A Snapshot of the Colony and Its Settlement at Pointe Coupee after 1763
© 2009 by Julie Eshelman-Lee
At the final hours of the French regime in Louisiana, an account by a British surveyor gives us a snapshot of the Louisiana colony and Pointe Coupée. The reins of power were being handed from France to two non-ally European powers—Britain and Spain. The ill-defined borders of the vast French colony of de la Louisiane and Canada—previously under the sovereignty of the King of France—were to be divvied up between Spain and England as stated in the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1763.
Not only a geographical division, France’s inhabitants—free and enslaved—as well as the neighboring loyal Indian tribes, were about to be disrupted from their way of lives under the French regime! Britain was to receive New France (Canada), the eastern reaches of the Mississippi, and West Florida to include Pensacola. Spain would now possess the lower Louisiana colony to include New Orleans to the mouth of the Mississippi.
Britain and their new acquisition . . .
The acquisition of the vast area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi by the treaty of 1763 was a territory relatively unknown to British officials. Lieutenant Philip Pittman of the 15th Regiment was commissioned as an engineer by the secretary of the state of the British colonies to report on the Mississippi frontier territory just acquired by the British crown—as well as the neighboring French settlements. Originally intended for official use of the British sovereignty and for Major General Thomas Gage, British commander-in-chief for North America (to whom Pittman reported), the report became public after Pittman published it in late 1770.
Some of Pittman’s accounts of the population totals are known today to be over-stated. More than likely estimates; he wasn’t relying on a current official census. For other descriptions he has repeated oral histories, such as the cause of the cut-off at Pointe Coupée known as False River today. However, his descriptions and detailed maps give us an invaluable snapshot of the place and its people during this fragile period in Louisiana and at Pointe Coupée—the last French settlement in lower Louisiana.
Possession of Mobile, Pensacola & the Illinois Country . . .
In October 1763 Major Robert Farmar with the 22nd and 34th Regiments of His Britannic Majesty’s Foot took possession of Mobile and the province of West Florida (including Pensacola)—the eastern reaches of the Mississippi River territory. Possession of the Illinois Country proved more difficult. British officials and military officers in Mobile began to prepare for the ascent upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi at the Gulf.
In New Orleans French and British officials were working together to make the transition a peaceful one. Not only did they have to consider following the specific terms of the treaty, they also had to consider the reaction of the Indian tribes who still inhabited the region and remained loyal to the French. Five days of talks took place between British Captain John Lind and French Louisiana Governor de Kerlérec and Jean-Jacques Blaise d’Abbadie.
The Louisiana officials gave the British officer Lind permission to take possession whenever he wished, advising that the transfer be done when both British and Louisiana officials could both be present. Months earlier the Indian nations had been notified that a grand council meeting was to take place to involve them in this transfer in order to maintain tranquility of the two monarchs and the Indian nations, to perceive of themselves “all the union.”
During this time English and French officials were working out other details and disagreements over the terms of the treaty. These included surrendering of all French national property, preparing the Indians for the change of “masters”, and notice to the inhabitants that they had eighteen months to decide whether they would accept English citizenship or withdraw to French territory.
In January 1764 the British 22nd Regiment at Mobile began their journey upriver with two small transports with all the “Men, Artillery, Stores and Baggage” on board. The winds delayed their trip a few weeks. Finally they began their ascent. Other officials had gone directly to New Orleans via Lake Ponchartrain and the Bayou to see to the supplies needed for boats going to the Illinois. Louisiana officials had received word that their Indian situation was tense at the Illinois. D’Abbadie advised the British to add some presents for the Indians in their supplies, stating that without gifts they would not get up the river.
Meanwhile at the settlements of the Illinois, the French settlers were contemplating their intended fate—making plans to move downriver to lower Louisiana where they could remain in French territory. Spain had not yet officially taken possession of lower Louisiana. Many of these families were old families from New France (Canada). Some had been involved with the early settlement of lower Louisiana and its first concessions in the early 18th century—like the patriarch Michel Lejeune of Pointe Coupée’s LeJeune family today.
