I want to believe that certain old maps of the coastal area are correct in showing a “belle fontaine” near the Bay of St. Louis. Furthermore, I want to believe that it was located near the Indian mound near the foot of the Highway 90 bridge. The location of a fresh water spring surely would have had great importance in the planning of the site of a proposed settlement,
Even before the settlement of the area by French and Canadians, an Indian midden was built near the site. It is believed by archaeologists who have studied the area that many years ago, there existed around the mound an entire village of Native Americans. It goes without saying that such a fresh water source would have been vital to the selection of a site by these predecessors.
I have had help in drawing this conclusion in the form of a wonderfully detailed 1857 map of the Bay of St. Louis and Shieldsboro Harbor, commissioned by the United States government. From this source, a network of canals and natural drainage streams seem to empty into the sound at the same location as above.
Sometimes, what we want to believe colors the evidence. I confess that this was so when I wrote a previous article called “Belle Fontaine – a Speculation.” It was posted on December 21, 2009, and will be removed when this new study is complete.
A good bit of what I wrote then still stands. For example, Andre Penicaut, in his history entitled Fleur de Lys and Calumet, seems to have confirmed the presence of such a natural flow of water at the spot that eventually became Bay St. Louis. Having travelled with Iberville and Bienville from the beginning of their explorations, he recorded that they “slept at the entrance of the bay, close by a spring of fresh water that flows down from the mountains and that nowadays is called La Belle Fontaine.”
A footnote in Penicaut’s history by editor McWilliams gives the meaning of the word “fontaine” to be a “small creek or spring” and refers to D’Anville’s “Carte de la Louisiane.” The historical society’s map book, plate 24, contains a copy of D’Anville’s 1752 map, clearly showing the location of “Fontaine” at the western side of the bay. Another map I have seen indicates the same placement and uses the phrase “Belle Fontaine.”
McWilliams points out that there are other “belle fontaines” at Pascagoula and Mobile, and expresses doubt about the Bay St. Louis location. However, in view of Penicaut’s detailed description of the geography of the area, it is difficult for me to have any second thoughts, except for a possible inaccuracy on the part of Penicaut’s reporting of “three leagues.” What he wrote was as follows: “The next day, leaving Isle-aux-Pois, we passed through some little rigolets, which end up at the sea three leagues away, near Baye de St. Louis.” A careful reading shows that the “little rigolets” was not the main connection between Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne that today we call the Rigolets, but the mouth of the Pearl River, “whose water is very good to drink.”
Using the measurement of three miles to the league, Penicaut would put the bay only about nine miles from Pea Island, shown on modern maps as Pearl River Island, whereas it is at least twelve miles distant. Such a discrepancy is easily forgiven considering that the method of calculating involved some guesswork. All in all, it seems to me that Penicaut’s words are very clear.
In the main, the reason for this rethinking has to do with the earlier mention of JFH Claiborne, who also recorded Bienville camping “at the entrance of Bay St. Louis, near a fountain of water that flows from the hills, which M. de Bienville named Belle Fontaine.” In itself, that entry gives no problem. The difficulty comes, however, in a footnote, saying, “The present beautiful residence of W.A. Whitfield, Esq., known as the ‘Shelley Nurseries.’ ”
My error was confusing the Whitfield place with one that I am told that was at one time near the foot of the bridge. This one was not so located. We have a file at the historic society which gives a clear location and description of Mr. Whitfield’s plantation. It was located on the north side of the bay, in Harrison County, on or near a shell midden, where formerly was a hotel and later a seminary, and is now Dupont. The site has also been known as Pine Hills.
As the Whitfield place also had a flowing artesian well, it also was called, at least by some, “Belle Fontaine,” but was better known as “the Shell Bank Plantation,” or simply, “Shelly.”
On balance, there is little doubt that the observation made by Penicaut and Bienville was a forecast of the eventual planting of a settlement at this strategic location that is now the city of Bay St. Louis.