by Dick Shovel
West side of the Mississippi at Bayougoula in Iberville Parish, Louisiana.
Taking into account the horrific drop in the native populations of the region after
1540, an estimate of 3,000 Bayougoula in 1650 appears reasonable. In 1699
Iberville said that the Bayougoula and Mugulasha together had about 250 warriors
(1,250 total). However, both tribes had just been hit by epidemics which had killed
almost half of them. War and another epidemic occurred that winter, followed by the
Bayougoula's massacre of the Mugulasha in May. The Bayougoula numbered only
500 when the Taensa moved in with them in 1706. However, this time it was the
Bayougoula who were murdered. Only half managed to escape and resettle
downstream with the Acolapissa. The last separate enumeration taken by the French
in 1715, just before the disappearance of the Bayougoula into the Houma, listed
them with 40 warriors (200 people).
Bayougoula is a Choctaw word meaning "bayou people" alluding to their location
near the Mississippi River. Their name for themselves was "Ischenoca" which
translates approximately as "our people."
Muskogean - very similar to Houma, Choctaw and Chickasaw.
Mugulasha - (Mougulasha, Muglahsa, Muglasha, Muguasha), a French corruption of
"Imongolosha" meaning the "people of the other side." The Mugulasha, however,
were living among the Bayougoula under an assumed name in 1699 to disguise their
presence from the French. They were previously known as the Quinipissa, a tribe
that greeted La Salle with a shower of arrows during his voyage down the
Mississippi in 1682.
Before European contact, the Bayougoula and Mugulasha were the only tribes that
spoke a Choctaw dialect of the Muskogean language family that lived west of the
Mississippi River. However, with the exception of their being from the "wrong side of
the river," the Bayougoula were quite similar to their cousins on the opposite side.
Since their tribal totem was the alligator (an animal unique to the lower Mississippi),
they obviously had been there for a long time before their meeting with the French.
They also exhibited many traits from the Mississippian culture which had dominated
the entire region before 1540. Their housing was circular in shape and used the
wattle-and-daub construction (thatched roof) typical of the area. At the time of their
first meeting in 1699, the French noted that the Bayougoula were still building large
earthen platform mounds on top of which they placed their important public buildings
- the chief's house a large (30' diameter) temple for religious ceremonies. The temple
also contained sacred objects and an eternal fire kept burning by the village priest.
The swampy nature of the area made burial undesirable, so the Bayougoula placed
their dead on high platforms to protect them from animals during decomposition.
Once this was complete, the bones were placed in a tribal ossuary (bone house).
Hunting, using fire to drive the animals into the open, was important with buffalo,
turkey, deer, and alligator, and fish being the major prey. However, the bulk of the
Bayougoula diet was provided by their agriculture: corn, bean, squash, melons,
sunflowers, and tobacco. Fields were relatively small, but the long growing season of
the region allowed them to harvest two to three crops from the same field. Dogs
were the only animal domesticated by Native Americans before the horse, but the
Bayougoula in 1699 kept small flocks of turkeys. The tribes of the lower Mississippi
were also unique in that tribal territories were well defined. Decorated with fish heads
and bear bones, a large red post near the mouth of the Red River marked the
boundary between the Bayougoula and the Houma just to the north. Translated into
French, the location of this "Red Post" became known as Baton Rouge, the
present-day capital of Louisiana.
Trying to break free of the interior and reach the Gulf of Mexico, the small fleet
containing the battered remnants of the De Soto expedition floated past the future
site of the Bayougoula village in 1543. However, just a short distance upstream, the
Spanish had just been forced to fight their way past the warriors of the Natchez
chiefdom, and if they saw any native villages in the area, they made no mention of
them. No other Europeans visited the area until Robert La Salle and Henri Tonti
came down the river from the Illinois country in 1682 to locate the mouth of the
Mississippi. Although La Salle visited briefly with the Natchez and recorded the
location of the Houma on the east bank immediately to the north, he made no
mention of the Bayougoula being on the west side of the river. Downstream,
however, just above the present site of New Orleans, the French attempt to use the
calumet (the universal symbol of peaceful intentions along the lower river) to meet
with the Quinipissa was greeted with hostility and a shower of arrows. French
firearms kept the Quinipissa warriors who followed them at bay, and La Salle
proceeded downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, where on April 9th, 1682 he claimed
the Mississippi River and all the lands drained by it for France. In honor of his king,
La Salle named his "new discovery" Louisiana.
