These headings of the author's are used here as local links to text on this webpage.
I closed my last Lecture with La Salle's death, in 1687. A few years later, in the latter part of the same century, a French ship of 42 guns, on one of those beautiful days which are the peculiar offspring of the autumnal climate of America, happened to be coasting the hostile shore of New England. At that time England and France were at war, and the bays and harbors of the British possessions were swarming with the floating battlements of the mistress of the sea. Nevertheless, from the careless manner in which that ship, which bore the white flag of France, hugged the coast, one would have thought that no danger was to be apprehended from such close proximity to captivity or death. Suddenly, three vessels hove in sight; it was not long before their broad canvas wings seemed to spread wider, and their velocity to increase. To the most unpracticed eye it would have been evident that they were in pursuit of an object which they longed to reach. Yet, they of the white flag appeared to be unconscious of the intention of their fellow-travelers on the boundless desert of the ocean. Although the French ship, with her long masts, towering like steeples, could have borne much more canvas; although the p31 breeze blew fresh, and the circumstance might have invited to rapidity of motion, yet not one additional inch of sail did she show, but she continued to move with a speed, neither relaxed nor increased, and as if enjoying a holyday excursion on Old Neptune's domains.
High on the quarter-deck stood the captain, with the spy-glass in his hands, and surrounded by his officers. After a minute survey of the unknown vessels, as they appeared, with outlines faint and hardly visible from the distance, and with the tip of their masts gradually emerging, as it were, from the waves, he had dropped his glass, and said to the bystanders: "Gentlemen, they are vessels of war, and British." Then he instinctively cast a rapid glance upward at the rigging of his ship, as if to satisfy himself that nothing had happened there, to mar that symmetrical neatness and scientific arrangement which have ever been held to be a criterion of nautical knowledge, and therefore a proper source of professional pride. But the look which he flung at the deck was long and steady. That thoughtful, lingering look embraced every object, animate or inanimate, which there stood. Ay! that abstracted look and those compressed lips must have conveyed meaning, as distinct as if words had been spoken; for they produced instantaneous action, such action as when man prepares to meet man in deadly encounter. It was plain that between that chief and his crew there was that sympathetic congeniality which imparts thought and feeling without the use of language. It was plain that on all occasions when the soul was summoned into moral volition and stirred into the assumption of high and uncommon resolves, the same electric fluid, gushing from the heart, pervaded at once the whole of that human mass. But, if a change had p32 come over the outward appearance of that ship's deck, none had taken place in her upper trimming. The wind continued to fill the same number of sails, and the ship, naiad-like, to sport herself leisurely in her favorite element.
In the mean time, the vessels which had been descried at the farthest point of the horizon, had been rapidly gaining ground upon the intervening distance, and were dilating in size as they approached. It could be seen that they had separated from each other, and they appeared to be sweeping round the Pelican (for such was the name of the French ship), as if to cut her off from retreat. Already could be plainly discovered St. George's cross, flaunting in the wind. The white cloud of canvas that hung over them seemed to swell with every flying minute, and the wooden structures themselves, as they plunged madly over the furrowed plains of the Atlantic, looked not unlike Titanic race-horses pressing for the goal. Their very masts with their long flags streaming, like Gorgon's disheveled locks, seemed, as they bent under the wind, to be quivering with the anxiety of the chase. But, ye sons of Britain, why this hot haste? Why urge ye into such desperate exertions the watery steeds which ye spur on so fiercely? They of the white flag never thought of flight. See! they shorten sail as if to invite you to the approach. Beware ye do not repent of your efforts to cull the Lily of France, so temptingly floating in your sight! If ye be falcons of pure breed, yonder bird, that is resting his folded pinions and sharpening his beak, is no carrion crow. Who, but an eagle, would have looked with such imperturbable composure at your rapid gyrations, betokening the thunderbolt-like swoop which is to descend upon his devoted head?
Now, sooth, the excitement of the looker‑on must p33 be tenfold increased: now the four vessels are within gun-shot, and the fearful struggle is to begin. One is a British ship of the line, showing a row of 52 guns, and her companions are frigates armed with 42 guns each. To court such unequal contest, must not that French commander be the very impersonation of madness? There he stands on the quarter-deck, a man apparently thirty years of age, attired as if for a courtly ball, in the gorgeous dress of the time of Louis the Fourteenth. The profuse curls of his perfumed hair seem to be bursting from the large, slouched gray hat, which he wears on one side inclined, and decorated with a red plume horizontally stuck to the broad brim, according to the fashion of the day. What a noble face! If I were to sculpture a hero, verily, I would put such a head on his shoulders — nay, I would take the whole man for my model! I feel that I could shout with enthusiasm, when I see the peculiar expression which has settled in that man's eye, in front of such dangers thickening upon him! Ha! what is it? What signify that convulsive start which shook his frame, and that death-like paleness which has flitted across his face? What woman-like softness has suddenly crept into those eyes? By heaven! a tear! I saw it, although it passed as rapidly as if a whirlwind had swept it off, and although every feature has now resumed its former expression of more than human firmness.
I understand it all! That boy, so young, so effeminate, so delicate, but who, in an under-officer's dress, stands with such manly courage by one of the guns, — he is your brother, is he not? Perhaps he is doomed to death! and you think of his aged mother! Well may the loss of two such sons crush her at once! When I see such exquisite feelings tumultuously at work in a heart as soft as ever throbbed in a woman's breast; p34 when I see you, Iberville, resolved to sacrifice so much, rather than to fly from your country's enemies, even when it could be done without dishonor, stranger as you are to me, I wish I could stand by you on that deck and hug you to my bosom!
What awful silence on board of those ships! Were it not for the roar of the waves, as they are cleft by the gigantic bulks under which they groan, the chirping of a cricket might be distinctly heard. How near they are to each other! A musket shot would tell. Now, the crash is coming! The tempest of fire, havoc, and destruction is to be let loose! What a spectacle! I would not look twice at such a scene — it is too painful for an unconcerned spectator! My breast heaves with emotion — I am struggling in vain to breathe! Ha! There it goes — one simultaneous blaze! The eruption of Mount Vesuvius — a strange whizzing sound — the hissing of ten thousand serpents, bursting from hell and drunk with its venom — the fall of timber, as if a host of sturdy axes had been at work in the forest — a thick overspreading smoke concealing the demon's work within its dusky folds! With the occasional clearing of the smoke, the French ship may be seen, as if animated with a charmed life, gliding swiftly by her foes, and pouring in her broadsides with unabated rapidity. It looks like the condensation of all the lightnings of heaven. Her commander, as if gifted with supernatural powers and with the privilege of ubiquity, seems to be present at the same time in every part of the ship, animating and directing all with untiring ardor.
That storm of human warfare has lasted about two hours; but the French ship, salamander-like, seems to live safely in that atmosphere of fire. Two hours! I can stand this excitement no longer; and yet every minute is adding fresh fuel to its intensity. But p35 now comes the crisis. The Pelican has almost silenced the guns of the English 52, and is bearing down upon her evidently with the intention to board. But, strange! she veers round. Oh! I see. God of mercy! I feel faint at heart! The 52 is sinking — slowly she settles in the surging sea — there — there — there — down! What a yell of defiance! But it is the last. What a rushing of the waters over the ingulfed mass! Now all is over, and the yawning abyss has closed its lips. — What remains to be seen on that bloody theater? One of the English 42s, in a dismantled state, is dropping slowly at a distance under the wind, and the other has already struck its flag, and is lying motionless on the ocean, a floating ruin!
The French ship is hardly in a better plight, and the last rays of the setting sun show her deck strewed with the dead and the dying. But the glorious image of victory flits before the dimmed vision of the dying, and they expire with the smile of triumph on their lips, and with the exulting shout of "France forever!"
But where is the conqueror? Where is the gallant commander, whose success sounds like a fable? My heart longs to see him safe, and in the enjoyment of his well-earned glory. Ah! there he is, kneeling and crouching over the prostrate body of that stripling whom I have depicted: he addresses the most tender and passionate appeals to that senseless form; he covers with kisses that bloody head; he weeps and sobs aloud, unmindful of those that look on. In faith! I weep myself, to see the agony of that noble heart: and why should that hero blush to moan like a mother — he who showed more than human courage, when the occasion required fortitude? Weep on, Iberville, weep on! Well may such tears be gathered by an angel's wings, like dew-drops worthy of heaven, and, if carried by p36 supplicating mercy to the foot of the Almighty's throne, they may yet redeem thy brother's life!
Happily, that brother did not die. He was destined to be known in history under the name of Bienville, and to be the founder of one of America's proudest cities. To him New Orleans owes its existence, and his name, in the course of centuries, will grow in the esteem of posterity, proportionately with the aggrandizement of the future emporium of so many countless millions of human beings.
