Purpose of the Inquiry
What follows is an inquiry, in no way considered a final analysis, into the basis for the local belief that Bay St. Louis traces its origins back to Iberville and 1699. This is not an attempt to disprove the legend, but to find substantiation in recorded history. Any one who can add information to this task is certainly welcome to do so.
Many sources have been searched, the results being outlined below. There are certainly others, and the offering of relevant history not yet found would be most appreciated.
It is not an attempt to disprove Claiborne. It is instead a search for what we can substantiate in written history, acknowledging that some information, including documents such as journals, logs and the like, may have been available to historians but later lost for the rest of us. Indeed, Claiborne is known to have lost a manuscript in a riverboat explosion.
Deer, Buffalo and Hunters
Something that comes out of this inquiry is certain: the area of the bay was used early for hunting when there was a great need for fresh meat. Furthermore, it was not only used for such, but it was used often and successfully. Perhaps the high lands inland from the bay contained an abundance of game because of freshwater spring at Belle Fontaine, shown on the early maps of the bay. Whatever the reason, bear, deer and buffalo were taken.
The first mention of a hunt at the bay is in fact the account by Andre Penicaut, Iberville’s master ship carpenter, in his book, Fleur de Lys and Calumet: “We found a bay one league wide and four leagues in circumference, forming a half circle. We named it Baye de St. Louis because it was on St. Louis Day that we came there….We went ashore there and found such a great quantity of game of all kinds of animals that we killed more than fifty wild animals, [as many buffalo as deer; we made no attempt to kill more]. After three days we left that place….”
Note that he did not say anyone stayed.
Penicaut did not give the date, although it is said to be August 25, as that is the date of the St. Louis feast day. It seems certain that the year was 1699, as that was when he was travelling with Bienville, and Penicaut was careful in his book to claim “proof of its authenticity…in the fact that I report the [events] year by year.”
What Penicaut notably did not say was that they “placed a few families here with a sergeant and fifteen men, in a small fort, near where the Toulme mansion…” That was to come later, and was said by JFH Claiborne.
Still, another 1699 mention was made by Penicaut:
“…leaving Isle Aux Pois, we passed through some litte rigolets, which end up at the sea three leagues away, near Baye de St. Louis. We 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. We hunted for a few days on the shore of this bay. We loaded our longboats with the buffalo and deer that we killed, and the next day we brought them to the fort.”
In 1704, at the beginning of the year, reported Penicaut, Bienville had found that the store of food was wanting. Having sent some men to Havana for supplies, he also permitted fifty volunteers to go into the woods:
“[TO] live from hunting, or live among the savage nations friendly to us, with instructions to return when they heard the ships had come….We went in several rowboats, all keeping together, as far as the Baye of St. Louis, where we had very good hunting and fishing, off which we lived. After a few days, I proposed to twenty of my comrades that we go back up the Mississippi together and visit some of the nations along the bank of the river.”
Next, he makes recall of the following year, 1705, never telling whether any of those had remained at the bay.
It might be expected that the foremost authority would be Iberville’s writings. The Iberville Journal clearly describes the Bay of St. Louis, mentioning that several people were put ashore to hunt and that they killed seven deer and saw buffalo. There is no mention, however, of a settlement being started there at that time. This was on his second journey to the Mississippi River, in 1700.
Iberville made a similar record on January 22, 1700, about both the bay and the killing of deer; that statement is quoted below.
Hunting at the bay was of importance for others as well as the people of Fort Maurepas.
The “Bay of Saint-Louis” is mentioned several times in Jay Higginbotham’s Old Mobile. In one instance, he recounts bad news given to Iberville from Sauvole, commandant of Fort Maurepas: “…de Bienville, then commandant of Fort la Boulaye, was dangerously short of food and supplies, so improvisioned that he had been forced to send hunters to the bay of Saint-Louis to try to supplement the corn that Sauvole was sending from his own meager supply.” This was according to a letter from Iberville to his minister, dated 1701.