Unaware that they had just become the subjects of Louis XIV, the Quinipissa
proved almost as unfriendly on the French return upstream as they had been earlier.
Ignoring their previous encounter, La Salle stopped to buy food but found the village
almost entirely deserted since the warriors had taken to the woods with the women
and children when they saw the French approach. La Salle finally located the chief
and presented him with a blue serge coat. The chief was willing to talk, by the
warriors were lurking nearby and making hostile displays which kept the French
close to their guns. Finally the Quinipissa chief suggested that it would best if the
French left. La Salle agreed and thereby avoided another confrontation. The
remainder of the return to Illinois proved uneventful, and La Salle had added a vast
new region to the French Empire. However, French authorities in Canada were
preoccupied at the time with a major war in the Great Lakes with the Iroquois and
displayed little interest in the Mississippi Valley.
Realizing that Spain claimed the same area, La Salle could not afford to wait for the
conclusion of the war with the Iroquois. Leaving Tonti in charge in Illinois, he
returned to France to gather support for his plan to create a French colony on the
Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi. Although there was concern of a new
war against Great Britain and Spain (King William's War 1688-97), the idea of
annoying his Spanish enemies appealed to Louis XIV, and permission was given. La
Salle sailed from France in 1684 but, through a gross navigational error, missed the
enormous delta at the mouth of the Mississippi and landed at Matagorda Bay on the
Texas coast, 400 miles to the west. Meanwhile, Tonti came downstream from Illinois
in 1685 expecting to rendezvous with La Salle at the mouth of the Mississippi. Tonti
waited until April, 1686 when his supplies were exhausted, but La Salle never came.
Meanwhile, Tonti had used the time to establish friendly relations with the Quinipissa
and before returning to Illinois, he left a letter for La Salle and glass bottle with their
chief in case he arrived later. La Salle never read it. When the Texas colony began to
flounder, he attempted to reach help by travelling overland to the Mississippi. In
March, 1687 La Salle was killed by his own men on the plains of eastern Texas.
Tonti did not learn of this until a year later, but he immediately departed Illinois to
rescue the survivors. He stopped at the Taensa villages, which were well north of the
Bayougoula and Quinipissa, to journey overland to Texas. Unfortunately, all of his
efforts were in vain, since the Karankawa had already massacred the remainder of
La Salle's colony at Matagorda Bay.
Nothing much happened after this until the end of the King William's War in 1697.
France emerged from that conflict as the dominant power in North America, but
another European war (Queen Anne's War 1710-13) was already looming on the
horizon. The major difference was that France and Spain were now allies against
Great Britain, and the Spanish could no longer afford to oppose the establishment of
a French colony on the Gulf coast. They did, however, build a new fort at Pensacola
in 1698 to protect their claim to the region. Responsibility for fulfilling La Salle's
dream was entrusted to Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, a military hero from the King
William's War. Iberville sailed from France with a small fleet in late 1698 and, after
failing to negotiate the maze of the Mississippi delta, decided in February 10th, 1699
to land instead to the east at Biloxi (Mississippi). The French immediately found the
area had changed drastically since Tonti's last visit in 1686.
British traders from Charleston, South Carolina had reached the Chickasaw villages
in northern Mississippi in 1685, and during the next five years their visits had become
routine. Aside from the usual trade in deerskins, the British were interested in Native
American slaves for their plantations in the Carolinas and West Indies, and they had
provided firearms to the Chickasaw to assist them in obtaining this "merchandise." As
a result, Chickasaw slave raiders were terrorizing every tribe in the region, while at
the same time, a new wave of epidemics was sweeping through the native
populations with devastating effect. By the time the French landed at Biloxi, signs of
death and destruction were everywhere in the form of abandoned and destroyed
villages. Because they associated a white face with enslavement, the tribes in the area
were difficult to meet and often hostile. Iberville was becoming concerned when his
brother, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne d'Bienville, stumbled upon a group of Bayougoula
and Mugulasha hunting in the area for buffalo and turkey.
