Mississippi History From Hernando de Soto to Acquisition by the British, 1540-1763
I can hear y’all groaning now. Two-hundred and twenty-three years is a lot of territory to cover, and how much romance could there be with the conquistadors stomping around, pissing off the Indians and doing God only knows what else to the poor natives? I have my doubts that whatever happened between the Spanish soldiers and the Indian maids can be regarded as “love and happily ever after.” Well, maybe in a romance….
Regardless, I do not intend to go into a great deal of detail on de Soto. My own Historicals begin with the French era in the Natchez District which began in 1716. My story isn’t set then—it’s set almost eighty years later during the Spanish era—but the family the story tells of came to this area with John Law’s Mississippi Company, and my late eighteenth-century characters make numerous references to their ancestral beginnings in the New World.
When Hernando de Soto and his troop of “explorers” came to what is now Mississippi in the middle of the sixteenth century, they were looking for El Dorado. When the Spanish returned over two hundred and forty years later, they came to protect their Mexican gold from other European powers and those rowdy Americans to the east. Mississippi was their short-lived buffer. But that’s for another article. Back to the sixteenth century.
Hernando de Soto is credited as the first European to step foot in what is now Mississippi. He did so in December of 1540. Crossing the northern section of the state, he discovered the Mississippi River in full flood near, we believe, the site of present-day Memphis. He and his men built barges, crossed the river into what is now Arkansas and kept on going for a while. If you recall from your school studies, each group of Indians these explorers ran across pointed and told them the gold was “farther that way.” At some point, it finally occurred to the Spaniards the Indians just wanted to be rid of them (they wore their welcome out pretty fast). Sick, hungry, their numbers depleted by two-thirds, the Spaniards turned back east. De Soto died of fever somewhere around the area where the Red empties into the Mississippi, and his men buried him in the Great River. They didn’t want the Indians to know he was dead because the Indians were afraid of him, and that fear kept the hostiles at bay. What was left of the group finally made it down river and into Mexico. None of them stayed (at least not by choice), and Spain didn’t come back to the region with settlers. Spain did, however, lay claim to the area and technically ruled it for 150 years.
The purpose of this article is not to simply spout the high points of history, which most of us already know, but to delve into the nitty-gritty of how the people who settled this frontier survived. On the surface, that doesn’t leave de Soto contributing much, does it? But hold on. Let’s return to those bedraggled conquistadors a moment before moving on. They did leave something behind—and Arkansas in the above paragraph gives a hint of what that was, if you’ll think about it a moment.
One thousand men landed with de Soto in Florida and started north. They brought with them pork on the hoof—a herd of the squealers to eat as they marched along. Needless to say, they didn’t keep the pigs corralled, and plenty escaped along the way. And those porkers thrived in the forests of the southeast. By the time the English arrived in the area in the mid-eighteenth century, these beasts had reverted to the wild and later became famous as Arkansas razorbacks. There were enough of these creatures running around for pork to replace cattle as the primary source of protein in the British frontiersman’s diet.
In 1682, La Salle sailed down the Mississippi and claimed the entire river valley for France. He named the territory Louisiana in honor of Louis XIV, and yes, our Mississippi was part of the claim. Remember, too, that possession is nine-tenths of the law. That and a big gun should round it out nicely. In 1699, d’Iberville established Fort Maurepas at what is now Ocean Springs on the Gulf Coast, the first European settlement in what is now Mississippi. France had begun the process Spain never bothered with in these parts, colonization. Gold didn’t come out of the soft Mississippi dirt. It came from the hides of wild animals.
Seventeen years later (1716), d’Iberville’s younger brother, Bienville, established Fort Rosalie on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. The site was situated in the heart of the Natchez Indian nation and is the location of present-day Natchez. Two years later, the capitol of French Louisiana was moved from Biloxi to a new city founded on the first stable, dry land as one moves upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi. No need to keep you in suspense, I’m sure. This city was, and is, New Orleans. Biloxi/Fort Maurepas continued on, unabated, as a fishing village.