Claiborne – perhaps the source of the legend
In December of 1699, according to JFH Claiborne, Iberville “placed a few families here with a sergeant and fifteen men, in a small fort, near where the Toulme mansion (Judge Chandler’s) now stands.” Nothing could be more direct, more persuasive. After all, this comes from the “historian of Mississippi.”
There are a couple of problems, however. First, Claiborne gives no reference, no authority for his conclusion. Strangely, if accurate, this detailed account can be found
nowhere else. Claiborne delivered these lines in a famous speech given on the shores of the bay on July 4, 1876. I must assume that Judge Chandler was there in person, as well as most of the townspeople of the day. Claiborne has been known to exaggerate, or at least to modify the truth; could it be that his history had just been given to him by Judge Chandler or another proud citizen? This speculation is not to say that it was patently untrue, but it is significant that Claiborne, in his masterwork on the history of Mississippi, published a couple of years after he gave the speech, does not repeat the information.
In Louisiana’s Loss, Mississippi’s Gain, Our Hancock County-born historian Robert Scharffexpresses some doubt, using pay records found in Higginbotham’s 1968 book about Fort Maurepas. These records show that there was only one sergeant with Iberville, suggesting that Iberville would not have sent away his lone sergeant. He further states that since there were no women with Iberville on his expedition the words “a few families” cannot be correct.
There can be no need of further evidence that the bay area was seen as a good place to hunt. As stated above, Iberville reported in his journal that when they discovered the bay they sent hunters in to kill deer and buffalo. What is not said in the story of Bienville’s sending of hunters is that there was already a settlement there, which, if so, would seem to be relevant information to those being sent.
Indeed, Higginbotham has another mention deeper into his book: “By the spring of 1703, however, food and supplies in Mobile had grown noticeably thin….Lacking in meat, he sent hunters down the coast toward the Baye of St. Louis.” Again, there is no mention of an existing settlement in place.
“Families” – Records of Women and Children
One source says that the ships of Iberville, the Badine, and of Surgere, the Marin, were accompanied by two smaller ships, the Precieux and the Biscayenne, andhad as passengers about 200 colonists, including some women and children. These were “mostly families of ex-soldiers, who had been given incentives to join the expedition.” Another source states a similar passage, but limits the number of women to four.
Finally, there is some evidence in 1704 of women in the Bay of St. Louis. This involved Bienville’s need to find shelter for some of the young women who had been sent to Mobile, where shelter was in short supply. Higginbotham states that Bienville “managed to locate provisional shelter for the remaining girls in the houses of those Canadians who had sailed to Veracruz or who were hunting at the Baye de Saint-Louis.”
Of course, some of them may have stayed and form unions. Perhaps this was the real first settlement of a town.
Penicaut does mention at the end of his chapter about the year 1704 that the Pelican had arrived, bringing the first twenty-six girls from France. “These were the first ones that came to Louisiana. They were quite well behaved, and so they had no trouble in finding husbands.” A different reference attributes this to an arrangement made by Bienville. The suggestion that these were the first young women seems to contradict the statements above that some came over in 1699. In any event, women did come to the colony in its early days.
Census reports done in the early years are not very helpful. Those taken for Fort Maurepas in December 1699 include no women; the only children listed are six cabin boys. It is called “The Inhabitants of the First Settlement.”
Next, a census of 1704 is mostly of officers, sailors, Canadians, etc., but specifically says “and others.” It too includes no women. In the same year, a list is included of the 23 “marriageable girls” who arrived on the Pelican.
Finally, some wives are shown in a census of Mobile taken in 1706. Nine wives are included with their children. In addition, there is one widow with children, a single woman, and a woman whose husband had deserted.
One more study that could have been very valuable is the “Census of Families and Habitants of Louisiana,” taken August 1, 1706, if it were to list locations. Unfortunately, it does not, but some, such as Nicolas Lafreniere and Claude Trepanier and family are thought to have lived outside of the early colonies.
