…an early Guerin footprint on the river?
Some time ago, I became interested in the area in which there was once an early fort on the lower Mississippi River. I have made at least two trips down there over the years, not with the expectation of seeing any ruins, but just to have the experience of being in such a place. It is, after all, one of the loneliest, most sparsely populated places I could imagine where some of the heroes of our history might have congregated.
The nearest town is a small village named Phoenix, about ten miles from the end of the road on the East bank in Plaquemine Parish, near Pointe a la Hache.
It was first called Fort Mississippi by Iberville, and later became known as Fort de la Boulaye. Iberville chose the spot after being satisfied that the first fort, at Biloxi Bay, was progressing. The year was still 1699, and so this new fort took its place in history as one of the earliest sites in Louisiana.
As might be expected, nothing remains of the fort; even an historical marker once placed at the site is not to be found. Hard evidence has been uncovered, however. In the 1930’s, an archaeological exploration was done, and artifacts such as cannon balls and foundation logs were uncovered and donated to the Louisiana State Museum.
In the process of researching the fort, I was surprised to find that the Encyclopedia of Forts, Posts, Named Camps… says that Fort Boulaye “may have been named for Chevalier Claude Agnan Guerin de la Boulaye, native of Orleans.” I have found record of one Agnan Guerin de la Boulay [sic] who was born in Orleans and died on Sept. 29, 1739. This could be the same man, although it would make him a very young man to have been born in New Orleans, which was not founded until 1718.
There is a French town of Boulay, northeast of Orleans and generally in the Loire River valley, where our ancestors came from.
A most startling discovery for me was found in the Historic New Orleans Collection. There, I found an actual page of the London Gazette from 1699. I handled it with care, viewed it and had it copied. (A special “soft” light copier was used.)
The part of particular interest is dated Paris, Aug. 8, 1699, and reads:
“They write from Rochefort, that a Man of War is fitting out there to carry the Sieurs Renault and de la Boulaye to the West Indies, who are appointed to visit the French Colonies and Fortifications in those parts, and particularly their new Plantation near the River Missipi.” [sic]
Unfortunately, the name Guerin is not included in the article.
It is known that sometime after the date of departure, Fort Boulaye was begun in 1699 or 1700. This was during one of Iberville’s early voyages up the Mississippi River. It was about the same time, as reported by Sauvole, that Bienville fooled the English vessel’s captain into believing there was already a French claim and that he was trespassing. This ruse caused the English captain to turn around, roughly at the place of the fort. Thus, “English Turn.”
This was also the time when Iberville had dropped off a young cabin boy of his way up the river. The boy was left with the Bayougoulas, who lived near the fort. It was reported that on Iberville’s return down the river, the boy already had a fair command of the Bayougoula language.
A less successful experiment involved Iberville’s taking of a young Indian boy he took to France. He later died of a throat illness near the Bay of St. Louis and never had the chance to act as interpreter for his people.
Dr. Marco Giardino, my friend and co-conspirator, has explained that it is difficult to find the site of the Bayougoula tribe. He has told me, “[It is] complicated by the frequent, historically documented movement of the tribe after 1700. They settled briefly near Fort La Boulaye following an attack by the Taensa in 1706 which forced the Bayougoula to vacate the village where they were first encountered by Iberville in 1699.” His source was Father Gravier, in his 1700 journal.
It is probable that the site was the first land with a little higher elevation compared to the marshes along the lower river. Indeed, one may observe in driving down the river road that the relative height of the levee seems to reduce as Phoenix is approached, indicating slightly higher ground.
Whether the fort’s location was chosen because of the tribe’s presence or because of the higher elevation, it is certainly true that important personages were there. They were, besides Iberville and Bienville, Sauvole, St. Denis, and Tonti, all among the elite of our earliest settlers. In addition were the soldiers, Canadian, I think, numbering 15 to 25.
No Guerin is to be found, however, and so, the question remains as to whether Guerin was among them.
In perhaps an unrelated account, I find that a little later, in 1723, one Lt. Avignon Guerin de la Boulaye, with 13 soldiers took command of a post on the Arkansas River. The year before, he had been stationed near the mouth of the Arkansas, but because of flooding they had moved upriver to the Menard Mounds. The post consisted of a cabin for Boulaye and a barn for the garrison. This was part of the failing John Law East India Company. (The first name in this account, Avignon, is probably really the same as Agnon, shown in earlier paragraph.)
In 1726, the Jesuits took over the task of keeping friendship with the nearby Quapaw Indians, and the military was withdrawn. Father Poisson was in charge and occupied the cabin. He died in 1728 and the site was abandoned.
What happened to Guerin I do not know. Could he have been a son of the one mentioned in the Gazette? Perhaps. The years seem about right.
As to the question of whether any grants or concessions were dated as early as 1699, as the Gazette implies, I know of none.
It is curious to find that currently there is a law firm in Quebec named Boulay Guerin.