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Historical Note on "The Devil's Bastard"
In 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville established Fort Maurepas at the site of present-day Ocean Springs on Biloxi Bay. In so doing, he founded the first European settlement in what is now the state of Mississippi. Less than two decades later, his younger brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville built and garrisoned Fort Rosalie on the Mississippi River in the center of what was, at the time, the territory of the Natchez Indians. Construction of this fort at the site of what is today Natchez, Mississippi was done in support of the French fur trade and occurred with the blessings of the Indians, participants in the trade. During the 1720s, however, French interest in the Natchez area shifted from bartering for deer and beaver pelts to tobacco farming and its ever-increasing encroachment onto Indian land. In 1729, tensions erupted into warfare. Under the guise of reconciliation, the Natchez gained access to Fort Rosalie, then slaughtered its inhabitants.
France’s response from its provincial capital in New Orleans proved quick and decisive. By 1731, what remained of the Natchez Nation had been absorbed into other local tribes, but though the French managed to avenge the slaughter of Fort Rosalie and establish tentative control over the region, colonization in and around the reconstituted fort, for all intents and purposes, had ended. For the purposes of my story, the Deschesnes survived the slaughter with the help of the Choctaw and held to their small farm. In reality, the existence of such small, isolated farms in the decades following the massacre of Rosalie would have been rare, if it occurred at all. Still, the presence of French colonists in the area, living off the land and trading extensively with the Indians is not outside the realm of possibility.
Indian wars, negotiation, and short-lived peace treaties marred the decades of French Louisiana between 1730 and 1763, all in all, a long-running conflict driven by the self-serving interests of European powers in the New World. The series of treaties, conflicts, lost battles and won, and the successful trade that occurred between France and her Indian allies, as well as her foes, are beyond the scope of this overview. Looking at the big picture, the struggle and its subsequent outcome boiled down to one between France and her Choctaw allies and the British, aligned with the more warlike Chickasaw. What was occurring between the British and the French in the Old Southwest was an extension of what evolved into open warfare in the Ohio Valley in 1756, and is known historically as the French and Indian War. When the smoke settled in 1763, Great Britain possessed all France’s New World colonies east of the Mississippi (except for the Isle of Orleans). Spain had everything else—including New Orleans.
School history books give the period of British dominion over the Old Southwest little more than a footnote, but though educators might ignore the period, historical scholars do not. This period, and the one which preceded it, played a decisive role in making the South southern.
Great Britain moved into her new holdings with a plan in mind—the same plan and goals she had long since established for her colonies along the Atlantic Seaboard. Britain planned for her New World possessions not only to survive but also to thrive. She expected nothing less from the colony she dubbed British West Florida. That meant successfully dealing with the Indian problem and the increase of slaves in the region. Like the British system of indentured service, slavery in the South (even during the French era) was a practical means of increasing laborers for settlement and for general safety in the face of Indian attack. Farmers and their slaves, freemen and those of mixed blood, and Indians lived and worked, fought and died, side by side.
The brief British period between 1763 and 1783 is rife with Indian wars and short-lived treaties. Land speculation, the result of massive land grants awarded by the crown to encourage settlement, ran rampant. A significant timber and naval stores trade existed between British West Florida and the West Indies. Additionally, legal (and oft times a more lucrative illegal) trade thrived between legitimate British merchants and their counterparts living inside Spanish territory to the immediate west. Realize that although Spanish military might cast its shadow over British West Florida, its Spanish subjects were not Spaniards. The occupants of New Orleans were primarily French as well as a fair number of British merchants and their families who moved into New Orleans after 1763 to gain access to Spanish and other European markets.
Madrid suffered with antiquated trade laws that hurt her New World colonies; however, Spanish colonial authorities often reasoned that what Madrid did not know wouldn’t hurt her—and a payoff under the table didn’t hinder their conclusion. Graft, of course, was not unheard of among authorities in British West Florida.
History readily discloses successful and failed opportunities to make a quick fortune, as well as the circumspect intercourse between the powerful citizens of warring powers. I reason that is because those who participated in such activities were the ones who could read and write. There were, of course, wild frontiersmen, vagabonds, displaced as well as disgraced soldiers, cutthroats, thieves, gamblers, and whores. And then there was what has always kept society plodding inevitably forward, hardworking men and women trying to carve out a safe place to raise their children.