A 1721 listing of inhabitants of Biloxi and Mobile includes other locations, but none would seem to be the Bay of St. Louis. They are: Apalaches, Mobiliens, Fourches, Tomes, Muniaba, Petit Ecor, Taensas, d’Ille Dauphine, and Alibamons. (In the case of New Orleans and environs, besides the city itself, ten other locations are shown with their inhabitants, such as Bayou St. John, village of the Chapitoulas, etc.)
Finally, I have searched a census taken in 1727, under the administration of Perier, who, according to Gayarre, visited the Bay of St. Louis in that year (cf. below). To my regret, the list is exclusively of those who lived on the banks – left and right – of the Mississippi River.
Iberville, in Context
Most assuredly, we should be able to accept what Iberville wrote in his journal, as he probably made his notes day by day as he travelled. He would not have tried to reconstruct afterward. His first mention, by the way, was by the name “St. Louis Bay,” indicating that it had already been named. In that vein, let us see what he wrote. It is as follows, dated the 21st of January, 1700:
“A rather heavy wind was blowing out of the north. I could make no more than 3½ leagues and came to the mainland and spent the night 1½ leagues and came to the east point of St. Louis Bay.”
[Jan. 22] “Wind in the southeast, I could make no more than 1½ leagues and came to the east point of St. Louis Bay and spent the night. A part of the men, whom I sent hunting, killed seven deer and saw a few buffalo, but could not shoot them.”
Iberville does not mention the bay again until May 9, 1700. That passage apparently coincides with a record of a journey of Jesuit missionary Father Du Ru. Iberville wrote:
“In the morning M. le Vasseur Roussouelle arrived from the Colapissas with a Biscayan, bringing the chief and his wife and twelve of his men. M. de Sauvolle went to the fort in a bark canoe. They had gone to that village by land from St. Louis Bay, where they had left their longboats and canoes. They found the route very bad; the water had overflowed, covering all the rivers and creeks. M. de Sauvolle lost his servant there, who was drowned while swimming in a river.”
Father Paul du Ru, in accompanying a few of Iberville’s men to find the village of the Colopissas, travelled from the banks of Bay St. Louis to the Pearl River, overland, in 1700, during the dates shown above. His journal describes the same incident, even telling the details of the drowning of the servant of Sauvolle.
Du Ru mentions the bay several times in his logs. On April 27, he recorded:
“Pointe a Mousquet early in the morning. We said Mass at the head of the Bay of
St. Louis. The savages call it the Lac oaux Pointes or Kata outon…. A league and a half on the way we found a river as broad as the Marne.”
It was there that the servant died. This appears to have been what we know now as Jourdan River.
After Sauvolle, Du Ru, and the rest of the party visited with the Colopissas on Pearl River, they began to make their way back on May 3. In the process they became lost and were abandoned by their guide.
“We again take to the canoes, to proceed to the Bay of St. Louis. We pass through a little winding canal, but as nobody in our company has ever gone this way before, we are lost and cannot find the way out.”
Fortunately, on May 6, an elderly Colopissa undertook to lead them to the bay.
“Our guide did not lose his courage. He always kept his direction, and assured us so often that the Bay of St. Louis was near, that one of the party climbed a high tree to see if he could discover it. He believed that he saw it. That gave us courage. We fired our guns; at eleven o’clock they were answered….At four in the afternoon, two men arrived in a canoe and told us where we were. The next day, they regained their sloop and it “carried us all to the Bay of St. Louis.”
Neither Iberville’s Journal nor Du Ru’s gives more information about the two men. If they were settlers on the bay, it would seem that such fact would be mentioned.
Moreover, it is indeed strange that Sauvolle and Du Ru would not have paid a visit to the settlers on the bay, if in fact they were already there. As it was, the party could have used all the help they could get, for it was an awful journey, attested to on all the pages of Du Ru’s journal.
The bay is also mentioned in The History of Louisiana, by the early settler, Le Page du Pratz: “Farther up the coast, which runs from west to east, we meet St. Louis’s Bay, into which a little river of that name discharges itself.
