Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville was a high official and then governor of Louisiana, including present Mississippi, during the French regime (1699–1763) and was the colony’s dominant political personality until 1743.
He was baptized on 23 February 1680 in Montreal, the eighth son of Charles Le Moyne, Sieur de Longueuil, and Catherine Thierry/Primot. In 1692 Jean-Baptiste inherited the Bienville title after the death of his brother, François. He served in the navy (1692–97) during the War of the League of Augsburg and then accompanied an elder brother, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, on his 1688–89 expedition to rediscover the mouth of the Mississippi and found a colony. Iberville left Ensign Sauvolle in charge at Biloxi (in present Ocean Springs), with Bienville second in command.
When Sauvolle’s died on 22 August 1701 Bienville became the principal military commander as king’s lieutenant (1701–13), commandant (1713–17), and commandant general (1717–25), but he never became governor because of quarrels among Louisiana’s governing elite and suspicions directed at the Le Moyne family after Iberville’s death. Accused of maladministration, Bienville was recalled to France for “consultation,” leaving in the late summer of 1725. He was shelved despite a convincing defense but eventually returned triumphantly in February 1733, having finally received the title of royal governor when the Company of the Indies surrendered its concession. After requesting relief, he departed on 17 August 1743. He died in Paris on 7 March 1767, anguished by the cession of “his” colony to Spain following the French and Indian War.
Bienville resided primarily at Biloxi until about 1722. He founded Mobile (1711) and New Orleans (1717), which became the capital in 1722. He played prominent or decisive roles in building several forts in or near Mississippi: Fort Maurepas (1699) in present Ocean City; Fort Louis (1702) on the Mobile at Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff, later moved to the mouth of the river (1711); Fort Rosalie (1716) at Natchez; Fort St. Pierre (1719), about nine miles from the mouth of the Yazoo at Vicksburg; and Fort Tombecbé (1736) at Jones Bluff on the Tombigbee near Epes, Alabama, thirty miles northeast of Meridian, Mississippi.
Bienville’s services often involved relations with the Native Americans. He had known some of them from childhood and possessed a remarkable talent for learning their languages and customs. They visited him freely and stayed at his home. (He never married.) He sent young men to live among them to become translators and keep him informed. Many Native Americans esteemed him, mourned his absence after 1725, and celebrated his return in 1733. Nevertheless, he did not hesitate to compel their respect by employing tactics he had seen them use. For example, after the Natchez murdered four Canadian voyageurs in 1716, he enticed nineteen chiefs and warriors to negotiate, suddenly took them hostage, and threatened to raise an Indian coalition to annihilate their tribe. The Indians ultimately surrendered the seven killers, four of whom were among those Bienville had captured. The tribe quietly accepted his behavior and helped him to construct Fort Rosalie, as he had demanded.
Bienville knew that French influence among the Indians depended on increasing their reliance on Western goods, but France seldom could supply sufficient goods. He won over or suppressed some minor tribes but never brokered a permanent peace between the Choctaw and Chickasaw. By the 1720s the French were fully committed to the Choctaw, while the Chickasaw were persistently drawn to the English traders. In 1723 Bienville even recommended that Louisiana’s security could be ensured by inciting intertribal warfare to eliminate the Indians. The context, however, suggests that he was playing a subtle game with the Company of the Indies’ administration rather than conveying his personal views.
After his 1733 return, he reluctantly decided to end the Chickasaw conflict by destroying the tribe or forcing its members to leave the region. Two hugely expensive campaigns during the Chickasaw War (1732–43) failed dismally. Bienville negotiated a fragile peace with the wearied Chickasaw and resigned, aging, ailing, and exhausted by his exertions.
Typifying minor noblemen and the milieu of colonial Louisiana, Bienville routinely quarreled with rival civil and military authorities and yearned for promotions and the higher social status and the wealth they promised, but he inspired wide respect and affection for his determination, cunning, and inexhaustible resourcefulness.
- Dictionary of American Biography (1929)
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1974)
- W. J. Eccles, France in America (1972)
- Marcel Giraud, Histoire de la Louisiane Française (5 vols., 1953–87)
- John Brite Harris, From Old Mobile to Fort Assumption (1959)
- Patricia Dillon Woods, French-Indian Relations on the Southern Frontier (1980)