This series has five easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: French Arrive at Mouth of Mississippi River.
Nothing in American history is of greater moment than the adding of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) to the territory of The United States. That story began with the beginning of French occupation of the Lower Mississippi River Region and that story began with the first French settlement in the area in 1699. This is that story.
This selection is from A History of Louisiana by Charles E.A. Gayarré published in 1866. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Charles E.A. Gayarré was from Louisiana. He was a historian specializing in Louisiana history.
Place: Ocean Springs, Mississippi
As early as 1630 the territory afterward known as Louisiana was mostly embraced in the Carolina grant by Charles I to Sir Robert Heath. It was taken into possession for the French King by La Salle in 1682, and named Louisiana in honor of Louis XIV. In 1698 Louis undertook to colonize the region of the lower Mississippi, and sent out an expedition under Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, a naval commander, who had served in the French wars of Canada, and aided in establishing French colonies in North America.
With two hundred colonists Iberville sailed (September 24, 1698) for the mouth of the Mississippi. Among his companions were his brothers, Sauvolle and Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. The latter was long governor of Louisiana, and founded New Orleans. Of their arrival and subsequent operations in the lower Mississippi region, Gayarré, the Louisiana historian, gives a glowing and picturesque account.
On February 27, 1699, Iberville and Bienville reached the Mississippi. When they approached its mouth they were struck with the gloomy magnificence of the sight. As far as the eye could reach, nothing was to be seen but reeds which rose five or six feet above the waters in which they bathed their roots. They waved mournfully under the blast of the sharp wind of the north, shivering in its icy grasp, as it tumbled, rolled, and gambolled on the pliant surface. Multitudes of birds of strange appearance, with their elongated shapes so lean that they looked like metamorphosed ghosts, clothed in plumage, screamed in the air, as if they were scared of one another. There was something agonizing in their shrieks that was in harmony with the desolation of the place. On every side of the vessel, monsters of the deep and huge alligators heaved themselves up heavily from their native or favorite element, and, floating lazily on the turbid waters, seemed to gaze at the intruders.
Down the river, and rumbling over its bed, there came a sort of low, distant thunder. Was it the voice of the hoary Sire of Rivers, raised in anger at the prospect of his gigantic volume of waters being suddenly absorbed by one mightier than he? In their progress it was with great difficulty that the travelers could keep their bark free from those enormous rafts of trees which the Mississippi seemed to toss about in mad frolic. A poet would have thought that the great river, when departing from the altitude of its birthplace, and as it rushed down to the sea through three thousand miles, had, in anticipation of a contest which threatened the continuation of its existence, flung its broad arms right and left across the continent, and, uprooting all its forests, had hoarded them in its bed as missiles to hurl at the head of its mighty rival when they should meet and struggle for supremacy.
When night began to cast a darker hue on a landscape on which the imagination of Dante would have gloated there issued from that chaos of reeds such uncouth and unnatural sounds as would have saddened the gayest and appalled the most intrepid. Could this be the far-famed Mississippi, or was it not rather old Avernus? It was hideous indeed–but hideousness refined into sublimity, filling the soul with a sentiment of grandeur. Nothing daunted, the adventurers kept steadily on their course. They knew that through those dismal portals they were to arrive at the most magnificent country in the world; they knew that awful screen concealed loveliness itself. It was a coquettish freak of nature, when dealing with European curiosity, as it came eagerly bounding to the Atlantic wave, to herald it through an avenue so sombre as to cause the wonders of the great valley of the Mississippi to burst with tenfold more force upon the bewildered gaze of those who, by the endurance of so many perils and fatigues, were to merit admittance into its Eden.
It was a relief for the adventurers when, after having toiled up the river for ten days, they at last arrived at the village of the Bayagoulas. There they found a letter of Tonty[*] to La Salle, dated in 1685. The letter, or rather that “speaking bark” as the Indians called it, had been preserved with great reverence. Tonty, having been informed that La Salle was coming with a fleet from France to settle a colony on the banks of the Mississippi, had not hesitated to set off from the northern lakes, with twenty Canadians and thirty Indians, and to come down to the Balize to meet his friend, who had failed to make out the mouth of the Mississippi, and had been landed by Beaujeu on the shores of Texas. After having waited for some time, and ignorant of what had happened, Tonty, with the same indifference to fatigues and dangers of an appalling nature, retraced his way back, leaving a letter to La Salle to inform him of his disappointment. Is there not something extremely romantic in the characters of the men of that epoch? Here is Tonty undertaking, with the most heroic unconcern, a journey of nearly three thousand miles, through such difficulties as it is easy for us to imagine, and leaving a letter to La Salle, as a proof of his visit, in the same way that one would, in these degenerate days of effeminacy, leave a card at a neighbor’s house.
[* Henry de Tonty was an Italian explorer who accompanied La Salle in his descent of the Mississippi (1681-1682).–ED.]
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