In his history, Le Page tells of the exploration of the coast between Biloxi and the mouth of the river, including the “small Bay of St. Louis, and [its] channels.” Further on, he called it the “lake of St. Louis,” of which he said Lake Borgne was another outlet.
After one exploration Le Page, on returning to the fort, gave Sauvolle a detailed account of their trip, apparently without mention of a settlement at the bay. It is possible that some did remain as settlers, but there is no evidence of such a happening.
Charles Gayarre, in his History of Louisiana, significantly treats Lake Borgne as extending to the bay:
“The French, thinking that it did not answer precisely the definition of a lake, because it was not altogether land-locked, or did not at least discharge its waters only through a small aperture, and because it looked rather like a part of the sea, separated from its main body by numerous islands, called it Lake Borgne, meaning something incomplete or defective, like a man, with one eye.
On that lake there is a beautiful bay, to which Iberville gave the patronymic name of St. Louis.”
Gayarre from there goes off on a multi-page history of the crusade of St. Louis, his capture, his release, and another crusade, and his worthy canonization.
Eventually, Gayarre returns to the subject, telling of the magnificent oaks which decorate the shores of the Bay of St. Louis. “During that summer  Governor Perier, leaving New Orleans, visited the first settlements of the French, at the Bay of St. Louis, at Biloxi, Pascagoula, and Mobile.”
The last quote is noteworthy. Perier was a distinguished governor who served well during the days of the Natchez massacre as well as the coming of the Ursulines. It would be interesting to see if he expanded on his visit to the Bay of St. Louis in his memoirs, logs, or letter books. This pursuit, however, is met with failure. After many hours searching multiple possible sources on Perier, what I found was a mention in a footnote to the extent that he did not keep a journal because “he did not have the time”; the editor went on further to conjecture that Perier would have been equally disinterested in preserving letterbooks.
So much for Perier. Still, Gayarre may have had a source. He did not give it, however, in his four-volume master work.
There is no expansion by way of details of Bay of St. Louis until another section in which he mentions the population of the coastal area in 1731. “The old and new Biloxi, the Pass Christian, and the Bay of St. Louis, where the first French settlements had been made, seem to have been entirely forgotten in this table.” This is a reference to a census study of 1744 which had been presented to the French government. It included areas from the Balize to the Illinois and Missouri and a place named “Petit Ougas.”
The only Mississippi locations were Pascagoula with ten white males and 60 blacks, and Mobile, with 150 white males and 200 blacks.
Gayarre observed that the census “… shows a remarkable decrease since 1731, when Louisiana was retroceded to the king by the India Company.” Here again, there is nothing about Bay of St. Louis except by its absence. I am tempted to opine that maybe after the farcical treatment by John Law and others places like the Bay of St. Louis settlement just vanished, maybe by choice, maybe by death of all inhabitants.
Gayarre’s next mention is the grant to Mme. De Mezieres, of “the bay of St. Louis,” during the time of Crozat’s 15-year trade monopoly of Louisiana. (He surrendered that monopoly prematurely in 1738.)
There are other histories. One is by Richard McLemore, editor of A History of Mississippi. Included is a statement that seems to indicate that Iberville did consider Bay of St. Louis as a possible site for a fort:
“A party was sent to explore a bay located on the mainland to the northwest of Ship Island. Finding little water at the entrance to this bay, which he named “St. Louis,” Iberville decided to construct a temporary fort on the eastern shore of Biloxi Bay.”
A description from the Sauvolle journal (confer below) seems to tell of the same thing, without mentioning the bay by name. Thanks to editor McLemore, for including a footnote. The source is a letter from Iberville to Pontchartrain, July 3, 1699. It is to be found in Special Collections, VI, 30. This apparently is in the libraries of the University of Southern Mississippi.