The wonderful achievement which I have related is a matter of historical record, and throws a halo of glory and romance around those two men, who have since figured so conspicuously in the annals of Louisiana, and who, in the beginning of March, 1699, entered the Mississippi, accompanied by Father Anastase, the former companion of La Salle in his expedition down the river in 1682.
Since the occurrence of that battle, of which I have given but an imperfect description, Iberville and Bienville had been through several campaigns at sea, and had encountered the dangers of many a fight. What a remarkable family! The father, a Canadian by birth, had died on the field of battle, in serving his country, and out of eleven sons, the worthy scions of such a stock, six had perished in the same cause. Out of the six that remained, five were to consecrate themselves to the establishment of a colony in Louisiana.
Before visiting the Mississippi, Iberville had left his fleet anchored at the Chandeleur Islands. This name proceeds from the circumstance of their having been discovered on the day when the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the presentation of Christ in the temple, and of the purification of the Virgin. They are flat, sandy islands, which look as if they wish to sink p37 back into the sea, from shame of having come into the world prematurely, and before having been shaped and licked by nature into proper objects of existence. No doubt, they did not prepossess the first colonists in favor of what they were to expect. The French visited also Ship Island, so called from its appearing to be a safe roadstead for ships, but it offered to the visitors no greater attraction than the precedent. The next island they made had not a more inviting physiognomy. When they landed on that forbidding and ill-looking piece of land, they found it to be a small, squatting island, covered with indifferent wood, and intersected with lagoons. It literally swarmed with a curious kind of animal, which seemed to occupy the medium between the fox and the cat. It was difficult to say whether it belonged to one species in preference to the other. But one of the French having exclaimed, "This is the kingdom of cats!" decided the question, and the name of Cat Island was given to the new discovery. Here that peculiar animal, which was subsequently to be known in the United States under the popular name of racoon,º formed a numerous and a contented tribe; here they lived like philosophers, separated from the rest of the world, and enjoying their nuts — their loaves and fishes. I invite fabulists, or those who have a turn for fairy tales, to inquire into the origin of that grimalkin colony, and to endear Cat Island to the juvenility of our State, by reciting the marvelous doings of which it was the theater.
It was fraught, however, with so little interest in the estimation of the French, that they hastened to leave it for the land they had in sight. It formed a bay, the shores of which they found inhabited by a tribe of Indians, called Biloxi, who proved as hospitable as their name was euphonic.
p38 On the 27th of February, 1699, Iberville and Bienville departed from Biloxi in search of the Mississippi. When they approached its mouth, they were struck with the gloomy magnificence of the sight. As far as the eye could reach, nothing was to be seen but reeds which rose •five or six feet above the waters in which they bathed their roots. They waved mournfully under the blast of the sharp wind of the north, shivering in its icy grasp, as it tumbled, rolled, and gamboled on the pliant surface. Multitudes of birds of strange appearance, with their elongated shapes, so lean that they looked like metamorphosed ghosts, clothed in plumage, screamed in the air, as if they were scared at each other. There was something agonizing in their shrieks, that was in harmony with the desolation of the place. On every side of the vessel, monsters of the deep and huge alligators heaved themselves up heavily from their native or favorite element, and, floating lazily on the turbid waters, seemed to gaze at the intruders. Down the river, and rumbling over its bed, there came a sort of low, distant thunder. Was it the voice of the hoary sire of rivers, raised in anger at the prospect of his gigantic volume of waters being suddenly absorbed by one mightier than he? — In their progress, it was with great difficulty that the travelers could keep their bark free from those enormous rafts of trees which the Mississippi seemed to toss about in mad frolic. A poet would have thought that the great river, when departing from the altitude of his birthplace, and as he rushed down to the sea through •three thousand miles, had, in anticipation of a contest which threatened the continuation of his existence, flung his broad arms right and left across the continent, and uprooting all its forests, had hoarded them in his bed as p39 missiles to hurl at the head of his mighty rival, when they should meet and struggle for supremacy.
When night began to cast a darker hue on a landscape on which the imagination of Dante would have gloated, there issued from that chaos of reeds such uncouth and unnatural sounds, as would have saddened the gayest and appalled the most intrepid. Could this be the far-famed Mississippi? or was it not rather old Avernus? It was hideous indeed — but hideousness refined into sublimity, filling the soul with a sentiment of grandeur. Nothing daunted, the adventurers kept steadily on their course: they knew that, through those dismal portals, they were to arrive at the most magnificent country in the world; they knew that awful screen concealed loveliness itself. It was a coquettish freak of nature, when dealing with European curiosity, as it came eagerly bounding on the Atlantic wave, to herald it through an avenue so somber, as to cause the wonders of the great valley of the Mississippi to burst with tenfold more force upon the bewildered gaze of those worth, by the endurance of so many perils and fatigues, were to merit admittance into its Eden.
It was a relief for the adventurers when, after having toiled up the river for ten days, they at last arrived at the village of the Bayagoulas. There they found a letter of Tonti to La Salle, dated in 1685. That letter, or rather that speaking bark, as the Indians called it, had been preserved with great reverence. Tonti having been informed that La Salle was coming with a fleet from France, to settle a colony on the banks of the Mississippi, had not hesitated to set off from the Northern Lakes, with twenty Canadians and thirty Indians, and to come down to the Balize to meet his friend, who, as we know, had failed to make out the mouth of the Mississippi, and had been landed by Beaujeu on the p40 shores of Texas. After having waited for some time, and ignorant of what had happened, Tonti, with the same indifference to fatigues and dangers of an appalling nature, retraced his way back, leaving a letter to La Salle to inform him of his disappointment. Is there not something extremely romantic in the characters of the men of that epoch? Here is Tonti undertaking, with the most heroic unconcern, a journey of •nearly three thousand miles, through such difficulties as it is easy for us to imagine, and leaving a letter to La Salle, as a proof of his visit, in the same way that one would, in these degenerate days of effeminacy, leave a card at a neighbor's house.
The French extended their explorations up to the mouth of the Red River. As they proceeded through that virgin country, with what interest they must have examined every object that met their eyes, and listened to the traditions concerning Soto, and the more recent stories of the Indians on La Salle and the iron-handed Tonti!1 A coat of mail which was presented as having belonged to the Spaniards, and vestiges of their encampment on the Red River, confirmed the French in the belief that there was much of truth in the recitals of the Indians.
On their return from the mouth of the Red River, the two brothers separated when they arrived at Bayou Manchac. Bienville was ordered to go down the river to the French fleet, to give information of what they had seen and heard. Iberville went through Bayou Manchac to those lakes which are now known under the names of Pontchartrain and Maurepas. Louisiana had been named from a king: was it not in keeping that those lakes should be called after ministers?
p41 It has been said that there is something in a name. If it be true, why should I not tell you who were those from whom the names of those lakes were borrowed? Is it not something even for inanimate objects to have historical names? It throws round them the spell of romance, and sets the imagination to work.
Louis Phelyppeaux, Count Pontchartrain, a minister and chancellor of France, was the grandson of a minister. He was a man remarkable for his talents and erudition. His integrity was proverbial, and his enlightened and inflexible administration of justice is found recorded in all the annals of the time. When he was appointed to the exalted office of Chancellor of France, Louis the XIVth, on administering to him the required oath, said, "Sir, I regret that it is not in my power to bestow upon you a higher office, as a proof of my esteem for your talents, and of my gratitude for your services."