Unlike the other natives that the French had encountered so far, the Bayougoula
were immediately friendly. When their chief saw Iberville's birchbark canoe, he
inquired if the French were the same white men who had come down the river from
the north and was pleased to learn that they were. A calumet ceremony of welcome
followed, and the next day the Bayougoula chief drew maps of the area for Iberville,
while explaining that he would have to continue his hunt but would meet with the
French in a few days. However, the appointment was not kept. Just as Iberville was
about to give up on them, a Manchac (Biloxi) warrior arrived on March 7th bringing
a message from the Bayougoula explaining that they had returned to their village, and
the French could visit them there. The Biloxi guided Iberville's party (including Father
Anatasius Douay and his brothers, Sauvole and Bienville) west to the Bayougoula
village on the Mississippi River.
When they arrived, the French were welcomed by two chiefs - one speaking for the
Bayougoula and the other for the Mugulasha who were living with them. Smallpox
had just struck the village killing a quarter of its residents, and the evidence of its
terrible passage was very apparent. The dead had been placed on nearby scaffolds,
and the stench of death permeated the entire village. Iberville, however, wished to
confirm that the Mississippi was the same river that La Salle had followed to the Gulf
in 1682. Since there had been no mention of either the Bayougoula or Mugulasha by
La Salle or Tonti, he inquired about the Quinipissa, but both chiefs replied that they
had never heard of them. Despite their friendly reception, the French became
suspicious when they learned that the Mugulasha chief not only had the same name
as the Quinipissa chief met by La Salle and Tonti, but he also still had La Salle's blue
serge coat. Further doubts arose when the Tonti's glass bottle was found inside the
Iberville was certain that the Bayougoula and Mugulasha chiefs were hiding
something, but he also wanted to meet with other tribes along the river. The
Bayougoula offered to guide them to the Houma immediately upstream, a generous
offer since the two tribes were not entirely friendly with one another. Enroute near
the mouth of the Red River, Iberville was shown the famous red pole (Baton Rouge)
which marked the boundary between the Houma and Bayougoula territories. The
Houma welcomed the French with a calumet ceremony and singing, but were more
forthcoming about the Quinipissa, and openly acknowledged that they had some of
them living with them. However, they did not have Tonti's letter which Iberville
needed to prove that he was indeed on the same river as La Salle had been when he
claimed Louisiana for France. After leaving the Houma, the French proceeded
farther upstream before dividing into three groups to explore the area on their return.
Enroute to his base at Biloxi, Iberville managed to meet and conclude a treaty of
peace with the Chitamacha. However, Sauvole's party was running low on
provisions and decided to stop at the Bayougoula village to purchase food. In the
midst of negotiations, Father Douay noticed that his religious equipment was missing
and insulted the Bayougoula chief by accusing his people of stealing it. The other
French tried to silence him, but the uproar created forced them to leave
empty-handed. Bienville stopped a little later and was able to smooth the bad
feelings. Anxious to do their part in making amends, the Bayougoula presented him
with Tonti's letter to La Salle which up to this point they had kept secret. Upon his
return to Biloxi, Iberville decided that it was a suitable location and ordered the
construction of Fort Maurepas. With the work underway, he left his brother Sauvole
in charge and returned to France to make his report and secure more supplies.
He returned in January, 1700. A few days afterwards, Tonti arrived with his
Canadians from the Illinois country, and the noose began to tighten around the
Bayougoula's attempt to disguise the Mugulasha. Meanwhile, Bienville had alarming
news. During his exploration of the lower Mississippi the previous September, he
had discovered a British ship that somehow had managed to thread its way through
the delta and was slowly making its way up the Mississippi 70 miles from the Gulf.
When Bienville had informed its captain that the area was claimed by France, he was
told of the British plan to colonize the lower Mississippi with French Huguenots.
Iberville realized that something had to be done, and when the Bayougoula chief
visited Biloxi shortly afterwards, the French convinced him to sell them some land 40
miles above the mouth for a fort to block British access to the river. Construction of
Fort Mississippi began immediately afterwards but was hampered by a highly
contagious dysentery which had broken out among the French colonists.
Iberville also made plans to explore the Red River. In the spring he sent Bienville and
Louis Juchereau de St. Denis ahead to the Taensa villages to obtain guides and
supplies for the overland journey to the Caddo villages near Natchitoches. Iberville
followed but stopped first at the Bayougoula village where he purchased a field from
the Mugulasha and had it sown with wheat to supply the colonists at Biloxi. He also
learned that the winter had been hard on the Bayougoula. The same dysentery that
was bothering the French had spread to the tribes in the region with far more deadly
results. The French, however, could not cure themselves ...much less the natives. Of
more immediate concern was a war that had erupted between the Bayougoula and
the Houma and their Taensa allies. Although the Bayougoula had apparently started
the war, a Houma surprise attack had captured many of their women and children.