Another history is by Father Hennepin, still much admired for his discoveries of Niagara Falls and other northern areas. In other writings discussing the Mississippi River, however, he “falsely claimed to have descended” the river to its mouth
A work that could not be ignored is History of Louisiana from its Earliest Period, by Francois Xavier Martin. I consulted a first edition, dated 1827. There is a mention of Bay St. Louis, on page 98. Unfortunately, all it says is that the principal establishment for a settlement was to be on the east side of Biloxi Bay, between Pencagoula [sic] and the Bay of St. Louis. No other detail is included.
Nonetheless, a revealing discussion of Perier’s administration, specifically in 1727, is found on page 159:
“Perier had been sensible, since his arrival in the colony, of the necessity of strengthening distant posts. The province had indeed many forts; but none of any importance, except that of Mobile. The others were heaps of rotten timber and hardly one of them was garrisoned by more than twenty men.”
There was also a local favorite historian, Alcee Fortier. I am partial to him because I live only a block from Fortier Park on Esplanade, in New Orleans. Also, I had the pleasure once of volunteering for an archaeological dig at the site of the Fortier plantation on the west side of the Mississippi River; I found a small human tooth and a button with only one hole in it.
There are two major sources from Fortier. One is called his “Cyclpedic” form, and it contains no mention of Bay St. Louis that I could find. The other is his four-volume history, and here I found on p. 42 the following:
“On April 12, he [Iberville] visited a bay, which he named St. Louis; but having found little water there, he resolved to place definitely the principal establishment of the colony on the east extremity of the Bay of Biloxi.”
Once again, confer Sauvolle.
On p. 43, Fortier quotes Penicaut, but as that source has already been investigated, Fortier’s mention of Bienville at this point is not new. He does, however, ascribe some mention of Bienville “according to Journal Historique,” by Dumont. In that regard, I have been unable to pursue such by Dumont, but I feel it is probable that it concerns the journal of Sauvolle, which I will explore in detail below.
One more item searched in Fortier was his coverage of Perier. While he spends some space on this subject, there is no mention of the governor checking on other settlements, as found in Gayarre.
Another multi-volume word is simply titled, A History of Louisiana, by Chambers. The only mention of Bay St. Louis comes in Volume I, p. 115, to record the first grant of the area, to Madame Meziere. Chambers does mention the Choctaw name for Pearl River as Teleatcha, which may be worth recording. Also, there is much coverage of Perier, but as above, nothing about his travel to the other settlements.
Unlike Perier, Governor Vaudreuil did keep papers. This source, as edited by Barron, has been investigated, but only one time – an insignificant mention – is Bay of St. Louis found. On 15 September 1746, the governor wrote to the commandant at Mobile: “Detachment is ordered to pass by the Bay of St. Louis to warn the Biloxis and Pascagoulas to come to New Orleans in event of attack.”
Still other histories of Louisiana were sought. One, Histoire de la Louisiana, by Bernard, evinces no mention of Bay St. Louis. Another, The History of Louisiana, by Francois Barbe-Marbois, was dismissed as it relies on Le Page Dupratz extensively, and I find it preferable to stay with the earlier authority, an eye witness who lived on the scene.
Another work in which I found no mention of the subject at hand is Louisiana, a Narrative History, by Davis.
Sauvolle on the Marin
The journal which I have been most anxious to read is the one kept by Sauvolle. I found it at Tulane, in the Special Collections, in the form of a carbon copy of a translation from French. The author is considered to be Pierre Margry, but it is Margry’s publication of Sauvolle’s Journal Historique de l’etablissment des Francais a la Louisiane. I believe this to be the same as the Journal Historique, edited by Dumont, mentioned above.
(For anyone in Hancock County who wants to read Sauvolle, it might be easier to find, as there is a copy in the historical society’s library.)
Sauvolle was the ensign on board le Marin, the other ship that accompanied Iberville’s la Badine. Sauvolle kept detailed records, although many of them are of soundings and mentions of islands and groups of islands that cannot be identified. Probably, they were the older, denser version of what we know today as the Louisiana marshes.
Essentially, the Marin tracked the Badine as Iberville searched the Mississippi coast and found his way into the Mississippi River. Some of the same happenings are mentioned, and emphases are not placed in the same way.