Pontchartrain patronized letters with great zeal, and during his long career, was the avowed friend of Boileau and of J. B. Rousseau, the poet. He was of a very diminutive size, but very well shaped, and had that lean and hungry look which Caesar did not like in Cassius. His face was one of the most expressive, and his eyes were lighted up with incessant scintillations, denoting the ebullitions of wit within. If his features promised a great deal, his mind did more than redeem the physical pledge. There is no question, however abstruse, which he did not understand as if by intuition, and his capacity for labor appeared to stretch as far as the limits allotted to human nature. He was constitutionally indefatigable in all his pursuits; and his knowledge of men, which was perhaps superior to all his other qualifications, remarkable as they were, greatly helped his iron will in the successful execution of its p42 conceptions. But, although he knew mankind thoroughly, he did not assume the garb of misanthropy. On the contrary, his manners spoke of a heart overflowing with the milk of human benevolence; and his conversation, which was alternately replete with deep learning, or sparkling with vivacity and repartee, was eagerly sought after. If, on matters of mere business, he astonished, by the clearness of his judgment and his rapidity of conception, those he had to deal with, he no less delighted those with whom he associated in his lighter hours, by his mild cheerfulness and by his colloquial powers, even on the veriest trifles. No man knew better than he, how to temper the high dignity of his station by the utmost suavity and simplicity of address. Yet in that man who, conscious of the misery he might inflict, was so guarded in his expressions that he never was betrayed into an unkind one — in that man, in whom so much blandness was allied to so much majesty of deportment — there was something more dreaded far than the keenest powers of sarcasm in others. It was a smile, peculiar to himself, which made people inquire with anxiety, not what Pontchartrain had said, but how Pontchartrain had smiled. That smile of his blasted like lightning what it was aimed at; it operated as a sentence of death, and did such execution that the Pontchartrain smile became, at the court of Louis the Fourteenth, as famous as the Mortemart wit.2 In 1714, resisting the entreaties of the king, he resigned his chancellorship, and retiring into the house of a religious congregation (les prêtres de l'Oratoire) he devoted the remainder of his life to prayer, reading, and meditation.
p43 Jean Frédéric Phelyppeaux, Count Maurepas, was the son of Jérôme Phelyppeaux, a minister and secretary of state, and the grandson of Pontchartrain, the chancellor. At the age of fourteen, he was appointed secretary of state, and in 1725, in his twenty-fourth year, became minister. This remarkable family thus presented an uninterrupted succession of ministers for one hundred and seventy-one years. The obstinacy with which prosperity clung to her favorites appeared so strange that it worked upon the imagination of the superstitious, or of the ignorant, and was attributed at the time to some unholy compact and to the protection of supernatural beings. Cradled in the lap of power, Maurepas exhibited in his long career all the defects which are usually observed to grow with the growth of every spoiled child of fortune. The frivolity of his character was such that it could not be modified even by extreme old age. Superficial in every thing, he was incapable of giving any serious attention to such matters as would, from they very nature, command the deep consideration of most men. Perhaps he relied too much on his prodigious faculty of perception, and on a mind so gifted, that it could, in an instant, unravel the knots of the most complicated affair. In the king's council, his profound knowledge of men and of the court, a sort of hereditary ministerial training to business, imperfect as it was, enabled him to conceal to a certain degree his lamentable deficiency of study and of meditation. As it were by instinct, if not by the diviner's rod, he could stamp on the ground and point out where the fruits of the earth lay concealed; but instead of using the spade and mattock in search of the treasure, he would run after the first butterfly that caught his eye. To p44 reconcile men to his imperfections, nature had given him a bewitching sweetness of temper, which was never found wanting. Urbane, supple, and insinuating in his manners, he was as pliant as a reed: fertile in courtly stratagems, expert in laying out traps, pitfalls, and ambuscades for his enemies, he was equally skillful in the art of attack and defense, and no Proteus could assume more varied shapes to elude the grasp of his adversaries. There was no wall to which he could be driven, where he could not find an aperture through which to make his escape. No hunted deer ever surpassed him in throwing out the intricate windings of his flight, to mislead his sagacious pursuers. Where he unexpectedly found himself stared in the face by some affair, the serious complexion of which he did not like, he would exorcise the apparition away by a profuse sprinkling of witty jests, calculated to lessen the importance of the hated object, or to divert from it the attention of persons interested in its examination. No Ulysses could be more replete than he with expedients to extricate himself out of all difficulties; but the moment he was out of danger, he would throw himself down, panting with his recent efforts, and think of nothing else than to luxuriate on the couch of repose, or to amuse himself with trifles.
Maurepas, in more than one respect, was made up of contrarieties, a living antithesis in flesh and blood, a strange compound of activity and indolence that puzzled the world. Upon the whole, he was generally thought to be, by superficial observers, a harmless, good-natured, easy sort of man. But withal, in spite of his habitual supineness, he could rival the lynx, when he applied the keenness of his eye to detect the weak, ridiculous, or contemptible parts in the formation of his fellow-beings: and no spider could weave such an imperceptible p45 but certain web around those court flies he wanted to destroy, or to use to his own purposes. He was born a trifler, but one of a redoubtable nature, and from his temperament as well as from his vicious education, there was nothing so respected, so august, or even so awful, as not to be laughed or scoffed at by him. There was no merit, no virtue, no generous, no moral or religious belief or faith in any thing, that he would not deride, and he would sneer even at himself, or at his own family, with the same relish, when the mood came upon him. Yet, worthless as that man was in his private and public character, he had such a peculiar turn for throwing the rich glow of health around what was most rotten in the state; he could present to his master and to his colleagues the dryest matter under such an enlivening aspect, when they met in the council-chamber; he could render apparently so simple what seemed so complicated as to require the most arduous labor; and he could solve the most difficult political problem with such ease, that it looked like magic, and made him the most fascinating of ministers.
For such a king as Louis the XVth, who felt with great sensitiveness any thing that disturbed the voluptuous tranquillity which was the sole object of his life, Maurepas, as a minister, had a most precious quality. Born in the atmosphere of the court, he was intimately acquainted with his native element, and excelled in hushing that low buzzing of discontent, so disagreeable to a monarch, which arises from the unsatisfied ambition, the jealousy, and the quarrels of his immediate attendants. None knew better than Maurepas the usages and secrets of the court, and how to reconcile the conflicting interests of those great families that gravitate round the throne. He knew exactly what was due to every one, either for personal merit or for p46 ancestral distinction. His was the art to nip in the bud all factions or cabals, to stifle the grumblings of discontent, or to lull the murmurs of offended pride. He knew how to make the grant of a favor doubly precious by the manner in which it was offered; and the bitterness of refusal was either sweetened by assurances of regret and of personal devotion, or by a happy mixture of reasoning and pleasantry, which, if it did not convince the mind, forced disappointment itself to smile at its own bad luck.
With all his faults, such a minister had too much innate talent not to do some good, in spite of his frivolity. Thus, he made great improvements and embellishments in the city of Paris; he infused new life into the marine department, corrected many abuses, visited all the harbors and arsenals, sent officers to survey all the coasts of France, had new maps made, established nautical schools, and ordered the expeditions of learned men to several parts of the world. Geometers and astronomers, according to his instructions, went to the equator and near the boreal pole, to measure, at the same time and by a concurrent operation, two degrees of the meridian. Thus, La Condamine, Bouguer, Godin, Maupertuis, Clairaut, and Lemonnier, were indebted to him for their celebrity.a Also, in obedience to his commands, Sevin and Fourmont visited Greece and several provinces of the East; others surveyed Mesopotamia and Persia, and Jussieu departed to study the botany of Peru.
That frivolous minister did, through his strong natural sagacity, partially discover that commerce ought to be unshackled, and withdrew from the India Company the monopoly of the coffee trade and of the slave trade. By such a wise measure, he largely contributed to the prosperity of the French colonies. But, in such an elevated p47 region of thought, conception, and action, Maurepas was too boyish to remain long. He would confide the labors of his office to those whom it was his duty to guide, and would steal away to the balls of the opera, or to every sort of dissipation. If he remained in the cabinet destined to his official occupations, it was not to think and to act in a manner worthy of the minister, but to write lampoons, scurrilous drolleries, and facetious obscenities. He took a share in the composition of several licentious pieces, well suited to the taste and morals of the time, and contributed to one which attracted some attention, under the title of The Ballet of the Turkeys. These things were not, for him, the result of a momentary debauch of the mind, but matters of serious occupation and pursuit. Such a relish did he find in this pastime, which would be called childish if it had not been tainted with immorality, that it took the mastery over his prudence, and he had the indiscretion to write a lampoon on the physical charms of the Marquise de Pompadour, the acknowledged favorite of Louis the XVth. The pruriency of his wit cost him his place, and in 1749, after having been a minister twenty-four years, he was exiled to the city of Bourges, and afterward permitted to reside at his Château de Pontchartrain, near Paris. There, his princely fortune allowed him to live in splendor, and to attach a sort of mimic court to his person. He appeared to bear his fall with philosophical indifference, observing that, on the first day of his dismissal, he felt sore; but that on the next, he was entirely consoled.
On the death of Louis the XVth, his successor sent for Maurepas, to put him at the helm of that royal ship, destined soon to be dashed to pieces in that tremendous storm which might be seen gathering from the four quarters of the horizon. The unfortunate Louis could p48 not have made a poorer choice. Maurepas had sagacity enough to discover the coming events, but he was not the man, even if the power had been in his hands, to prepare for the struggle with those gigantic evils, whose shadow he could see already darkening the face of his country. Such an attempt would have interfered with his delightful suppers and disturbed his sleep; and to the Cassandras of that epoch, the egotistical old man used to reply with a sneer and a shrug of his shoulders, "The present organization of things will last as long as I shall, and why should I look beyond!" This observation was in keeping with the whole tenor of his life; and, true to the system which he had adopted, if he lived and died in peace, what did he care for the rest? He had no children, and when he married in all the vigor of youth, those who knew him intimately, predicted that the bridal bed would remain barren. The prediction proved true, and had not required any extraordinary powers of divination. Is it astonishing that the lineal descendant of a succession of ministers should be without virility of mind, soul, or body? What herculean strength, what angel purity would have resisted the deleterious influence of such an atmosphere, working, for nearly two centuries, slow but sure mischief, from generation to generation?
