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The Le Moyne Brothers
Lead the Way for the French

     Even though the French arrived on the Alabama Gulf Coast 150 years after their Spanish counterparts their impact on the region cannot be minimized by their tardiness. In many ways the French presence along the Gulf Coast has had as much or more influence on our present lives than the Spanish. The French settlement in the region began in 1699 with the establishment of territorial capitols at 27 Mile Bluff, Mobile, Biloxi, and New Orleans. Settlers lived and worked along both the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay as well as in Mobile. Many French plantations were on site and in operation when the first British “Governor” of Mobile, Major Robert Farmar, bought his acreage along the Tensaw River in 1771. The French involvement in the Gulf Coast region of North America commenced in 1699 with the arrival of the Le Moyne brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. They came to shape French policy in the region until the retirement of Jean-Baptiste (Bienville) in 1743.

Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville

     Both Pierre and Jean-Baptiste were born in North America in Montreal, Canada – then part of New France and the focal point of the French colonial territory in the Americas. The brothers were two of the 12 sons born to Charles Le Moyne de Longueiul and Catherine Thierry. Both men played major roles in constructing the French presence in North America. Iberville became a French military hero and his status propelled him into the upper echelon of the French government in North America especially in French Louisiana. Bienville began his adventure in North America initially as an aid to his older brother but won acclaim of his own for his long, successful political and military career in North America.

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville

     The Le Moyne brother’s first excursion to the Gulf Coast came in 1698 when they set sail from Brest, France with the intent of establishing a military post and colonial capitol in the Mississippi River Delta. The two were accompanied by French soldiers and somewhere around 200 potential colonists in an attempt to settle the region in the name of the French king. In January 1699 the Le Moyne’s entered Pensacola Bay but left soon after due to the presence of the Spanish already at work building their community.

     The first landing in Mobile Bay came on February 1, 1699 near the site of present-day Fort Morgan. The French, under the command of Iberville, explored the peninsula and rowed across the bay to examine Dauphin Island which they named Ile du Massacre (Massacre Island) after locating several skeletons there. Even though the Spanish had visited the region decades earlier the French explored and recorded detailed information in a search for a proper location to plant a colony.

     Within three weeks of arriving off the Alabama coast the French had their first encounter with the indigenous population for the first time. The brothers met with the Indians and secured relations between them and the French nation. As with the Atlantic region, relations with the Indians along the Gulf Coast meant trade, security, and a potential ally against the Spanish and the British if needed. Bienville, the younger of the two brothers was very successful in initiating contact with the Indians of the region including the Mobile, the Biloxi, and the Pascagoula, as a means of securing the fledgling French colony.

     After exploring present-day Baldwin County the two Frenchmen expanded their expedition to establish the French occupation further west. They established their first settlement at Fort Maurepas on Biloxi Bay (present-day Ocean Springs, Mississippi). In 1702 the settlement was relocated to the site of modern Mobile and named Fort Louis de la Louisiane. The capitol of the colony was established at Mobile but later moved to New Orleans.

     Both brothers served as top officials within the French Louisiana Colony throughout their lives. Iberville oversaw the construction of Fort Maurepas and Fort Louis and fought to maintain the French control of the region in battles with the English and Spanish. Unfortunately the elder Le Moyne passed away in 1706 after contracting yellow fever while fighting the British in a series of naval battles. Bienville succeeded his brother and worked to expand the French influence in the region. In 1717 he established Fort Toulouse near Wetumpka, Alabama and oversaw the construction of Fort Tombecbe near Demopolis, Alabama. Bienville was named Governor of Louisiana in 1732 and retired in 1743after serving the French government for 44 years. He lived out the last years of his life in Paris where he died at the age of 88 in 1767.

     The Le Moynes were instrumental in securing the French presence along the American Gulf Coast. They left behind a legacy of French culture that remains to this day. New Orleans, Mobile, Biloxi all display the distinct French influence made possible by the French brothers from Montreal. Baldwin County was a recipient of this rich culture and we, too, can see that in the cultural traits found throughout our communities.

Written by: John Jackson, October 19, 2010.
Printed in the Gulf Coast Newspapers October 29, 2010.
John Jackson is the Director of the
Baldwin County Department of Archives and History.