…with credit to Marco Giardino for the information on the interpreters
Russell B. Guerin
“I found an old man who was too sick to stand. We talked by means of signs. I gave him food and tobacco; he made me understand that I should build a fire for him.” February 14, 1699,Iberville Journal
Recently I was happy to have a drive along the remnants of Bayou Manchac, named first by Iberville as the Iberville River. It is the distributary of the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge which Iberville, with encouragement from Indian guides, was able to use as a shortcut through Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas in order to get back to the Gulf.
To tour that stream now, with its twists and turns, while it looks like no more that a ditch through a south Louisiana swamp, is still a thrill. What Iberville determined to do on that occasion was indeed a momentous decision. It meant the finding of a better, quicker, safer way to and from the Gulf. Even then, a settlement along the Mississippi River was being considered, and a “back-door” route would mean that ships no longer would have to fight the constant currents of the river when travelling upstream. Eventually, a site was chosen, and it became New Orleans, with access from Lake Pontchartrain through Bayou St. John.
Iberville’s decision was based certainly on faith, but somehow with the assurance of a communication sufficiently clear for him to understand that it was possible.
It was not an easy journey; his small group had taken one of the smaller boats and embarked on a largely unknown direction. They had to push away log jams and sometimes leave the stream and portage, cutting away the vines and palmettos as they pushed downstream.
It was March of 1699. Had it been a month earlier there might not have been enough water to float even a small boat, as the Mississippi River would not yet have had its spring increase due to the melting of the snows up north. In fact, there may have been many springs and summers when the river did not overflow its natural levees, but perhaps the Indian guide had been able to tell as the river sent a small current into the bayou.
There must have been some doubt in Iberville’s mind. He had no maps, and could not have even known of the presence to the two lakes except for the assurance of his guide. The question I have always asked is, how did they communicate? Could the basic sign language used with the old man in the above quote have been enough? As a point of fact, it may be that the sign language that instructed Ibefrville to build a fire was not well enough understood, as the fire spread and caused the death of the poor man.
On the Iberville River detour, Iberville’s help was from a Mugulasha guide who left him in the middle of the trip. Although the progress was arduous, Iberville did not return to the Mississippi. The Mugulasha were Muscogean speaking, same as the Quinipissa, all part of a Choctaw linguistic group. They included the Houma, Mobile, Quinipissa (Mugulasha), Bayougoula, Acolapissa, Tangibahoa and others like the Pensacola, Okelusa, and Napissa. The Biloxi, who for a time apparently occupied land on the lower East Pearl as well as the Pascagoula, were the only local tribe that spoke a Siouxan language.
We know some of these relationships now, but Iberville and his men knew nothing of these languages.
There has been considerable attention paid over the years to the ability of the Native American tribes to communicate with each other even though their spoken words could not be understood. For whatever reasons, much of the study has had to do with the Plains Indians, obviously not of the Muscogean group. But even there, sign language could be used with nations from far south. One Arapahoe chief is known to have said that he had met members of many tribes, including the Cherokee, the Choctaw and the Chickasaw, and “we communicated freely in sign language.”
The signs were not few in number. They were not simple generalities. One researcher listed no less than 1500 signs.
Iberville, however, could not have known many signs in his first explorations. Nor could he have known any Choctaw. Later, there were definite plans made for translators, both among the settlers as well as among the Native Americans, but in these earliest of explorations there must have been some way to understand such a complicated and meaningful suggestion to change course. First, he had to be open to a suggestion that he leave the known, already explored course, the Mississippi River. Second, he had to be sure enough to break his party into two parts, his brother Bienville continuing downriver, with a plan to rendezvous at one of the barrier islands. Then, there had to be a reasonable acceptance of the idea that what he was embarking upon was not only possible, but a shortcut.
Could all of these thoughts have been generated by sign language? To me, it is not a reasonable assumption, and so I have searched for another way.
Perhaps there is a clue in another journal, that of Jesuit missionary Paul Du Ru. In the month of February 1700 he was assigned to go overland with a group headed by Sauvole to the Acolapissa village on Pearl River. Indescribing in detail the death by drowning of one of their party, he mentioned that their guide, who happened to be the one to pull the dead man’s body out of the water, was an Iroquois.
