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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an item in the
Tennessee Historical Magazine

Vol. 2 No. 4 (December, 1916), pp235‑244
published by the
Tennessee Historical Society

The text is in the public domain.

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Vol. II
Fort Prudhomme:
Was it the first Settlement in Tennessee?

No keener interest is aroused in the public mind by any phase of the early history of a country than the story of its first settler, the pioneer builder of the future state. The identity of the first settler or colony of settlers in Tennessee has been a much disputed question among historians for more than a century. Though the influx of early population unquestionably came over the mountains from the Carolinas and Virginia into East Tennessee, the first bona fide settlement has been conceded by practically all historians, writing since the early part of the last century, to West Tennessee, through the agency of the French explorers of the Mississippi River. These very reputable writers agree that the name of this first settlement alleged to have been established by Sieur Robert Cavelier de la Salle in 1682 was Fort Prudhomme, though they are at variance as to the site, a few placing it at the first Chickasaw Bluff on the Mississippi River, though the greater number locate it at the fourth or lower Chickasaw Bluff, the present site of the city of Memphis. It may be stated here that there are four bluffs abutting on the Mississippi River between the mouth of the Ohio and the northern limits of the State of Mississippi, known as the first, second, third, and fourth Chickasaw Bluffs. These are westerly projections, into the alluvial basin, of the great plateau which constitutes West Tennessee. The first of these touches the River at Fulton, Tennessee, opposite the lower end of Island 33, some 62 miles by river above Memphis. The second is at Randolph, about 10 miles below the first bluff by water; the third is opposite Island 36, and the fourth bluff is just below the mouth of Wolf River and forms the terrace or plateau on which Memphis now stands.

If we may treat the coming of DeSoto, May 8th, 1541, to the lower Chickasaw Bluff, the cantonment of his troops in huts here for thirty days, and the establishment of a rude shipyard  p236 in which he constructed four piraguas or barges in which to transport his forces across the river, as a settlement in Tennessee, then the investigation of LaSalle's adventure would be unnecessary and we could accept De Soto as the first settler of our State. Again, if we could accept as a settlement the arrival here, in 1739, of Governor Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville with 1200 French colonial and Swiss troops and 2400 Indian allies and the erection on the bluff where Memphis now stands of Fort Assumpcion,º a considerable fortress, "constructed of piles, three bastions bearing on the plain and two half bastions on the river," all heavily mounted with ordnance, and the residence of that entrenched force on the bluff here from July, 1739 to March 31, 1740 in an endeavor to conquer the Chickasaw Indians, then such settlement would have preceded the first Anglo-American settlement at Fort Loudon, in East Tennessee, by some 17 years and have given the palm to West Tennessee.

But passing by these seizures by the early Spanish and French Commanders, of the lower Chickasaw Bluff and their operations here, as mere temporary expedients in a campaign having other and specific military objectives than a purpose to plant settlements here, we come to examine the claims advanced by several historians that the French explorers who erected Fort Prudhomme in 1682 should be recognized as the builders of the first cabin and founders of the first settlement on the soil of Tennessee. To that end excerpts will be made in chronological order from the works of those who have given the story of the settlement.

The first to be quoted from will be the History of Louisiana by François Xavier Martin (1827), which thus narrates the founding of Fort Prudhomme by LaSalle in February, 1682:

"They made a short stay at the mouth of the Ohio, floating down to the Chickasaw bluffs, one of the party going into the woods, lost his way. This obliged Lasalle [sic] to stop. He visited the Indians in the neighborhood and built a fort as a resting place for his countrymen navigating the river. At the solicitation of the Chickasaw Chiefs, he went to their principal village, attended by several of his men, they were entertained with much cordiality and the Indians approved of his leaving a garrison in the fort he was building. The Chickasaws were a numerous nation able to bring two thousand men into the field. Presents were reciprocally made and the French and Indians parted in great friendship. Lasalle, on reaching his fort was much gratified to find the man who was missing. He left him to finish the fort, and to command its small garrison. His name was Prudhomme; it was given  p237 to the fort — and the bluff, on which the white banner was then raised, to this day is called by the French ecor a Prudhomme. This is the first act of formal possession taken by the French of any part of the shores of the Mississippi."

