Early History of Louisiana – the Pelican State


By James S. Zacharie, 1885


The City Of New Orleans

New Orleans, Louisiana 1851

New Orleans, Louisiana 1851

It is often said that Paris is France, and it may also be said that New Orleans is Louisiana, for the history of the city is the history of the State.

The first mention of Louisiana, and of the Mississippi River being traversed by white men was in 1536, when a remnant of the ill-starred expedition of the Spaniards, under Pamphilo de Narvaez, in the vain attempt to conquer Florida and seek gold, escaped in the west in direction to the Pacific Ocean. Narvaez had been put in command of the territory extending west to the River of Palms, which was probably the Colorado River.

Notwithstanding the failure of Narvaez, other adventurers were ready to follow. In 1537, Fernando de Soto, a native of Xeres, Spain, the favorite companion of Pizzaro in the conquest of Peru, sought and obtained at Valladolid, from King Charles V., permission to conquer Florida at his own cost. Landing on that coast on May 31, 1539, his well-appointed army was almost annihilated before he reached the Mississippi River two years later. In May 1542, Hernando DeSoto died at the mouth of Red River, and, according to tradition, was buried in the waters of the Mississippi River. The miserable remnant of the expedition descended the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico in July 1543, after enduring great hardships and privations. Thus does the discovery of the Father of Waters belong to the Spaniards, and no record of other white men visiting it for 130 years is in existence.

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette, a missionary monk, and the Sieur Joliet, from Picardy, France, with a small party from the French possessions of Canada, entered the upper Mississippi River, descended it to a point below the mouth of the Arkansas River and returned.

French Take Possession

Adventures of Sieur de La Salle

Adventures of Sieur de La Salle

In 1682, Robert Cavalier de la Salle, then of Fort Frontenac, Lake Ontario, was the next to descend the great river in company with Chevalier Ilenry de Tonti, an Italian veteran officer, under the patronage of King Louis XIV. On April 9, 1682, LaSalle halted on the banks of the Mississippi River, above the head of the passes, erected a cross, and, calling a notary to witness, he took solemn possession of the country in the name of his sovereign Louis XIV and named it after him — Louisiana.

In January 1699, an expedition composed of 300 men was sent out to colonize Louisiana. The expedition was commanded by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, and with him were his two brothers, Sauvolle and Bienville, all sons of Charles Leinoyne. A landing was made on the Bay of Biloxi and a fort built on a small point of land that extends out into the bay. In February, Iberville and his brother, Bienville, accompanied by Father Athanase, who had formerly been with La Salle, went in small boats to the Mississippi River, which they ascended first to the village of the Bayagoulas, where these Indians handed them letters and other relics of La Salle and Tonti. They then moved on to Pointe Coupee, which they named, and to the mouth of Red River. Returning, they traversed Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain, naming one after Count Maurepas, who held office under their sovereign, and the other after Count Pontchartrain, who was the Minister of Marine. On December 7th of the same year, another fleet arrived, bringing letters appointing Sauvolle as the first Governor of the Colony, and Bienville as the first Lieutenant-Governor. In 1701, Governor Sauvolle died of fever and was succeeded by Bienville. On September 14, 1712, King Louis XIV granted to Anthony Ciozat a charter for 15 years, with the exclusive commerce of the whole Province, from the Gulf to the Great Lakes, and from the Alleghany Mountains to the Rocky Mountains on the West. By the terms of the charter, Crozat was to send, every year to Louisiana, two shiploads of colonists, and, after nine years, to assume all the expenses of the Colonial administration, including those of the army, in consideration of which he was to have the privilege of nominating the officers to be appointed by the King.

In 1717, Crozat, finding this colonial scheme a failure, voluntarily surrendered his charter to the King. On August 13, a Council of State was held at Versailles, presided over by the Duke of Orleans, Regent of France during the minority of Louis XV, at which, it was decided that as the colonization of Louisiana was a commercial undertaking, it should be confined to a company, and then a charter was granted and registered by the Parliament of Paris on September 16, 1717, under the name of the Company of the Indies. To this Mississippi Company, as it was sometimes called, was granted the exclusive privilege of trading with Louisiana for 25 years, to administer the colony, appoint officers, and maintain an army. Its leading spirit was John Law, a smart and scheming Scotchman, long domiciled in Paris. All the lands, coasts, harbors, and islands in Louisiana were granted to the company on the condition of furnishing to every King of France, on his accession to the throne, a crown of gold of the weight of 30 marks. Louisiana was supposed to be a Garden of Eden, with the most useful fruits, and a new Eldorado, teeming with mines of gold, silver, and precious stones. As such, the Province was placed before the public, and vast sums of money were invested in the shares of the company, with the expectation of a rich harvest of dividends. However, poor administration, disease, and wars with the Indians caused the scheme to result in a failure, and the Mississippi bubble burst, scattering ruin on all sides. On November 15, 1731, the Mississippi Company, finding the colony, not a success, after existing 14 years, surrendered their charter to the King.

Founding of New Orleans

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville

Sailing along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain in 1718, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville discovered the small stream now called Bayou St. John, and ascending it, encamped for the night on the Metairie Ridge. The tract of country lying between the headwaters of Bayou St. John and the banks of the Mississippi River was selected as the site of the future city. This space was then covered with a primitive forest, and, owing to the annual inundations of the river, was swampy and marshy and cut up with a thousand small ravines and pools of stagnant water when the river was low. Bienville and 50 soldiers started to clear the ground of its primitive growth, and, unmolested by the Indians, whose sole representative was an old Indian woman, who sang a chant. “The Spirit tells me,” she sang, ” that the time will come when, between the river and the lake, there will be as many dwellings for the white men as there are trees standing now. The haunts of the red man are doomed, and faint recollections and traditions concerning the very existence of his race will float dimly over the memory of his successors, as unsubstantial, as vague and obscure as the mist which shrouds, on a winter morning; the bed of the Father of Waters.”

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