Meet the Colonists

Our mental image of historical places, such as Old Mobile, are frequently so vague that we are unable to develop a sense of the men and women who lived there. The lives and events that shaped the development of an archaeological site are sometimes lost even to archaeologists as they perform the everyday, often mundane, tasks required in scientific excavation. This section will augment teachers' knowledge of the historical players in the Old Mobile story and provide background information for lesson plans. It is hoped that by reading these personal profiles and becoming more familiar with the French colonists and their neighbors, Old Mobile may become an authentic historical experience.

These conjectural personal narratives are based on a number of sources, which are listed after each profile.

Henri de Tonti - Man of the Iron Hand
born about 1649, died 1704

Henri de Tonti is perhaps one of the most legendary historical figures in the early history of Mobile. At twenty-eight, he first served in North America with Robert Cavalier de La Salle. Tonti's mission was to help La Salle set up trading posts along the Mississippi River to the Gulf in order to exploit the riches of the surrounding lands for the French. Although La Salle's colonizing efforts ended in disaster along the Texas coast, Tonti continued working for over twenty years to establish a fur trade in the Mississippi Valley. During this time he became known as a successful businessman, frontiersman, fighter, and diplomat. It was probably his letters to officials in France about the possibilities of English encroachment westward from Virginia and the Carolinas that led King Louis XIV to sponsor Iberville's expeditions and the establishment of Fort Louis de La Louisiane on the Mobile River.

From 1683 to 1702, Tonti ran several trading posts in the Illinois Country, built Fort Saint Louis on the Illinois River, and established a post on the Arkansas River in 1686. Over the course of his twenty-year fur-trading venture, Tonti canoed up and down the Mississippi River six times. The last trip ended at Mobile, where he commanded the Canadian soldiers and was an essential figure in the success of the small French outpost.

Tonti lost his right hand in a grenade explosion when he was a young soldier, and was called "Bras-de-fer," or Iron Hand, by the Indians. His facility at using the iron replacement contributed to his personality and made him a memorable figure to the Indians he encountered. Tonti's vast negotiating experience and familiarity with Native Americans earned him further success and respect among the Indian nations of the Gulf coast. Soon after arriving at Fort Louis, Commandant Iberville, sent him on a mission to invite the Choctaw and Chickasaw to make peace with each other and the French. He also bravely led several punitive campaigns against Indians allied with the English. Throughout his time at Mobile, Bienville and the rest of the colonists relied upon Tonti as a strong and unfailing advisor and aide. His death from yellow fever was a great misfortune for the colonists, who laid him to rest there in September 1704.

Source: Murphy, Edmund Robert. Henry de Tonty: Fur Trader of the Mississippi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1941.

Salome - An Apalachee Woman

We know much about the Apalachee Indians who moved to Old Mobile from Spanish Florida. Allies of the Spanish, they were brutally attacked by English and Creek Indian war parties raiding their homeland in north-central Florida. They eventually found safety by resettling near the French around Mobile Bay from 1704 until 1763. The Apalachees were converted to Christianity by Spanish priests in the early 17th century and remained devout. In his description of the Apalachees, carpenter and resident of Old Mobile André Pénigault described them as "excellent Catholics." 

Salome was the name of an Apalachee woman who survived the 1704 raids on her home and traveled with 400 other survivors to a new land in the west. After travelling so many miles, always in fear of attack from the English or the fierce Alibamon (Alabama Indians), one can imagine that Salome was glad to finally find a measure of security and peace of mind with the French.

Like the Apalachees, the French were also Catholic, a fact that contributed to the harmonious coexistence of these two very different groups of people. Some of the old church records show that French colonists on occasion sponsored the baptisms of Apalachee children. Salome is mentioned several times in the parish church records of Old Mobile. In the 1710 baptismal records she sponsored the daughter of Apalachees Charisto and Thereise. According to Catholic tradition, these Apalachee parents named their child Salome, after her godmother. Another notable entry that same year records the baptism of a Paniouacha Indian slave belonging to Salome and Jean, who named the girl Marie Susanne. Jean was Salome's husband and chief of the Apalachees. Before settling with the French he was known by his Spanish name Juan, but the French priest recorded his name as Jean Apalachee.

Salome probably spent much of her time tending her garden on lands assigned to her people by the French. The Apalachees cultivated a lot of corn and beans for sale to the French. Another likely occupation for Salome was making pottery. She probably enjoyed using her carved wooden paddle that she had brought with her from Florida to stamp complicated designs onto the outsides of pots. Sometimes she and other Apalachee women made copies of French pitchers and bowls for sale to the French, who needed additional tableware to supplement the meager quantities of ceramics shipped to Louisiana from France.

