Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, who was born in Montreal in 1680 and died in Paris in 1767, is often presented by historians as the “father of Louisiana”. Given his wanderings and fields of action, he would better fit the description as a man of the Atlantic, with one foot in the American colonies and the other in France.
As a Canadian, Frenchman and colonist of Louisiana, this short man – “It is unfortunate to be a man of average height in such a country” (Margry, Découvertes et établissement V. 4, p. 433), he wrote in 1700, while struggling to cross a flooded valley – was at once an explorer, interpreter, military official, entrepreneur and planter. In the first half of the 18th century, he became the most famous figure in the history of French Louisiana.
Bienville began his career following in the footsteps of his brother, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, who was nineteen years his elder. During the Nine Years’ War, Bienville accompanied Iberville on his military expeditions against the British in Maine, Newfoundland and Hudson Bay – where he was wounded in combat in 1697. Then, alongside his brother, he took part in the foundation of Louisiana in the Lower Mississippi Valley from 1699. In the summer of 1701, at the age of 21, he was appointed as the commander of Biloxi, a post set up two years earlier on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Like his father Charles Le Moyne, who had died when he was just five years old, and several of his elder brothers in Canada, Bienville earned a reputation as an expert on Indigenous peoples and their languages. In March 1699, Iberville noted that his brother “could make himself quite well understood” by the Mougoulachas, having been initiated in their language by a “guide” from the nation (Margry, op. cit., V. 4, p. 167). In March 1700, Bienville again acted as an interpreter for his elder brother with the Natchez, because “he has started to make himself understood in Bayougoula, Houma, Chickasaw, Acolapissa” (P. Margry, op. cit., t. 4, p. 412). In March 1702, he acted again as the go-between during a peace conference between the Choctaw and Chickasaw in Mobile. In fact, rather than mastering several languages, Bienville spoke Mobilian, a jargon based on the Choctaw and Chickasaw languages, which acted as a lingua franca in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Like his brother, he was thus able to establish alliances with several Indigenous nations including the Natchez and the Chickasaws. Adapting to their ceremonies and martial culture, he was even tattooed with a snake that wrapped around his entire body. Bienville’s role in the foundation of Louisiana from 1699 to 1701 is mentioned in this eye-witness narrative by the ensign Sauvole, an important source for understanding the founding of the colony under the command of Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville.
Bienville remained in command of the fragile Louisiana colony during the War of Spanish Succession, but he suffered from many local fractional disputes and above all the disgrace of his brother d’Iberville († 1706), who was accused of smuggling. By 1707, his credibility had run out and the Naval Minister Jérôme de Pontchartrain sent out a new governor, Nicolas Daneau de Muy, to run the colony, but he died in Havana during his voyage to Louisiana. In 1712, when the financier Antoine Crozat received letters patent giving him control over the development of the colony, Bienville again hoped to become governor, but this time the position went to Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac.
But it was Bienville, and not Cadillac, who resolved a political crisis among the Natchez in 1716. Avenging the deaths of four Canadian travellers, he forced the Natchez to turn over the killers to him, whom he had executed. The following year, when the Compagnie d’Occident (later renamed the Compagnie des Indes) took over the Louisiana monopoly, Bienville received the title of Commander General and was awarded the Cross of Saint-Louis. He then succeeded in dictating the location of the colony’s new capital, New Orleans, not on the coast as many recommended, but on the Mississippi. By October 1723, however, he was on bad terms with the administration of the Compagnie des Indes and was recalled to France, a country he barely knew (he had travelled there with Iberville in the 1690s, probably to attend Court). He eventually left Louisiana in June 1725, but he kept an eye on his interests in the Mississippi from Paris, where he lived in the parish of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois.
In 1732, after the disaster of the Natchez War (1729-1731) and the retrocession of the colony to royal authority (January 1731), Bienville appeared to be the king’s only option to save Louisiana, thanks to his expertise in Indigenous diplomacy. Appointed as governor for the first time in September 1732, he returned to New Orleans in March 1733. During his tenure, he worked to consolidate the alliances with the Indigenous nations, especially the Choctaw, but also started fruitless wars to defeat the Chickasaw. The first of these occurred in 1736, resulting in a significant defeat for the French. A larger Franco-Indigenous expedition took place in 1739-1740 but resulted only in a peace treaty. A weary Bienville was finally thanked for his service in October 1742. He retired from Louisiana in August 1743, moving to an apartment on Rue Vivienne in Paris, still single and childless. There he stayed until his death 24 years later, at the age of 87. His funeral took place at the parish church of Saint-Eustache.
Published in may 2021