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The first snowbirds
02/24/02By BILL BARROW
Frank and painstakingly detailed, the journals of Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville are perhaps the most thorough account of the people, places and events in the early development of the modern Gulf Coast.
The musings of the French Canadian explorer are today required reading for serious students of early Mobile history. But they can just as well serve as a pleasurable window to the past, revealing how French, Spanish and American Indian culture, among others, first mixed at the outset of a 300-year journey leading to 21st century Mobile.
Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams, who was a linguist and English professor at Birmingham-Southern College, first translated Iberville's diaries and assembled them into "Iberville's Gulf Journals." Because no dictionary of Iberville's language -- Old French -- existed, McWilliams spent more than two years tracing the etymology, or word origin, of French before he could even begin the translation.
Tennant McWilliams, Richebourg's son and a history professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, helped get the English version of the journals published in 1981, after his father's death.
Research materials for the book, including a microfilm version of the original French manuscript and McWilliams' voluminous notes, have been donated to the University of South Alabama Archives.
The younger McWilliams praised his father's diligence in crafting the translation. But he said the work is not most valuable as a piece of language history, but as a piece of cultural history for Mobile and the surrounding region.
"People most commonly associate French culture with the area, thinking it was and is dominant," he told the Mobile Register in a recent interview. "That's really not true. French, Spanish, Indian, African and Creole culture all came together in those times, and their influence remains today."
Iberville's journals do not implicitly call attention to this fact, as they are the recordings of a Frenchman. However, the numerous mentions of English and Spanish activity, not to mention the already established Indians and some Africans, make it obvious that the 17th and 18th century Gulf Coast was one of the original Americana melting pots.
In the introduction to his father's book, Tennant McWilliams writes that the "journals permit an appreciation of Iberville within the broad, comparative-culture perception of early American history."
They allow, he said, "diplomatic comparison" between the French and the English, accounts of various American Indians in the area, and details of the climate and terrain found along a coastline that had been little disturbed by European settlers.
The following are synopses of the three journals -- one for each of Iberville's expeditions to the region -- and selected entries from each.
First voyage: The Journal of the Badine :
Iberville's first expedition, which began in December 1698, was a mission to find the mouth of the Mississippi River, a target that earlier explorers, among them Spaniard Hernando de Soto and Frenchman René-Robert Cavalier de La Salle, had neared, but invariably missed because of supposed rocks.
Once he found the mouth, Iberville was to establish a fort, giving the French control of trade -- primarily furs from Canada -- along the Mississippi.
The expedition comprised three ships: the Badine, Marin and Francois. The Badine, on which Iberville sailed, and the Marin carried men to build and staff the fort. The ships also carried supplies, livestock and smaller vessels, often used for side expeditions inland, where Iberville encountered Indians.
-- Feb. 3, 1699: Iberville continues exploration of what would become Dauphin Island, which he had found days before. "I remained on the island, which I am naming Massacre Island because we found on it, at the southwest end, a spot where more than sixty men or women had been slain," he wrote. "As none of these have yet rotted, it appears that this occurred no more than three or four years ago."
-- Feb. 9, 1699: "Wind southeast, misty. I set sail, and the other vessels, too, and came on and anchored 1 leagues south-southeast to seaward of the island, in 33 feet of water. This land is unwooded sand dunes. ... Every day the weather is fine, warm but with a light wind that is quite cold. We are seeing a great many bustards and snow geese."
-- Feb. 13, 1699: The expedition first encounters Indians. The journals repeatedly reveal the value Iberville and his brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, placed on the Indians, in contrast to the British practice of warring with and ultimately displacing the natives.
"I went ashore and found 2 trails Indians made yesterday, which I followed overland with 1 man, my brother coming along in the bark canoe and the Biscayan following half a league (1 league is about 3 miles) behind us to avoid frightening the Indians."
-- Feb. 14, 1699: "I got into my canoe and pursued the (Indians') canoes and overtook them as they were landing on the shore. All the Indians fled into the woods, leaving their canoes and baggage. ... I found an old man who was too sick to stand. We talked by means of signs. ... I sent my brother and 2 Canadians after the Indians who had fled to try to make them come back ... Toward evening he brought a woman to me whom he had caught in the woods 3 leagues from here. I led her to the old man and left her after giving her presents and some tobacco to take to her men for them to smoke."
