French Founders

Let us give a final glance at the map. It is the general belief that a line of elevated land, now some eighty or ninety miles due north of the Louisiana coast, is the prehistoric shore of the Gulf. A range of high, abrupt hills or bluffs, which the Mississippi first encounters at the city of Vicksburg, and whose southwestward and then southward trend it follows thereafter to the town of Baton Rouge, swerves, just below this point, rapidly to a due east course, and declines gradually until, some thirty miles short of the eastern boundary of Louisiana, it sinks entirely down into a broad tract of green and flowery sea-marsh that skirts, for many leagues, the waters of Mississippi Sound.

Close along under these subsiding bluffs, where they stretch to the east, the Bayou Manchac, once Iberville River, and the lakes beyond it, before the bayou was artificially obstructed, united the waters of Mississippi River with those of Mississippi Sound. Apparently this line of water was once the river itself. Now, however, the great flood, turning less abruptly, takes a southeasterly course, and, gliding tortuously, wide, yellow, and sunny, between low sandy banks lined with endless brakes of cottonwood and willow, cuts off between itself and its ancient channel a portion of its own delta formation. This fragment of half-made country, comprising something over seventeen hundred square miles of river-shore, dark swamp-laud, and bright marsh, was once widely known, both in commerce and in international politics, as Orleans Island.

Its outline is extremely irregular. At one place it is fifty-seven males across from the river shore to the eastern edge of the marshes. Near the lower end there is scarcely the range of a “musket-shot” between river and sea. At a point almost midway of the island’s length the river and Lake Pontchartrain approach to within six miles of each other, and it was here that, in February 1715, was founded the city of New Orleans.

Strictly, the genesis of Louisiana dates nineteen years earlier. In 1699, while Spain and Great Britain, each for itself, were endeavoring to pre-empt the southern outlet of the Mississippi Valley, France had sent a small fleet from Brest for the same purpose, under command of the brave and adventurous Canadian, D’Iberville. This gallant sailor was the oldest living member in a remarkably brilliant group of brothers, the sons of M. Lemoyne de Bienville, a gentleman of Quebec, who had been able, as it appears, to add to the family name of Lemoyne the title of a distinct estate for six of his seven sons.

With D’Iberville came several remoter kinsmen and at least two of his brothers, Sauvolle and Bieuville. The eldest of the seven was dead, and the name of his estate, Bienville, had fallen to the youngest, Jean Baptiste by name, a midshipman of but twenty-two, but destined to be the builder, as his older brother was the founder, of Louisiana, and to weave his name, a golden thread, into the history of the Creoles its the Mississippi delta.

D’Iberville’s arrival in the northern waters of the Gulf was none too soon for his purpose. He found the Spaniards just establishing themselves at Pensacola with a fleet of too nearly his ewe’s strength to be amiably crowded aside, and themselves too old in diplomacy to listen to his graceful dissimulations; wherefore lie sailed farther west and planted leis colony upon some low, infertile, red, sandy bluffs covered with live oaks and the towering yellow-pine, on the eastern shore of a beautiful, sheltered water, naming the bay after the small tribe of Indians that lie found there, Biloxi. The Young Bienville, sent on to explore the water-ways of the country westward, met a British officer ascending the Mississippi with two vessels in search of a spot fit for colonization, and by assertions more ingenious than candid induced him to withdraw, where a long bend of the river, shining in the distant plain, is still pointed out from the towers and steeples of New Orleans as the English Turn.

The story of the nineteen years that followed may be told almost in a line. Sauvolle, left by D’Iberville in charge at Biloxi, died two years after and was succeeded by Bienville. The governorship of the province thus assumed by the young French Canadian sailor on the threshold of manhood lie did not finally lay down until, an old Knight of St. Louis turning his sixty-fifth year, he had more than earned the title, fondly given him by the Creoles, of “the father of Louisiana” He was on one occasion still their advocate before the prime minister of France, when bowed by the weight of eighty-six winters, and still the object of a public affection that seems but his just due when we contemplate in his portrait the broad, cairn forehead, the studious eye, observant, even searching, and yet quiet and pensive, the slender nostrils, the firm-set jaw, the lines of self-discipline, the strong, wide, steel-clad shoulders and the general air of kind sagacity and reserved candor, which it is easy to believe, from his history, were nature’s, not the painter’s, gifts.

It was he who projected and founded New Orleans. The colony at Biloxi, and later at Mobile, was a feeble and ravenous infant griped and racked by two internal factions. One was bent on finding gold and silver, on pearl-fishing, a fur trade, and a commerce with South America, and, therefore, in favor of a sea-coast establishment; the other advocated the importation of French agriculturists, and their settlement on the alluvial banks of the Mississippi. Bienville, always the foremost explorer and the wisest counsellor, from the beginning urged this wiser design. For years lie was overruled under the commercial policy of the merchant monopolist, Anthony Crozat, to whom the French king had farmed the province. But when Crozat’s large but unremunerative privileges fell into the hands of John Law, director-general of the renowned Mississippi Company, Bienville’s counsel prevailed, and steps were taken for removing to the banks of the Mississippi the handful of French and Canadians who were struggling against starvation, in their irrational search after sudden wealth on the sterile beaches of Mississippi Sound and Massacre Island.

The year before Bienville secured this long-sought authorization to found a new post on the Mississippi he had selected its site. It was immediately on the bank of the stream. No later sagacity has ever succeeded in pointing out a more favorable site on which to put up the gates of the great valley; and here-though the land was only ten feet above sea-level at the water’s edge, and sank quickly back to a minimum height of a few inches; though it was almost wholly covered with a cypress swamp and was visibly subject to frequent, if not annual overflow; and though a hundred miles lay between it and the mouth of a river whose current, in times of flood, it was maintained, no vessel could overcome here Bienville, in 1718, changed from the midshipman of twenty-two to the frontiersman, explorer, and commander of forty-one, placed a detachment of twenty-five convicts and as many carpenters, who, with some voyageurs from the Illinois River, made a clearing- and erected a few scattered huts along the bank of the river, as the beginning of that which he was determined later to make the capital of the civilization to whose planting in this gloomy wilderness lie had dedicated his life.

Creole, History,

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

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