African Slaves and Indian Wars

The problem of civilization in Louisiana was early complicated by the presence and mutual contact of three races of men. The Mississippi Company’s agricultural colonial scheme was based on the West Indian idea of African slave labor. Already the total number of blacks had risen to equal that of the whites, and within the Delta, outside of New Orleans, they must have largely preponderated. In 1727 this idea began to be put into effect just without the town’s upper boundary, where the Jesuit fathers accommodated themselves to it in model form, and between 1726 and 1745 gradually acquired and put under cultivation the whole tract of land now covered by the First District of New Orleans, the centre of the city’s wealth and commerce. The slender, wedge-shaped space between Common and Canal Streets, and the subsequent accretions of soil on the river front, are the only parts of the First District not once comprised in the Jesuits’ plantations. Education seems not to have had their immediate attention, but a myrtle orchard was planted on their river-front, and the orange, fig, and sugar-cane were introduced by them into the country at later intervals.

Other and older plantations were yearly sending in the products of the same unfortunate agricultural system. The wheat and the flour from the Illinois and the Wabash were the results of free farm and mill labor; but the tobacco, the timber, the indigo, and the rice came mainly from the slave-tilled fields of the company’s grantees scattered at wide intervals in the more accessible regions of the great Delta. The only free labor of any note employed within that basin was a company of Alsatians, which had been originally settled on the Arkansas by John Law, but which had descended to within some thirty miles of New Orleans, had there become the market-gardeners of the growing town, in more than one adverse season had been its main stay, and had soon won and long enjoyed the happy distinction of hearing their region called in fond remembrance of the rich Burgundian hills of the same name far beyond the ocean the Côte d Or, the “Golden Coast.”

The Indians had welcomed the settling of the French with feasting and dancing. The erection of forts among them at Biloxi, Mobile, the Natchez bluffs, and elsewhere, gave no confessed offence. Their game, the spoils of their traps, their lentils, their corn, and their woodcraft were always at the white man’s service, and had, more than once, come between him and starvation. They were not the less acceptable because their donors counted on generous offsets in powder and ball, brandy, blankets, and gewgaws.

In the Delta proper, the Indians were a weak and divided remnant of the Alibamon race, dwelling in scattered sub-tribal villages of a few scores or hundreds of warriors each. It was only beyond these limits that the powerful nations of the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, and the Natchez, offered any suggestions of possible war.

Bienville had, from his first contact with them, shown a thorough knowledge of the Indian character. By a patronage supported on one side by inflexibility, and on the other by good faith, he inspired the respect and confidence of all alike; and, for thirty years, neither the slothful and stupid Alibamons of the Delta nor the proud and fierce nations around his distant posts gave any serious cause to fear the disappearance of good-will.

But M. Périer, who had succeeded Bienville, though upright in his relations with his ministerial superiors, was snore harsh than, wise, and one of his subordinates, holding the command of Fort Rosalie, among the distant Natchez (a position requiring the greatest diplomacy), was arrogant, cruel, and unjust. Bienville had not long been displaced when it began to be likely that the Frenchmen who had come to plant a civilization in the swamps of Louisiana, under circumstances and surroundings so new and strange as those we have noticed, would have to take into their problem this additional factor, of a warfare with the savages of the country.

When the issue calve, its bloody scenes were far removed from that region which has grown to be specially the land of the Creoles; and, in that region, neither Frenchman nor Creole was ever forced to confront the necessity of defending his house from the torch, or his wife and children from the tomahawk.

The first symptom of danger was the visible discontent of the Chickasaws, with whom the English were in amity, and of the Choctaws. Périer, however, called a council of their chiefs in New Orleans, and these departed with protestations of friendship and loyalty that deceived him.

Suddenly, in the winter of 1729-30, a single soldier arrived in New Orleans from Fort Rosalie, with the word that the Natchez had surprised and destroyed the place, massacred over two hundred men, and taken captive ninety-two women and one hundred and fifty-five children. A few others, who, with their forerunner, were all who had escaped, appeared soon after and confirmed the news. Smaller settlements on the Yazoo River and on Sicily Island, on the Washita, had shared a like fate.

In New Orleans all was confusion and alarm, with preparations for war, offensive and defensive. Arms and ammunition were hurriedly furnished to every house in the town and on the neighboring plantations. Through the weedy streets and in from the adjacent country, along the levee top and by the plantation roads and causeways, the militia, and, from their wretched barracks in Royale Street, the dilapidated regulars, rallied to the Place d’Armes. Thence the governor presently dispatched three hundred of each, under one of his captains, to the seat of war. The entrenching tools and artillery were brought out of the empty lot in St. Peter Street, and a broad moat was begun, oil which work was not abandoned until at the end of a year the -town was, for the first time, surrounded with a line of rude fortifications.

