Mississippi’s state flower, the magnolia, was named for Pierre Magnol, a seventeenth-century French botanist at the University of Montpellier. And Bay St. Louis, French Camp, LeFleur’s Bluff, Rosalie in Natchez, Cat Island, Ship Island, the coastal town of D’Iberville, and Bienville National Forest are just a handful of the many places named by the French people who colonized the land that later became the state of Mississippi.
The first European settlements in what is now Mississippi were established by French explorers in the late 1600s. René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was the first European to navigate the great river later named the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, establishing peaceful alliances with the Indian inhabitants along the way. On 9 April 1682 he claimed the entire watershed for France, naming it the Colbert River after Louis XIV’s finance minister. The name later became the St. Louis River, after Louis IX of France, and finally the Mississippi, from an Indian word meaning Father of Waters or Great River.
In 1685 the king, believing that the New World might become an important element in the Europeans’ continuous struggle for power, decided to ensure France’s control of the continent by building defenses at the mouth of the Mississippi. That year he financed La Salle’s voyage into the Gulf of Mexico. Serious miscalculations caused La Salle to land nearly four hundred miles to the west of the river’s mouth, in Matagorda Bay.
The Spanish threat to French control of the Mississippi became more serious, finally prompting Louis XIV to send another emissary to the region. Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, arrived on the Gulf Coast in 1699 and explored the coastline from Dauphin Island to Ship Island and Biloxi Bay and back toward the Chandeleur Islands before accidentally discovering the mouth of the Mississippi while attempting to outrun a vicious storm. Because of the treacherous waters and unprotected anchorages in that area, Iberville chose the eastern shore of Biloxi Bay as the site of Fort Maurepas, the first capital of La Louisiane, the new colony that encompassed all of present-day Mississippi and the land on both sides of the river as far north as the Great Lakes. Iberville became governor of this new colony, which gave France a north-south waterway through the center of the continent as well as Gulf Coast fortifications.
Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, was named governor after the 1706 death of his brother, Iberville. La Louisiane suffered greatly from lack of material and financial support, but its greatest difficulty was the lack of permanent colonists. Most of those who came were soldiers, sailors, or trappers hoping to further their careers or make a fortune. The colony had very few women and virtually no families. After several requests from Bienville, the king began to send young women hoping to marry and begin new lives. These were called filles à la cassette because they carried small trunks containing their dowries. Many men and women who had been lured by promises of quick wealth were disappointed, but those in search of a fresh beginning remained and became permanent inhabitants.
Hard winters and a lack of supplies caused the deaths of hundreds of colonists, but nearby Indian villages generously offered food and lodging to starving colonists and soldiers. Arrival of supply ships continued to be sporadic, and French farmers had difficulty adjusting to the humid southern climate.
Disappointed in the lack of progress, the king decided in 1712 to grant the colony to Antoine Crozat, a financier who agreed to send colonists and to establish profitable trade. However, Crozat’s chosen governor, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, was a dismal failure, alienating colonists, Indians, and his own administrators. In 1717 Crozat gave up his grant and returned it to the new king, Louis XV, who then granted it to John Law, a Scottish financier. Law moved quickly to populate the colony through joint-stock concessions or land grants whose value inflated until the “Mississippi Bubble” burst. Law narrowly escaped the angry stockholders by fleeing France, but he had brought to Louisiana thousands of colonists as well as black slaves from West Africa. The Company of the Indies ran the colony after Law’s fall in 1720, but it again returned to the Crown in 1732. During this period La Nouvelle Orléans became the colony’s new capital.
The British constantly threatened the new French colony. The Choctaw generally supported the French during this struggle, while the Chickasaw were more loyal to the British. For a while the French became more dependent on the Natchez Indians, especially because of their fertile, easily defended land on the Natchez Bluffs. Friction between the French and the Natchez erupted in a 1729 rebellion after the French demanded a Natchez sacred site. The French commandant rejected several offers of compromise made by the Great Sun, the Natchez chief, leading the natives to kill all French males in the settlements around Fort Rosalie and possibly further north at Fort St. Pierre on the Yazoo River. In 1730 the French asked the Choctaw to join in punitive attacks against the Natchez. The Chickasaw sympathized with the Natchez, increasing the enmity that led to the Chickasaw Wars of 1736 and 1740 under the leadership of Bienville, whose efforts resulted in a stalemate.
After Bienville’s recall to France, Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, arrived in New Orleans in 1743 to become the colony’s new governor. During his years in office, the European war was strongly reflected in the colonies, pitting French against English along with their Choctaw and Chickasaw allies. The Choctaw Civil War further weakened France’s control.
Louis Billouart de Kerlérec succeeded Vaudreuil as governor in 1753. Territorial disputes between the French and English in Acadia and the Great Lakes region finally resulted in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). The Acadians were expelled from their homes in 1755, and although most of them settled in present-day Louisiana, some came to Mississippi.
The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the long struggle between England and France for control in North America, with Great Britain assuming authority over all French possessions east of the Mississippi River and a secret treaty giving Spain all possessions west of the river. The majority of existing French settlers remained behind, mostly on land grants along the great river or on the Gulf Coast.
One notable exception to that majority was Louis LeFleur, the son of a French soldier, who developed lucrative trade with the Indians and established several posts on small rivers and on the Natchez Trace during the late 1700s. LeFleur’s Bluff, on the Pearl River in Jackson, is believed to have been the site of one of those posts. LeFleur married Rebecca Cravat, a niece of a respected Choctaw chief, Pushmataha, and built a home on the Natchez Trace, which developed into a trading community, Frenchman’s Camp (now French Camp). One of his sons, Greenwood, changed his last name to Le Flore and was elected chief of the Choctaw people in 1822.
Although the colony lost its French status after the Seven Years’ War, Mississippi retains an indelible French heritage, especially along the Gulf Coast. Those early families are ancestors of many Mississippians. Some names have been Americanized, such as Horn Island instead of Isle à la Corne or Pearl River instead of Rivière aux Perles, but others, including Bellefontaine and Gautier, have remained French.
- Jean Bernard Bossu, Nouveaux Voyages aux Indes Occidentales (1768)
- Gail A. Buzhardt and Margaret Hawthorne, Rencontres sur le Mississippi, 1682–1763 (1993)
- Pierre Margry, ed., Découvertes et Établissements des Français dans l’Ouest et dans le Sud de l’Amérique Septentrionale (1614–1754) (1974)
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Correspondance Générale: Louisiane, Archives des Colonies, ser. C13A, 13B, Archives Nationales de Paris (microfilm)
- Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz, Histoire de la Louisiane Française (1758)
- Daniel H. Usner Jr., American Indians in the Lower Mississippi Valley: Social and Economic Histories (1998)
- Daniel H. Usner Jr., Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1783 (1992)