-- Feb. 17, 1699: "... I got to the place where my brother was. Here I found a chief of the Bayogoula with 21 of his men and some Mougoulascha ... (They) came on at the noise of the cannon to see who we were. They caressed my brother many times; he gave them some tobacco and feasted them that night. ... The chief captain of the Bayogoula came to the seashore to show me friendliness and courtesy in their fashion, which is, being near you, to come to a stop, pass their hands over their faces and breast, and then pass their hands over yours, after which they raise them toward the sky, rubbing them together again and embracing again. I did the same thing, having watched it done to the other."
After the introductions, Iberville wrote, "(W)e all smoked an iron calumet made in the shape of a ship with the white flag adorned with fleurs-de-lis and or-
8Ibervillenamented with glass beads. ... making them understand that with this calumet I was uniting them to the French and that we were from now on one."
-- March 1, 1699: The expedition spent many days simply waiting out the weather. "It rained and thundered all day, and a heavy wind blew from the southeast. I stayed at this island, which has been almost covered with water. We find no trees here, no fresh water -- no more than on the other islands and shores by which I have passed. On all these islands we are killing raccoons, which live here off shellfish. Their fur is reddish brown."
-- March 3, 1699: Iberville spent Fat Tuesday in the lower Mississippi River. "Mardy Gras day, wind in the northeast, so that I cannot take soundings to locate the passes of this river; however, I do not believe that there are any more. I went up the river, finding it quite deep: at a longboat's length from the bank, 20 feet of water; in the middle, 48 and 50 feet of water. Two leagues and a half above the mouth it forks into three branches. ... All this land is a country of reeds and brambles and very tall grass. ... The very low land is covered with reeds, clumps of alder within them, short, and as big as the leg and the thigh, and that in certain spots. ... I came on and spent the night at a bend it makes to the west, 12 leagues above the mouth, on a point on the right side of the river, to which we have given the name Mardy Gras. ... I climbed to the top of a nut tree as big as my body, but saw nothing other than canes and bushes."
-- March 15, 1699: Indians sometimes returned the favor of gifts, as on this day Iberville wrote of sitting "on cane mats, in a very hot sunshine. ... They gave me a present, too, one of their most precious possessions, which was twelve deer skins, very big ones, most of them worm-eaten, which I gave to my men to make shoes. ... All the (Indian) men go around naked, without being self-conscious ... the women wear just a braguet, made from bark, most braguets being white and red ... which covers their loins. With the braguet the women are sufficiently concealed, as the tassels are in constant agitation. ... I have not seen a single pretty one."
-- March 26, 1699: True to his daring personality, Iberville sometimes explored without the help of Indians. "Although I am without guide, I have gone on nevertheless, even though it is a rather venturesome undertaking with four men; but if I turn back and go by way of the Myssysypy I shall not catch up with my longboats, and I prefer to follow this stream and show the Indians that, without a guide, I go wherever I want to go. ... I came to a river on the right that flows south with so little current that I was hardly aware of it, as wide as the good one, and having 3 fathoms of water. ... This country seems to me much finer than the area close to the Malbanchia. ... We are seeing a great number of crocodiles. I killed a small one 8 feet long, which is very good to eat, the flesh being very white and delicate but smelling of musk, which is a scent that the flesh must be rid of before one can eat it."
Iberville and Bienville continued friendly relations with the Indians to use their knowledge of the area in the furtherance of his journey. The chief motive was to find a letter previously written by La Salle, who had sailed down the Mississippi but never reached its mouth, and in the possession of Indians along the Mississippi. Months after their arrival on the Gulf Coast, Bienville discovered the letter among Indians with whom he had contact, so the Frenchmen established a fort in the latter portion of their expedition. Iberville returned to France in May, taking with him a young Bayogoula Indian boy sent by his leaders to learn French.