Meanwhile, the burdens of war distributed themselves upon the passive as well as upon the active; terror of attack, sudden alarms, false hopes, anxious suspense, further militia levies, the issue of colonial paper, industrial stagnation, the care of homeless refugees, and, by no means least, the restiveness of the negroes. The bad effects of slave-holding began to show themselves. The nearness of some small vagrant bands of friendly Indians, habitual hangers-on of the settlement, became “a subject of terror,” and, with a like fear of the blacks, fierce Africans taken in war, led to an act of shocking cruelty. A band of Negroes, slaves of the company, armed and sent for the purpose by Périer himself, fell upon a small party of Chouachas Indians dwelling peaceably on the town’s lower border, and massacred the entire village. Emboldened by this the Negroes plotted a blow for their own freedom; but their plans were discovered and the leaders were executed. In the year after, the same blacks, incited by fugitive slaves sent among them by the Chickasaws, agreed upon a night for the massacre of the whites; but a Negress who had been struck by a soldier let slip the secret in her threats, and the ringleaders, eight men and the woman, were put to death, she on the gallows and they on the wheel. The men’s heads were stuck upon posts at the upper and lower ends of the town front, and at the Tchoupitoulas settlement and the king’s plantation on the farther side of the Mississippi.

But turning a page of the record we see our common human nature in a kindlier aspect. Two hundred and fifty women and children taken by the Natchez had been retaken, and were brought to New Orleans and landed on the Place d’Armes. There they were received by the people with tears and laughter and open arms. At first, room was made for them in the public hospital; but the Ursulines, probably having just moved into their completed convent, adopted the orphan girls. The boys found foster-parents in well-to-do families, and the whole number of refugees was presently absorbed, many of the widows again becoming wives.

The Chickasaws and Yazoos became allies of the Natchez, and the Choctaws of the French. But space does not permit nor our object require us to follow the camp of the latter, to recount their somewhat dilatory successes on the Natchez hills, and in the swamps of the Washita, or on the distant banks of Red River under the intrepid St. Denis. The Natchez nation was completely dismembered. The prisoners of war were sent across the Gulf to die in, the cruel slavery of the San Domingo sugar plantations. The few survivors who escaped captivity were adopted into the Chickasaw nation; but even so, they qualified by repeated depredations the limited peace that followed.

In 1733, Bienville was restored to the governorship; but his power to command the confidence and good faith of the savages was lost. In 1735, aggressions still continuing, he demanded of the Chickasaws the surrender of their Natchez and Yazoo refugees, and was refused. Thereupon he was ordered to make war, and the early spring of 1736 saw New Orleans again in the stirring confusion of marshalling a small army. The scene of its embarkation was the little village of St. John, on the bayou of that name, where, in thirty barges and as many canoes, this motley gathering of uniformed regulars, leather-shirted militia, naked blacks, and feathered and painted Indians, set off through the tall bulrushes, and canebrakes, and moss-hung cypresses, and so on by way of the lakes, Mississippi Sound, and the Alabama River, to exterminate the Chickasaws. A few months passed, and the same spot witnessed another scene, when Bienville disembarked under its wide-spreading oaks and stately magnolias, the remnant of his forces, sick, wounded, and discouraged, after a short, inglorious, and disastrous campaign in what is now Northeastern Mississippi.

Bienville’s years he was still but fifty-six-will hardly account for the absence of that force and sagacity which had once made him so admirable and of such great value; but whatever may have been the cause, the colonists, in whose affections lie still held the foremost place, found in him only a faltering and mismanaging leader into disasters, whose record continued from this time to be an unbroken series of pathetic failures.

The year 1739 saw the French authority still defied and the colony’s frontier harassed. In September, Bienville mustered another force. The regulars, the militia, three companies of marines lately from France, and sixteen hundred Indians, filed out through Tchoupitoulas gate and started for the Chickasaw country, this time by way of the Mississippi. At the present site of Memphis, they were joined by levies from Canada and elsewhere, and Bienville counted a total force in hand of thirty-six hundred men, white, red, and black. No equal force had ever taken the field in Louisiana. But plans had miscarried, provisions were failing, ill-health was general, the wide country lying eastward and still to be crossed was full of swollen streams, and when the little army again took up the line of march, it actually found itself in full retreat without having reached the enemy’s country. Only a detachment of some six or seven hundred Canadians, French, and Northern Indians, under a subordinate officer, moved upon the Chickasaws, and meeting them with sudden energy, before their own weakness could be discovered, extorted some feeble concessions in exchange for peace. In the spring of 1740 Bienville returned with a sick and starving remnant of his men, and with no better result than a discreditable compromise.

Ten years of unrest, of struggle against savage aggression, and for the mastery over two naked races, had now passed. Meantime, the commerce of the colony had begun to have a history. The Company of the Indies, into which the Compagnie de l’Occident, or Mississippi Company, had been absorbed, discouraged by the Natchez war and better pleased with its privileges on the Guinea coast, and in the East Indies, had, as early as June, 1731, tendered, and in April had effected, the surrender of its western charter. The king had thereupon established between Louisiana and his subjects elsewhere a virtual free trade; a fresh intercourse had sprung tip with France and the West Indies; an immigration had set in from these islands, and, despite the Chickasaw campaigns and paper money, had increased from year to year. At the close of these campaigns, business further revived, and the town, as it never had done before, began spontaneously to develop from within outward by the enterprise of its own inhabitants.

The colony’s star was rising, but Bienville’s was still going down. The new prosperity and growth was not attributed, nor is it traceable, to his continued government. As time passed on lie was made easily to see that he had lost the favor of the French minister. He begged to be recalled; and in May, 1743, on the arrival of the Marquis de Vaudreuil as his successor, he bade a last farewell to the city he had founded and to that Louisiana of which it was proper for the people still to call him the father.”

Cable, George Washington and Pennell, Joseph. The Creoles of Louisiana. Charles Scribner's Sons. 1884.

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