This is a story of Indian and African resistance to white colonial rule in Louisiana during the earliest days of French occupation. We live here. We are a product of this legacy. In order to understand how this land came to be what it is, we must know its history. We must not dismiss the genocide against Indians and Africans or the clever and fierce resistance that Indians and Africans put up in the wake of an unholy tumult perpetrated by Europeans.
If ever a group of people was so incapable of living independently as to justify the enslavement of others more capable, it was these French trespassers. Indians viewed them as children because they were puerile in their dependence on the mercy of others to supply them their daily bread. It only took them seven years to acquire their first slaves, from whom they could order their daily bread rather than request it.
The Invasion Of Louisiana
In late February, 1699, Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville, his brother Jean Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville, and a small group of soldiers, sailors, and artisans dropped anchor in Biloxi Bay. They cut pine trees to build Fort Maurepas, the first of several forts in the region. Without even so much as a “Bon jour” to the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Natchez and other nations they had invaded, they planted their flag and declared that tens of millions of acres of land in the Louisiana Territory now belonged to France. Indians watched cautiously from a distance, out of sight of the intruders.
Leaders from several Native towns in the vicinity finally got around to approaching the foreigners in the spring of 1699. Iberville, commandant of the newly constructed fort, declared friendly intentions of the French by smoking the ceremonial calumet with the visiting dignitaries. For Indians, this ceremonial gesture was as serious as business ever gets: Smoking the pipe represents a sacred trust between the two groups of people, that members of each group are bound to help members of the other under any circumstance.
And the French needed plenty of help. Even though six outposts were established within the first few years, few “settlers” were willing or able to do even the minimal amount of work required to produce their own food. Most lacked the knowledge or energy required even to gather nuts and berries or to scoop up the bountiful shellfish that proliferated in the waters around the Gulf of Mexico. Soldiers at the forts considered a good day’s work was getting drunk by noon and then talking an influential Indian into supplying women to satisfy their sexual appetites. When their wishes were denied, soldiers often turned to rape and other forms of brutality against Indian women.
For more than 20 years, the French interlopers regularly faced starvation. In their times of need, even soldiers from the military garrisons abandoned their barracks and sought refuge in Indian towns. Indians always took them in and fed and housed them for weeks and even months at a time. After all, they were sworn to friendship through the calumet.
The exchange of gifts was not entirely one directional. The French brought some of their own presents, and bestowed upon Indian communities the traditional European hospitalities, including dysentery, smallpox, cholera, Christianity, horses and pigs, rats and cockroaches.
He Kills A Priest
The arrival of French colonists set off a chain reaction of disease and dislocation in Indian communities throughout the Gulf Coast area. American Indians had never been exposed to the diseases Europeans brought with them, and consequently lacked the immunities Europeans had built up over countless generations of exposure. Entire villages were destroyed in epidemics.
Further, Indian religious leaders and Elders complained bitterly when young people in their towns began to rely on European trade goods guns, knives, iron kettles instead of making their own tools in the traditional way. The proselytizing of Christian missionaries was especially reviled.
As the French expanded their base of control, some Indian Nations simply packed up and moved, not wanting even to be near the French and their strange religion and habits. But dislocated Indians had to live somewhere, and they invariably wound up in the proximity of other Indian communities, threatening the resources of the people who were already there. When the Taensa were driven from their homes on the present-day Lake St. Joseph, they moved to land occupied by the Bayogoulas and Chitimachas further south. War erupted and the Taensa took several Chitimachas captive.
Both the Bayogoulas and the Chitimachas were well aware that the entire incident had been brought about by the travesties inflicted by the French incursion. So the Chitimachas resolved to redress the situation in the traditional manner. When grievances mount and continue despite fair warning, a stronger and clearer message is sent to the offending people on the assumption that the aggrieving party or nation will curtail the offenses. Hence, a Chitimacha man took a life to avenge injuries caused by the French. It was probably no accident that the selected victim was a priest.
Slavery Comes To Louisiana
The French then retaliated in the traditional manner of European kingdoms. In the summer of 1706, they assembled an army of 100 soldiers, marched to the nearest Chitimacha village, and killed everyone in sight except for 20, mostly women and children, whom they dragged back and claimed as slaves.
Still not satisfied with the payback for the single murder committed by a Chitimacha, the French continued raiding and sacking Chitimacha towns for the next 12 years, always killing nearly all, but always taking a few slaves on each successive raid. In this manner, the French built the core of their slave population among the Chitimacha women and children they spared the torment of their terrible swift swords.
The French ignored Chitimacha leaders” pleas for peace until 1718. Then, they listened when new land grants along the Mississippi for French settlers gave them some incentive to end the hostilities. The Peace Treaty meeting was held in New Orleans, at the home of Louisiana’s colonial Governor Bienville. A Chitimacha orator told of the conditions his country experienced during the long reign of terror inflicted by the French: “Formerly the sun was red, the roads filled with brambles and thorns, the clouds were black, the water was troubled and stained with blood, our women wept unceasingly, our children cried with fright, the game fled far from us, our houses were abandoned, and our fields uncultivated, we all have empty bellies and our bones are visible.” His speech was translated by a young Chitimacha slave, herself the property of Antoine Le Page Du Pratz.
