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French Chronicles

Cities in Dixie Born Under the French Lily

November 28, 2016

In the great State of Mississippi alone, which is roughly a quarter the size of France, you will find not one but five start-up cities of America with a rich French heritage at their roots. These communities, worthy of promotion on the world scale, are Biloxi (1699), Ocean Springs (1699), Natchez (1714), Pascagoula (1718), and Jackson (1792), Mississippi's state capital and largest city. Here's a brief historical description of their respective beginnings. These proud Mississippian cities are forever bonded by the fact that their journey began under the fleur de lys and the accent of America.

In 1697, Jérôme Phélypeaux de Maurepas, Comte de Pontchartrain and French Secretary of State for the Navy, gave Montreal-born Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, orders to locate the mouth of the Mississippi River. In late October 1698, Iberville’s team expedition left Brest, France, on five vessels including the frigates Le Marin and La Badine. Upon arrival on February 10, 1699, the fleet anchored at Île aux Vaisseaux, now Ship Island, in front of present-day Biloxi. On February 13, Iberville and 14 men landed on the mainland to meet with the local Biloxi Native Americans. The French were told that "Biloxi" in Siouan language means "First Nation". Gifts were exchanged and the peace calumet was smoked on one of the most beautiful white sandy beaches. Biloxi was born.

Photo : Christopher Mardorf / FEMA
The statue of Pierre d'Iberville in Fort Maurepas Park at Ocean Springs

Throughout April 1699, Iberville and his cohorts erected Fort Maurepas nearby at present-day Ocean Springs across Biloxi Bay to defend France's claim to much of what is now the central USA. Sieur de Sauvolle was appointed commandant and first governor of the French territory of Louisiana. The community is Mississippi State's oldest settlement. A bronze statue of Iberville and a concrete outline of the fort remind residents and visitors that Mississippi's first settlers were francophone.

Photo : NPS
The Natchez Trace was the lifeline through the Old South

A priority for France throughout the early 1700s was to establish itself along the Mississippi River. The French then constructed Fort Rosalie in 1716 near present-day Natchez where the soil was most fertile. They neglected, to their detriment, to renew the alliance with the Natchez nation by smoking the peace calumet. Following an interracial conflict, the fort was destroyed in 1729 and rebuilt by the French in 1731. France did send unmarried French women to what would become Dixie as potential wives for single male settlers. These girls became popularly known as “cassette girls” because of the suitcase or cassette that contained the possessions they carried to the colony.

Photo : The Mississippi Press/Susan Ruddiman
The La Pointe House at Pascagoula also called the Old French Fort

The first settlers of present-day Pascagoula were French Canadian Jean-Baptiste Baudreau dit Graveline, Joseph Simon dit La Pointe, born in Pointe-aux-Trembles (Québec), and his aunt, Madame de Chaumont, born Marie Catherine Barré in Flanders. La Pointe built on site a fortified residence around 1721. Over the years, people called it the "Old French Fort". It is today the oldest building in the State of Mississippi and the only surviving French colonial structure. In the adjoining cemetery, many of the tombstones have French inscriptions.

Photo : MS. Dept. of Wildlife, Fisheries, & Parks
Large state park commemorating LeFleur's Bluff in the heart of Jackson

The city of Jackson was founded by Louis LeFleur, a Louisiana trader of French descent. In 1792, he established a trading post on a promontory along "la rivière aux Perles" - the Pearl River, near "la piste des Natchez" - the Natchez Trace. The settlement rapidly grew into a village known as LeFleur's Bluff. The fast growing community was later chosen as the site for the new state's capital city. Its navigable waterway and nearness to the Natchez Trace connecting Natchez and Nashville (in Tennessee) were determining factors. Subsequently, LeFleur's Bluff was renamed Jackson after Andrew Jackson, who served as the seventh President of the United States from 1829 to 1837.

Photo : Reggie Dawes
A "Dixie" from the Citizens' Bank of Louisiana

The word Dixie refers to the ten (“dix” in French) dollar note issued by private banks in Louisiana, such as the Citizens Bank of Louisiana, prior to centralized banking. The notes were known as "Dixies" by English-speaking southerners. Eventually, usage of the term broadened to refer to the four core states of America's Old South, namely Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.

About the author

Jean-Pierre Bernier is a retired executive from the financial sector with a burning passion for America's Francophonie and its fraternity.

A Québec City native, he now lives in Aurora, Ontario.

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