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Early French and Spanish 
Exploration and Missions

     Before giving an account of later missions to the Indians of Mississippi, it may not be improper to state briefly some historical facts which preceded their establishment.

Bay of Biloxi

     Seven years after LaSalle’s death his schemes were revived by Henri de Tonty, who recommended that Louisiana be taken and made a base for attack on Mexico, and, as the sole means of keeping the English from becoming the owners of the West.  The Sleur de Remonville, one of La Salle’s friends, three years after De Tonty’s recommendation to seize Louisiana, proposed that a company be formed for the settlement of that province, but his scheme amounted to nothing. 

     The year following, Le Moyne d ‘Iberville offered to plant a colony in the province.  His offer was accepted and he was ordered to put a fort at the mouth of the Mississippi and to leave a garrison to hold it. Already there was an initiative in London to seize upon the Mississippi. Iberville sailed with two vessels, the Marin and the Badine, and reached Pensacola [Florida] in January, 1699.  Two Spanish ships here would not permit him to enter the harbor. These two ships had come from Vera Cruz, for Spain had determined to hold the Mississippi if she could.  The Spaniards had already landed some men and built a fort in Florida.  Iberville left the Spaniards and coasted along the margins of the present states of Alabama and Mississippi. 

     About the beginning of March, he reached the Mississippi, which he entered; and, on the third of the month, he encamped about twelve leagues [approximately 36 miles] from its mouth. In a few days he reached a village of the Bayagoula Indians. The chief of the tribe wore a blue cape which he declared had been given him by Henri de Tonty, thirteen years before.  Le Moyne de Bienville, who had accompanied his brother, Iberville, some days afterwards brought the latter a letter from Tonty which had been left with another chief.  This letter was to have been delivered to La Salle upon his arrival. Bienville had bought the letter for a hatchet.

     The French continued their explorations to the place where Red river empties into the Mississippi [341 miles above the Gulf of Mexico.]  When Iberville and Bienville arrived at Bayou Manchac on their return from the mouth of Red river they separated.  Bienville was ordered to descend the river to the French ships.  Iberville went through Bayou Manchac to the lakes now known as Pontchartrain and Maurepas. He returned to his ships, and it was afterwards resolved to make a settlement at, the Bay of Biloxi. A fort was erected, and Sauvolle, one of Iberville’s brothers, was placed in command of it.  Iberville himself sailed for France. 

Colapissas Indians

     Sauvolle, left in command of the Bay of Biloxi fort, undertook to learn something of the native Indians, and dispatched Bienville with some of his men to visit the Colapissas. A chief of the Bayagoulas went along as guide.  The Colapissas “inhabited the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and their dominions embraced the sites now occupied by Lewisburg and Fontainebleau.” 

     On seeing the approach of Bienville, they arranged themselves as if for battle. Bienville stopped and sent his guide forward to inquire the cause of this hostile demonstration. The Colapissas replied that some days before two white men, whom they took to be Englishmen from Carolina, came at the head of a Chickasaw party of two hundred, attacked their village, and carried away some of their people captive, and they had at first thought Bienville and his white companions were Englishmen. The Bayagoula chief told them that those who now came to visit them were French, and enemies of the English, and that their object in coming to the village was to solicit their amity and the alliance of its inhabitants. The Colapissas laid down their arms and entertained the French with cordiality. Bienville made them some presents and exchanged with them mutual promises of friendship and support. 

Moelobite Indians

     Bienville returned to the fort at the Bay of Biloxi; and, after a rest, went to the Bay of the Pascagoulas. He ascended the Pascagoula river, on the banks of which lived a branch of the Biloxis, and some Moelobites. The Indians displayed a friendly disposition, and Bienville paid even the Mobilians a visit, who entertained him hospitably.

     Sauvolle and his men in their fort at Biloxi were visited in 1699 by two priests, Fathers Davion and Montigny.  Father Montigny was living with the Taensas [Tensas], within the domains of the modern parish of Tensas in Louisiana, and Father Davion was living with the Yazoos in the present State of Mississippi.  How did it happen that these two soldiers of the Cross were living in such isolation among savage Indian tribes, in hourly danger of being massacred?

Early Missionaries

     The great discoveries of La Salle and others had disclosed to the eyes of the priesthood the great fields of missionary work among the Indians. On his celebrated voyage down the Mississippi, he was accompanied by Father Zenobius Membre', a man of great mildness and zeal.  They reached the Arkansas tribe in March, 1682, and Membre' was delighted with the manners of that tribe. He planted a cross, and tried, chiefly by signs, to give them some idea of that religion of which he was a zealous priest.

     The voyagers passed beyond the point reached by Marquette. The Taensas, sun-worshippers, were reached on March 22nd. These natives were partly civilized, and had eight populous villages.  Here, too, the pious priest endeavored to teach the benighted savages to look higher than the sun and fire, to “Him that made them, more beautiful and mightier than they.”  The Natchez and Tangibaos were also visited.  La Salle’s party then went down to the sea and returned.

     The Bishop of Quebec and his clergy resolved to enter the vast missionary field which had been opened by the devoted Marquette.  In Canada there existed an institution founded by Laval, the first Bishop of Quebec. This was the Seminary, an affiliation of the Seminary of Foreign Missions at Paris. The fathers of the Seminary of Quebec desired to do something for those Indian tribes who had no permanent religious establishments of the Christian faith among them. Bishop St. Vallier “authorized them to establish missions in the West.” Fathers Francis Joliet de Montigny, Anthony Davion, and John Francis Buisson de Saint Cosine were selected to found the new missions on the Mississippi. Nearly’ half the expenses of the outfit for this enterprise was met by Montigny and Davion; and the cost of the outfit in money was over ten thousand livres. 

     The party set out, and on the fifth of December, 1698 entered the Mississippi.  Guided by Tonty, they visited the Tamarois, and then descended to the villages of the Arkansas, the Tunicas, and the Taensas tribes, erecting crosses at various places. Father Montigny was charmed with the dispositions of the Taensas. They had houses built of earth and straw, and many articles of furniture not found among northern tribes of Indians. They had a temple in which they worshipped nine gods. Father Montigny selected this as his station.

     Father Davion took up his residence, and established a chapel on a hill near the Tunica village, “at the foot of a cross planted on a rock which for a long time bore his name.”  The place was called “Roche Davion,” afterwards “Loftus Heights,” afterwards “Fort Adams.”  Davion labored among the Ounspik and Yazoo Indians, who had together about a hundred wigwams.  Saint Cosine ascended the Mississippi to begin a mission at the Tamarois.

     The priests, learning at the Red river of a French settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi, determined to find it. Fathers
Montigny and Davion, after a ten days’ trip, suffering greatly for water, reached Biloxi on July 1st.  They found their countrymen ill-prepared in the way of provisions, and remained but a few days.  They soon set out for their posts with presents for the Great Sun of the Natchez, wine for mass, flour and some tools.

     While acquiring a knowledge of the Taensas dialed, Montigny visited the Natchez and was there when the Great Sun died.  Seeing the savages preparing to put to death several persons in order that they might attend the Great Sun in the other world, the good priest made presents to the tribe to get them to forego such a custom.  The Natchez agreed, but the Female Sun persuaded the priest to leave the village for a time, pretending that the noise would annoy him.  After he had gone, the barbarous custom was again carried out.

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Copyright 2001 - All Rights Reserved
Ellen Pack