The next narrative in chronological order is that in the History of the Discovery and Settlement of the Valley of the Mississippi, by Dr. John W. Monette (1846). The sketch follows briefly that of Martin given above. He says:

"The party (LaSalle's) next delayed a few days at the mouth of the Ohio, where LaSalle made some arrangements for trade intercourse with the Indians. Thence they proceeded to the first Chickasȧ Bluffs. Here LaSalle entered into amicable arrangements for opening a trade with the Chickasȧ Indians, where he established a trading post and obtained permission to build a stockade fort. This he designed as a point of rendezvous for traders from the Illinois country, passing to lower posts on the river. The post was called Prudhomme, in honor of the man, who with a small garrison was left in command."

We will now look into the works of the Tennessee historians; in pursuing the object of our search, quoting from the learned Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey,​1 the earlier historian Judge John Haywood having only mentioned that he had seen an early map with the French fort Prudhomme shown at the Chickasaw Bluff, but not mentioning which bluff.

Dr. Ramsey says of this Fort:

As he (LaSalle) passed down the river he framed a cabin and built a fort called Prud'homme, on the first Chickasaw Bluff. The first work, except probably the piraguas of DeSoto, ever executed by the hand of civilization within boundaries of Tennessee. A cabin and a fort! Fit emblem and presage of the future in Tennessee. The axe and the rifle, occupancy and defense, settlement and conquest!"

"While at the Bluff, LaSalle entered into amicable arrangements for opening a trade with the Chickasaws and establishing there a trading post that should be a point of rendezvous for traders passing from the Illinois Country to the post that should be established below. The commercial acumen of LaSalle in founding a trading post at this point is now made most manifest. Near the same ground has since arisen a city, whose commerce already exceeds that of any other city in Tennessee."

In the Goodspeed History of Tennessee (1886), the compilers use, almost verbatim, a part of the above narrative of Dr. Ramsey, placing Fort Prudhomme on the first Chickasaw Bluff, and add: "Since the time of LaSalle the largest commercial  p238 city of Tennessee has been established and developed very near, if not precisely upon the very spot selected by him for his trading post."

Justin Winsor, in his Narrative and Critical History of America (1888), merely chronicles that LaSalle's party: "stopping at one of the Chickasaw Bluffs built a small stockade and called it after Prudhomme, who was left in charge of it."

Claiborne, in his book, Mississippi as a Province, Territory and State (1879), does no more than record that LaSalle's party on February 28, 1682 "reached the Chickasaw Bluffs."

Mr. Keating, the Memphis historian, is more comprehensive in his statements, relating not only to LaSalle's voyage down the Mississippi River but including also Marquette and Joliet's journey 1673 and Father Hennepin's 1680. In volume 1, pages 26‑27, of his History of Memphis (1889), he thus records these several transactions:

"On their (Marquette and Joliet's) way back they stopped at the Chickasaw Bluffs and Marquette marked it for a Mission, and Joliet established a trading post at that time the last in a continuous line from Quebec by way of the St. Lawrence River, the lakes and the Fox, the Wisconsin or the Illinois River, a post that was thereafter to be continued as the nest or nucleus of a great city with but few interruptions, only changing from French to Spanish, and thence to English and finally to American control."

And on page 27 the author continues:

"Two years after Hennepin's visit (1680) and nine years after the departure of Joliet and Marquette, Chisca (4th Chickasaw Bluff) was taken possess of in Sept 1681 [sic], by Robert Cavelier de la Salle, an officer in the service of France, who proclaimed it and all the country about it from ocean to ocean to be the possessions of his king, and named it Louisiana. He made a treaty of peace with the Chickasaw Indians and built a fort with necessary cabins near the mouth of the Nashoba (Wolf) River which he named the Margot (Blackbird). In honor of the officer he left in command, he named the fort, Prudhomme. This was the first attempt at military occupation by a military power on the banks of the Mississippi River."

Mr. Phelan​2 narrates that: "more than one hundred years later (after DeSoto's visit) LaSalle desiring to enter into amicable relations with the aboriginal inhabitants along the banks of the Mississippi River, was forced by geographical considerations to build his fort here. He gave it the name of Prudhomme. This was probably in 1682." At page 5 of his book in a foot note Mr. Phelan says: "Ramsey (p. 39) says  p239 that the fort was built on the first Chickasaw Bluff. It was the fourth."

