A House in New Orleans: The Le Moyne Family and the Foundation of the Crescent City

Michael J. Davis

“We are at present working on the establishment of New Orleans, thirty leagues above the entry of the Mississippi,” wrote the newly-commissioned commandant-général of Louisiana, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, on June 12, 1718 to the Council of the Marine at Versailles.[1] Work on New Orleans, however, had been underway since the end of March, when Bienville had brought forty workers—three quarters of them convict labourers—to clear the swampland on behalf of the Company of the West, the new proprietary owners of the Louisiana colony, and found what would become the Crescent City. New Orleans’ foundation has been described by Shannon Lee Dawdy as the combination of Enlightenment rationality, mētis (local knowledge) and what she has called “rogue colonialism”—colonial development driven by the pursuit of the vested interests of individuals on the ground, who acted with or without metropolitan consent.[2] Scion of the Le Moyne family, one of New France’s most ambitious houses, Bienville looms particularly large in this equation. From Louisiana’s very inception he and his kin fused colonial and personal interests to forge a family empire in the Lower Mississippi Valley. With the New Orleans Tricentennial this spring, it is perhaps therefore fitting to explore the so-called “roguish” behaviour of Bienville and the wider Le Moyne clan and the lasting impact it has had on the city’s history.

“Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville,” Rudolph Bohunek, 1907,” Louisiana State Museum http://louisianadigitallibrary.org/islandora/object/tahil-aaw%3A1065

Born in Montreal in 1680, Bienville was the tenth of fourteen children born to Charles Le Moyne de Longueuil et de Châteauguay and Catherine Primot. Coming to New France in 1641 as an innkeeper’s son from Normandy, Le Moyne had experienced a meteoric rise, working as an interpreter, fur trader, and militia captain to become Montreal’s richest merchant and an esteemed colonial nobleman.[3] Throughout their careers his sons would seek to emulate his advances, demonstrating an intense avidity for wealth and status and the perpetual desire to propel their house to greater heights in both the metropole and the colonies. From 1698, the foundation of Louisiana proved to be one such dynastic project. Commissioned to discover a maritime route to the mouth of the Mississippi River and there establish a fledgling colony, Le Moyne’s third son, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, took with him a host of kinsmen eager to reap the rewards the venture could bring. The Naval Minister, Jérôme Phélypeaux de Pontchartrain, keenly embraced this fervent family ambition, as he wished to use the colony to tap into the lucrative markets of New Spain and to prevent English advancements across North America. Rather than acting entirely as “rogues,” therefore, the Le Moyne clan collaborated with the State to carve out a personal empire in Louisiana between 1700 and 1706, earning Versailles’ tacit consent, provided that personal and imperial interests remained aligned.[4] By 1702 Iberville and his younger brother, Joseph Le Moyne de Sérigny, had fulfilled their aspiration of joining the metropolitan elite through their respective purchases of the expensive seigneuries of Ardillières and Loire in western France. Moreover, for his exploits Iberville was commissioned as the first Canadian Chevalier de Saint Louis and earned Pontchartrain’s permission to establish his own comté d’Iberville on the banks of the Mississippi, which he hoped would eclipse even his eldest brother’s newly elevated Barony of Longueuil. So rapid was the Le Moyne family’s advancement that the intendant of La Rochelle would remark that perhaps Louisiana was “not as bad a country as many say.”[5]

Yet Bienville, left in Mobile as the colony’s de facto governor since April 1702, had seen little return from his family’s ventures, instead weathering years of starvation and violence as a result of the War of the Spanish Succession. Following his older brothers, he had requested the establishment of a seigneurie in his name at Horn Island in 1708, only to see this shot down by Pontchartrain and the land granted merely en routure. Always in the shadow of his older brothers, Bienville had been the target of the Minister’s anger since 1706, when the Navy had uncovered overwhelming evidence of collusion and fraud during Iberville’s infamous privateering campaign against St. Kitts and Nevis. With Iberville’s death in Havana that same year, Pontchartrain’s ire at his breach of trust was redirected towards his younger brother. For three decades several wholesale inquiries would examine the Le Moyne family’s “rogue” activities across the Atlantic World, and in Louisiana’s first trial Bienville would be impeached for alleged abuses of power, such as the reselling of crown supplies and the appropriation of gifts from indigenous allies. Demoted to lieutenant du roi in 1708, he would spend almost a decade languishing in the colony, complaining that Pontchartrain had resolved “to again rain down his anger upon me as if I could have answered for the matters of his discontent that Mr d’Iberville may have given him.”[6]

Bienville’s fortunes finally changed for the better with the acquisition of Louisiana in 1717 by John Law’s Company of the West. Boasting decades of experience in the colony, Bienville was a prized asset and was appointed as commandant-général in September 1717, but with the strict caveat that he would not “make any new establishments or change those that are already made.”[7] Yet, upon his receipt of the commission in March 1718, Bienville would ignore this condition and “go rogue,” forging ahead with his own plans for New Orleans. Knowing that the Company of the West’s intention was to create such a settlement to honour the Regent, Philippe d’Orléans, Bienville perhaps sought to show initiative and ingratiate himself with his new employers in order to secure further advancement after a long-stalled career. Official instructions, however, would later arrive dictating that Bayou Manchac, several miles to the north, should be the site for New Orleans, since it offered easier access to the Natchez tobacco plantations and the portages used by Illinois voyageurs.