First attempt to Illinois stops near Pointe Coupée . . .
On 27 February 1764 the convoy, comprised of ten boats, two pirogues, fourteen officers, three hundred and twenty soldiers, thirty women and seventeen children (381 people), left New Orleans with a French half-pay officer assigned by D’Abbadie as interpreter to accompany the convoy as far as Pointe Coupée. The boats arrived at the fort at Pointe Coupée , the last French settlement in lower Louisiana, on 13 March 1764 and left on the 15th (by which time thirty-seven more men had deserted and one died).The French officer, Lieutenant Baurans, now turned back, warning the British Officer to be constantly on guard against attack by the Indians. The convoy continued another twenty-four leagues to ‘Roche à Davion where on the 29th savages on both sides of the river opened fire on the leading boats, killing six men and wounding four.
The British convoy retreated and turned back to New Orleans. The French officials were surprised to see them back in New Orleans. They told them they should have continued as there couldn’t have been more than thirty to forty warriors; they would have been safe once they reached Natchez. According to the French report the attackers had numbered no more than thirty men of the Ofogoula, Choctaw, Avoyell and Tunica tribes. British officials were convinced the attack was pre-planned by those at Pointe Coupée and the Indians, however never officially proven.
French officials meet with the chiefs and warriors . . .
D’Abbadie met with three Tunica chiefs and thirty warriors he had ordered down to New Orleans to explain their conduct. From the entries in D’Abbadie’s journal we know the details of this meeting:
In the presence of Philip Pittman, the governor declared his heart had bled because they had rejected his talk sent in advance of the British expedition. ‘Why’, he asked, ‘have you struck at our friends, the English, who have done nothing to you, and are going to the Illinois to take possession of the great territory which the great emperor has given them?’. After a further exchange, the chiefs agreed that, since he ordered it, ‘we shall be peaceful and the English can come. Let them not be ingrates and let them give us something.’ To this D’Abbadie replied, ‘You relive my heart . . . You see this English chief, my friend, I take his hand.’ Then all the chiefs gave their hands to Pittman, and the English officer promised on the part of the English the same gifts and the same friendship as the French.’ The Indians then ‘chanted the Calumet’ and departed. At a final session the governor gave the annual present to the Tunicas. M. Pittman too had a talk with them; and with some wine and brandy which he distributed to them, he made them some presents of merchandise.
British reconsider plans . . .
While working on plans to safely re-ascend the river to the Illinois Country, the British decided to open navigation to New Orleans from the Mississippi River by way of the Iberville River, Lakes Maurepas and Ponchartrain, via Bayou St. John. Pittman remained in New Orleans aiding in these plans. While he was working with other French officials and inhabitants he was cautioned by the French Governor over his free talk about the Cession. Public notice had not been officially distributed about the terms of the transfer to Spain. Disagreements between the British officials led to many delays and eventual hearings for possible court martial proceedings.
Pittman’s report on the settlement at Pointe Coupée and environs . . .
Descriptions of the vast territory of de la Louisiane were first revealed to the public through writings such as Father Louis Hennepin who was a companion with Robert Cavalier de La Salle in the Illinois Country in 1680; Father Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix who made an official tour down the Mississippi from the mouth of the Wisconsin to New Orleans in 1721-1722; and Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz whose history of de la Louisiane closed with his return to France in the 1730s. These writings gave extended descriptions of the land, numerous details of natural history, customs of the Indians, and with respect to du Pratz’s writings—descriptions of the early slaves, customs and laws, as well as episodes of French activity in the earlier decades of the 17th century.
Pittman finally got his opportunity to complete his original commission to document “the present state of the European settlements on the Mississippi.” He spent five years in the Mississippi Valley region documenting and drawing maps of the regions. (Some of his reports include estimates as well as oral histories like the cause of the cut-off point, now known as False River.) British Captain Pittman’s reports give us a 1760s snapshot of the place at Pointe Coupée and its environs—a look at our place at the end of the French regime . . .
