From 1699 to 1763, the future state of Mississippi was a part of the French colony of Louisiana. During these years, the French explored the region, established settlements and military outposts, engaged in political and economic relations with the area’s Native American people, and sought to establish a profitable economy. Though France was ultimately unable to achieve its goals in the region, the years of French control of the area have left a lasting impression on Mississippi and form a crucial part of its unique cultural heritage.
The French era in Mississippi’s history began when Rene-Robert, Cavalier de La Salle, claimed the area for France during his famous voyage down the Mississippi River in 1682. He named the region “Louisiana” in honor of French King Louis XIV, but failed to solidify the claim by establishing a settlement. It was not until the late 1690s that the French government took serious steps to fortify the region and develop it into a functioning colony.
French outpost in the New World
The French government chose Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur d’Iberville, to lead the colonization of Louisiana. A native of the French colony in Montreal, Canada, Iberville’s reputation as a bold warrior in colonial wars with Britain along with his aristocratic background earned him this important command.
Iberville’s contingent of ships arrived on the Gulf Coast in January 1699. He anchored off Ship Island on February 10, and went ashore three days later at present-day Ocean Springs. He moved quickly to obtain the friendship of the local Biloxi by providing them food and gifts. From them he learned of a river to the west which he believed was the Mississippi earlier explored by LaSalle, and set out to explore it. He confirmed it was indeed the Mississippi by obtaining from the local people a letter left with them by LaSalle’s trusted assistant, Henri de Tonti, in the mid-1680s.
Unfortunately, Iberville was unable to find a suitable site for a fort along the river. He returned to the coast, and after locating a channel of sufficient depth to accommodate sea-going ships, ordered the construction of a fort on the eastern side of Biloxi Bay in April 1699. This fort, named Maurepas in honor of the French Minister of Marine and Colonies, was the first European settlement in Mississippi and the first capital of the French colony of Louisiana. Fort Maurepas featured four bastions made of squared logs and twelve guns. Inside it contained several structures such as barracks, a storehouse, and a chapel. Throughout the remainder of 1699, the fort, garrisoned by approximately eighty men, served as a base of operations for further exploration of the area.
Despite this temporary success in securing a foothold in the South along the Gulf of Mexico, conditions for the French garrison steadily worsened and threatened to undermine the colonization effort. The intense heat killed crops, fresh water became scarce, illness spread, and boredom destroyed discipline. Only the aid of the local Biloxis helped sustain the French. To be closer to France’s ally Spain in the event that a likely war with England broke out, the struggling settlement at Fort Maurepas was relocated east to Mobile in 1701. By the spring of 1702, Fort Maurepas was totally abandoned. The colonial capital moved back to the Biloxi area briefly from 1719 to 1722 before moving to New Orleans, but with Maurepas’ failure the Mississippi Gulf Coast would never again figure as prominently in French plans for development of the region.
Establishment on the Mississippi
Establishing itself along the Mississippi River remained a priority for France throughout the early 1700s. Of particular interest was the site of Natchez, located on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi and featuring a large area of fertile soil. The French constructed Fort Rosalie there in 1716, hoping a prosperous settlement might develop nearby. Strained relations with the local Natchez, however, ultimately led to the settlement’s demise. The French treated the Natchez harshly and abused their hospitality. When French officials in 1729 demanded land that included the White Apple Village, a sacred ceremonial center, the Natchez determined to take a stand.
On the morning of November 28, 1729, the Natchez attacked the fort, killing approximately three hundred people and taking many women, children, and black slaves captive. A smaller garrison further north near present-day Vicksburg was also attacked by Natchez allies, the Yazoo. The French quickly sent forces to retaliate against the Natchez and within two years had virtually destroyed the tribe. The French eventually repaired and re-garrisoned the fort, but the settlement at Natchez languished and did not begin to recover until decades later when it was no longer part of the French empire.
A private colony
Producing revenue was just as important to France as establishing settlements. In an effort to establish a stable agricultural economy, the French encouraged colonists to grow crops such as tobacco, indigo, and rice. The French also assisted in developing the deerskin trade, which became the colony’s single most profitable economic enterprise. Still, the colony cost France much more than it reaped from it. To remedy the situation, France decided to turn the colony over to a private company that could develop its economy while simultaneously solidifying French control of the region.
The first private attempt was made by Anthony Crozat, who received a charter from King Louis XIV in 1712. Crozat never visited the colony, but instead sent his agent, Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, to serve as governor. For over four years, Cadillac feuded with other colonial officials as he unsuccessfully struggled to improve the colony’s impoverished conditions. Having failed to develop the colony, Crozat returned it back to the French government in 1717.
