On February 13,1699 Iberville sent his brother Jean Baptist Le Moyne de Bienville, to explore the mainland. Bienville captured a Biloxi Indian woman and met a Bayougoula war party that was on the way to attack the Mobiles. The warriors told Bienville that about 100 miles to the west there was a large, deep river that emptied into the Gulf. They called the river Malabouchia.
On Feb. 27, Iberville set off to find the river, taking Bienville and about 50 men with him. He left most of his fleet at Ship Island with orders that they were to send back to France for more supplies and settlers if he did not return within six weeks.
Iberville and his men pushed south from Ship Island for four days. The wind was
usually against them. Fog slowed the boats. The low, marshy islands offered
little protection from wind and rain. Firewood and water were scarce.
Then, late one afternoon, storms drove them toward a series of points of land with
calmer water between and beyond them. Iberville wrote in his journal, "As I neared
the rocks, I perceived there was a river." What he thought to be rocks was
actually driftwood covered with mud. Iberville was at New Spain's Cabo de Lodo,
Cape Mud. He'd found the Mississippi River. It was March 2, 1699.
Iberville was not sure at first that he had indeed found the great river. It
didn't look anything like he thought it would. Nevertheless, he started up river on
the next morning, eventually meeting a party of Bayougoulas and Mongoulachas. The
Bayougoulas led the Frenchmen to their village, where an old chief presented them with the
letter left there 14 years before by Henri de Tonti. Several Indians there offered
to guide Iberville up the river.
The Iberville expedition continued up the river, passed the site of today's town of
Plaquemine, and finally arrived at a small Indian town on the river bank, with "many
cabins covered with palmetto leaves, and a Maypole without branches, reddened with several
heads of fish and bears attached as a sacrifice." They named the village for
the red stick, Baton Rouge.
The Frenchmen continued up the river to Pointe Coupée, where the Mississippi was
beginning to cut through one of its many loops and isolate what is now False River.
Here lberville "used the neck of land, which is about a musket shot wide, as a
portage for the canoes, sending the larger barges the long distance around." On
March 20, the party reached the village of the Houma Indians in today's West Feliciana
After being entertained by the Houmas for several days, the explorers started on the
return trip. At Bayou Manchac, Iberville and a small group turned to the east and
returned to Cat Island by way of Bayou Manchac, the Amite River, and lakes Maurepas,
Pontchartrain, and Borgne. Bienville and the rest of the men continued to the mouth
of the river. The brothers returned to Cat Island within hours of each other.
The journey convinced Iberville to build his settlement on the Gulf coast instead of on
the lower Mississippi River. He thought that the river banks were too low, and the
land behind them too swampy. He was afraid that large ships would not be able to
cross the mudbanks and sand bars at the mouth of the river, and he figured that a fort on
the coast would let France control the river's mouth while also helping to hold the entire
northern Gulf shore.
He chose a spit of land on the east side of Biloxi Bay, built Fort Maurepas there, then
set sail for France to fetch more colonists and supplies.
Bienville, meanwhile set off on another exploring trip up the Mississippi, going as far
as the "fork of the Chetimachas (sic)," Donaldsonville today. On his
return, he rounded a bend in the river and, to his amazement, saw a 12-gun British warship
anchored near the river bank. It had been sent to explore the Mississippi and to
pick a site for a British settlement on the river.
Bienville brazenly paddled his two little canoes up to the British ship. Its
commander, Captain Lewis Banks, was not sure that he had found the Mississippi and
Bienville did not help him out. He told the British captain that the Mississippi was
further to the west. He also told Banks that he was in French territory, that a
French fleet was just around the river bend, and that the English had better move on, or
else. Banks turned around and sailed back to the Gulf. Bienville named the
place Detour des Anglais. There's a fancy golf course today at English
Iberville returned from France in early December 1699, bringing with him the Jesuit
priest Paul du Ru and a soldier Louis Antoine Juchereau de Saint-Dénis, who would become
one of the more romantic figures of early Louisiana history. When Iberville heard of
the encounter with the English, he ordered Bienville to build a fort on the first high
ground on the river. Bienvillie built Fort de la Boulaye about 50 miles upstream on
the east bank.
It wasn't the best choice of sites. The fort flooded from time to time and no crops would grow in the wet soil there. Mosquitoes loved the place. The French manned the fort only until 1707 and did not even bother to maintain it after the founding of New Orleans. But it was the first European fort on the lower Mississippi River, and the first French outpost inside the boundaries of what is today Louisiana.