Perhaps one of Salome's favorite times of year was during the preparations for the Saint Louis' Day celebration in late August. This was a Catholic holiday that the Apalachees celebrated each year with grand festivities. For several days before the event, they prepared food that was to be shared among all participants. The French officers from Fort Louis were even invited to attend. After church services on Saint Louis' Day, Salome might have put on a mask that she worked on the week before and would then join her friends in feasting and dancing.

Sources: Higginbotham, Jay. Old Mobile: Fort Louis de la Louisiane, 1702-1711. Mobile: Museum of the City of Mobile, 1977.

McWilliams, Richebourg G., trans. and ed. Fleur de Lys and Calumet; Being the Pénicaut Narrative of French Adventure in Louisiana. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.

McWilliams, Richebourg G., trans. and ed. Iberville's Gulf Coast Journals. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1981.

Henri Roulleaux de La Vente -  born about 1655,
died July 9, 1717

La Vente was around fifty years old and already an experienced missionary priest when he arrived at the troubled Mobile colony in 1704. We know quite a bit about La Vente because he maintained a lively correspondence with his superiors in Paris and Québec. His early letters speak of the poor health of the colonists and the need for supplies and additional missionaries. In letters he included a detailed list of supplies needed for the parish church and for making existence in Louisiana more bearable. It seems that La Vente was an enterprising man, for many of the items he requested were intended for trade with the Indians. One letter, entitled "General Memoir of Merchandise," requests glass beads, knives, brightly colored fabric, and trade muskets, among other goods. He probably hoped to alleviate the poor financial state of the new parish through regular trade with neighboring Indians. The commandant of the colony, Bienville, saw this commerce as unbefitting the duties of a parish priest and sternly accused La Vente of selling the King's merchandise at exorbitant prices. It was these accusations that eventually led to La Vente's return to Paris in 1710.

On the frontier of the New World, religion was especially important for the colonists. The ability to properly maintain the rituals, such as baptism, marriage, and funeral rites, probably helped them feel not quite so far from home. As parish priest, La Vente was thus an important figure and regarded by the inhabitants as a leader in the small colony. Because his ideas of how the colony should run differed from Bienville's, conflict was inevitable. From the outset, Bienville was disappointed by the appointment of such an elderly priest as La Vente. He would have preferred a younger Jesuit priest who would be more diligent about learning the native languages and serving as a mediator between the French and the Indians. As evidenced by his letters, La Vente seemed more interested in securing all the comforts of a parish priest in France. He even requested that materials be sent for the construction of a billiard table.

La Vente constantly badgered Bienville about the construction of a parish church. Not until 1708 did the commandant finally begin building a church, but he left it to La Vente to supply the windows, door, and roof. Another of La Vente's primary concerns was the lack of white women for the colonists to marry. Many men purchased Indian slave women to serve as live-in housekeepers. La Vente was initially very upset by this practice, which the Church considered immoral, and he constantly wrote to his superiors requesting support for his position. However, after several years at Mobile, La Vente changed his mind. He came to understand that he himself could make right the situation by joining together the Frenchmen and their female Indian companions in marriage. He anticipated the reaction of his superiors when he wrote, in 1708, that the intermarriage of French and Indians would not "have any ill effect on the blood of the French."

Despite historical evidence that La Vente was materialistic, quarrelsome, and contemptuous, he is best remembered as the first curé of the first church of Mobile. Throughout his stay, he remained energetic, persistent in his opinions, and resolute in his quest to forge from the rough wilds a solid parish church befitting the brave colonists who sustained it.

Sources: Higginbotham, Jay. Old Mobile: Fort Louis de la Louisiane, 1702-1711. Mobile: Museum of the City of Mobile, 1977.

Roulleaux de la Vente, Henri. Letters from the collection of the Archives du Séminaire de Québec, Canada.

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville
born February 23, 1680, died March 7, 1767

The story of Bienville begins in Montréal where he came from a family of wealthy merchants. Orphaned at the age of ten, his older brothers raised him to be an adventurous and hardworking man. He spent several years fighting the English navy in the North Atlantic and Hudson Bay before coming down the Mississippi in 1698 to help establish Fort La Boulaye at the lower part of the river. Bienville later commanded Fort Maurepas, (near present day Biloxi, Mississippi), and spent much of his time exploring the surrounding territory and making alliances with the local Indians. In 1701 his brother Iberville asked him to come east to Mobile Bay and help establish the colony's new capital.