After having been a minister for six years under Louis the XVth, Maurepas died in 1781. So infatuated was the king with his octogenarian minister, that he had insisted upon his occupying, at the Palace of Versailles, an apartment above his own royal chamber; and every morning, the first thing that the king did, was to pay a visit to the minister. Pleasant those visits were, because the wily old minister presented every thing to his young master under the most glowing colors, and made him believe that his almost centenarian p49 experience would smooth the rugged path that extended before him. If parliaments rebelled, Maurepas had no unpalatable truths to say. Only once, the eaves-droppers heard his voice raised above its usual soft tone. What frightful convulsion of nature could have produced such a change? None but the death of a cat! Distracted with the shrieks of his wife, whose troublesome four-footed favorite, interfering with the king when engaged in his darling occupation of a blacksmith, had been killed by an angry blow of the royal hammer, he loudly expostulated with the murderer for the atrociousness of the deed. What must have been his dread of his wife, when under the cabalistic influence of her frowns, such a courtier could so completely drop the prudential policy of his whole life, as to venture to show displeasure to the king!
When Maurepas died, the king shed tears, and said with a faltering voice, "Alas! in the morning, for the future, when I shall wake up, no longer shall I hear the grateful sound to which I was used — the slow pacing of my friend in the room above mine." Very little deserving of this testimonial of friendship was he, who never loved any thing in this world but himself.
So much for Pontchartrain and Maurepas, who have given their names to those beautiful lakes which are in the vicinity of New Orleans. From Lake Pontchartrain, Iberville arrived at a sheet of water which is known in our days under the name of Lake Borgne. 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 p50 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. Of a more lofty one no place can boast under the broad canopy of heaven.
Louis the IXth, son of Louis the VIIIth of France, and of Blanche of Castile, was the incarnation of virtue, and, what is more extraordinary, of virtue born on the throne, and preserving its divine purity in spite of all the temptations of royal power. In vain would history be taxed to produce a character worthy of being compared with one so pure. Among heroes, he must certainly be acknowledged as one of the greatest; among monarchs, he must be ranked as the most just; and among men, as the most modest. For such perfection, he was indebted to his mother, who, from his earliest days, used to repeat to him this solemn admonition: "My son, remember that I had rather see you dead than offending your God by the commission of a single deadly sin." When he assumed the government of his kingdom, he showed that his talents for administration were equal to his virtues as a man. Every measure which he adopted during peace, had a happy tendency toward the moral and physical improvement of his subjects, and in war he proved that he was not deficient in those qualifications which constitute military genius. He defeated Henry the IIId of England at the battle of Taillebourg in Poitou, where he achieved prodigies of valor. He gained by decisive victory at Saintes over the English monarch, to whom he granted a truce of five years, on his paying to France five thousand pounds sterling.
Unfortunately, the piety of the king making him forgetful of what was due to the temporal welfare of p51 his subjects, drove him into one of those crusades, which the cold judgment of the statesman may blame, but at which the imagination of the lover of romance will certainly not repine. In 1249, Louis landed in Egypt, took the city of Damietta, and advanced as far as Massourah. But after several victories, whereby he lost the greater part of his army, he was reduced to shut himself up in his camp, where famine and pestilence so decimated the feeble remnant of his forces, that he was constrained to surrender to the host of enemies by whom he was enveloped. He might have escaped, however; but to those who advised him to consult his own personal safety, he gave this noble answer: "I must share in life or in death the fate of my companions."
The Sultan had offered to his prisoner to set him free, on condition that he would give up Damietta and pay one hundred thousand silver marks. Louis replied, that a king of France never ransomed himself for money; but that he would yield Damietta in exchange for his own person, and pay one hundred thousand silver marks in exchange for such of his subjects as were prisoners. Such was the course of negotiation between the two sovereigns, when it was suddenly arrested by the murder of the Sultan, who fell a victim to the unruly passions of his janizaries. They had rebelled against their master, for having attempted to subject them to a state of discipline irksome to their habits and humiliating to their lawless pride. Some of those ruffians penetrated into the prison of Louis, and one of them, presenting him with the gory head of the Sultan, asked the French monarch what reward he would grant him for the destruction of his enemy. A haughty look of contempt was the only answer vouchsafed by Louis. Enraged at this manifestation of displeasure, p52 the assassin lifted up his dagger, and aiming it at the king's breast, exclaimed, "Dub me a knight, or die!" Louis replied with indignation, "Repent, and turn Christian, or fly hence, base infidel!" When uttering these words, Louis had risen from his seat, and with an arm loaded with chains had pointed to the door, waving the barbarian away with as much majesty of command as if he had been seated on his throne in his royal palace of the Louvre. Abashed at the rebuke, and overawed by the Olympian expression of the monarch's face, the Saracen skulked away, and said to his companions, when he returned to them, "I have just seen the proudest Christian that has yet come to the East!"
After many obstacles, a treaty of peace was at last concluded: Louis and his companions were liberated; the Saracens received from the French eight hundred thousand marks of silver, and recovered the city of Damietta. But they authorized Louis to take possession of all the places in Palestine which had been wrested from the Christians, and to fortify them as he pleased.
When the king landed in France, the joy of his subjects was such, that they appeared to be seized with the wildest delirium. On his way from the sea-coast to Paris, he was met by throngs of men, women, and children, who rushed at him with the most frantic shrieks, and kissed his feet and the hem of his garments, as if he had been an angel dropped from heaven to give them the assurance of eternal felicity. These testimonials of gratitude, extreme as they may appear, were not more than he deserved. He who used to say to his proud nobles, "Our serfs belong to Christ, our common master, and in a Christian kingdom it must not be forgotten that we are all brothers," must indeed p53 have been beloved by they people! How could it be otherwise, when they saw him repeatedly visiting every part of his dominions, to listen to the complaints of his meanest subjects! They knew that he used to sit, at Vincennes, under a favorite oak, which has become celebrated from that circumstance, and there loved, with august simplicity, to administer justice to high and low. It was there that he rendered judgment against his own brother, Le Comte d'Anjou; it was there that he forced one of his most powerful barons, Enguerrand de Coucy, to bow to the majesty of the law. It was he whose enlightened piety knew how to check the unjust pretensions of the clergy, and to keep them within those bounds which they were so prone to overleap. It was he who contented himself with retorting to those who railed at his pious and laborious life, "If I gave to hunting, to gambling, to tournaments, and to every sort of dissipation, the moments which I devote to prayer and meditation, I should not be found fault with."
Louis undertook a second Crusade; and having encamped on the site of old Carthage, prepared to commence the siege of Tunis, to which it is almost contiguous. There, privations of every sort, incessant fatigue, and the malignant influence of the climate, produced an epidemical disease, which rapidly destroyed the strength of his army. His most powerful barons and most skillful captains died in a few days; his favorite son, the Count de Nevers, expired in his arms; his eldest born, the presumptive heir to the crown, had been attacked by the pestilence, and was struggling against death, in a state of doubtful convalescence; when, to increase the dismay of the French, Louis himself caught the infection. Aware of approaching death, he ordered himself to be stretched on ashes; wishing, he, the great p54 king, to die with all the humility of a Christian. At the foot of his bed of ashes, stood a large cross, bearing the image of the crucified Savior, upon which he loved to rest his eyes, as on the pledge of his future salvation. Around him, the magnates of France and his own immediate attendants knelt on the ground, which they bathed with tears, and addressed to Heaven the most fervent prayers for the recovery of the precious life which was threatened with sudden extinguishment.
