Fort Maurepas was the first European settlement in Mississippi and the first capital of the French colony of Louisiana. Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur d’Iberville, a Canadian military hero, authorized construction of the fort during his expedition to fortify the mouth of the Mississippi River and establish a colony to secure the region for France. Anchoring his ships off Ship Island in February 1699, he set out to explore portions of the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River. Failing to find a suitable site for settlement along the Mississippi, Iberville returned to Biloxi Bay. After locating a channel of sufficient depth to accommodate seagoing ships, he ordered the construction of a fort on the eastern side of the bay.
Construction began 8 April 1699 and was completed by 25 April. The fort, named in honor of the French minister of marine and colonies, is believed to have been designed by Remy Reno, a draftsman with knowledge of military construction techniques who participated in Iberville’s expedition. Featuring four bastions made of squared logs, the fort mounted twelve guns. Its interior contained several structures, among them barracks, a storehouse, and a chapel.
Upon completion of Fort Maurepas, Iberville returned to France, leaving a garrison of approximately eighty men. He named Jean de Sauvole as commandant and Iberville’s brother, Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur d’Bienville, as lieutenant. Over the next few months the fort served as a base of operations for further exploration of the area. On one such trip up the Mississippi, Bienville encountered an English ship at a spot now known as English Turn and managed to bluff the English forces into believing that the French had firm military control of the river, temporarily halting their rival’s colonization in the region. Also during this period, Bienville’s forces attempted to obtain the friendship of local tribes, and two members of the garrison were sent to live among the natives to learn their languages.
The first summer of the fort’s existence proved especially harsh, as heat killed the garrison’s crops and freshwater became scarce. Illness spread, and as boredom set in, discipline among the troops declined. Iberville increased the garrison to approximately 120 when he returned in January 1700. He also ordered more expeditions into the interior and authorized construction of a fort on the Mississippi. During this time, the Spanish commandant at Pensacola arrived off Biloxi Bay and demanded that the French leave the area, claiming that the garrison was in violation of a treaty. After being refused by Sauvole, the Spanish left, only to be wrecked in a storm so destructive that they had to go back to ask for help from Fort Maurepas.
Illness struck the garrison again after Iberville’s second return to France. Sauvole died of a fever, and Bienville assumed command of the fort in August 1701. Iberville returned to the Gulf Coast for the last time late in the year with orders to move the settlement to Mobile to be closer to France’s ally, Spain, because of a looming war with England. By the spring of 1702, Fort Maurepas was totally abandoned.
- Edward N. Akin and Charles C. Bolton, Mississippi: An Illustrated History (2002)
- John K. Bettersworth, Mississippi: A History (1959)
- Jay Higginbotham, Fort Maurepas (1968)
- Charles Sullivan and Murella H. Powell, The Mississippi Gulf Coast: Portrait of a People (1999)