Louisiana was sparsely populated by colonists for nearly 20 years. A census taken in 1708 revealed more Indian slaves (80) than settlers (77), although soldiers (122) outnumbered them both. It was, after all, an invasion, and the soldiers were there to protect the investment of the Company of the Indies which sponsored the colony.
Indian slaves, however, did not solve the colonists” problems in keeping food on the table and raising enough tobacco and indigo to keep the Company of the Indies happy. They were reluctant to work at all and quick to slip away in the night and make their way back to the safety and protection of their own Tribe. Colonists saw their best chance of survival in the purchase of African slaves. Africans, they reasoned, would have a tougher time finding their way back home. Bienville proposed that colonists be allowed to “sell these [Indian] slaves in the American islands [the Caribbean] in order to get negroes in exchange.”
The first African slaves in Louisiana were half a dozen lost souls captured as plunder by the French army in the Spanish War of Succession, 1710. The years 1717-1721 saw the first importation of African slaves to Louisiana, when eight boatloads brought some 2,000 Africans to the colony. The death rate among these was nearly as high as it had been for Indians facing the perils of European diseases. Scurvy, dysentery, respiratory and intestinal flues claimed about half of them within a few years of their abduction.
These first Africans in Louisiana were predominantly Malinke-speaking Bambaras from the western interior of the continent, who provided a cohesive group, especially in New Orleans. They were joined by smaller numbers of people from coastal African groups, including Wolofs and Sereers.
Some 7,000 Europeans also arrived in Louisiana during this four-year span of time. These were mostly French and mostly either indentured servants or convicted criminals released from the crowded prisons of France to take their chance in the New World. Only 119 were lucky enough to have land grants from the Company of the Indies, on which they built the plantations that would make Louisiana a moneymaker.
The African-Indian Alliance
African slaves realized early on that their best chance for earning freedom was in banding together with fellow Indian slaves. By the 1720’s, the French had added considerable numbers of Taensa and Alabamon slaves to their already sizable collection of Chitimachas. Natchez and Chickasaw slaves would soon join them, along with smaller numbers of Indians from other nations.
Despite differences in languages among Tribes, most Indians at the time also spoke a Mobilian “jargon” widely understood among the diverse groups. Indians held the key to successful uprisings because they knew the geography, the languages, and the indigenous peoples of the country.
Incidents of Indian and African collaboration occurred often enough and with sufficient mayhem inflicted on the colonists” plantations that colonial officials quickly grew alarmed. Prior to the arrival of Africans, runaway slaves usually just returned to their hometowns to resume a normal life. But as the slave population swelled and became more diverse, groups of runaway Indians and Africans often stayed together in makeshift villages. They openly resisted slavery and the French colonial regime by killing horses, pigs, and cattle, stealing property from settlers, and wreaking miscellaneous acts of vandalism and arson. It was on the heels of one such incident in 1726 that the Attorney General of the colony, Francois Fleuriau, urged the Supreme Council to “take prompt and sweeping action against runaway slaves” by offering bounties to “neighborhood Indians” willing to apprehend the fugitives.
The bounties didn’t work. After all, groups of runaways invariably included Indians, and most other Indians simply refused to sell them or their African compatriots back into slavery, no matter what the incentive.
One Indian slave named Sancousy discovered a village of runaways in 1727. Having misplaced his owner’s ox, he decided to vacate the plantation and happened upon fifteen African and Indian fugitives living together in a camp they called Natanapalle. They reportedly possessed a veritable arsenal, a smorgasbord of guns and ammunition sufficient to resist a small army.
The arrest of other runaways who had seen Natanapalle and its cache of arms eventually influenced Governor Etienne Boucher de Perier, who took over from Bienville in 1726, to recommend that trade in Indian slaves be stopped entirely. According to the Governor, “these Indian slaves being mixed with our negroes may induce them to desert with them, as has already happened, as they may maintain relations with them which might be disastrous to the colony when there are more blacks.”
Governor Perier’s remarks are something of an understatement. Not only did Indian and African runaways “maintain relations” with each other, they banded together on assorted community-service projects that included raiding livestock, stealing guns and ammunition, and burning the occasional plantation house. Once a mixed group of runaways even attacked a public executioner whose chores included hanging recalcitrant Indians and Africans.
Is Not Death Preferable To Slavery?
The French had been annoyed with the Natchez since 1722, when they refused to turn over an African runaway whom Governor Bienville accused of making “sedition speeches against the French nation.” The French had designs on Natchez land, among the richest delta soil in the south, and in 1729 they ordered the inhabitants of one Natchez town to vacate the premises and give the land to the French.
Natchez Elders met in council to discuss their options. They had been paying tribute to the French for years, supplying them with free corn and meat in an effort to forestall French military action against them. One Elder at the council summarized the feelings of many: “Before the French came amongst us, we were men, content with what we had. But now we go groping, afraid of meeting thorns, we walk like slaves, which we shall soon be, since the French already treat us as if we were such…Is not death preferable to slavery?”