Out of the royal tent, grief was not less expressive. The silence of despair, made more solemn by occasional groans, reigned absolute over the suffering multitude that had agglomerated on the accursed Numidian shore; and the whole army, distracted, as it were, at the danger which menaced its august head, seemed to have been struck with palsy by the horror of its situation. The dying were hardly attended to, so much engrossed were their attendants by heavier cares; and even they, the dying, were satisfied to perish, since they thus escaped the bitterness of their present fate; and their loss elicited no expression of regret from their survivors, so much absorbed were they by the fear of a greater misfortune to them and to France. There appeared to be a sort of frightful harmony between the surrounding objects and the human sufferings to which they formed an appropriate frame. The winds seemed to have departed forever from the earth; the atmosphere had no breath; and the air almost condensed itself into something palpable; it fell like molten lead upon the lungs which it consumed. The motionless sea was smoothed and glassed into a mirror reflecting the heat of the lurid sun: it looked dead. Beasts of prey, hyenas, jackals, and wolves, attracted by the noxious effluvia which issued from the camp, filled the ears with their dismal howlings. From the deep blue sky, p55 there came no refreshing shower, but shrieks of hungry vultures, glancing down at the feast prepared for them, and screaming with impatience at the delay. The enemy himself had retreated to a distance, from fear of the contagion, and had ceased those hostilities which used momentarily to relieve the minds of the French from the contemplation of their situation. They were reduced to such a pitch of misery as to regret that no human foes disturbed the solitude where they were slowly perishing; and their eyes were fixed in unutterable woe on those broken pyramids, those mutilated columns, those remnants of former ages, of faded glories, on those eloquent ruins, which, long before the time when they sheltered Marius, spoke of nothing but past, present, and future miseries.
Such was the scene which awaited Louis on his death-bed. It was enough to strike despair into the boldest heart, but he stood it unmoved. A perpetual smile, such as grace only the lips of the blessed, enlivened his face; he looked round not only without dismay, but with an evangelical serenity of soul. He knew well that the apparent evils which he saw, were a mere passing trial, inflicted for the benefit of the sufferers, and for some goodly purpose; he knew that this transitory severity was the wise device of infinite and eternal benignity, and therefore, instead of repining, he thanked God for the chastisement which served only to hasten the coming reward. The vision of the Christian extends beyond the contracted sphere of the sufferings of humanity, and sees the crowning mercies that attend the disembodied spirits in a better world.
By the manner in which Louis died, this was strikingly illustrated. Calm and collected, after having distributed words of encouragement to all that could approach him, he summoned his son and successor to his p56 bedside, and laying his hands on his head to bless him, he bid him a short and an impressive farewell. "My son!" said he, "I die in peace with the world and with myself, warring only against the enemies of our faith. As a Christian, I have lived in the fear, and I depart in the hope of God. As a man, I have never wasted a thought on my own perishable body; and in obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christus, I have always forgotten my own worldly interest to promote that of others. As a king, I have considered myself as my subjects' servant, and not my subjects as mine. If, as a Christian, as a man, and as a king, I have erred and sinned, it is unwillingly and in good faith, and therefore, I trust for mercy in my heavenly Father, and in the protection of the Holy Virgin. So I have lived — do thou likewise. Follow an example which secures to me such a sweet death amid such scenes of horror. Thou shalt find in my written will, such precepts as my experience and my affection for thee and for my subjects have devised for thy guidance and for their benefit. And now, my son, farewell! This life, as thou knowest, is a mere state of probation; hence, do not repine at our short separation. Blessed be thou here, and in heaven, where I hope to meet thee in everlasting bliss. So help me God! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen!" Thus saying, he devoutly crossed himself, looked upward, and exclaimed: "Introibo in domum tuam, adorabo ad templum sanctum tuum." These were his last words. During his life, he was emphatically the Christian king: shortly after his death, he was canonized by the church, and became a saint.
In spite of these circumstances, which must have been hateful to Voltaire's turn of mind, the recollection of such exalted virtue extorted from that celebrated p57 writer a eulogy which is doubly flattering to the memory of him to whom the tribute is paid, if the source from which it came be considered. That arch scoffer, that systematic disbeliever in so much of what is held sacred by mankind, said of St. Louis, "That prince would have reformed Europe, if reformation had been possible at that time. He increased the power, prosperity, and civilization of France, and showed himself a type of human perfection. To the piety of an anchorite, he joined all the virtues of a king; and he practiced a wise system of economy, without ceasing to be liberal. Although a profound politician, he never deviated from what he thought strictly due to right and justice, and he is perhaps the sole sovereign to whom such commendation can be applied. Prudent and firm in the deliberations of the cabinet, distinguished for cool intrepidity in battle, as humane as if he had been familiar with nothing else but misery, he carried human virtue as far as it can be expected to extend."
Thus, it is seen that the Bay of St. Louis could not borrow a nobler name than that under which it is designated. The magnificent oaks which decorate its shore did perhaps remind Iberville of the oak of Vincennes, and to that circumstance may the bay be indebted for its appellation.
From the Bay of St. Louis, Iberville returned to his fleet, where, after consultation, he determined to make a settlement at the Bay of Biloxi. On the east side, at the mouth of the bay, as it were, there is a slight swelling of the shore, about •four acres square, sloping gently to the woods in the background, and on the right and left of which, two deep ravines run into this bay. Thus, this position was fortified by nature, and the French skillfully availed themselves of these advantages. The weakest point, which was on the side p58 of the forest, they strengthened with more care than the rest, by connecting with a strong intrenchment the two ravines, which ran to the bay in a parallel line to each other. The fort was constructed with four bastions, and was armed with twelve pieces of artillery. When standing on one of the bastions which faced the bay, the spectator enjoyed a beautiful prospect. On the right, the bay could be seen running into the land for miles, and on the left stood Deer Island, concealing almost entirely the broad expanse of water which lay beyond. It was visible only at the two extreme points of the island, which both, at that distance, appeared to be within a close proximity of the main land. No better description can be given, than to say that the bay looked like a funnel, to which the island was the lid, not fitting closely, however, but leaving apertures for egress and ingress. The snugness of the locality had tempted the French, and had induced them to choose it as the most favorable spot, at the time, for colonization. Sauvolle, a brother of Iberville, was put in command of the fort, and Bienville, the youngest of the three brothers, was appointed his lieutenant.
A few huts having been erected round the fort, the settlers began to clear the land, in order to bring it into cultivation. Iberville, having furnished them with all the necessary provisions, utensils, and other supplies, prepared to sail for France. How deeply affecting must have been the parting scene! How many casualties might prevent those who remained in this unknown region from ever seeing again those who, through the perils of such a long voyage, had to return to their home! What crowding emotions must have filled up the breast of Sauvolle, Bienville, and their handful of companions, when they beheld the sails of Iberville's fleet fading in the distance, like transient clouds! Well p59 may it be supposed that it seemed to them as if their very souls had been carried away, and that they felt a momentary sinking of the heart, when they found themselves abandoned, and necessarily left to their own resources, scanty as they were, on a patch of land, between the ocean on one side, and on the other, a wilderness, which fancy peopled with every sort of terrors. The sense of their loneliness fell upon them like the gloom of night, darkening their hopes, and filling their hearts with dismal apprehensions.
But as the country had been ordered to be explored, Sauvolle availed himself of that circumstance to refresh the minds of his men by the excitement of an expedition into the interior of the continent. He therefore hastened to dispatch most of them with Bienville, who, with a chief of the Bayagoulas for his guide, went to visit the Colapissas. They inhabited the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and their domains embraced the sites now occupied by Lewisburg, Mandeville, and Fontainebleau. That tribe numbered three hundred warriors, who, in their distant untiring excursions, had been engaged in frequent skirmishes with some of the British colonists in South Carolina. When the French landed, they were informed that, two days previous, the village of the Colapissas had been attacked by a party of two hundred Chickasaws, headed by two Englishmen. These were the first tidings which the French had of their old rivals, and which proved to be the harbinger of the incessant struggle which was to continue for more than a century between the two races, and to terminate by the permanent occupation of Louisiana by the Anglo-Saxon.
Bienville returned to the fort to convey this important information to Sauvolle. After having rested there for several days, he went to the Bay of Pascagoulas, p60 and ascended the river which bears that name, and the banks of which were tenanted by a branch of the Biloxis, and by the Moelobites. Encouraged by the friendly reception which he met everywhere, he ventured farther, and paid a visit to the Mobilians, who entertained him with great hospitality. Bienville found them much reduced from what they had been, and listened with eagerness to the many tales of their former power, which had been rapidly declining since the crushing blow they had received from Soto.
