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LE MOYNE DE BIENVILLE, JEAN-BAPTISTE, officer, explorer, governor of Louisiana; baptized as an infant 23 Feb. 1680 in Montreal; son of Charles Le Moyne* de Longueuil et de Châteauguay and Catherine Thierry (Primot); d. 7 March 1767 in Paris, France.
Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne belonged to a family many of whose members left their mark on the history of Canada and Louisiana. His parents died when he was young, but fraternal solidarity compensated for the loss. When his brother François, Sieur de Bienville, died in 1691, Jean-Baptiste received the landed title by which he would be known to history.
In 1692 Bienville began his naval service as a midshipman. He served under his elder brother Pierre Le Moyne* d’Iberville near Newfoundland, along the New England coast, and in Hudson Bay; wounded in action in 1697, he accompanied Iberville to France. The War of the League of Augsburg had just ended; France and England were now ready to race each other to colonize the Mississippi valley, which had been opened to exploration by Jacques Marquette* and Louis Jolliet*, René-Robert Cavelier* de La Salle and Henri Tonty* shortly before the war. Iberville, fresh from spectacular exploits against the English, was chosen to lead the French search for the mouth of the Mississippi. Bienville sailed with his brother from Brest, 24 Oct. 1698. After hailing the Spanish outpost at Pensacola (Fla.), the French headed westward along the coast; finding a strong current of fresh water that flowed between piles of driftwood, they made their way into the great river on 2 March 1699. They were the first Europeans to enter the Mississippi from the open sea.
When in May 1699 Iberville sailed back to France, he left Ensign Sauvole in command at Biloxi (at a site now within Ocean Springs, Miss.) over a garrison of some 70 men. Bienville was second in command. While exploring the lower Mississippi with five men in two canoes, Bienville met the English naval officer Bond, whose corvette was part of the English enterprise to occupy the Mississippi. With a bluffing threat to call for support, Bienville ordered Bond out of the French king’s river. Bienville was to recall this incident two decades later in his representations to the king: “I obliged them [the English] to abandon their enterprise.” The event left a place name on the river: English Turn.
Iberville returned in January 1700 and departed again for France in late May. Meanwhile, Bienville, after exploring the lower Red and Ouachita rivers, had been given command of the small Fort de Mississipi, on the left bank, 18 leagues from the river’s mouth. When Sauvole died in August 1701, Bienville succeeded him as commandant. At a mere 21 years of age, he began administering Louisiana for a decade of its leanest years. Iberville, during a four-month sojourn in the colony in 1702, confirmed Bienville in his role, and then sailed for France in April, never to return to Louisiana. The War of the Spanish Succession had broken out; Iberville led an expedition to the West Indies, and took the island of Nevis, only to die of fever in Havana on 9 July 1706. Bienville, Iberville’s junior by 19 years, would now be the leading Le Moyne in the colonizing of Louisiana.
A decade of war (1701–13) left Louisiana poorly supplied and constantly menaced. Bienville’s diplomacy with the Indians, based on his knowledge of their language and customs, was a key factor in the survival of the infant colony. In spite of the promise young Bienville showed, the minister of Marine, Pontchartrain, passed over him and, in the spring of 1707, named Nicolas Daneau* de Muy governor of the colony. The Le Moynes were under a cloud because of charges that Iberville had used his official position and goods to increase his and the family’s fortunes. Bienville himself was accused of authoritarianism toward his countrymen and of cruelty toward Indian prisoners. A steady stream of charges against him was sent to France by Nicolas de La Salle*, the acting commissary of the colony, and Henri Roulleaux de La Vente, pastor of the parish in Mobile (Ala.). (In 1702 Bienville had transferred his headquarters to Fort Louis on the Mobile River; in 1711 fort and town were relocated some 25 miles downriver at the present site of Mobile.) La Salle, jealous of the Le Moynes, complained of the commandant’s encroachment upon his prerogatives. La Vente denounced Bienville for weakness in the face of the Koroas when members of the tribe hacked to death a party of Frenchmen including Nicolas Foucault*, a missioner from the Quebec seminary; he also blamed Bienville for not halting debauchery with Indian slave girls. Jealous of the Jesuit Jacques Gravier* whom Bienville had befriended and named chaplain, La Vente complained that Bienville was interfering with parish worship, was giving a bad example by not practising his religion, and was involved in an affair with an unnamed woman. Both La Salle and La Vente accused Bienville of harassment and of intercepting their correspondence with Versailles.