There are probably other writers who have taken the same view about the location of this fort and the purposes of the builder, which have escaped the attention of the writer. After considering the positive statements of all these reputable historians, the average student of history would unquestionably be justified in accepting this central statement, that LaSalle in 1682, on his voyage down the Mississippi River, had selected the fourth or lower Chickasaw Bluff, the site of the present large city of Memphis, as a suitable location for one of the chain of French forts from the great lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and had built a fort and cabins there, established amicable trade relations with the dominant Indian tribe, the Chickasaws, on the lower Mississippi and had left a permanent French statement at this point, the first white man's lodgment in the limits of the present state of Tennessee.

But a close inspection of the narratives of some of the persons who accompanied LaSalle on his long journey down the Mississippi River in 1682, the writings having been made under the immediate eye of LaSalle and one of them officially signed by him, would seem to overcome, indeed, to dissipate the conclusions of the later historians, who manifestly had no access to these reports and diaries, and to establish the fact that LaSalle made no settlement whatever at Fort Prudhomme, entered into no treaty with the Chickasaw Indians on that journey and did not in fact stop at all on the lower or fourth Chickasaw Bluff, while passing down the great river.

In order to make this clear we will turn to the story of the voyage of Sieur Robert Cavelier de la Salle, to explore the Mississippi, from the manuscripts of Father Zenobé de Membré (sometimes written Zenobius Membré) compiled by Father Chretien Le Clercq and published in his Establissement de la Foi etc. (Paris, 1691). Zenobé de Membré was a Recollect Missionary of the order of St. Francis, who accompanied LaSalle throughout this voyage as chaplain and is extremely full in his narrative, both as to the country and the occurrences of the voyage. This narrative, in the third part of the work of Leclercq, was translated by John Gilmary Shea, in his Discovery and Exploration of the Mississippi Valley (New York, 1852). Father Zenobé de Membré traveled in the same boat with LaSalle and was evidently the chronicler of the voyage, though an official report was made up at the request of LaSalle by the notary, Metarie, and signed by all the voyagers, which has been preserved and translated in the life of LaSalle by Jared Sparks and will be referred to later in this article.

 p240  Father Zenobé de Membré after reciting the entrance from the Seignelay or Illinois River into the Mississippi on the 6th of February 1682 and the stop at the mouth of the Ouabache or Ohio River, thus continues:

From the mouth of this river you must advance forty two leagues without stopping, because the banks are low and marshy, and full of thick foam, rushes and walnut trees. On the 24th those whom we had sent out to hunt all returned but Peter Prudhomme; the rest reported that they had seen an Indian trail, which made us suppose our Frenchman killed or taken. This induced the Sieur de la Salle to throw up a fort and intrenchment, and to put some French and Indians on the trail. None relaxed their efforts till the first of March, when Gabriel Minime and two Mohegans took two of five Indians whom they discovered. They said that they belonged to the Sicacha (Chickasaw) nation, and that their village was a day and a half off. After showing them every kindness, I set out with the Sieur de la Salle and half our party to go there in hopes of learning some news of Prudhomme; but after having travelled the distance stated, we showed the Indians that we were displeased with their duplicity; they then told us frankly that we were still three days off. (These Indians generally count ten or twelve leagues to a day). We returned to camp and one of the Indians having offered to remain while the other carried the news to the village. LaSalle gave him some goods, and he set out after giving us to understand that we should meet their nation on the banks of the river as we descended.

"At last Prudhomme, who had been lost, was found on the ninth day and brought back to the fort, so that we set out the next day, which was foggy. Having sailed forty leagues till the 3rd day of March, we heard drums bearing and sasacouest (war cries) on our right. Perceiving that it was an Akansea village, the Sieur de la Salle immediately passed over to the other side with all his force, and in less than an hour threw up a retrenched redoubt on a point, with palisades, and felled trees to prevent a surprise, and give the Indians time to recover confidence."