When Iberville ascended the Mississippi the first time, he had remarked Bayou Plaquemines and Bayou Chetimachas. The one he called after the fruit of certain trees which appeared to have exclusive possession of its banks,b and the other after the name of the Indians who dwelt in the vicinity. He had ordered them to be explored, and the indefatigable Bienville, on his return from Mobile, obeyed the instructions left to his brother, and made an accurate survey of these two Bayous. When he was coming down the river, at the distance of •about eighteen miles below the site where New Orleans now stands, he met an English vessel of 16 guns, under the command of Captain Bar. The English captain informed the French that he was examining the banks of the river, with the intention of selecting a spot for the foundation of a colony. Bienville told him that Louisiana was a dependency of Canada; that the French had already made several establishments on the Mississippi; and he appealed, in confirmation of his assertions, to their own presence in the river, in such small boats, which evidently proved the existence of some settlement close at hand. The Englishman believed Bienville, and sailed back. Where this occurrence took place the river makes a considerable bed, and it was from the circumstance which I p61 have related that the spot received the appellation of the English Turn — a name which it has retained to the present day. It was not far from that place, the atmosphere of which appears to be fraught with some malignant spell hostile to the sons of Albion, that the English, who were outwitted by Bienville in 1699, met with a signal defeat in battle from the Americans in 1815. The diplomacy of Bienville and the military genius of Jackson proved to them equally fatal, when they aimed at the possession of Louisiana.
Since the exploring expedition of La Salle down the Mississippi, Canadian hunters, whose habits and intrepidity Fenimore Cooper has so graphically described in the character of Leather-Stocking, used to extend their roving excursions to the banks of that river; and those holy missionaries of the church, who, as the pioneers of religion, have filled the New World with their sufferings, and whose incredible deeds in the service of God afford so many materials for the most interesting of books, had come in advance of the pickaxe of the settler, and had domiciliated themselves among the tribes who lived near the waters of the Mississippi. One of them, Father Montigny, was residing with the Tensas, in the State of Louisiana, and another, Father Davion, was the pastor of the Yazoos, in the present State of Mississippi.
Father Montigny was a descendant from Galon de Montigny, who had the honor of bearing the banner of France at the battle of Bouvines. It is well known that in 1214 a league of most of the European princes, the most powerful were the King of England and the emperor of Germany, was formed against Philip Augustus. The allied army, composed of one hundred thousand men, and the French army mustering p62 half that number, met at Bouvines, between Lille and Tournay. Before the battle, Philip reviewed his troops, and in their presence, removing his crown from his temples, said to the assembled host, "Peers, barons, knights, soldiers, and all ye that listen to me, if you know one more worthy of the crown of France than I am, you may award it to him." Shouts of enthusiasm declared that he was the worthiest. "Well, then," said he, "help me to keep it." The battle soon began, and raged for some time with alternate success for the belligerents. To the long gilded pole which supported the banner of France, and towered in proud majesty over the plain, the eyes of the French knights, scattered over the wide field of battle, were frequently turned with feverish anxiety. So long as its stood erect, and as firmly fixed in Montigny's iron grasp as if it had taken root in the soil, they knew that the king was safe, it being the duty the bearer of that standard to keep close to the royal person, and never to lose sight of him. It was an arduous and a perilous duty, which devolved on none but one well tried among the bravest; and it was not long before Montigny had to plunge into the thickest of the fight, to retain his post near Philip Augustus, who felt on that trying occasion, when his crown was at stake, that the king was bound to prove himself the best knight of his army.
On a sudden, a cold chill ran through the boldest heart in the French ranks. The long stately pole which bore the royal banner was observed to wave distressfully, and to rock like the mast of a vessel tossed on a tempestuous sea. That fatal signal was well known — it meant that the king was in peril. Simultaneously, from every part of the field, every French knight, turning from the foe he had in front, dashed headlong away, and with resistless fury forced a passage p63 to the spot where the fate of France was held in dubious suspense. One minute more of delay, and all would have been lost. The king had been unhorsed by the lance of a German knight, trampled under the feet of the chargers of the combatants, and had with difficulty been replaced on horseback. Those that came at last to the rescue, found him surrounded by the corpses of one hundred and twenty gentlemen of the best blood of France, who had died in his defence. His armor was shattered to pieces, his battle-axe, from the blows which it had given, was blunted into a mere club, and his arm, waxing faint, could hardly parry the blows which rained upon his head. Montigny stood alone by him, and was defending, with a valor worthy of the occasion, the flag and the king of France. That occasion, indeed, was one, if any, to nerve the arm of a man, and to madden such a one as Montigny into the execution of prodigies.
To be the royal standard-bearer, to fight side by side with his king, to have saved him perhaps from captivity or death; such were the proud destinies of the noble knight, Galon de Montigny. His descendant's lot in life was an humbler one in the estimation of the world, but perhaps a higher one in that of heaven. A hood, not a crested helmet, covered his head, and he was satisfied with being a soldier in the militia of Christ. But if, in the accomplishment of the duties of his holy faith, he courted dangers and even coveted tortures with heroic fortitude — if, in the cause of God, he used his spiritual weapons against vice, error and superstition, with as much zeal and bravery as others use carnal weapons in earthly causes — if, instead of a king's life, he saved thousands of souls from perdition — is he to be deemed recreant to his gentle blood, and is he not to be p64 esteemed as good a knight as his great ancestor of historical renown?
Father Davion had resided for some time with the Tunicas, where he had made himself so popular, that, on the death of their chief, they had elected him to fill his place. The priest humbly declined the honor, giving for his reasons, that his new duties as their chief would be incompatible with those of his sacred ministry. Yet the Tunicas, who loved and venerated him as a man, were loth to abandon their old creed to adopt the Christian faith, and they turned a deaf ear to his admonitions. One day the missionary, incensed at their obstinate perseverance in idolatry, and wishing to demonstrate that their idols were too powerless to punish any offense aimed at them, burned their temple, and broke to pieces the rudely carved figures which were the objects of the peculiar adoration of that tribe. The Indians were so much attached to Father Davion, that they contented themselves with expelling him, and he retired on the territory of the Yazoos, who proved themselves readier proselytes, and became converts in a short time. This means that they adopted some of the outward signs of Christianity, without understanding or appreciating its dogmas.
Proud of his achievements, Father Davion had, with such aid as he could command, constructed and hung up a pulpit to the trunk of an immense oak, in the same manner that it is stuck to a pillar in the Catholic churches. Back of that tree, growing on the slight hill which commanded the river, he had raised a little Gothic chapel, the front part of which was divided by the robust trunk to which it was made to adhere, with two diminutive doors opening into the edifice, on either side of that vegetal tower. It was done in imitation of those stone towers, which stand like sentinels p65 wedged to the frontispiece of the temples of God, on the continent of Europe. In that chapel, Father Davion kept all the sacred vases, the holy water, and the sacerdotal habiliments. There he used to retire to spend hours in meditation and in prayer. In that tabernacle was a small portable altar, which, whenever he said mass for the natives, was transported outside, under the oak, where they often met to the number of three to four hundred. What a beautiful subject for painting! The majesty of the river — the glowing richness of the land in its virgin loveliness — the Gothic chapel — the pulpit which looked as if it had grown out of the holy oak — the hoary-headed priest, speaking with a sincerity of conviction, an impressiveness of manner and a radiancy of countenance worthy of an apostle — the motley crowd of the Indians, listening attentively, some with awe, others with meek submission, a few with a sneering incredulity, which, as the evangelical man went on, seemed gradually to vanish from their strongly marked features — in the background, a group of their juggling prophets, or conjurers, scowling with fierceness at the minister of truth, who was destroying their power; — would not all these elements, where the grandeur of the scenery would be combined with the acting of man and the development of his feelings, on an occasion of the most solemn nature, produce in the hands of a Salvator Rosa, or of a Poussin, the most striking effects?
Father Davion had acquired a perfect knowledge of the dialect of his neophytes, and spoke it with as much fluency as his own maternal tongue. He had both the physical and mental qualifications of an orator: he was tall and commanding in stature; his high receding forehead was well set off by his long, flowing, gray hairs, curling down to his shoulders; his face was "sicklied p66 over with the pale cast of thought;" vigils and fasting had so emaciated his form that he seemed almost to be dissolved into spirituality. There was in his eyes a soft, blue, limpid transparency of look, which seemed to be a reflection from the celestial vault; yet that eye, so calm, so benignant, could be lighted up with all the coruscations of pious wrath and indignation, when, in the pulpit, he vituperated his congregation for some act of cruelty or deceit, and threatened them with eternal punishment. First, he would remind them, with apostolic unction, with a voice as bland as the evening breeze, of the many benefits which the Great Spirit had showered upon them, and of the many more which he had in store for the red men, if they adhered strictly to his law. When he thus spoke, the sunshine of his serene, intellectual countenance would steal over his hearers, and their faces would express the wild delight which they felt. But, anon, when the holy father recollected many and daily transgressions of his unruly children, a dark hue would, by degrees, creep over the radiancy of his face, as if a storm was gathering, and clouds after clouds were chasing each other over the mirror of his soul. Out of the inmost recesses of his heart, there arose a whirlwind which shook the holy man, in its struggle to rush out: then would flash the lightning of the eye; then the voice, so soft, so insinuating, and even so caressing, would assume tones that sounded like repeated peals of thunder and a perfect tempest of eloquence would he pour forth upon his dismayed auditory, who crossed themselves, crouched to the earth and howled piteously, demanding pardon for their sins. Then, the ghostly orator, relenting at the sight of so much contrition, would descend like Moses from his Mount Sinai, laying aside the angry elements in which he had robed himself, as if he had come to p67 preside over the last judgment; and with the gentleness of a lamb, he would walk among his prostrate auditors, raising them from the ground, pressing them to his bosom, and comforting them with such sweet accents as a mother uses to lull her first-born to sleep. It was a spectacle touching in the extreme, and angelically pure!
