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Forts Along the Gulf Coast

Iberville, sent by Louis XIV to settle his lands, planned to throw the English traders out of the Gulf Coast area and attack the English colonies all along Atlantic. Brilliant warship commander and battle strategist, Iberville and his 18-year-old brother Jean Baptistes, Sieur de Bienville, had set out with 200 settlers in February 1699 to scout the Gulf Coast in search of the mouth of the Mississippi. They knew that the entrance to America's mightiest river had eluded the great explorer La Salle 15 years before He and his 200 settlers sailed past it and landed at present-day Matagorda Bay, Texas, where hostile Indians destroyed their colony.

Iberville and Bienville anchored their fleet at Ship Island and with 50 men took to birchbark canoes and longboats to find the river. During four days they threaded through rush and sedge, then tall cane. At last the land began to solidify, and they paddled through swamps and bayous. Finally, they reached the strong current of a wide river. Indians they met showed them a 13-year-old letter left for La Salle by his lieutenant, Tonti -- proof that the river was indeed the Mississippi. But the Frenchmen went a hundred miles upriver before they saw land high enough for settlement. It lay in a great crescent-shape bend. Bienville wanted to bring the settlers there, but Iberville doubted the place would survive high water. Young Bienville saw it as the site for a future city that would control all river traffic. Eighteen years later he would found a village there and called it Nouvelle Orléans.

Disappointed with the Mississippi, Iberville returned to Ship Island and began a slow, tedious sounding of the shallow water there. "Our provision falling short," he wrote, "we thought it best to commence operations at the Bay of Biloxi . . . merely on account of the roadstead." His Fort Maurepas, with Indian-style huts standing outside a log palisade, probably stood behind present-day Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

Iberville went to France for more settlers and supplies. Returning in 1700, he found many Biloxi colonists dead of fever. Survivors complained of an icy winter, hurricanes and hordes of mosquitoes in summer, wolves, bears, and no sign of gold. They grew no food, counting on supplies from home and eating Indians' acorn bread when their own flour gave out. So many of the settlers from Canada had taken to the woods to hunt and trade with the Indians that Iberville wrote the king to send marriageable women "to anchor the roving coureurs de bois into sturdy colonists."

During that first year, young Bienville had scored boldly against the English. While exploring the Mississippi, he encountered a ship loaded with English settlers, convinced them they couldn't stay, and watched them depart from a bend in the river still called English Turn.

In 1702, Iberville, who had just brought a third load of settlers and supplies, again set sail for France, never to return. He left his brother in command of the new fort at Mobile Bay and in charge of a plan to lead the French, the Alabama country Indians, and the Spanish at St. Augustine in an attack on Charles Town. But Charles Town's men learned of the plan and struck first -- at the Spanish. By the end of 1703, Carolinians had taken and occupied St. Augustine briefly and burned all the forests and mission villages of Georgia and western Florida, beheading and burning priests and soldiers, and enslaving the Indians. Mobile was to be next. Carolina traders in the area campaigned with low-cost goods to win away the Indians friends of the French. Bienville used French goods to buy them back. For a decade competing white agents led their Indian allies in the Alabama country to war against each other.

Mobile survived. Slowly the scattering of colonists in the area, including Canadian traders, grew to some 400. But discontented soldiers and ragged settlers, several dozen now married to young women sent from France, had cost Louis XIV a great deal of money and had sent him no gold or pearls. He turned all of Louisiana over to a businessman in 1713, expecting him to send gold miners. But four trouble-filled years later, the bankrupt businessman gave up. Few Frenchmen had consented to go.

"Lies, and one of history's most spectacular get-rich-quick land speculations -- the Mississippi Bubble -- turned the trick, bringing thousands of settlers to Louisiana," Joseph Tregle told me in New Orleans. Dr. Tregle, professor of history at the University of New Orleans, showed me a 1720 cartoon of John Law, the narrow-faced Scot gambler-playboy who started the Mississippi Bubble. Law happened to be in France when Louis XIV died in 1715, leaving the country near bankruptcy; to the nation's distraught ministers, Law sold his idea for restoring the economy. Create a state bank that would assume all the dead king's debts, he said; then pay the debts with paper money -- a new idea -- backed by the gold in Louisiana's undug mines! To dig the gold, send settlers. To pay their passage, sell stock.

When the stock went on the market in 1716, nobles sold estates, and peasants emptied their purses to buy, even after the stock soared to 60 times its original price. In 1720, after thousands of settlers had gone to Louisiana but no gold had come back, investors began redeeming paper for hard coin. There wasn't enough. Fortunes vanished in the panic. Law had to sneak out of Paris and run for his life.

"Well, at least those mad years brought settlers to Louisiana," Dr. Tregle said. "When few volunteers appeared, the stock company, desperate for 'miners,' took inmates out of prisons, orphanages, and asylums. That wasn't enough, so the company hired roving bandits, bandouliers de Mississippi, to kidnap poor people, bandits, prostitutes -- anybody they happened to catch." Even before that, the company flooded Europe with fanciful advertisements about rich, glorious Louisiana, a country "full of mines." Shiploads of Germans came, and Swiss, and Low Country people. Across the bay from Old Biloxi, where present-day Biloxi stands, John Law's agents had a big staging area. There newcomers made rafts to take them to their land. Ships left settlers with nothing but their valises, and many died of starvation and exposure.

Bienville now had settlers, such as they were, and in 1721 an engineer laid out his capital, Nouvelle Orléans. The town's immoral and generally worthless French harassed Bienville. But industrious Germans and practical Swiss settling near the capital went to work growing rice, indigo, and livestock. Villages appeared at Natchez and Baton Rouge on the Mississippi, and at Pineville far up the Red River.

Bienville's long struggle with the Carolina traders at his back door abated for a few years when in 1715 Charles Town was suddenly threatened with destruction. Ten thousand Yamassee and Creek Indian warriors, from tribes in the lands south of the colony, revolted. Before the Charles Town militia sent them fleeing to St. Augustine, 400 traders, planters, and villagers died.

But the three-nation battle for the southeastern corner of the continent soon resumed. Again, proxy armies of Indians did most of the fighting for Charles Town's 6,500 English, Florida 1,000 Spaniards, and Louisiana's 6,000 French.

Material presented here is copyright © by Outposts In The South. For more details on various Southern forts, visit their website.

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