Several Africans joined Natchez warriors in their attack on the morning of November 18, 1729. They killed more than 200 French and liberated nearly 300 African slaves and about 50 white women and children.
Divide And Conquer
In the aftermath of the Natchez-African victory, one colonist wrote that, among the “several negroes” who joined the Natchez were two plantation foremen “who gave other negroes to understand that they would be free with the Indians.” That Indians and Africans were in cahoots in a full-scale war against the French naturally gave pause to whites in the neighborhood.
The French inaugurated divide-and-conquer tactics in an effort to forestall further collaboration of Indians and Africans and generate animosity between the two racial groups. Just days after the Natchez assault, in December, Governor Perier dispatched a group of armed African slaves to a Chaouacha town downstream from New Orleans, killing everyone in the village.
The Chaouacha had nothing to do with the uprising of allied Natchez and African forces. But Perier explained that the expedition against the innocents would keep “the other little nations up the river in a respectful attitude.” The Governor also indicated that he “should have destroyed all these little [Indian] nations which are of no use to us, and which might on the contrary cause our negroes to revolt.” Anyone who was of “no use” to the French was better off dead, at least in the eyes of the French.
The French took their revenge on the Natchez-African alliance by enlisting allied Choctaw men to besiege their towns. They killed 100 Natchez warriors and returned about as many African slaves to their “rightful owners.” In his report on the excursion, Governor Perier noted that “this defeat would have been complete if it had not been for the negroes” who, of course, fought valiantly alongside their Natchez hosts.
Inspired by the temporary success of the Natchez and Indian-African runaway groups, slaves in New Orleans plotted their own rebellion for June, 1730. Word of the uprising leaked out, however, and it was suppressed. French authorities seized it as yet another opportunity to divide and conquer Indians and Africans. Leaders of the New Orleans insurrection were tied to a wheel and literally broken an ancient trick from the arsenal of European torture. Servants were forced to watch while one of the female conspirators was hanged.
Meanwhile, three African leaders who had helped the Natchez freedom fighters were shipped to the Choctaw with orders to burn them alive. A New Orleans priest, Mathurin Le Petit, in that same summer of retribution, wrote that the divide-and-conquer tactic “has inspired all the Negroes with a new horror of the Savages, but which will have a beneficial effect in securing the safety of the Colony.”
Dead Or Alive
Enslavement of Indians, although discouraged by French authorities because of the frequent uprisings they undertook, was never outright banned until the Spanish takeover of Louisiana in 1763. The French continued to raid Indian villages and seize survivors, but from the 1730’s on, they were increasingly sold to commercial ventures in the Caribbean or swapped for African slaves there.
As it was in early English colonial settlements, the slave trade of Indians helped finance the colonization process as well as clear the coveted land of its original occupants. The French paid bounties for captured Chickasaw slaves (one gun, one pound of powder, and two pounds of bullets) AND a bounty for Chickasaw scalps (80 French livres, a reward equivalent to nearly a year’s salary for a French soldier). Of course, no one could tell whether the hair of a dead Indian had belonged to a Chickasaw or an Indian from another Tribe, and so the killing fields spread well beyond Chickasaw country. Dead or alive, they paid to rid Louisiana Territory of its Indians, just as the English had done before them along the Atlantic seaboard.
Most of the slaves brought from Africa to Louisiana were male. Most Indian slaves were female, sought largely by French men for cooking, cleaning, farming, translating, and sex. Because of the preponderance of male African slaves and female Indian slaves, many slave families in the first half of the 18th century comprised African husbands and Indian wives.
The slave communities on plantations and in cities like New Orleans developed as the respective Indian and African cultures melded and evolved into one common fabric. Children of African-Indian parentage were called “mulatto.” Children of Indian females and French men were called “colored.” By the turn of the 19th century, “colored” was used to describe people of either African or Indian heritage.
In New Orleans, both Africans and Indians could be seen on Sundays in Congo Square, the Sacred Ground. The singing, drumming, dancing, and story-telling of west African traditions melded nicely with their counterparts in Indian traditions. Congo Square was the only place in America where slaves were allowed to congregate on their own and do as they pleased. Out of these gatherings, the heritage of western Africans and Gulf Shore Indians became the roots of the blues, jazz, swing, r & b, country, rock n” roll, soul, funk, rap, and hip hop that entertain Americans even today.
One notable by-product of this cultural confluence emerged in southwest Louisiana, original home of the Atakapa Tribe. A lively social dance, the dance of the youths, consisted of heavy rhythms and sensual dancing. The Atakapa word for “dance” is “shi” (rhymes with “sky”) and their word for “the youths” is “ishol.” Spaniards in 1528 were the first Europeans to contact the Atakapa, and they translated “shi ishol” as “zy ikol.” Four hundred years later, the mixed-blood descendants of Atakapas and Africans would still do the synchronized swaying to the raucous music, but with a slightly evolved name: Zydeco.