Father Davion lived to a very old age, still commanding the awe and affection of his flock, by whom he was looked upon as a supernatural being. Had they not, they said, frequently seen him at night, with his dark, solemn gown, not walking, but gliding through the woods, like something spiritual? How could one, so weak in frame, and using so little food, stand so many fatigues? How was it, that whenever one of them fell sick, however distant it might be, Father Davion knew it instantly, and was sure to be there, before sought for? Who had given him the information? Who told him whenever they committed any secret sin? None; and yet, he knew it. Did any of his prophecies ever prove false? By what means did he arrive at so much knowledge about every thing? Did they not, one day, when he kneeled, as usual, in solitary prayer, under the holy oak, see from the respectful distance at which they stood, a ray of the sun piercing the thick foliage of the tree, cast its lambent flame around his temples, and wreath itself into a crown of glory, encircling his snow-white hair? What was it he was in the habit of muttering so long, when counting the beads of that mysterious chain which hug round his neck? Was he not then telling the Great Spirit every wrong they had done? So, they both loved and feared Father Davion. One day, they found him dead at the foot of the altar: he was leaning against it, with his head cast back, with his hands clasped, and still retaining p68 his kneeling position. There was an expression of rapture in his face, as if, to his sight, the gates of paradise had suddenly unfolded themselves to give him admittance: it was evident that his soul had exhaled into a prayer, the last on this earth, but terminating, no doubt, in a hymn of rejoicing above.
Long after Davion's death, mothers of the Yazoo tribe used to carry their children to the place where he loved to administer the sacrament of baptism. There, these simple creatures, with many ceremonies of a wild nature, partaking of their new Christian faith and of their old lingering Indian superstitions, invoked and called down the benedictions of Father Davion upon themselves and their families. For many years, that spot was designated under the name of Davion's Bluff. In recent times, Fort Adams was constructed where Davion's chapel formerly stood, and was the cause of the place being more currently known under a different appellation.
Such were the two visitors who, in 1699, appeared before Sauvolle, at the fort of Biloxi, to relieve the monotony of his cheerless existence, and to encourage him in his colonizing enterprise. Their visit, however, was not of long duration, and they soon returned to discharge the duties of their sacred mission.
Iberville had been gone for several months, and the year was drawing to a close without any tidings of him. A deeper gloom had settled over the little colony at Biloxi, when, on the 7th of December, some signal guns were heard at sea, and the grateful sound came booming over the waters, spreading joy in every breast. There was not one who was not almost oppressed with the intensity of his feelings. At last, friends were coming, bringing relief to the body and to the soul! Every colonist hastily abandoned his occupation of the p69 moment, and ran to the shore. The soldier himself, in the eagerness of expectation, left his post of duty, and rushed to the parapet which overlooked the bay. Presently, several vessels hove in sight, bearing the white flag of France, and, approaching as near as the shallowness of the beach permitted, folded their pinions, like water-fowls seeking repose on the crest of the billows.
It was Iberville, returning with the news that, on his representations, Sauvolle had been appointed by the king, Governor of Louisiana; Bienville Lieutenant-Governor, and Boisbriant commander of the fort at Biloxi, with the grade of Major. Iberville, having been informed by Bienville of the attempt of the English to make a settlement on the banks of the Mississippi, and of the manner in which it had been foiled, resolved to take precautionary measures against the repetition of any similar attempt. Without loss of time, he departed with Bienville, on the 17th of January 1700, and running up the river, he constructed a small fort, on the first solid ground which he met, and which is said to have been at a distance of •fifty-four miles from its mouth.
When so engaged, the two brothers one day saw a canoe rapidly sweeping down the river, and approaching the spot where they stood. It was occupied by eight men, six of whom were rowers, the seventh was the steersman, and the eighth, from his appearance, was evidently of a superior order to that of his companions, and the commander of the party. Well may it be imagined what greeting the stranger received, when, leaping on shore, he made himself known as the Chevalier de Tonti, who had again heard of the establishment of a colony in Louisiana, and who, for the second time, had come to see if there was any truth in the report. With what emotion did Iberville and Bienville fold in p70 their arms the faithful companion and friend of La Salle, of whom they had heard so many wonderful tales from the Indians, to whom he was so well known under the name of "Iron Hand!" With what admiration they looked at his person, and with what increasing interest they listened to his long recitals of what he had done and had seen on that broad continent, the threshold of which they had hardly passed!
After having rested three days at the fort, the indefatigable Tonti reascended the Mississippi, with Iberville and Bienville, and finally parted with them at Natchez. Iberville was so much pleased with that part of the bank of the river, where now exists the city of Natchez, that he marked it down as a most eligible spot for a town, of which he drew the plan, and which he called Rosalie, after the maiden name of the Countess Pontchartrain, the wife of the Chancellor. He then returned to the new fort he was erecting on the Mississippi, and Bienville went to explore the country of the Yatasses, of the Natchitoches,º and of the Ouachitas. What romance can be more agreeable to the imagination than to accompany Iberville and Bienville in their wild explorations, and to compare the state of the country in their time with what it is in our days?
When the French were at Natchez, they were struck with horror at an occurrence, too clearly demonstrating the fierceness of disposition of that tribe, which was destined, in after years, to become so celebrated in the history of Louisiana. One of their temples having been set on fire by lightning, a hideous spectacle presented itself to the Europeans. The tumultuous rush of the Indians — the infernal howlings and lamentations of the men, women, and children — the unearthly vociferations of the priests, their fantastic dances and ceremonies around the burning edifice — the demoniac fury with p71 which mothers rushed to the fatal spot, and, with the piercing cries and gesticulations of maniacs, flung their new-born babes into the flames to pacify their irritated deity — the increasing anger of the heavens blackening with the impending storm, the lurid flashes of the lightnings, darting as it were in mutual enmity from the clashing clouds — the low, distant growling of the coming tempest — the long column of smoke and fire shooting upward from the funeral pyre, and looking like one of the gigantic torches of Pandemonium — the war of the elements combined with the worst effects of the frenzied superstition of man — the suddenness and strangeness of the awful scene — all these circumstances produced such an impression upon the French, as to deprive them, for the moment, of the powers of volition and action. Rooted to the ground, they stood aghast with astonishment and indignation at the appalling scene. Was it a dream? — a wild delirium of the mind? But no — the monstrous reality of the vision was but too apparent; and they threw themselves among the Indians, supplicating them to cease their horrible sacrifice to their gods, and joining threats to their supplications. Owing to this intervention, and perhaps because a sufficient number of victims had been offered, the priests gave the signal of retreat, and the Indians slowly withdrew from the accursed spot. Such was the aspect under which the Natchez showed themselves, for the first time, to their visitors: it was an ominous presage for the future.
After these explorations, Iberville departed again for France, to solicit additional assistance from the government, and left Bienville in command of the new fort on the Mississippi. It was very hard for the two brothers, Sauvolle and Bienville, to be thus separated, when they stood so much in need of each other's countenance, to p72 breast the difficulties that sprung up around them with a luxuriance which they seemed to borrow from the vegetation of the country. The distance between the Mississippi and the Biloxi was not so easily overcome in those days as in ours, and the means which the two brothers had of communing together were very scanty and uncertain. Sauvolle and his companions had suffered much from the severity of the winter, which had been so great that in one of his dispatches he informed his government that "water, when poured into tumblers to rinse them, froze instantaneously, and before it could be used."