Bienville was just twenty-two years old when Iberville sailed for France in 1702 and left his younger brother in charge of the new settlement on the Mobile River. After construction of the fort was underway and plans for the new town were set in motion, Bienville immediately began his campaign to make allies of surrounding Indian nations. He knew that the little French settlement would not be safe from English attack without strong Indian alliances. He first successfully negotiated peace between the Choctaws and the Chickasaws. Another indication of his ability to forge beneficial relationships with the Indians occurred in 1704 with the arrival of the Apalachees, refugees from the Spanish missions around present-day Tallahassee, Florida. A year earlier Bienville had invited this group to settle near Fort Louis, and he was somewhat surprised when they accepted his offer over that of the Spaniards at Pensacola.

Bienville had a tough job overseeing the struggling little town and its haggard inhabitants, and his name is rightly revered today by those who read it on street signs and plaques around Mobile and New Orleans. But he was not always respected by the early settlers. He was often held responsible for the lack of food and supplies from which the colonists suffered. In attempts to alleviate the poor distribution of food, he more than once came to blows with the commissary, or keeper of the King's storehouse, Nicolas La Salle. La Salle wrote several letters to France, accusing Bienville of profiting from the sale of the King's property, eventually leading to an investigation by officials from the court. Bienville's authority was also challenged by the often indignant parish priest, La Vente. After years of disagreement about the construction of a new church, Bienville actually locked La Vente out of the fort's chapel!

Antoinè Lamothe Cadillac briefly replaced Bienville's authority in Louisiana from 1712 to 1717, and Bienville left Mobile shortly afterward to found New Orleans in 1718. Bienville is regarded by historians as a very capable leader who proved essential to the survival of the French settlement at Mobile. Although his tenure as commandant at Old Mobile was sometimes shadowed by discord and dissention, he was able to overcome challenges to his leadership and spent over thirty years in French Louisiana, becoming one of the most celebrated historical figures in the history of the Gulf coast.

Source: Higginbotham, Jay. Old Mobile: Fort Louis de la Louisiane, 1702-1711. Mobile: Museum of the City of Mobile, 1977.

Nicolas de La Salle
died December 31, 1710

In January 1702, Nicolas de La Salle landed at Massacre Island (Dauphin Island) accompanied by his wife, Madeleine, and their three sons, Nicolas, Simon, and François. He had come to Louisiana highly recommended as a good choice for commissary of the new colony. Iberville himself referred to La Salle as "a most worthy man, capable of discharging the duties of his appointment well." In addition to his reputation as a responsible bookkeeper, he already had experience in Louisiana from a 1682 trip down the Mississippi River with the Cavalier de La Salle and Henri de Tonti. Also, his young family were welcome additions to the small population at Fort Louis.

If anyone in Louisiana was affected by the hard living in such a remote, untamed place, it was surely La Salle. Within two years of his arrival at Mobile, his wife and youngest son died. When the Pélican docked at Massacre Island in 1704 with its cargo of brides-to-be, La Salle had already reserved one for himself. He married Jeanne-Catherine de Berenhardt and soon began a family with her. But tragedy again entered La Salle's life in 1705 with the death of a son and in 1708 when his daughter, Marie, died. Jeanne-Catherine became ill herself and in 1710, she too passed away.

Throughout these sad times, Nicolas de La Salle remained determined to uphold his duties as commissary. His responsibilities included insuring the proper distribution of goods from the warehouse on Dauphin Island and from the storerooms at Old Mobile to the colonists. In order for any goods to be released from the storerooms, a written order had to be signed by Commandant Bienville and approved by La Salle. During times of shortage it was especially difficult for La Salle to control the removal of goods from the storehouse and to keep accurate books. He probably did not expect that his most ardent adversary in managing the merchandise would be Bienville. In 1706 issues between La Salle and Bienville about control of the King's goods resulted in tumultuous arguments and a division of the colonists between those who supported Bienville and those who backed La Salle. Bienville's supporters saw La Salle as a power-hungry, hard-hearted man. La Salle supporters saw Bienville as a freebooter whose illicit, private commerce with the Indians proved his lack of sincere interest in promoting the general welfare of the town.

La Salle must have been a dedicated man who took his position as commissary very seriously. He undoubtedly considered himself something more than a glorified store clerk who simply handed out goods without regard for their eventual use. When he refused to fill orders for goods, La Salle probably envisioned himself as guardian of the best interests of every colonist at Old Mobile, someone who would not allow even the will of the Commandant himself to compromise his standards. He wrote several letters to French authorities complaining of Bienville's illegal access to the storehouse and unchecked use of the supplies inside. Unfortunately, for almost every complaint against Bienville that La Salle sent to authorities, Bienville had written one too. On December 31, 1710, La Salle died of influenza, never having known of the letter that arrived a few months after his death, calling for his dismissal and immediate return to France.

Source: Higginbotham, Jay. Old Mobile: Fort Louis de la Louisiane: 1702-1711. Mobile: Museum of the City of Mobile, 1977.