Monday, January 17, 2011

The Seven Nations: France

Louis XIV, The Sun King
Louisiana’s past is peppered with prominent personalities. Our history begins with Louis XIV, Le Roi du Soleil” or “The Sun King” and Louisiana’s namesake. Under his leadership, some of America’s most epic adventures occurred, not the least of which included the Louisiana territory. 

From the beginning, the Mississippi River was the artery of Louisiana’s commerce and trade. The French-Canadian, Renee-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, is officially recognized as the discoverer of the Mississippi River’s mouth. It was LaSalle who claimed the Louisiana Territory, naming it La Louisiane for France on April 9, 1682. Still today, La Salle is heralded as “the Columbus of the Mississippi Valley; the blazer of the virgin Mississippi trail.” La Salle, though a notable explorer and French loyalist, seems to have “made a mistake” on the maps showing how to find the mouth of the Mississippi. Allegedly, he suffered from the twin deadly sins of greed and ambition. You see, New Spain lay just South of Louisiana’s border and held treasures of gold. La Salle set about the task of becoming wealthy while colonizing La Louisiane and plundering gold-laden Spanish ships. La Salle’s alleged dark and obscure intent was birthed by his mapmaker, who placed the mouth of the Mississippi River at Matagorda Bay, just north of modern-day Corpus Christi, Texas, 500 miles west of the actual location of the river’s mouth.  Ironically, La Salle missed the Mississippi’s mouth and landed at Matagorda Bay, conceivably completing his deliberate plan. But, his plan failed when his men mutinied and murdered him somewhere near the modern-day Louisiana-Texas line. 

Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d'Ilberville

Some years later, another French-Canadian, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville led another French expedition to La Louisiane tasked with re-discovering the mouth of the Mississippi and igniting colonization efforts. Considered one of Canada’s greatest heroes, he was affectionately known as “the Cid of New France.” Iberville chose his younger brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville  then only 20 years old, to join him on the adventure. Bienville ultimately founded New Orleans and became one of  Louisiana’s first governors.
Jean- Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville

Iberville, Bienville and crew maneuvered along the northern rim of the Gulf of Mexico; but, finding the river’s mouth was no easy task. From the Gulf, the river’s mouth was nearly invisible even at close proximity. In the 16th century the Spanish named the river “Rio del Escondido” or “Hidden River.” Heavy rain and a north wind complicated the voyage. Then, quite accidentally, they re-discovered the Great “Malbanchya.” (One of the Native American variations for the name of the Mississippi River was “Malbanchya” or “Malbanchia.”)

Mardi Gras was religiously observed for the first time in Louisiana on Tuesday, March 3rd, 1699 when Iberville and his crew spent the night 36 miles upriver. Iberville wrote, “We have given the name Mardi Gras to this point.” And, Louisianians have festively celebrated Mardi Gras ever since.

By March 17 the explorers had ventured upriver to an area of bluffs on the Mississippi’s east side where a stream divided the Houmas and Bayougoula hunting grounds. A tall, red maypole stood on the bank with several fish heads and bear bones tied to it. Iberville called this place “red stick” or “Baton Rouge,” the present site of Louisiana’s capital city.

1718 Map of Louisiana
With the rediscovery of the mouth of the river, forts were established throughout the Louisiana Territory and colonization began in earnest. In 1714, Louisiana’s first colony, the Natchitoches post was established. Finally in 1718, Bienville founded New Orleans, naming it for Philippe, duc d’Orléans.

The Colonists

France’s primary interest in this new colony was to have an outlet for the fur trade in the upper Mississippi Valley. The coureurs-de-bois or Canadian backwoodsmen, were trappers. Most of these men were single and preferred living a crude, unsettled lifestyle. They did not cultivate the land, preferring to live on what they hunted. They were not well regarded by the religious or the “society” from France. However disagreeable, they furnished the colony with furs, bear oil and meat.

The Cassette Girls
Strong, healthy settlers willing to work were critical for the survival of the colony. Requests were repeatedly sent to France for hardworking people. Girls were requested with the hope that men, particularly the coureurs-de-bois, would marry and settle down. In September 1704, approximately 27 girls arrived in Louisiana from Paris and Rochefort aboard the Pelican. In February 1728, another boatload of virtuous girls arrived, ready for marriage. Each was provided with a little trunk (cassette) of clothing, thus earning them the nickname, "The Cassette Girls".

French Colonial Foods

Perhaps one of the best colonial food accounts came from Sister Marie Madeleine Hachard, an Ursuline nun who arrived in 1727 with 10 other nuns from Rouen, France.

She wrote to her father upon arrival, “We eat meat, fish, peas, and wild beans and many fruits and vegetables, like pineapples, which are the most excellent of fruit, watermelons, sweet potatoes, apples, which are very much like the russets of France, figs, pecans, cashew nuts, which when eaten stick in the throat, and “giranmons,” a kind of pumpkin. Even so there are a thousand other fruits which have not yet come to my knowledge.“…we live on wild beef, deer, swans, geese and wild turkeys, rabbits, chickens, ducks, teals, pheasants, partridges, quail and other fowl and game of different kinds. The rivers are teeming with enormous fish, especially the brill, which is an excellent fish, rays, carps, salmon and an infinity of other fish which are unknown in France. Milk chocolate and coffee are much used here. A lady of this country gave us a goodly supply and we take some every day…We are getting remarkably used to the wild food of this country. We eat a bread which is half rice and half wheat…Rice cooked in milk is very common and we eat it often along with sagamite, which is made from Indian corn that has been ground in a mortar and then boiled in water with butter or bacon fat. Everyone in Louisiana considers this an excellent dish.”

“Regarding the fruits of the country, there are many that we do not care for but the peaches and figs are very excellent and abundant. We are sent so many of them from the nearby plantations that we make them into preserves and jelly. Blackberry jelly is particularly good. Reverend Father de Beaubois has the finest garden in the city. It is full of orange trees which bear as beautiful and as sweet an orange as those of Cape Francis. He gave us about 300 sour ones which we preserved. Thanks to God, we have never yet lacked anything.”

The Petticoat Insurrection

Macque Choux Corn
According to legend, in 1718 the women of New Orleans rebelled in what has become known as “The Petticoat Insurrection.” The women knew very little about the strange foods of this new land and were disgusted with their monotonous diet of Indian corn. They protested to Governor Bienville, marching to his house banging utensils on their cast iron pots. Being a diplomat, Bienville sent his housekeeper, Madame Langlois, to live with the Native Americans for about six weeks. From the Native Americans she learned to flavor dishes by adding bay leaves, boiled whole ears of corn and learned to stuff squirrel with pecans and spices. She even prepared succotash, a delicious combination of corn and butterbeans. Upon her return, she educated the New Orleans ladies in what must have been the first culinary school in North America. Even today, Madame Langlois is considered the “Mother of Creole cooking.”

The End of the French Colonial Period

Unfortunately, by the end of the 1750s, France was spending a tremendous amount of money on the colony with precious little in return. With an unprosperous New World colony and mounting troubles at home, France abandoned colonial Louisiana. With the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762, Spain possessed colonial Louisiana and the Spanish colonial era of Louisiana history began.

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