Here is the chronicle or diary of a man of intelligence and observation who was at the elbow of LaSalle during all of that daring voyage and whose accuracy has never been questioned, but who makes no mention of a cabin or a colony at Fort Prudhomme, nor any amicable trade arrangements with the Chickasaw Indians. But he tells us that losing one of his hunters in the forest at the first plat of ground sufficiently elevated above overflow to permit them to land, after passing the mouth of the Ohio, 42 leagues or one hundred and five miles above. LaSalle stopped to search for him, and finding  p241 some Chickasaw Indians near by, constructed a little stockade or fort for protection and on the ninth day after his disappearance found the lost hunter Prudhomme and resumed his voyage to the mouth of the river. It will also be noted in the narrative that LaSalle threw up a little "retrenched redoubt on a point with palisades within an hour" opposite the Akansa village, also as a hasty measure of protection against the Indians and we have no reason to believe that Fort Prudhomme was any more substantial or of any different character. The distance from the mouth of the Ohio River, 42 leagues, would have placed Fort Prudhomme exactly at the first Chickasaw Bluff instead of the fourth on which Memphis stands, the French land league of that day being about 2½ English miles and the first Chickasaw Bluff being about 105 miles, land courses, below the mouth of the Ohio. It is to be noted also that the first leg of the journey after leaving Fort Prudhomme was 40 leagues or 100 miles, which would bring the voyagers to the Akansea Village as called by Father de Membré, but being really the village of Mitchigamea discovered and named by Father James Marquette in his voyage with Joliet down the Mississippi River in 1673, which is described in the same volume by John Gilmary Shea from which this voyage of LaSalle is taken, both translations being by Mr. Shea. The Mitchigameans were a branch of the great Akansea tribe and located on the river at a lake of that name near the present city of Helena, Ark., and just below the mouth of the St. Francis River and there Bienville found them still located in 1739.

But we have still higher evidence of the occurrences connected with the stop of LaSalle at the first Chickasaw Bluff, in an official document, prepared by Jacques de la Metarie, a notary commissioned to accompany LaSalle in his voyage to Louisiana, entitled Procès Verbal of the Taking Possession of Louisiana, at the mouth of the Mississippi, by the sieur de la Salle, on the 9th of April 1682, which official paper or "act" was drawn up as it certifies, at the request of LaSalle and signed by the Notary and also by LaSalle and other witnesses, including Father Zenobé.​3 It is to be regretted that space forbids the printing here of the entire document. But from the body of the paper this excerpt is taken:

"Proceeding about a hundred leagues down the River Colbert (Mississippi, from the mouth of the Illinois) we went  p242 ashore to hunt on the 26th day of February. A Frenchman was lost in the woods, and it was reported to M. de la Salle that a large number of savages had been seen in the vicinity. Thinking that they might have seized the Frenchman, and in order to observe these savages, he marched through the woods during two days, but without finding them, because they had all been frightened by the guns which they had heard, and fled.

"Returning to camp, he sent in every direction French and savages on the search, with orders, if they fell in with savages, to take them alive without injury, that he might gain from them intelligence of the Frenchman. Gabriel Barbié with two savages, having met five of the Chicacha nation, captured two of them. They were received with all possible kindness, and, after he had explained to them that he was anxious about a Frenchman though had been lost, and that he only detained them that he might rescue him from their hands, if he was really among them, and afterwards make with them an advantageous peace (the French doing good to every body) they assured him that they had not seen the man whom we sought, but that peace would be received with the greatest satisfaction. Presents were then given to them, and as they signified that one of their villages was not more than half a day's journey distance, M. de la Salle set out the next day to go thither; but after travelling till night, and having remarked that they often contradicted themselves in their discourse, he declined going farther, without more provisions. Having pressed them to tell the truth, they confessed that it was yet four days journey to their villages; and perceiving that M. de la Salle was angry at having been deceived, they proposed that one of them should remain with him, while the other carried the news to the village, whence the elders would come and join them four days journey below that place. The said Sieur de la Salle returned to the camp with one of these Chickasaws; and the Frenchman whom we sought having been found, he continued his voyage, and passed the river of the Chepontias, and the village of the Mitsigameas. The fog, which was very thick, prevented his finding the passage which led to the rendezvous proposed by the Chickachas."

This official document is confirmation of the narrative of the priest, Zenobé de Membré and makes it clear that there was neither cabin nor colony planted at Fort Prudhomme, nor any garrison left there under Pierre Prudhomme, the French hunter, and that there was no treaty nor trading post arrangements with the Chickasaw Indians relating to the first Chickasaw Bluff. LaSalle, it shows, met only two captive Indians while at Fort Prudhomme and was prevented by fog from meeting the Elders of the Chickasaw tribe at the appointed  p243 rendezvous for meeting as he floated down stream. The Procès Verbal also shows that the fort, Prudhomme, was also 100 leagues below the mouth of the Illinois River, or 250 miles, which would place it at the first Chickasaw Bluff and not at the site of Memphis on the fourth Bluff.