Pontchartrain’s nominee, de Muy, died in Havana en route to Louisiana. The home government then entrusted the investigation of Bienville’s public and private life to Jean-Baptiste-Martin d’Artaguiette Diron, who was to serve as co-commissary with La Salle. The investigator never substantiated the charges. Whatever may have been the reality in the drawn-out case of Iberville’s profiteering, Bienville went for years without receiving payment of his salary. No example of torture or of cowardice was proven. Food was scarce for all, not just for the commandant’s political enemies who blamed him for their wartime hunger. The unnamed woman was reportedly dead when d’Artaguiette arrived, and Bienville claimed that La Vente had retracted the charge; subsequently the archives record no charges of debauchery against the lifelong bachelor. The accusation of intercepting letters proved also to be a canard. The decade of charges and counter-charges is an example of the traditional hostility between the gens de plume such as La Salle and the gens d’épée such as Bienville. This factionalism in the bicephalous administration of Louisiana was doubled by the ecclesiastical allies each political leader befriended. Bienville continued the Le Moyne friendship with the Jesuits. La Salle needed the aid of La Vente, a member of the Séminaire des Missions Étrangères, which in Europe and Asia was debating with the Society of Jesus the momentous Chinese rites question.
Louis )XIV, unable to provide the capital needed to develop Louisiana, contracted the colony over to the wealthy Antoine Crozat in 1712. The new proprietor linked to himself in financial cooperation the new governor Cadillac [Laumet*], who, appointed in May 1710, made his way via France from Canada to Louisiana, arriving in June 1712. Bienville had again been passed over. The loquacious Gascon governor pursued the investigation into Bienville’s behaviour without results other than the humiliation and alienation of Bienville, whom he would brand a caballing political intriguer. Bienville reported to Pontchartrain a further reason for Cadillac’s hostility: he had refused to marry Cadillac’s daughter. Louisiana’s bifactionalism continued, but now with Bienville in a weak position, as king’s lieutenant serving under Governor Cadillac.
Nonetheless, Pontchartrain, feeling somewhat more favourable toward Bienville in 1714, provided him with the military command of the Mississippi River from the Ohio to the gulf. Cadillac proved inept at dealing with the natives, and Bienville was called upon to repair the ties of alliance and friendship. No thanks were given him for the braggart governor was annoyed at his military commandant’s initiatives. Yet when a crisis developed, a band of Natchez having killed four French voyageurs, Cadillac ordered Bienville into action, with only 34 men at his disposal, to demand justice from a tribe that had 800 warriors. Recruiting several Canadians to advance with him, Bienville went into Natchez territory, where, by ruse and kidnapping, he obliged the chiefs to condemn to death the six murderers. The tension subsided without a shot being fired. At Bienville’s insistence, the Natchez worked with the French and Canadians to erect Fort Rosalie (Natchez, Miss.).
Meanwhile in France the newly empowered council of Marine removed Cadillac from office; although less suspicious of the Le Moynes than Pontchartrain had been, the council passed over Bienville and named as governor Jean-Michel de Lespinay*. In the interim prior to Lespinay’s arrival (October 1716 to March 1717) Bienville was acting head of the colony. The king rewarded Bienville in October 1716 with the grant of Horn Island on the Gulf coast, not en seigneurie as Bienville had requested, but en roture, a commoner’s tenure. Bienville intensely desired the honour of being named a knight of the order of Saint-Louis; this royal recognition was accorded him on 20 Sept. 1717.
When in 1717 the regent of France entrusted Louisiana to John Law’s Compagnie d’Occident – soon to be called the Compagnie des Indes – the office of royal governor ceased. The new role of commandant general, with responsibility for royal defence of the company’s colony, was given to Bienville. The Illinois country was attached to Louisiana, and thereby came under his military jurisdiction. Company affairs were in the hands of the civilian administrator, Marc-Antoine Hubert. The company brought Bienville further into its administration by naming him one of the directors, and by having him preside over the meetings of the governing council.
In the spring of 1718, at a place he had recommended – a portage between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain – Bienville was in charge of establishing a company post and a town to be known as New Orleans. He knew that silting passes at the mouth of the Mississippi River would be a problem, but he favoured dredging to maintain needed depth rather than abandoning the advantages of a river and sea port. He recognized the need of levees as a protection against flooding and proposed a canal that would link river and lake.