Describing the Mississippi
The river Mississippi has been known by a variety of names; the first discoverers from Canada gave it the name of Colbert, in honour to that great minister, who was then in power. The famous adventurer, Monsieur de Salle, when he discovered the mouth, called it the river Saint Louis, by which name it has been distinguished in all public acts, respecting the province of Louissianna (sic): But its present general appellation of Mississippi is a corruption of Metchasippi; by which name it is still known to the Northern Savages, that word signifying, in their language, the Father of Rivers.
Upriver at Pointe Coupée
The settlements at Pointe Coupée commence about ten leagues from the river Ibbeville; they extend twenty miles on the west side of the Mississippi; and there are some plantations back on the side of (what is generally called) la fausse riviere, thro’ which the Mississippi passed about sixty years ago; making the shape of a crescent, and made a difference to the voyager of near eight leagues. It is said that about the time two Canadians were descending the river, but were stopped at the beginning of this crescent by the roughness of the waves, occasioned by the wind blowing very hard against the current. One of these travelers chose to amuse himself with his gun until the wind should abate: and that he might not lose his way in the woods, he determined to follow a little brook, which had been made by the inundations of the river; he had gone but a small distance, when he again found himself by the side of the river, and saw the white cliffs before him; which he knew to be the course of the Mississippi to be eight leagues from the place where he left his companion; to whom he immediately returned, and acquainted him with this discovery. They agreed to endeavour to get their canoes across, as there was about a foot of water in the brook, which had a little slope towards the lower part of the river; they got their canoe in the brook, and cut away the roots of the trees and bushes that obstructed its passage, and the waters of the Mississippi entering seconded their endeavours, so that in a short time they effected their purpose. It is reported that in less than six years after the Mississippi passed entirely through this channel, leaving its former bed quite dry, and which is now difficult to trace, being mostly filled up, and overgrown with trees.
“The fort which is a quadrangle with four bastions, is built with stockades, and contains a very handsome house for the commanding officer, good barracks for the soldiers, store-houses and a prison. The commanding officer is chosen from one of the eldest captains of the colony; the authority of the governor is delegated to him, and the storekeeper is the representative of the Intendant. There are seldom more than twelve soldiers at this place, who are for no other purpose than to preserve good order. The fort is situated on the side of the Mississippi, about six miles above the lowest plantation. The church is very near the fort, and is served by a capuchin; there are three companies of militia in this canton, chosen from the white inhabitants, who amount to about two thousand of all ages and sexes, and about seven thousand slaves. They cultivate tobacco and indigo, raise vast quantities of poultry, which they send to the market of New Orleans, and furnish to the shipping; they square a great deal of timber and make staves which they send down in rafts to New Orleans. The inhabitants cultivated maize and other provisions on the east side of the river; but after the peace, when that side of the Mississippi was ceded to the English, such as had houses there, who were but few, removed to the west side, which remained to the French.
Village of the Tonicas
On the east side of the river, and about two miles above the last plantation of Pointe Coupée, is the village of the Tonicas, formerly a numerous nation of Indians; but their constant intercourse with the French, and immoderate use of spirituous liquors, has reduced them to about thirty warriors. They attacked the 22nd regiment, commanded by Major Loftus, when on their way to take possession of the Illinois, on the 20th of March, 1764, at the Roche de Davion; they killed five men and wounded four, that were in two canoes which went a-head of the convoy: although they fired on the other boats they did no damage, but prevented the regiment proceeding on its enterprise. The soldiers did not land, as their enemies were concealed in the wood, and their numbers unknown; they occupied both sides of the river, and the current in the middle of the stream run at the rate of five miles an hour: we have been credibly informed that some of the French of Pointe Coupée, and their slaves, assisted the Tonicas in this attack.