Iberville left a young French boy with the Bayougoula to learn their language and
proceeded to the Houma where he was able to arrange a truce. After visiting the
Natchez, he joined Bienville and St. Denis at the Taensa villages, but by this time, his
knees were bothering him so much that he was forced to return to Biloxi.
Bienville and St. Dennis were sent on alone to the Caddo at Natchitoches and
beyond, but on their return, they chose to follow the Red River. The swamps made
this route especially arduous, and their guides deserted them. Bienville finally reached
the Bayougoula only to learn that during his brief absence a tragedy had occurred.
The French boy left with the Bayougoula had learned that just before the French
arrived, most of the Quinipissa had died from an epidemic. The survivors had
abandoned their village with a few families joining the Houma. The majority, including
their chief, moved in with the Bayougoula and became the Mugulasha. Realizing their
ruse was discovered, it appears that the Bayougoula decided the Mugulasha had
become a liability in their relations with the French and massacred them. The victims
included the Mugulasha women and children which was contrary to the custom in the
region where conquerors killed the men but spared the women and children for
adoption into their tribe.
The French accepted the outcome, but Iberville now began to pressure the
Bayougoula to give him all of the lands belonging to the Mugulasha--lands based on
his purchase of that single wheat field. Facing the possibility of having to surrender
some of their land to the French, the Bayougoula, without the Mugulasha, were also
more susceptible to raids by Chickasaw and desperately needed to find someone to
take the place of the Mugulasha. They invited several families of the Acolapissa and
Tioux, but for some strange reason, no one was interested. The Chickasaw threat
subsided after Iberville was able to alternately threaten and bribe their chiefs into
signing a peace treaty at Mobile in 1702. Unfortunately, British traders remained
active and were able to convince the Chickasaw to renew their slave raids. With the
onset of the Queen Anne's War (1701-13), Iberville returned to France for military
service but died from yellow fever contracted while leading an attack on the British in
the West Indies. This placed Bienville in charge in Louisiana, and when the
Chickasaw resumed their attacks in 1705, he honored his brother's pledge at Mobile
and provided firearms to their enemies. However, the French were unable to arm
their allies nearly as well as the British had done with the Chickasaw.
Threatened by both the Chickasaw and Yazoo, the Taensa abandoned their villages
in northeastern Louisiana during the spring of 1706 and accepted the Bayougoula's
offer to settle with them. Only six years had passed since the Mugulasha massacre,
and the Taensa were not willing to risk becoming the next victims. Shortly after their
arrival, they attacked their hosts and killed most of them. About 200 Bayougoula
eluded the slaughter and fled downstream to the Acolapissa where they settled at a
point just above the future site of New Orleans. Soon afterwards, they were joined
by the Houma who had taken in the Tunica under similar circumstances and suffered
in like manner. All three tribes soon joined in an alliance, a bond further strengthened
through service to the French during their long war with the Chitamacha (1707-18).
Meanwhile, based on Iberville's purchase of that Mugulasha wheat field, the French
were now ready to claim the Bayougoula lands as well.
Unwilling to offend the French, the Taensa were forced to move again. They could
not, however, return to their former villages because of the Chickasaw, so they
shifted farther south. Unfortunately, this placed them very close to the alliance of the
Acolapissa, Bayougoula, and Houma. After several anxious years waiting for the
inevitable retaliation, the Taensa left the area in 1715 and moved east to Mobile. The
alliance of the Acolapissa, Bayougoula, and Houma grew even closer after their
departure and was the most important French ally in the vicinity when New Orleans
was founded in 1718. However, the influx of colonists into the area brought a new
wave of epidemics. Smallpox killed than half of the Acolapissa, Bayougoula, and
Houma in 1721. Alcohol also took its toll, and the pressure from expanding French
settlements near New Orleans soon forced the three allied tribes upstream to
Ascension Parish shortly afterwards. Although they still maintained separate villages
and chiefs in 1739, it was more pretense than reality. By this time, the French no
longer bothered with separate counts for each tribe and began referring to the 500
that remained as the Houma.
Above material on the Bayougoula is Copyright © Dick Shovel. Any use of
this information should credit him. He also has wonderful info on Slavery in Louisiana.