Image: “Plan de La Nouvelle Orléans, 1718,” Bibliothèque National de la France via Gallica

Thus, upon learning of Bienville’s premature decision to choose the location of the new settlement, the Company’s directors were furious. Work on the nascent city was forced to cease and the colony’s capital was temporarily relocated to Biloxi. Making the best of a bad situation, however, Bienville persisted with his design. With the land around New Orleans abandoned, he leveraged his new authority to finally grant himself the landed estate he had long desired, awarding himself two vast land grants en franc aleu in March 1719, essentially making himself the region’s seigneur in all but name. As John Law’s “Mississippi Bubble” burst the following year Bienville did everything in his power to monetise his new holdings, luring settlers to populate his land by offering to redirect African slaves recently imported by the Company, including twenty-seven he acquired for his own estate. By 1721 his scheme had paid off and New Orleans claimed a population of 1200 people (half of whom were enslaved Africans or Indigenous peoples). On the brink of bankruptcy, the now renamed Company of the Indies begrudgingly recognised Bienville’s success and, on December 23rd 1721, proclaimed New Orleans the colony’s capital in the hope of securing Louisiana’s future prosperity.[8]

Thus, in the spring of 1718, what we now know as New Orleans was little more than a hasty and ambitious venture driven by Bienville in the hope of future reward. It would not be until three years later that the Crescent City finally took shape, a direct result of Bienville’s dogged pursuit of riches and renown, motivated by a powerful dynastic legacy and the highs and lows of his family’s involvement in the Louisiana project. Ever eager for advancement and status, Bienville seized every opportunity for self-aggrandisement, even if it meant “going rogue” and defying direct orders. Three hundred years later, however, Bienville’s city persists, a testament to the intertwined legacies of imperial policy, dynastic pursuits, and “rogue colonialism” in colonial ventures across the Atlantic World.

Michael J. Davis is a Ph.D Candidate at McGill University, who researches the intersections of family, career and empire in the French Atlantic World. His thesis, entitled “Brothers in Arms: The Le Moyne Family and the Atlantic World, 1680-1745,” charts the expansive circum-Atlantic careers of the first generation of the famed Le Moyne family, which took them from Montreal to the Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, Louisiana, Martinique, Saint-Domingue, Guyana and western France. You can follow him on Twitter @emikedavis.


 

[1] The date for the foundation is usually placed on May 7th, although there is no documentation for this. Some suggest that the date was arbitrarily chosen during the 250th anniversary in 1968 to coincide with the visit of the French Ambassador to the city. Quotation: ANOM COL C13A 5/fol.155v «Bienville au Conseil de la Marine» Fort Louis, 12 juin 1718 [translation-Davis]; Richard Campanella “How New Orleans was founded in 1718: Indecision, contingency, discord and serendipity” New Orleans Time Picayune, January 10th 2018- accessed 13/3/2018 at http://www.nola.com/homegarden/index.ssf/2018/01/the_300_years_of_new_orleans_a.html

[2] Shannon Lee Dawdy, Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[3] Jean-Jacques Lefebvre, “Le Moyne de Longueuil et de Châteauguay, Charles,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 15, 2018, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/le_moyne_de_longueuil_et_de_chateauguay_charles_1E.html

[4] Guy Rowlands, The Dynastic State and the Army Under Louis XIV: Royal Service and Private Interest, 1661-1701 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[5] Iberville would die before his comté ever came to fruition; Quotation: BN MF 22811/fol.215 «Bégon à Villermont» La Rochlle, 15 août 1702 [translation- Davis]; For the Le Moyne family’s involvement in French Louisiana’s early history see Guy Frégault, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville (Éditions Fides, Ottawa, 1968), Marcel Giraud, A History of French Louisiana I: The Reign of Louis XIV (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1974); Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams, Iberville’s Gulf Journals, (University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1981) and Jay Higginbotham, Old Mobile: Fort Louis de la Louisiane, 1702-1711 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1991).

[6] ANOM COL C13A 5/fol.61 «Bienville au Conseil de la Marine» Fort Louis, 10 mai 1717 [translation- Davis].

[7] “Commission for Bienville as Commandant General of Louisiana, September 20 1717” published in Dunbar Rowland and Albert Godfrey Sanders, eds, Mississippi Provincial Archives 1704-1743: French Dominion (Jackson, MS: Press of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1932) V.III p.224-225; Marcel Giraud, A History of French Louisiana II: Years of Transition, 1715-1717 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974).

[8] Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012) ; Dianne Guenin-Lelle, The Story of French New Orleans: History of a Creole City (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016).

 

Featured image: “Plan de La Nouvelle Orléans, 1718,” (detail) Bibliothèque National de la France via Gallica, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b67003079

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