At last, the spring made its appearance, or rather the season which bears that denomination, but which did not introduce itself with the genial and mild atmosphere that is its characteristic in other climes. The month of April was so hot that the colonists could work only two hours in the morning and two in the evening. When there was no breeze, the reflection of the sun from the sea and from the sandy beach was intolerable; and if they sought relief under the pine trees of the forest, instead of meeting cool shades, it seemed to them that there came from the very lungs of the trees a hot breath, which sent them back hastily to the burning shore, in quest of air. Many of the colonists, accustomed to the climate of Canada and France, languished, pined, fell sick, and died. Some, as they lay panting under the few oaks that grew near the fort, dreamed of the verdant valleys, the refreshing streams, the picturesque hills, and the snow-capped mountains of their native land. The fond scenes upon which their imagination dwelt with rapture, would occasionally assume, to their enfeebled vision, the distinctness of real existence, and feverish recollection would produce on the horizon of the mind, such an apparition as tantalizes p73 the dying traveler in the parched deserts of Arabia. When despair had paved the way, it was easy for disease to follow, and to crush those that were already prostrate in mind and in body. To increase the misery of these poor wretches, famine herself raised her spectral form among them, and grasped pestilence by the hand to assist her in the work of desolation. Thus, that fiendish sisterhood reigned supreme, where, in our days, health, abundance, and wealth, secured by the improvements of civilization, bless the land with perpetual smiles.
Sauvolle, from the feebleness of his constitution, was more exposed than any of his companions to be affected by the perils of the situation; and yet it was he upon whom devolved the duty of watching over the safety of others. But he was sadly incapacitated for the discharge of that duty by physical and moral causes. When an infant, he had inherited a large fortune from an aunt, whose godson he was. With such means at his future command, the boy, who gave early evidence of a superior intellect, became the darling hope of his family, and was sent to France to be qualified for the splendid career which parental fondness anticipated for him. The seeds of education were not, in that instance, thrown on a rebellious soil; and when Sauvolle left the seat of learning where he had been trained, he carried away with him the admiration of his professors and of his schoolmates. In the high circles of society where his birth and fortune entitled him to appear, he produced no less sensation; and well he might, for he appeared, to an eminent degree, capable of adorning any station which he might wish to occupy. Nature had been pleased to produce another Crichton, and Sauvolle soon became known as the American prodigy. Racine called him a poet; Bossuet had declared that there p74 were in him all the materials of a great orator; and the haughty Villars, after a conversation of several hours with him, was heard to say, "Here is a Marshal of France in embryo."
The frivolous admired his wonderful expertness in fencing, his horsemanship, and his other acquirements of a similar nature; artists might have been proud of his talent for painting and for music; and those friends that were admitted into his intimacy were struck with his modesty and with the high-toned morality which pervaded the life of one so young. The softer sex, yielding to the fascination of his manly graces, was held captive by them, and hailed his first steps on the world's stage with all the passionate enthusiasm of the female heart. But he loved and was loved by the fairest daughter of one of the noblest houses of France, and his nuptials were soon to be celebrated with fitting pomp. Was not this the acme of human felicity? If so, whence that paleness which sat on his brow, and spoke of inward pain, moral or physical? Whence those sudden starts? Why was he observed occasionally to grasp his heart with a convulsive hand? What appalling disclosure could make him desert her to whom his faith was plighted, and could so abruptly hurry him away from France and from that seat where so much happiness was treasured up for him? That it was no voluntary act on his part, and that he was merely complying with the stern decree of fate, could be plainly inferred from that look of despair which, from the ship that bore him away, he cast at the shores of France when receding from his sight. So must Adam have looked, when he saw the flaming sword of the angel of punishment interposed between him and Paradise.
Sauvolle arrived in Canada at the very moment when Iberville and Bienville were preparing their expedition p75 to Louisiana; and he eagerly begged to join them, saying that he knew his days were numbered, that he had come back to die in America, and that since his higher aspirations were all blasted, he could yet find some sort of melancholy pleasure in closing his career in that new colony, of which his brothers were to be the founders, and to which they were to attach their names forever.
Poor Sauvolle! the star of his destiny which rose up at the court of Louis the XIVth with such gorgeousness, was now setting in gloom and desolation on the bleak shore of Biloxi. How acute must his mental agony have been, when, by day and by night, the comparison of what he might have been with what he was must have incessantly forced itself upon his mind: Why had Nature qualified him to be the best of husbands and fathers, when forbidding him, at the same time, to assume the sacred character which he coveted, and to form those ties, without which, existence could only be a curse to one so exquisitely framed to nourish the choicest affections of our race? Why give him all the elements of greatness, and preclude their development? Why inspire him with the consciousness of worth, and deny him time and life for its manifestation? Why had such a mind and such a soul been lodged in a defective body, soon to be dissolved? Why a blade of such workmanship in such an unworthy scabbard? Why create a being with feelings as intense as ever animated one of his species, merely to bruise them in the bud? Why shower upon him gifts of such value, when they were to be instantly resumed? Why light up the luminary which was to be extinguished before its rays could be diffused? Was it not a solemn mockery? What object could it answer, except to inflict extreme misery? Surely, it could only be a conception p76 or device of the arch-enemy of mankind! But how could he be allowed thus to trifle with God's creatures? Were they his puppets and playthings? or, was it one of God's inscrutable designs? Was it an enigma only to be solved hereafter? — These reflections may be supposed to have passed through Sauvolle's mind, as he, with folded arms, one day, stood on the parapet of the fort at Biloxi, looking sorrowfully at the scene of desolation around him, at his diseased and famished companions. Overwhelmed with grief, he withdrew his gaze from the harrowing sight, heaved a deep sigh and uplifted his eyes toward heaven, with a look which plainly asked, if his placid resignation and acquiescent fortitude had not entitled him at last to repose. That look of anguish was answered: a slight convulsion flitted over his face, his hand grasped the left side of his breast, his body tottered, and Sauvolle was dead before he reached the ground.
Such was the fate of the first governor of Louisiana. A hard fate indeed is that of defective organization! An anticipated damnation it is, for the unbeliever, when spiritual perfection is palsied and rendered inert by being clogged with physical imperfection, or wedded to diseased matter! When genius was flashing in the head, when the spirit of God lived in the soul, why did creation defeat its own apparent purposes, in this case, by planting in the heart the seeds of aneurism? It is a question which staggers philosophy, confounds human reason, and is solved only by the revelations of Christianity.
What a pity that Sauvolle had not the faith of a Davion, or of a St. Louis, whose deaths I have recorded in the preceding pages! He would have known that the heavier the cross we bear with Christian resignation in this world, the greater the reward is in the p77 better on which waits us: and that our trials in this, our initiatory state of terrestrial existence, are merely intended by the infinite goodness of the Creator, as golden opportunities for us to show our fidelity, and to deserve a higher or lesser degree of happiness, when we shall enter into the celestial kingdom, of spiritual and eternal life, secured to us at the price of sufferings alone: and what sufferings! Those of the Godhead himself! He would not then have repined at pursuing the thorny path, trod before, for his sake, by the divine Victim, and with Job he would have said: "Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!"
I lately stood where the first establishment of the French was made, and I saw no vestiges of their passage, save in the middle of the space formerly occupied by the fort, where I discovered a laying of bricks on a level with the ground, and covering the common area of a tomb. Is it the repository of Sauvolle's remains? I had with me no pickaxe to solve the question, and indeed it was more agreeable to the mood in which I was then, to indulge in speculations, than to ascertain the truth. Since the fort had been abandoned, it was evident that there never had been any attempt to turn the ground to some useful purpose, although, being cleared of trees, it must have been more eligible for a settlement than the adjoining ground which remained covered with wood. Yet, on the right and left, beyond the two ravines already mentioned, habitations are to be seen; but a sort of traditionary awe seems to have repelled intrusion from the spot marked by such melancholy recollections. On the right, as you approach p78 the place, a beautiful villa, occupied by an Anglo‑American family, is replete with all the comforts and resources of modern civilization; while on the left, there may be seen a rude hut, where still reside descendants from the first settlers, living in primitive ignorance and irreclaimable poverty, which lose, however, their offensive features, by being mixed up with so much of patriarchal virtues, of pristine innocence, and of arcadian felicity. These two families, separated only by the site of the old fort, but between whose social position, there existed such an immense distance, struck me as being fit representatives of the past and of the present. One was the type of the French colony, and the other, the emblem of its modern transformation.
I gazed with indescribable feelings on the spot where Sauvolle and his companions had suffered so much. Humble and abandoned as it is, it was clothed in my eye with a sacred character, when I remembered that it was the cradle of so many sovereign states, which are but disjecta membra of the old colony of Louisiana. What a contrast between the French colony of 1700, and its imperial substitute of 1848! Is there in the mythological records of antiquity, or in the fairy tales of the Arabian Nights, any thing that will not sink into insignificance, when compared with the romance of such a history?
1 He had lost one of his hands, which he had supplied by an artificial one made of iron.
2 The hereditary wit of all the members of that family, male or female, was marked with such peculiar pungency, that it became proverbial, and was called the Mortemart wit.
b Plaquemine is a French word, now obsolescing in favor of kaki, for the persimmon.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
History of Louisiana
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 7 Apr 10