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Story Archives: The story of the Taensas tribe
|The story of the Taensas tribe|
BY JIM BARNETT
The Taensa tribe was one of the Indian groups that the La Salle Expedition encountered on its historic 1682 voyage down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.
One of La Salle's men noticed a Spanish sword and three guns in the Taensa chief's cabin, an indication of earlier European contact.
At that time, the Taensas numbered about 700 people living beside an oxbow lake on the west side of the Mississippi River. Like other American Indians in the region, they hunted, fished, gathered wild plant foods, and grew corn, beans, and squash. Although their villages were probably somewhere in Tensas Parish or Concordia Parish, archaeologists have never found the exact location.
In the fall of 1698, the French Catholic missionary Francois Jolliet de Montigny lived with the Taensas before establishing a brief mission with the Natchez Indians. From his experience with both tribes, De Montigny made the important observation that the Taensas and the Natchez spoke the same language. Based upon this information, historians suspect that the two tribes may have been part of the same ethnic group prior to European contact. The only other tribe in the region suspected of being Natchez language speakers is the Avoyel group, which lived on the Red River near present-day Marksville. The evidence is less convincing for the Avoyel and rests with their nickname as "Little Taensas," implying a Taensa and, by extension, a Natchez connection.
During his 1699 exploration of the lower reaches of the Mississippi River, the French commander Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville interviewed a Taensa Indian at the Houma Indian village on the east bank opposite the mouth of the Red River. Iberville sought information about the tribes further upriver and the Taensa man gave the Frenchman a remarkable account of the geography and tribes as far north as the mouth of the Arkansas River, which French reconnaissance later verified.
In 1706, the Taensas abandoned their settlement and migrated southward. European diseases had reduced their population to less than 200 and they needed to move closer to their French allies in order to escape the slave raids by the Natchez, Chickasaws, and Yazoos, who sold their captives to the English in South Carolina. With no time to clear land for a new village and cornfields, the Taensas took over the village of the Bayogoula tribe on the west side of the Mississippi River near the Bayou Lafourche outflow.
In 1715, the Taensas left the Mississippi River and moved east to Bayou Manchac and fifteen years later they moved again, this time to be near the French headquarters at Mobile, known as Fort Conde. For over thirty years, the Taensas served the French there as hunters, guides, and mercenaries. The Tensaw River in southwestern Alabama, a branch of the Mobile River, is named for them.
When France lost her Louisiana colony in 1763 as part of the Treaty of Paris, the Taensas and other pro-French groups including the Alabamas, Apalachees, Chacatos, and Koasatis migrated west across the Mississippi River to avoid their English enemies. Louisiana west of the Mississippi came under Spanish control at that time and the Spanish administrators welcomed the pro-French tribes as allies and potential protectors should the English decide to invade.
The Taensas settled in northern Rapides Parish and in the early nineteenth century a portion of this group moved again to Grand Lake in Cameron Parish. One or more of the Taensa families merged with the Avoyel people in Avoyelles Parish and are known today as the Avoyel-Taensa Tribe/Nation of Louisiana, Inc.
For the Taensas and all of the rest of the Mississippi and Louisiana tribes, the eighteenth century was a time of disease, slave raids, and warfare brought about by the confrontation for empire between England and France. Being a small tribe, the Taensas survived by living as migrants during the chaotic colonial period and by trading their autonomy for the protection of servitude with the French.
During the nineteenth century, American expansion along with the formation of territories and states forced the remnants of these small tribes to lead a marginal existence, often in severe poverty. For a few groups, such as the Tunica-Biloxi, Chitimacha, and Koasati tribes, federal recognition in the twentieth century has preserved their tribal identity.
For more information about the Taensa tribe, I recommend the book "The Historic Indian Tribes of Louisiana," by Fred B. Kniffen, Hiram F. Gregory, and George A. Stokes, published in 1987 by Louisiana State University Press.
Jim Barnett is Director, Division of Historic Properties, Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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