In general, Bienville was guardedly cooperative with the Spaniards to the east and to the west, and dreamed of commerce with Veracruz. Yet as the Spaniards extended their colonial reach to Los Adayes (near Robeline, La.), Bienville fortified Natchitoches and thereby fixed the eastern line of Texas. Vainly he hoped to occupy the upper Arkansas River. In 1719, when war broke out between the two Bourbon monarchies, he had the advantage of earlier news, and seized Pensacola; after a turnabout counter-offensive by the Spaniards, he led the recapture of Pensacola.
Bankruptcy brought an end to John Law’s dreams and to his company. Early in 1722 Bienville learned that the reorganized Compagnie des Indes was retaining him as commandant general. (It prescribed New Orleans as his ordinary residence rather than Nouveau-Biloxi (Biloxi, Miss.), headquarters since 1720.) Yet not for long. Within two years he was recalled to France “for consultation.” Being of the gens d’épée, this Le Moyne was not attractive to the new commercial managers who were sending out gens de plume and company men to control the colony. Always tempted to feel a paternal or proprietary right over Louisiana, Bienville was obliged to sail in the summer of 1725 for the mother country he hardly knew; the company judged that “it was not suitable to its interests” to retain him in office in Louisiana.
Controller General Charles-Gaspard Dodun, head of the Conseil des Indes, understood the company’s position, and explained to Maurepas that Bienville was “a man of courage and a good officer; [and that] although it would not be good for him to go back as commandant, there is in this position no attack on his honour or honesty, and he could indeed be capable of serving well in all other posts to which you might name him.” To replace Bienville, Étienne de Périer was commissioned in August 1726 as commandant general of Louisiana. During the rest of the year the company secured the removal of several Bienvillists from Louisiana offices. The Le Moyne era in Louisiana had come, it seemed, to a definitive end.
The new administration performed its functions satisfactorily until the local commandant at Fort Rosalie provoked the Natchez into rising up against the French. The killing of settlers and soldiers struck fear into all the colonists, undermined confidence in the leadership, and brought the Compagnie des Indes, which foresaw no gains for itself in this poor colony, to beg the king to reassume the administration of Louisiana. The change was effected in the summer of 1731. The court was in contact with Bienville in the spring of that year, and in the summer of 1732 the king commissioned him as governor of Louisiana because “Sieur de Bienville, by the services which he has already rendered, has given evidence of his experience and capability, and His Majesty is all the more willingly led to this decision, for knowing that Sieur de Bienville has the confidence both of settlers and of natives.”
In the first days of March 1733, as the governorship changed hands in New Orleans, Périer complained of the shabby treatment Bienville gave him even though he had befriended the Le Moynes and their supporters. On his part Bienville reported the colony “in a worse state than expected”; he referred to the dwindling population, the shortage of food and goods, and especially the Indians’ attitude toward the French. Strong in the belief that “the colony was grounding all its hope on [his] return,” he pleaded repeatedly for troops, munitions, manufactured goods, and food supplies.
The questions and problems Bienville faced during the 1730s concerned trade – legitimate and contraband – with France, England, and Mexico; importation of Negro slaves; land grants for retired soldiers; experimentation with crops; processing and shipping of tobacco; search for a better cotton gin; value of paper money; fortifications and barracks; desertions from his troops; hurricanes and floods; and, of course, the annual budget.
Bienville warmly endorsed the work of his old friend Nicolas-Ignace de Beaubois, recently renamed superior of the Jesuit missions in Louisiana. The governor showed interest in the royal hospital and praised the care given the sick and wounded servicemen by the nuns. During the administration of Bienville and Commissary Edme-Gatien Salmon, a bequest by sailor-merchant Jean Louis launched the charity hospital of Louisiana for civilians. An admiring officer had written years before that Bienville was “charitable. I have seen him give the last morsel of [wheat] bread and the last drop of wine for the sick, and reduce his own diet to corn bread and often to sagamité.”
In administration Bienville collaborated for years with Salmon in that “good understanding” often recommended by the home government to its Louisiana officials. Although the colonial bicephalism brought the two to mutual countercharges by 1740, they were reconciled in early 1742. Bienville praised his nephew Gilles-Augustin Payen de Noyan and promoted his interests, thus leaving himself open to the old charge against the Le Moynes of nepotism and partisanship. From New Orleans Bienville petitioned the king for revalidation of his Mississippi River land grants that had been annulled by the Compagnie des Indes.
