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Louisiana, 1699
by Jon Kukla
Louisiana Life Magazine, Winter 1998/99 - Vol. 18 - Issue 5 - Page - #185

In 1699, when the 38-year-old Canadian Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville founded the colony of Louisiana, 16,000 French colonists resided along the Saint Lawrence River and its tributaries. They were outnumbered 15 to one by a quarter million English colonists living along the Atlantic coast between Boston and Charleston, S.C. A few Englishmen were venturing across the Appalachians toward the Mississippi Valley, but for the previous 15 years Iberville had been fighting Englishmen far to the north in Hudson Bay.

Born in Montreal in 1661, Iberville and his 11 brothers earned their prominence in New France by military prowess and shrewd trading. Their father, Charles, embodied the North American dream. He came to Canada in 1641 as a 15-year-old indentured servant to a group of Jesuit missionaries, mastered several dialects of the Huron and Iroquois languages, and learned the ways of the beaver and fur trade. By his death in 1685, Iberville's father had royal letters patent for a title of nobility and was among the wealthiest citizens of Montreal.

New France was founded in 1608, one year after Jamestown and a dozen years before Plymouth. Each season thereafter, the colony expanded as its inhabitants pursued beaver, whose fur was in high demand in Europe as the fiber of choice for the manufacture of felt, especially for hats. Tracking the waterways of North America in a great arc, New France sprawled from Quebec westward to the Great Lakes and the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, near modern Illinois and Wisconsin by 1699. To the north, both the French and the English were competing for the opportunity to trap beaver on the shores of Hudson Bay.

When Iberville sailed his fleet into the Gulf of Mexico in 1699, his strategic objective was to secure the mouth of the Mississippi for France. From Canada, Pere Marquette and Louis Joliet had canoed down the Mississippi as far as the Arkansas River. And in 1682, Robert Cavelier de La Salle had reached salt water at the mouth of the Mississippi. On April 9, 1682, La Salle raised a column and a cross painted with the arms of France, claimed the interior of the continent for Louis XIV and named it in honor of his king. By this little ceremony, in the words of historian Francis Parkman, "the vast basin of the Mississippi . . . passed beneath the scepter of the Sultan of Versailles . . . by virtue of a feeble human voice, inaudible at half a mile."

Iberville's mission was to make good on that claim. Fifteen years had passed since La Salle had attempted to find the Mississippi from the gulf - overshooting the mark by hundreds of miles and dying near Matagorda Bay along the Texas coast. With English rivals encroaching on French claims in the Hudson Bay and along the Gulf Coast from South Carolina, the lucrative French fur-trading empire of North America hung in the balance.

The French were active in the interior of the continent as well. In 1699, priests of the Seminary of Foreign Missions established the first permanent European settlement in the Illinois country. Cahokia was situated on the east bank of the Mississippi near the mouth of the Missouri River and across from modern-day St. Louis.

Iberville was well known to the English as a ruthless frontier commander and naval raider. As early as 1686 he and his brothers were contending with Englishmen for control of the beaver trade in Hudson Bay. Throughout the 1690s, Iberville raided English outposts and forts there in naval expeditions mounted from his French estate at Rochefort, on the Atlantic coast near La Rochelle.

Like other privateers of his day, Iberville's patriotism was also extremely lucrative. How lucrative? On a raid of English fishing villages along the Newfoundland coast - a sideshow en route to the real action in Hudson Bay - Iberville captured 200,000 pounds of dried cod and shipped it back to France for sale. But the big money was in beaver pelts. Iberville and his family were already major players in the normal fur trade of New France, valued at 500,000 English pounds annually.

His raids on English trading posts were lagniappe. On two of the half-dozen skirmishes for which there is evidence, Iberville captured beaver pelts worth 136,000 pounds. This was roughly 12 times the value of all the furs exported annually from all the English colonies along the Atlantic coast. Not surprisingly, Iberville's 1699 Louisiana expedition yielded 9,000 beaver pelts that French and Indian trappers happily conveyed to his vessels in the lower Mississippi rather than paddling them upstream to Montreal.

The four vessels of Iberville's first Louisiana expedition - including the frigates Badine and Marin - sailed from Brest in October 1698. Aboard were Iberville, his 18-year-old brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, and some 80 men. Like the path of many a hurricane then and since, they visited Saint Domingue (The island that is now divided by the Domican Republic and Haiti) before sailing north to Florida and west along the Gulf Coast, passing the small Spanish outpost at Pensacola.