Second voyage: The Journal of the Renommée :
This was Iberville's first return to the New World, departing in October 1699. This mission used two ships, the Renommee and the Gironde. The early part of the mission involved establishing a second fort to guard against English advances on land the French had claimed as their own.
-- Jan. 23, 1700: The Bayogoula boy dies, though Iberville shows little emotion in his journal: "In the morning the Bayogoula boy died of a throat ailment, without getting to talk to any of his people. Toward noon I reached my ship."
-- March 16, 1700: Iberville recorded an example of French culture standing in the way of the Indians. After lightning struck and burned their temple, the Taensas tribe conducted a sacrifice to appease the "Spirit, who they say is angry."
He wrote, "An old man, about (65) years old, who played the role of a chief priest, took his stand close to the fire, shouting in a loud voice, 'Women, bring your children and offer them to the Spirit as a sacrifice to appease him.' Five of those women did so, bringing him their infants, whom he seized and hurled into the middle of the flames. The act of those women was considered by the Indians as one of the noblest that could be performed."
More women would have followed suit, Iberville explained, if "three Frenchmen had not stopped them."
-- April 15, 1700: Iberville enjoyed a small victory over the Spanish, who wrecked a ship and lost all their belongings on a mission from Pensacola to overtake the French at Ship Island. Iberville's men, though, assisted the embarrassed Spaniards and took them back to Pensacola, only to use the trip effectively as a spy mission.
"At that fort (Pensacola) were no more than 250 men, 40 to 50 of them being convicts. Several had deserted after the commandant had left. They lack provision there and seem quite destitute. As for the way they live, they have no fresh food at all. Their fort is a trifling thing. This shipwreck has not enriched us, for it was necessary to help these Spanish gentlemen with clothes and other things, as they had lost everything."
Iberville began his return to France in May, though the details of the jaunt are not clear because the journal became wet. McWilliams ends his translation of the second voyage journal in April, as Iberville is traveling back down the Mississippi to reach his ships in the Gulf.
Third voyage: The Journal of the Renommée :
It was during the third voyage, beginning in December 1701, that Iberville and Bienville began the groundwork to establish Mobile. After arriving back on the Gulf Coast, first in Pensacola and later to Mobile, Iberville directed Bienville in preparation of the settlement.
-- Jan. 17, 1702: Iberville occupied much of his time assisting the Spanish again in Pensacola because they were short on supplies. He lent the Spanish a ship to retrieve its own provisions: "I did not think I ought to refuse him a vessel, for I am afraid of being compelled to let him have provisions belonging to La Mobile garrison if some do not come for him."
-- Feb. 4, 1702: Iberville wrote of the Spanish, who apparently still lacked supplies, that he had "already lent them fifteen barrels of flour."
-- March 1-2, 1702: Traveling up the Mobile River, searching land north of the settlement at Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff, Iberville wrote: "I have found the land good all along, the banks being flooded in some places. The greater part of the banks is covered with cypress trees, which are very fine, tall thick, straight. All the islands, too, are covered with cypresses, oaks, and other trees."
-- March 9, 1702: "Above the settlement, I have found almost everywhere, on both banks, abandoned Indian settlements, where one has only to settle farmers, who will have no more to do than cut canes or reeds or bramble before they sow."
-- March 11, 1702: When he returned to his men, Iberville found more Spanish requests for provisions. He wrote, "We have already given them 50 barrels of flour."
-- March 20-23, 1702: Contending with much spring rain, work on the settlement continued, evidently to the point that Iberville could not write a daily entry. A joint entry reads: "I worked laying out the alignment of the streets of the town and assigning lots. The four families I brought are housed and are busy clearing the land."
-- March 26, 1702: Iberville and Bienville hosted the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, who were warring, at Mobile. Through Bienville, Iberville effectively attempted to bribe the two nations into joining together to drive out the British rather than continue their own war. This philosophy reflected the common French method of befriending the Indians and using them as a buffer between their settlements and land controlled by other Europeans.
Promising them war from other tribes whose "tomahawks I controlled," Iberville told them, "You must no longer listen to the Englishman."
Iberville left the region in June of 1702. He never returned, dying three years later.
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