In diplomacy with the Indians Bienville ever gave them that first courtesy of learning their languages. He acquired and practised the tribes’ ways of greeting and of holding councils, and sent French or Canadian youths to live for a time in the native villages in order to learn language and etiquette. His main policy throughout his administration was to sustain the Choctaws in their warring with the Chickasaws, who were supported by the English. He fostered friendly cooperation with the smaller tribes; he had welcomed the Apalachee refugees fleeing from their Florida villages destroyed by the English. A major handicap, which his personal diplomacy had to counterbalance, was the French inability to provide cheap trade goods to rival the English supplies and prices on the frontier.
The condition for peace between the French and the Chickasaws, Bienville insisted, was for the latter to hand over as slaves the Natchez to whom they had given asylum after that tribe’s defeat by the forces of Louis Juchereau de Saint-Denis in 1731; the Chickasaws refused and continued to harbour these political refugees. From the time of his return in 1733 Bienville sought to bring the Chickasaws to cooperation or to submission. To sustain the morale of the Choctaws and other allies, he himself led an offensive in 1736 even though “such a campaign was painful at [his] age.” His army included unreliable French troops, Canadians (whom he called “naturally a bit unruly”), and Indians. The timing was faulty, the manœuvres were inconclusive, and he had to withdraw from the Chickasaw countroung Bernard d’ Artaguiette Diron bitterly complained that Bienville’s failure to arrive earlier at a rendezvous point had cost the life of his brother Pierre. Diron further complained that Bienville favoured Canadians “shamefully, to the extreme, as if only they were capable.”
Means were lacking to mount an offensive in 1737 and 1738. But men and munitions, even artillery, were dispatched from France. The minister of Marine wanted more than a “doubtful success.” During the winter of 1737–38 Bienville was often confined to his bed by “very painful sciatica,” but he nonetheless continued preparations.
Before launching his campaign he sought new officers for his troops. They and the civilians were hard to govern. The troops were tempted to desert because of the hard life in the frontier outposts. The civilians were often former coureurs de bois. His ideal was to have (and be) “a commandant who knows how to make himself esteemed and respected without trying to make himself feared.” A split among the Choctaws developed when those “of the east” made peace with the Chickasaws and accepted trade with the English. Bienville countered the English move by strengthening his alliance with the Choctaws “of the west,” and with friendly elements among those “of the east.”
The long-prepared offensive got under way in the fall of 1739 after all the Choctaws rallied to the side of the French. Canada sent troops and Indian allies under Charles Le Moyne de Longueuil and Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville. The outcome of this impressive expedition fell short of complete victory. Unable to transport to the enemy villages the artillery that would have destroyed them, Bienville decided to come to terms with the Chickasaws when they sued for peace in the face of such a large, well-provisioned force. They surrendered some Natchez refugees to him and pledged peaceful cooperation.
In June 1740, the sexagenarian, who had first complained “of the bad state of [his] health” to Maurepas’s father in 1707, begged the minister for leave to go to France for his health. He proposed the summer of 1742 as departure time, for he was confident that by then he would have solidified the newly made armistice into stable peace. Maurepas in October 1741 granted the requested retirement, but almost a year elapsed before a successor was named.
Pathetically, in March 1742 Bienville reflected that “a sort of fatality [has been] set for sometime upon wrecking most of my best-planned projects.” Learning that he would soon be replaced, he pledged to spend his time smoothing out all he could for his successor who, he hoped, would have better fortune. The new governor, Pierre de Rigaud* de Vaudreuil, arriving in May 1743, questioned the solidity of Bienville’s peace, and reported a need for reforms and greater military discipline.
Weary of the burden of leadership which he had borne intermittently for four decades, Bienville bade a final farewell to Louisiana on 17 Aug. 1743. His ship reached Rochefort, France, on 19 October, and he took up residence in Paris where he was to live in relative obscurity for more than two decades of retirement.
The aging retiree was comfortable financially – with a pension from the king in recognition of his services, with revenues from the municipality of Paris on certificates he had purchased, with a small annuity from the Compagnie des Indes, and with an annuity from the Jesuits for leased acreage adjoining the land he had sold them outside New Orleans. Served by a valet and a lackey, a cook and a kitchen maid, Bienville had also a coachman for his carriage and horses. One might picture him strolling from his Rue Vivienne residence – marked since 1968 by a plaque – to the nearby gardens of the Palais Royal where he would recount the deeds of yesteryear. Meanwhile, in faraway Louisiana he was remembered not only by the French but also by the Indians, who “always mention[ed] him in their speeches. His name [was] so deeply rooted in the hearts of these good people that his memory will always be dear to them,” noted one traveller. He lived to see his Louisiana pass under Spanish rule in 1766 despite petitions to Versailles by its French inhabitants.
