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Fort Louis de la Louisiana
Text from this section is used here by permission, "Mobile: City by the Bay", copyright © Jay Higginbotham.

As tension between the French and Spanish forces heated up, the two countries sent many ships and expeditions to the Gulf. In 1702, French explorers d'Iberville, Sauvole, and Bienville founded a settlement along the Mobile River, which was Fort Louis de la Louisiana, the new capital of the Louisiana Territory. Fort Louis de la Louisiana

In 1679, a French frigate was attacked and captured by Spanish warships on the Gulf of Mexico. Louis XIV, the grand Monarch of France, immediately ordered three ships to be built to protect French commerce. Informed by his commander in the West Indies of the vulnerability of Havana and Cartegeña, King Louis' ambitions took on a new twist. If he could capture these cities, the remaining Spanish Colonies in the Gulf area would be forced to surrender to France, the ultimate result being the conquest of New Spain.

And so Robert de la Salle was sent down the Mississippi to find a port suitable for harboring . But La Salle had other ideas. He wanted to found a colony. After his initial adventure down the great river, La Salle hood winked the King into financing a new expedition to establish a fort on the Gulf. He was able to gain Louis' support by convincing him that the Rio Grande, where the King's eyes were set, and the Mississippi were one and the same river! But La Salle's dream was ended with his murder in 1687, after a fiasco which he, himself, promoted by a long chain of deceptions.

Ten years later, the Peace of Ryswick ended the war of the Augsburg League. Spanish fears were thus aroused when it was realized that this treaty now gave Louis XIV some pretext for renewing his designs on the Gulf. Quickly, the Spanish ordered the Viceroy of Mexico to occupy Pensacola Bay. Almost as quickly, the French sent out an expedition under command of Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville. The race for the Gulf was on!

The news had long been out that the best harbor in all the world was Pensacola Bay, a deep, natural port where it was supposed a great river emptied into the Gulf. Accordingly, Iberville set his sights on Pensacola and after a stormy voyage across the Atlantic dropped his anchors in the outer harbor on January 26, 1699. To his dismay Iberville found himself staring at a Spanish flag waving arrogantly over a puny little fort. However, seeing that no great river flowed into that bay, he pulled his anchors and sailed further west. After excursions on Dauphin and Horn Islands, he anchored his big vessels at Ship Island and switched to long boats and canoes in search of a suitable harbor. Rediscovering the Mississippi River, he ascended it for some distance but never found a site to build. He finally decided on the eastern shore of the Bay of Biloxi where he established Fort Maurepas, the first capital of the Louisiana Territory.

Fort Maurepas served as the capital for two years until Iberville could find a spot for a permanent colony. In the meantime, he sent Monsieur Sauvole, his second in command, and his brother, the young Bienville, on scouting expeditions to determine the most strategic location. Bienville found a site on the great river where New Orleans now stands but it was thought to be too marshy. He searched up and down the coast but the site he finally settled on was a long, high expanse of land on the Mobile River known today as Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff. It was a pleasing site, no doubt, and one which commanded a long view of the river in both directions. Back from the steep bluff was a rich, flat plain, ideal for cultivating, and a small creek that emptied into the river. Five leagues up-river lived the Mobile Indians, a pitiful remnant whose ancestors had almost been destroyed by DeSoto. They had been known to the French for some time. Ever since the first contact with the French, the Indians had been seeking to bring the colony to the Mobile River. For selfish reasons, they needed the colonists for protection against the encroachments of rival tribes such as the Creeks and the Alabamas. And they loved the trinkets that the French lavishly bestowed on them.

But the Mobile Indians had something to offer the French. They could show them how to till the soil, how to make their way in the wilderness and more importantly they could aid the French in their plans to trade with the Indians of the interior. In the battle with England for control of North America, commerce with the Indians was to be the prized bone of contention. And the area where the competition would broil most heatedly was the valley of the Alabama-Tombigbee River that emptied into the Mobile. Here the English and the French trader would vie for the good favor of the American savage.

It was a battle that Iberville could foresee with poignant clarity. What more strategic move could be made, then, than to found a colony near the mouth of this coveted river basin? Already, he had secured the port at Dauphin Island. Now that Sauvole and Bienville had given their recommendations, it only remained for Iberville to give the command and the axes would begin to chop.

Laying ill with fever at Pensacola, Iberville made his decision. He dispatched two vessels to Fort Maurepas, a ketch with supplies for the new fort and a launch with eighty workers. Two weeks later, on January 12, 1702, the ketch returned from Maurepas along with a traversier reporting that Bienville had arrived at Dauphin Island with forty men. A few months before, Sauvole had died at Maurepas and Bienville advanced to commandant. Now Iberville ordered his brother to commence operations and Bienville put his carpenters to work. They cleared the land in a matter of days and began construction of the houses and buildings.

Meanwhile, Iberville recovered from his fever and landed at Dauphin Island where he supervised the building of that port. For the next few weeks he was busy directing the transfer of supplies from Maurepas to the new site. Then Iberville arrived at the site himself, where he spent the month of March 1702, in directing the building of the fort. During that month, the fort called Fort Louis de la Louisiane was virtually completed and Iberville, on the last day of March, departed for France, relinquishing personal command of that vast enterprise in the new world that he had begun at Fort Maurepas. Now Fort Louis of the Mobile was the capital of the Louisiana Territory and was to remain such for the next eight years until the transfer down-river to the edge of Mobile Bay in 1710. The man Iberville left in charge was his twenty-two-year-old brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville.

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