In March 1699, a severe storm blew Iberville's fleet into the bird's-foot delta of the Mississippi. Unsure of his location after the weather cleared (and mindful of La Salle's disastrous voyage in 1684), Iberville sailed up the great river. There he encountered Indians who remembered La Salle and could demonstrate the accuracy of their memories by showing Iberville European trade goods as proof.

Confident that he had in fact found the Mississippi, Iberville built a temporary fort on Biloxi Bay (Fort Maurepas at modern day Ocean Springs, Miss.,) midway between the river and the Spanish base at Pensacola. New Spain, with its wealth of gold and silver, stretched west and south from Texas to Peru and posed no threat to New France. Once again, Iberville's rivals were Englishmen.

Leaving Bienville as second in command over a garrison of 70 men, Iberville carried news of his success back to France. There he also mustered support for the immediate colonization of Louisiana and became the first native-born Canadian to be honored with the cross of the Order of Saint Louis. Bienville had started his career at age 12 as a midshipman aboard his brother's vessels, and was a seven-year veteran of Iberville's frontier warfare in Hudson Bay, Newfoundland and New England.

Bienville's military experience and natural cunning, bolstered by his brother's fierce reputation among English veterans of the frontier skirmishes, soon proved invaluable.

From Biloxi, Bienville and five men in two canoes set out through the Rigolets and Lake Pontchartrain to explore the lower Mississippi. Paddling south in the bends of the river below modern-day New Orleans, Bienville's party surprised an English warship commanded by Capt. Lewis Banks anchored against the current. Banks had come upriver with orders to establish an English outpost and challenge French claims to Louisiana. Bienville and his two canoes were no match for a 12-gun British corvette, but the history of empires can turn on individual acts of courage or chutzpah:

Bienville pretended that his canoes were part of a French fleet just around the bend upriver - a fleet perhaps commanded by the fearsome Iberville, who more than once had defeated superior English forces in Hudson Bay. Feigning a signal to the fleet for support, Bienville ordered Banks out of the French monarch's river. Banks fell for the bluff, but not without good reason.

Three years earlier, in the most gallant action of his career, Iberville and his 44-gun flagship Pelican had defeated three attacking English warships with a total of 124 guns. Banks knew his 12 cannons were no match for that kind of firepower or that kind of seamanship. He hoisted anchor, turned his ship around, and sailed off toward the gulf.

When the story reached France, cartographers promptly etched the words Detour a l'Anglois on their maps and onto the landscape of Louisiana. Today, a gated community and famous golf course along the curve in the river known as English Turn continue to mark that moment in the spring of 1699 when, as Bienville modestly reported, "I obliged the English to abandon their enterprise."

When Iberville returned to Louisiana in January 1700, his younger brother had explored the lower Red and Ouachita rivers. Together they erected a second outpost, Fort Mississippi, on the left bank of the river about 40 miles from the gulf, and began to establish friendly relations with the area's native tribes. As elsewhere in New France, the Le Moyne brothers recognized that Louisiana could not expect adequate support from Europe and must have native allies in order to survive. In May, Iberville left Bienville in charge of Louisiana and sailed for France, stopping at New York to sell the 9,000 beaver pelts collected from French trappers and Indians.

Arriving at Versailles in August 1700, Iberville was encouraged by news of the accession of Louis XIV's grandson, Philippe d'Anjou, to the throne of Spain. With Bourbons on both thrones, perhaps an alliance could be arranged to allow French and Spanish vessels to use Pensacola's natural harbor as a joint base against the English. Spanish colonial officials vetoed the idea, and in September 1701, France sent Iberville on his third and final expedition to Louisiana with instructions to build Fort Saint-Louis on Mobile Bay.

When Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville departed Louisiana for the last time in April 1702, his three-year effort to give France a strategic presence at the mouth of the Mississippi had succeeded - barely. Three tiny fortifications along the Gulf Coast and river gave New France a tenuous anchor for the woodland empire that stretched 2,000 miles north and west to Quebec. Decades would pass before Louisiana became a successful residential colony, but it was a start. Iberville gave France a foothold at the mouth of the Mississippi for the next century of imperial competition in North America. To his brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, Iberville entrusted the responsibility for developing Louisiana into a colony.

Historian Jon Kukla lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a narrative history of the Louisiana Purchase.

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