He died in 1767 in his 88th year. His will, redolent of piety toward God, made provisions for his servants and divided his estate among his nephews, great-nephews, and great-nieces. The funeral was held in his parish church of Saint-Eustache, but, if he was interred within its walls, the record has through pillage and fire been lost.
His mortal remains are thus deprived of honoured recognition – just as in his lifetime he was never fully rewarded by king or nation for the intrepid leadership that nurtured a sickly outpost into an enduring centre of French culture. He even had to wait two centuries for New Orleans, the largest city he founded, to erect a splendid statue in honour of the father of Louisiana.
AN, Col., B, 25, ff.15–23v; 27, ff.193–94; 29, ff.269–94v; 32, ff.321–24v, 477–78v; 38, ff.288–89v, 326v–27, 338; 39, ff.449v–53; 42 bis, ff.83–86, 188; 43, pp.342–43, 363, 408–9; 57, ff.796–863v; 59, ff.571–620; 61, ff.644v–705; 63, ff.591–633; 64, ff.500–30v; 65, ff.495–532; 66, ff.341–73v; 68, ff.401–26v; 70, ff.453–73v; 72, ff.470–98v; 74, ff.609–26v; C13A, 1–27; C13B, pièces 6, 8, 9, 10; C13C, 1, f.406; 2, ff.43–45; 4, ff.45–48, 93; E, 277; F3, 24, ff.341–57; Marine, B1, 9, ff.263–93; Minutier central, II, 621, 622; Section Outre-Mer, G1, 465 (dossier Bienville). ANDM, Registres des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 23 févr. 1680. Archives du séminaire des Missions étrangères (Paris), 344, p.62. ASQ, Lettres, M, 35, 38; R, 79, 83. Louisiana State Museum Archives (New Orleans), 63/68, 3 Sept. 1763; 2196, 20 July 1767. ... Bénard de La Harpe, Journal historique de l’établissement des Français à la Louisiane (Nouvelle-Orléans, 1831). “Bienville’s claims against the Company of the Indies for back salary, etc., 1737,” ed. H. P. Dart, Louisiana Historical Quarterly (New Orleans), IX (1926), 210–20. [J.-B. Bossu], Travels in the interior of North America, 1751–1762, trans. and ed. Seymour Feiler (Norman, Okla., 1962). Charlevoix, Histoire de la N.-F. (1744), II. Découvertes et établissements des Français (Margry), IV, V, VI. “Documents concerning Bienville’s lands in Louisiana. . . ,” ed. H. P. Dart, Louisiana Historical Quarterly, X (1927), 5–24, 161–84, 364–80, 538–61; XI (1928), 87–110, 209–32, 463–65. “The first state trial in Louisiana,” ed. H. P. Dart, Louisiana Historical Quarterly, XIV (1931), 5–35. JR (Thwaites), LXVI, 128–40. Le Page Du Pratz, Histoire de la Louisiane (3v., Paris, 1758). [André Pénicaut], Fleur de lys and calumet: being the Pénicaut narrative of French adventure in Louisiana, ed. and trans. R. G. McWilliams (Baton Rouge, 1953). Tanguay, Dictionnaire.. ... Frégault, Le grand marquis. Giraud, Histoire de la Louisiane française. G. E. King, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville (New York, 1892). O’Neill, Church and state in Louisiana. Marc de Villiers Du Terrage, Histoire de la fondation de la Nouvelle-Orléans, 1717–1722 (Paris, 1917). C. E. O’Neill, “The death of Bienville,” Louisiana History (Baton Rouge), VIII (1967), 362–69.
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Cite This Article
C. E. O’Neill, “LE MOYNE DE BIENVILLE, JEAN-BAPTISTE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/le_moyne_de_bienville_jean_baptiste_3E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||C. E. O’Neill|
|Title of Article:||LE MOYNE DE BIENVILLE, JEAN-BAPTISTE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1974|
|Year of revision:||1974|
|Access Date:||March 30, 2023|