Shortly afterwards, the French turned the colony’s fortunes over to another private investor named John Law. Law organized a joint-stock company, named the Mississippi Company, a subsidiary of the Company of the Indies, and sold shares to investors by promising huge profits once the colony’s economy began to develop. Unfortunately, Law’s company, which had become known somewhat derisively as the “Mississippi Bubble,” failed in 1721. Law fled to avoid arrest and the company’s charter reverted to its parent company.
Life in French Mississippi
Perhaps the most significant development during Mississippi’s years as a private colony was the introduction of African slaves into the region. Slaves were brought in to assist with a wide variety of types of labor, especially agricultural projects. Their population increased rapidly, rising from 3,400 in 1731 to about 6,000 in 1763. This new element in French colonial society led to the establishment of one of the most notorious legal codes in history, the Code Noir, or “black code.” These laws, written by Iberville’s brother, Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur d’Bienville, governed the behavior of slaves, restricted the activities of free Negroes, ordered Jews out of the colony, insisted on only one religion, Catholicism, and set the responsibilities of slaveholders toward their property. For instance, slaves were prohibited from owning weapons or from gathering in groups, and owners were held responsible for the care of their slaves.
Enticing immigrants to French Mississippi proved to be a tremendous challenge to both the colonial government and private officials. At first, a steady flow of immigrants came to the colony in hopes of securing a better life, or perhaps making a quick fortune in the undeveloped region. But, as time went on and word of the colony’s poor situation spread, immigration slowed significantly. In a desperate attempt to boost the population of the colony, the French government rounded up vagrants, convicts, and others on the lower rungs of society in France and shipped them involuntarily to Louisiana.
The French government also sent unmarried French women to Louisiana as potential wives for male settlers. These girls became popularly known as “cassette girls,” after the suitcase or cassette containing their possessions they carried to the colony. Although some Mississippi families today can trace their lineage to these girls, their arrival did not achieve the result the government had hoped. Only a few small, widely scattered settlements comprised Mississippi throughout its period of French control.
The struggle with England
England’s first foray into the area occurred in late 1699 when Bienville encountered an English ship on the Mississippi at a spot now known as “English Turn.” By bluffing, Bienville managed to convince them that the French had firm military control of the river, thus temporarily halting English colonization in the region.
In the 1730s, Great Britain established the new colony of Georgia on the Atlantic Coast, and proclaimed that its boundaries extended all the way to the Mississippi River. British traders soon moved into the area, and made alliances with Native Americans, including the warlike Chickasaws. Using the excuse of the Chickasaws refusing to hand over Natchez refugees, the French made war on the tribe. The conflict began when Bienville organized a two-pronged attack that ended in failure in northeast Mississippi at Ackia in 1736. A few years later, Bienville organized another invasion. Luckily for the French, the Chickasaws believed this force was too strong for them and signed a treaty in 1740 that was favorable to French interests. Despite the agreement, the Chickasaws remained a threat to the French throughout their control of the region.
After numerous conflicts in North America, England finally gained complete victory over France in North America in the French and Indian War. In the 1763 Treaty of Paris, France gave up all its holdings on the continent to England. In an effort to prevent the English from fully capitalizing on their loss, France signed a secret treaty with Spain to give their ally French possessions west of the Mississippi River, including New Orleans. France was all too happy to cede Louisiana to Spain considering the financial drain and headaches that Louisiana had given them over the years. The French era in Mississippi’s history was over.
Though it was characterized by turmoil, struggle, and failure, France’s period of control of Mississippi is an important period in the state’s past. It marks the first serious attempt by a European power to colonize the region, as well as the time period in which Mississippi became part of an international power struggle that would shape the development of the entirety of the Gulf South. Just as significantly, it initiated over a century of negotiation and conflict between European immigrants and the area’s native populations. Finally, French control set Mississippi on a course of agricultural and social development, underpinned by the institution of slavery, which would define much of its early history.
J. Michael Bunn is executive director of the Historic Chattahoochee Commission. and Clay Williams is director, Old Capitol Museum, Jackson, Mississippi.
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Claiborne, J.F.H. Mississippi, as a Province, Territory and State, with Biographical Notices of Eminent Citizens, Vol. 1. Jackson: Power & Barksdale, Publishers and Printers, 1880.
Higginbotham, Jay. Fort Maurepas. Pascagoula, Mississippi: Jackson County Historical Records, 1968.
Howell, Walter G. “The French Period, 1699-1763,” in A History of Mississippi, edited by Richard Aubrey McLemore, Vol. 1. Jackson: University & College Press of Mississippi, 1973, 110-136.
Rowland, Dunbar and Albert G. Sanders, eds. Mississippi Provincial Archives: French Dominion. 3 vols. Jackson, 1927-1932.