It is helpful to skip to another account, that of Andre Penicaut, who had sailed with Iberville on the initial voyage to Louisiana. In his history Fleur de Lys and Calumet, Penicaut tells the following of the construction of the first fort at Biloxi: “We went a full week working at our fort without seeing a single savage of our region. When part of our men went into the woods to hunt deer, the reports of their guns, which were heard by some savages staying in the woods, surprised them in the extreme. They resolved among themselves to draw near….Some of our soldiers, observing them, signaled to them to approach and to have no fear. They spoke to them in the Iroquois language, as most of our soldiers were, by nation, Canadians who had often had dealings with the Iroquois.” [Italics by this writer.]
Like most people, I have always thought of the Iroquois as having lived far from the Biloxi area. The question then arises as to how local Indians, who in fact were from the nation called the Biloxi, could know the Iroquois language.
As it turns out, the Iroquois had five nations in the northern district, but also a nation in the south. These were the Cherokees. Their language was not Muscogean, but it is evident that there was enough interplay among tribes, for trading and other reasons, to have sufficient understanding of the language of others to be able to communicate.
Whether there was an Iroquois with Iberville when he made his decision to go by way of the Iberville River is not known. One hypothesis might be that besides the Mugulasha guide whom Iberville recorded, it was another guide who made the suggestion, and he was in fact an Iroquois. There is no proof, but the assumption that Iberville had good information remains coercive.
There is other evidence of the Iroquois connection. In his book on old Mobile, Higginbotham mentions that one of Iberville’s brothers, Serigny, was an interpreter and guide to a band of Iroquois in the Quebec area. Gayarre, in his History of Louisiana, wrote about the abortive 1736 battle of Ackia, mentioning that thirty-eight Iroquois were among the few to stand with the French.
Need to Learn Native Languages
However we might attempt to explain the ability of these intrepid men to explore unknown peoples and unknown geography, it is evident that they came to realize early on that they needed some to learn the native languages.
There were various attempts, and some were more successful than others. A letter dated
1729, from Diron to Maurepas, mentions that Regis, an ensign whose orders were to journey among the Choctaws, set off from New Orleans with his interpreter “who does not understand the half of the Choctaw language.” Their orders came from M. Perier, Governor of Louisiana from 1726 to 1732.
On the other hand, Bienville was a good student of languages from the beginning. As early as March 1700, Iberville wrote, “We made ourselves understood through my brother, who is beginning to make himself understood in Bayogoula, Ouma, Chicacha, Colapissa, and in [the languages] of the three nations up the branch of the river.”
It is also obvious that today some of the methods would be considered extreme and that success sometimes took a long time. In retrospect, we can see that those who became the translators were honored and rewarded.
One of the methods employed by Iberville was to place cabin boys with some of the native tribes. There is of course no mention of a mother giving consent to her boy being given over – however temporarily – to a band of savages. Probably all of these boys had been orphans when taken to Louisiana, and had little choice in the matter. Regardless of the correctness of the placements, it is recorded that at least six such boys were given the duties of learning the native language; these were named, according to Higginbotham: St. Michel, Pierre Huet, Gabriel Marcal, Jean Joly, Jacques Charon, and Pierre Le Vasseur.
Another story, perhaps about one of the above named boys, is told about Iberville leaving a young cabin boy on his way up the Mississippi River. It was at the time of the second voyage, when Fort Mississippi (later to be called Fort de la Boulaye) was being formed. 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.
Cabin Boy St. Michel
We have a fascinating narrative about St. Michel from Penicaut, who recorded that the Chickasaws asked for a young French boy, and Iberville gave them 14-year old St. Michel, who “already spoke well the language of the Oumas.”
The story involves thirty-five chiefs of the Chickasaw appealing to Bienville to intercede on their behalf in order to have peace with the Choctaws. Bienville assigned Boisbrian and twenty-five Frenchmen to take them to the Choctaw village. There, the chief spoke to Boisbrian in Choctaw, “in which M. de Boisbrian was passably proficient,” warning him that he may risk being burned by the Chickasaws in the same way as they had treated the little French boy whom Bienville had given them the previous year to learn the Chickasaw language. This is believed to have been St. Michel.