By 1776 and the outbreak of the American Revolution, British West Florida, and in particular, that part of the province which is present-day Mississippi, was populated with British subjects irrevocably tied to the interests of Great Britain. With the outbreak of hostilities, more Tories poured into the region. These people were openly hostile to the American cause, which at worst had disenfranchised them and at best drained British military assets in the region. Spanish governors discreetly wined and dined American traitors—and marauders. The looming specter of Spain would have been bad enough without Spanish support to the likes of American James Willing who with a band of marauders floated down the Mississippi in 1778 plundering the homes of British farmers. He hit the Natchez District particularly hard.
The Spanish boot finally fell in the fall of 1779 when forces under the military governor, Bernardo de Galvez, moved north into first British Manchac and Baton Rouge. Natchez fell to Galvez on October 5, 1779 and Mobile in March of 1780. The British territorial capital at Pensacola fell a year later. By separate treaties establishing peace in 1783, Great Britain ceded the Natchez District to both the newly formed United States and to Spain. Britain also granted the Americans free navigation of the Mississippi River for its full course, a proviso missing from the Anglo-Spanish treaty and made more significant in that Spain controlled the river and was wary of the aggressive Americans using it.
For certain, neither Spain nor the United States was aware of the discrepancies in the treaties when they signed them. Some historians speculate Great Britain’s communications crossed and her diplomats didn’t realize what they’d done either. Personally, I feel they were all too aware of what they were doing; they perpetrated the dual hoax; and they are still laughing in their graves over it. Though the joke on both their enemies matters little now, at the time it created headaches for both Washington and Madrid and issued in a period of Spanish-American intrigue that makes rich story fodder to this day.
With the fall of Natchez to Spain, many wealthy and influential Britons scrambled. Some left the area—mostly those who had been in open confrontation with Spain on Great Britain’s behalf. Of those, some eventually returned. Most Britons, however, stayed in the area, at least for the short term, to see what life under the Dons would bring.
What life brought to the English inhabitants caught beneath the dreaded Spanish “heel,” must be considered one of history’s great ironies. Galvez brought Natchez under the governorship of Spanish Louisiana in New Orleans. Several years later, the Natchez District was converted into its own government, headed by the brilliant and personable Manuel Gayoso de Lemos. Galvez’ conquest ushered in a fifteen-year period that was truly a golden age, long before the cotton kingdom made Natchez a household name. The Spanish Dons ruled their British subjects with a patient hand and, truth be told, the British Tories gave them little concern. More of a problem was the American immigrant they invited in from the (American) frontier.
For Madrid, the Natchez District represented a buffer protecting its more lucrative New World holdings in Mexico and California. Spain was not interested in moving into the Mississippi; Spain wanted to keep Americans and European powers out of the Spanish southwest. Spain’s policy regarding Natchez was to encourage disgruntled Americans to move into the district, swear allegiance to Spain, and live, simply stated, “happily ever after.” Many Americans today are unaware of the growing pains the young United States suffered at its very beginning. Many observers beyond its borders—and even many within—speculated the infant nation would not survive. That inevitable demise was what Spain gambled on. Americans on the frontier were itching to expand westward and as far as they were concerned, Washington could go to the devil. Exacerbating Washington’s problems were land claims made by eastern states on the newly acquired federal lands west to the Mississippi. Additionally, Spain, as I suspect the British knew she would, closed the Mississippi River to American commerce, and farmers in Kentucky and Ohio and regions north had lost the lucrative markets along the Mississippi to its mouth. Frontiersmen demanded war with Spain, and tensions rose in the American west.
Spain took a risk involving herself with us rowdy Americans and our illegal, often treacherous, webs of deceit. In the end, her gamble failed. Under threat of war, but mostly, I think, just plain tired of dealing with the problem, Spain quietly relinquished Natchez to the United States in 1798.
It is in the midst of Spanish hegemony over Natchez that my real story opens, but the tale doesn’t begin there. It begins with the French Dominion and the Mississippi Company in the early eighteenth century. But The Devil’s Bastard is less a historical novel than it is a romance set in a historical period—a sensual love story with a hint of family saga—and a dark mystery, swathed in suspense. A Southern Gothic, if you will.
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