Savage Cats, Raccoons, and the French on the Mississippi Gulf Coast
While researching the historical note for my next novel, I ran across a tidbit that has absolutely no relevancy to my book, but it was interesting nonetheless.
A particular source I was reading used a series of quotes and mixed references so that by the time I’d completed a certain paragraph, I was certain the author had informed me that d’Iberville himself had never laid eyes on a raccoon until he came to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I found that very strange. Let me, in a somewhat convoluted way, explain why.
By 1698 the French had become sorely distressed over “overt” British plans to establish a joint English-French Huguenot trading colony near the mouth of the Mississippi. This was a frontal assault against LaSalle’s 1682 claim to the entire Mississippi River Valley for France, and should such a British foothold come to fruition, it would jeopardize the lucrative French fur trade stretching from the Illinois county on the upper Mississippi into Canada.
To thwart the threat, French Minister of the Marine, Louis Philipeaux, Compte de Pontchartrain chose French Canadian Pierre le Moyne Sieur d’Iberville to beat the English to the Mississippi and establish a French fort near the river’s mouth.
D’Iberville’s expedition left Rochefort, France on Christmas Eve 1698 and arrived in Pensacola Bay to find the Spanish already there. Spain was a threat, but does not appear to have ever conjured the same dread from the French as the English. Remember, too, the French and Spanish always seemed to have kissing cousins on their respective thrones. Despite the fact the Pope had validated Spain’s claim to the region based on Hernando de Soto’s exploration a century and a half earlier, Spain had never done more than use the area as a buffer protecting Madrid’s lucrative Mexican and Central and South American holdings.
Moving west d’Iberville found Mobile Bay too shallow for his frigates. Shortly thereafter, he came to what are now Mississippi’s barrier Islands, north of which was the mainland separated by 10-12 miles of shallow Mississippi Sound. Eventually, the French sounding crew found a 24-foot channel leading to a 20-foot harbor (still too shallow for the frigates, but workable nonetheless). Six weeks later d’Iberville founded the first French settlement in the lower Mississippi valley—that being Old Biloxi on the eastern shore of Biloxi Bay. Old Biloxi is the present site of Ocean Springs.
That’s all history, but here’s what caught my interest. That deeper channel through the Mississippi Sound was discovered between what is now Ship and Cat islands. The above mentioned reference that originally piqued my interest explained that Cat Island derived its name from the number of cats on the island that the French killed when they went ashore. The description of these animals as “cats with faces like foxes” is attributed to d’Iberville. The animals were, in fact, raccoons. My reference explained that the French, being continentals—and a handful of them really were continentals—had never seen a raccoon, the beasts being native to North America, and, therefore, didn’t know what they were.
Do you see my confusion? The sailors and the tradesmen on this venture were born and raised in France, but the vast majority of the men with d’Iberville, including d’Iberville himself, were French Canadian—FUR trappers for Pete’s Sake! So I’m thinking to the writer—“You’re trying to tell me raccoons don’t range into Canada? Sorry, just ain’t so, and even if it were, French Canadian doesn’t really state the true range of those northern Frenchmen—they’d wandered much farther south than that—remember the threatened upper Mississippi Valley?
Therefore, I returned to the original “source” that being the Pénicaut Narrative of French Adventure in Louisiana, today better known by R.G. McWilliams’ 1953 English translation as Fleur de Lys and Calumet.
Pénicaut was a master shipbuilder and a continental who came with d’Iberville in 1699 as a very young man. He stayed until 1721 when he returned to France because of an eye ailment. He very probably returned to French Louisiana (Natchez) afterwards, but we do not know for sure. He did have a wife and children here, and if he did return, he may well have died in the Natchez Indians’ attack on the Fort Rosalie in 1729. Whatever, Pénicaut wrote a very detailed journal of his adventures over those first twenty-two years, and here’s what he said about those cats:
“The first lands we discovered on arriving happened to be two islands, to one of which the Count of Surgère gave his own name, as he had been the first to see it. This island is five leagues long and a quarter of a league wide. We anchored in a roadstead that runs between the island and another which took the name Isle-aux-Chats because of the great number of cats we found on it.”
That’s all Pénicaut said about the cats on Cat Island. However, editor/translator R. G. McWilliams footnoted Isle-aux-Chats, elaborating that the French called raccoons, chats sauvages. The footnote further referenced Le Page Du Pratz’ Histoire de la Louisiane (Paris, 1758), who stated Bienville [d’Iberville’s younger brother] put swine on Cat Island, which destroyed the raccoons. Oh wow! Pigs killed the raccoons.
I’m really thinking now, “That last ‘which’ above is mine. Maybe it should have been a ‘who’.” Perhaps, Du Pratz was an animal lover and those fur trappers simply went ashore and slaughtered all those poor raccoons for their hides and that reference to “swine” was more figurative than literal. So, to be on the safe side, I looked up swine to see what pigs do eat. Now I figured them for scavengers, which means they would eat dead meat, but I found out that feral hogs eat frogs and the eggs and chicks of nesting birds—and muskrats. “All right”—my mind’s still working— “with muskrats we’re getting on the level, size-wise, of raccoons. But wait! It gets worse. In a 1994 report put out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Australia reported that swine had become a threat to goats, lambs, and newborn cattle.
Now you need to remember that the next time you think about crawling into a pen with a pig.
And to properly round out this article: The Pontchartrain-d’Iberville mission was a success. D’Iberville did beat the British to the river, and I think there’s more to young master shipbuilder’s Pénicaut’s being with him than is credited. All those years Pénicaut stayed in French Louisiana weren’t just a young man’s lark. Remember that it was the powerful French Naval Minister that orchestrated this expedition and it was the French navy that turned those Brits around—on the Mississippi itself—not a little frontier fort a hundred miles to the east, and I’m not sure the role of the French Navy in this particular time and place has been given its due. The French had come to the lower Mississippi Valley to play—and they did for a while.
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