Boisbrian had not heard of any such disaster and was disbelieving. He reminded the Choctaw chief that the intention was to make peace, to which the chief said that he would be willing if the Chickasaws would return the French boy.
Boisbrian then went to the Chickasaws and asked for the return of the boy. He was assured that the boy was alive, and two of their men were sent to get him.
To this news, the Choctaw chief made a new demand, that being that while they awaited the return, he should be able to hold thirty Chickasaw chiefs as hostages, and that if the boy be not returned, “these will belong to us and as our enemies they will have to die, since they then will be your enemies too.”
A month had been decided as the period of waiting, and when that was up and the boy had not been brought back, the Choctaw chief pushed Boisbrian for a decision. Boisbrian had to agree that the Chickasaws had not fulfilled their promise and declared that he must return to the French settlement, some fifty leagues away, and that the Chickasaws had deceived them and therefore the Choctaw chief should be free to do whatever he wanted with the hostages.
Boisbrian did extract one promise from the Choctaw chief, to the effect that the Choctaws would forever be friends with the French. With this, he and his men left, assuming that the Choctaw chief had been correct all along about the fate of the little French boy.
Penicaut ends the story with the following: “At the end of the year, ten Chicachas [sic] arrived at Mobile, bringing that little French boy…..The Chactas [sic] had used that deceit to avoid making peace with the Chicachas, while tricking M. de Boisbrian….He had delivered to them the thirty Chicachas they had been holding in their village, whom they killed after he left.”
Hancock County Land Grants to Interpreters
In-depth research by my friend Marco Giardino into the history of the early land grants in Hancock County shows that at least two of the noted interpreters of Indian language, Rousseve and Lusser, were awarded land in what later became Hancock County. How they acquired their knowledge of Choctaw is not fully known, but various mentions of their service are available.
Lusser, more fully known as Joseph Christophe de Lusser, was one of those who was executed by the Chickasaws after the battle of Ackia. One fellow officer who was also killed was named Lalande; whether he was Charles Marie Lalande, who was granted land on the Pearl, is not certain.
In July 1788, Governor Miro granted 1000 arpents of land on the future Logtown site to Jean Baptiste Rousseve and his wife, Maryanna Mellesair. Rousseve had worked as an interpreter with Lusser in 1730. He was the son of the settler Pierre Rousseau dit Allain who settled in Mobile as a master edge tool maker as early as 1708 and who appears on the 1726 census with a wife and three children. Known as “Little Allain,” the son was Jean Baptiste Allain, later called “Sieur” Rousseve, "interpreter to the King." It was said that he was “a prudent and sensible lad who knows them [Choctaws] all, since he was brought up among them and has a perfect command of the language."
And, of course, the man about whom we know the most was Simon Favre, who served as a translator to the Choctaws for the British, the French, the Spanish and the Americans. Held in high esteem by all, he was named as the first magistrate east of Pearl River in 1810. J.F.H. Claiborne, wrote, “Judge Favre was a man of education, fortune and standing. He had originally lived in Mobile and on the Tombigbee River, but as far back as 1777, he was residing on Pearl River. It is probable that he learned his profession from his father, also as interpreter, who had lived since 1767 on his grant along the Pearl, an award made by the British for his service.
There is also evidence that Simon’s grandfather had been a cabin boy and a translator in a book called Twelve Flags, Triumphs and Tragedies, by Dale Greenwell. This contains the following statement: “On October, 14, 1714 the child of Jean Favre and wife Magdaline Merienne (Marie Magdeline Duanet of the shop Pelican in 1704) was baptized. Jean Favre was an interpreter in the colony and had been since a cabin boy on Iberville’s ship La Badine.”
There is a reference for the first part of the quote, that being about the baptism, but none for the cabin boy assertion. Of course, we would like to believe this was so, and one day we may find the hard evidence.
[Editor’s note: there are other postings on this web site about the Favres, and, hopefully, still more to come from an unpublished manuscript by Giardino and this writer.]