During this period, John Law, the Scottish-born finance minister to the French crown, orchestrated a great, but short-lived, not to mention ill-fated, colonization scheme known as the Mississippi Company. (It was, in fact, more infamous as an experiment in paper money than colonization of the Mississippi valley, but for our future, the colonization was really more important.) In 1718, eight hundred French emigrants arrived at Dauphine Island to increase the population of the Louisiana colony. Pursuits turned to agriculture. Biloxi, Natchez, and Yazoo made up three of the nine Louisiana districts. Negro slaves were imported from Africa in 1721 under the Company of the Indies (the Mississippi Company expanded) and sold to the planters on three years credit. In 1724, the French introduced the Black Code in the Louisiana colony, which limited the freedom of slaves, but also levied requirements upon their owners to provide them care and protect certain of their personal rights. By the year 1731, there were 3400 slaves in the Louisiana colony.
In 1729, the Natchez Indians rose up against the French and destroyed Fort Rosalie at Natchez, massacring its inhabitants as well as Fort St. Pierre and its associated French settlements on the Yazoo and Washita Rivers. Though the French were probably their own worse enemy in their dealings with the Natchez, the British certainly had some influence on what happened at Rosalie.
In January 1730, the French, allied with the Choctaws, began a campaign that ultimately resulted in the complete destruction of the Natchez Indian nation. What few Natchez survived were eventually absorbed into neighboring tribes (my sources indicate primarily the Chickasaw). The Natchez nation itself was wiped out. In 1732 Louisiana passed from the Company of the Indies back to the French Crown. The Company of the Indies found the colony too expensive to maintain and defend vis-à-vis the return on its investment. Though a French military presence at Natchez continued, virtually no French settlers remained/returned to the Natchez District following the massacre at Rosalie. In The Devil's Bastard my fictional family survived with the help of the Choctaw and never left the area. The frontier economy survived primarily on Indian trade (and corn), and without a doubt those Spanish hogs were thriving—not many people around to eat them up, and I’ve yet to find out if the Indians even liked them.
Meanwhile British fur traders/agents of the king had allied themselves with the more aggressive Chickasaw Indians who were ever a thorn in the side of French settlers and France’s more stable Choctaw allies. The years 1736-1739 found the French at war with the Chickasaws. The Chickasaws represented themselves very well indeed, defeating Bienville soundly in the Battle of Ackia near present-day Tupelo. Defeat or not, the French fought on and a token peace was finally brokered in 1739. Never doubt for a moment that the British were always lurking in the background of these constant French struggles with the Indians (and vice versa in British colonies). Despite discord with the Chickasaw, the French had a strong alliance with the more peaceful Choctaw.
Indian alliances, however, were based on trade. In 1744, Britain and France went to war and the British fleet blockaded New World shipping. This blockade did little to impact the French colonists who by this time were self-sufficient in their colonial environment, however, it did have a major impact on France’s ability to supply European goods to its Indian allies. The Indians had become quite attached to said goods. As a result, some of the Choctaw chiefs invited the British to fill the gap. A number of the Choctaw tribes, however, remained loyal to their old French allies. The result was a rift in the Choctaw tribal structure and a four-year-long civil war among the various Choctaw tribes (1746-1750), which ultimately ended in favor of the pro-French factions.
In 1754, war between Britain and France broke out in the Ohio Valley. In the New World (except maybe in Quebec), the conflict was called the French and Indian war, in the old, The Seven Year’s War. In Mississippi, the French remained allied to their faithful Choctaws and strongly courted the upper Creeks in what is now northern Alabama. In 1762, with fortune turning its back on France, the crown secretly ceded New Orleans to Spain (the royal families of Spain and France were all kissing cousins and Britain was odd man out).
Odd or not, [s]he was “the” man, and when the smoke settled on the French and Indian War in 1763, France’s New World Empire was at an end. The future Mississippi was now in the hands of Great Britain, and her subjects along the Atlantic seaboard were bristling to move right in.
And those fat, happy hogs’ free-squealing days were over.
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