In the Abbé Prevost's General History of Voyages of Discovery (Paris, 1749), the voyage of LaSalle down the Mississippi River in February 1682 is briefly described, but no mention is made of Fort Prudhomme. A map in this work, however, accurately presenting the whole valley of the Mississippi River, shows Fort Prudhomme at the first Chickasaw Bluff and not at the fourth, where Fort Assumpcion is shown.

In Claiborne's History of Mississippi as a Province, Territory and State (1879), a full account of the expedition of Bienville against the Chickasaw Indians in 1739 and the building of Fort Assumpcion, in August of that year, on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff at the mouth of Wolf River, is given in a diary of a young French officer with De Noailles d'Aime, a commander who accompanied Bienville, translated from the French. This diary in describing the operations of Bienville's forces here in the fall and winter of 1739, several times mentions "Prudhomme heights" as lying far to the north of Fort Assumpcion on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff.

It thus being made clear by the narratives of the original founder or builder of the stockade or defense called a fort, and the narrative of those who were with him on this voyage that the fort was a mere temporary shelter or defense against a few Chickasaw Indians seen in the vicinity, while LaSalle's party were endeavoring to find the lost hunter Prudhomme, and that the party were only there some nine or ten days and left no colony behind them, it become apparent that Tennessee was not settled first at Fort Prudhomme in 1682, notwithstanding the error into which several historians have fallen.

The same can also be said of the voyage of Marquette and Joliet, as the narrative of Father James Marquette and his original map of the country discovered by him, after a long period of rest in Saint Mary's College of Montreal, were finally brought to light and translated and given to the world by Mr. John Gilmary Shea in the same volume in which he published the narrative of Father Zenobé de Membré. These will fully and clearly show that Marquette like LaSalle did not stop at the lower Chickasaw Bluff and left neither colony nor trading post behind him on the Mississippi River.

The first settler of the Anglo-Saxon race in West Tennessee of whom we have any account was William Mizzell of North Carolina, who was found on the lower Chickasaw Bluff at the Spanish post and fort of San Fernando de Barancosº by  p244 Capt. Isaac Guion of the 3rd U. S. Infantry Regiment, when he came on July 20th, 1797, to take possession of the fort and the lower Chickasaw Bluffs in behalf of the United States, the fort having been constructed by Governor Don Manuel Gayoso de Lemos of the Province of Louisiana and the Spanish flag raised over it on the 31st of May 1795. Mizzell was living here as an Indian trader at that time, together with a Scotsman named Kenneth Ferguson. This was about 40 years after the settlement of the post at Fort Loudon in East Tennessee in 1756.4

J. P. Young

The Author's Notes:

1 The Annals of Tennessee to the end of the Eighteenth Century, by J. G. M. Ramsey, A. M., M. D., 1853.

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2 History of Tennessee, James Phelan, 1888.

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3 From Jared Sparks' Library of American Biography; sub‑title "Life of Robert Cavelier de la Salle" (Boston, 1845). The editor of this volume in a foot-note says, "This curious and important historical document has never been printed. The translation here given is made from the original, contained in the archives of the Marine Department at Paris."

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4 Since the foregoing article was completed the writer, through the kindness of Capt. H. N. Pharr, Civil Engineer of Memphis, has been permitted to inspect two ancient maps in his possession and delineating the Course of the Mississippi River from the Balise to Ft. Chartres; taken on an expedition to the Illinois, in the latter end of the year 1765 by Lieut. Ross of the Thirty-fourth Regiment (British). Improved from the surveys of that river made by the French. The other map, nearly as ancient, is a Map of the course of the Mississippi from the Missouri and the country of the Illinois to the south of this river, and bearing this legend: An accurate tracing from engraved original in my proposition. (Signed) Carl F. Palfrey, Civil Engineer. The copyist was Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Carl F. Palfrey, Captain of Engineers and Secretary of the U. S. River Commission in 1898.

The first of these maps shows Fort Prudhomme to be situated at the second Chickasaw Bluff or "Cliffs of Prudhomme," where Randolph, Tennessee, now stands, and the second map indicates the Fort at "Prudhomme Cliffs," which is placed in this map on the first Chickasaw Bluff, or the present site of Fulton, about ten miles above the second Chickasaw Bluff. At either point it bears out the conclusion of this article, that the fort was above and not at the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, the present site of Memphis.

Page updated: 19 Jan 15