What I did was to study the journal in two parts: the first was the travel west of the river; the second was the return and voyaging along the coast until a site was found at which the first fort was begun at Biloxi Bay. In neither case was there a mention by name of the Bay of St. Louis. However, the report of March 31 seems to indicate that the bay was indeed investigated for suitability but then eliminated. I believe also that the observation on February 28 was an indication of the observance of the bay, the “lake with no depth.”
The notes of interest – all dated in the year 1699 – taken from Sauvolle’s Journal, follow:
Thurs. Jan. 22: approximately 350 feet of water
Friday, Jan 23: sighted land
Sun. Jan. 25: “The biscayennes went toward shore to see a cape, inside of which was a river….15 leagues of flat land, running from northwest to southeast….Fine sand, then a great lake.”
Mon. Jan. 26: two Spanish ships sighted
Sat. Jan. 31: Soundings taken “around the Mobile”
Wed. Feb. 4: found the many human bones [Massacre Island]
Sat. Feb. 14: “ailing old man…one leg rotting away” [This was the savage Iberville’s men tried to help but instead caused his death by setting fire to the grass.]
Sat. Feb. 28: found oysters, but “not as good as European” [Although I cannot find it in Iberville’s logs, I have read that he also tried oysters and said they were “passably good.” It must be wondered whether this was what we know now as Square Handkerchief keys, and that they were in sight of Cat Island. ] “Water is brackish. Far from the island is a lake with no depth. Sighted land running west to northwest, then west to southwest.” At this place, they settled for the night. [The lake with little depth was probably the Bay of St. Louis. In a similar recording, on the same date, Iberville’s logs state that he “spent the night, near a point where the shore runs west-northwest, into a bay extending 2 1/2 leagues into the land….From this point, which is flooded land, I came on and spent the night at a little island three leagues to the southwest.”]
Sun., March 1: going southwest, many small islets were noted; Sauvolle landed on the tip of an island going north and south, where they built shelters. He reported they were “bored for water,” but found no fresh water, only brackish.
Mon., March 2: Sauvolle reports finding the entrance to the river, “four leagues wide at mouth.” They sighted the mainland running south to southeast, and “ranged along its shores.” Fresh water was found by tasting, giving “great joy.”
Tues. March 3: The crew sang the Te Deum to celebrate the finding of the river.
The return trip
Sat. 28, March [?] – back at mouth of river; saw raccoons [This must have been at Cat Island.]
Later, date not shown: Mention of sting rays with report of one man who was stung; it was considered that his leg should be amputated. He was not expected to walk for a long time.
Tues. 31 March: Coming down river, Sauvolle recognized an island two leagues from their ships, giving great joy and “end of our misery.” He noted that Iberville had returned. Commenting about previous observations, he said that they had to make 80 portages because of logs across water and saw “Infinite number of alligators, and 200 wild bulls.” [This appears to be a narration of what Iberville had experienced after he separated from Bienville’s boat and came through Iberville River and through Lake Pontchartrain.]
On same day, according to Sauvolle, Iberville sent de Velantry and des Joudis “to go sound the river about ten leagues to the east of where we anchored, to see if we could not settle our little colony of people.”
[Iberville log for March 31: “I sent the two feluccas to take soundings in the mouth of the river of the Bilocchy to see if the smacks could come in, with a view to establishing a settlement there….This bay of the Bylocchy seems to us to be the most suitable.”]
Weds., Apr 1: The men returned and reported that there was no suitable depth.
Sat., Apr 4: Found no suitable location on other side.
Tues, Apr. 7: Found elevated land suitable for settlement.
Wed., Apr. 8: Began to cut trees to build the fort.
In summary, there seems little doubt that the Bay of St. Louis was observed by both Iberville and Sauvolle. Though they spent a night nearby or maybe even on the shores of the bay, it was seen as too shallow. It may well be that later, perhaps even very soon after these first voyages, a settlement was planted on the bay, and the sending of some of the first women to live with the Canadians was a likely beginning.