the British from their home in Acadia (Nova Scotia) as the result of refusing to swear allegiance to the British cause. After some wandering many found their way to what is now south Louisiana, where they flourished. From 1768 to 1769, the Spanish attempted to settle 149 Acadians across the river from Natchez, about three miles below present day Vidalia. But this first attempt at white settlement in Concordia proved disastrous -- almost half the Acadian population died from sickness and disease.
Word of the treaties of Fountainebleau and Paris reached Governor Louis Billouart de Kerlérec (governed 1752-1763) in New Orleans in the spring of 1763. British officials soon began arriving to take possession of their portion of Louisiana. By October 2 Kerlérec issued orders to the commandants of several garrisons, including Natchez, to evacuate their forts. In a letter to Major Robert Farmer he suggested that if the British manned Fort Natchez they should staff it with 50 troops and two officers and they would need to rebuild a barrack that was terribly deteriorated. Because of a shortage of troops and the vastness of their new acquisition, Farmer declined to occupy the fort at that time.
We do not know when the French troops finally evacuated. One can imagine them loading their possessions onto boats, then after the last man boarded, pushing off and heading downriver for New Orleans and eventually France. The Offogoulas also departed. It was the end of an era for Natchez and all of Louisiana.
Although the British would be slow to regarrison the fort, big changes were in store during the few years that they controlled Natchez (1763-1779). These would include the birth of the Natchez District and the beginnings of a rudimentary town at Natchez-under-the-hill.
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