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The French Outpost at the Alabamas on the Coosa
By Daniel H. Thomas
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1989 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The Potentialities of a Fort at the Head of the Alabama River
By establishing Fort Toulouse, the French "secured the most valuable strategic position in the whole southwestern country" of the colonial period. —(Alfred W. Reynolds, "The Alabama-Tombigbee Basin in International Relations, 1701-1763.")
A French ring of forts around the English colonies would be an effort at "containment," or as one French contemporary expressed it, a "girdle" around these rivals. In one sense it was a giant pincer movement, and Fort Toulouse was the southeasternmost prong. The other prong was not so clear—at times it might appear to be Beausejour in the peninsula leading to Nova Scotia, or Crown Point on the southern shore of Lake Champlain, or, eventually, Fort Duquesne, which the British would call Fort Pitt, at the head of the Ohio River.
The site of the fort was ideal for the purpose, or as Verner Crane has written, "the most valuable strategic possession on the Carolina-Louisiana border ..." Alfred Wade Reynolds concluded independently that it was "the most valuable strategic position in the whole southwestern country" of that era. It was some 170 miles northeast of Mobile, although much further via the rivers which slowly wound their way through the south Alabama plains. The particular site chosen was four miles above the head of the Alabama and the Coosa where this stream and the Tallapoosa approach within several hundred yards of each other, then diverged to form the lower portion of the peninsula. The post was placed on the high bank of the latter stream which is the larger. It drains an immense area of northeast Alabama, northwestern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. The Tallapoosa flows through the area to the east of the Coosa basin having its headwaters in eastern Tennessee also. They are separated by one of the southernmost ranges of the Appalachian highlands. Thus the fort was just below the hill country. It was athwart one of the two main routes taken by Charleston traders to this area. This was the Lower Path which skirted the hills; it then divided, with one branch leading almost due west to Choctaw country, and another northwest into the Chickasaw lands. The site was twenty-seven days distance from Charleston by packhorse, but only five days from Mobile, if going down by boat.
The site is such a natural location for settlement that it must have been used as long as man has lived in the area. Several Indian villages were grouped in the triangle of land between the rivers but further archaeological study will be necessary to determine just how many earlier cultures chose the same site. When the famed botanist, William Bartram visited it in 1777, he found the land to be "most fertile and delightful" along the rivers. He wrote that the "level plain between the conflux of the two majestic rivers" was "perhaps one of the most eligible situations for a city in the world; ..."
Later, the French officials would encourage settlement of civilians, but at this time they had more immediate interests. If the English fortified the site, they could make Mobile untenable and Mobile was itself an outpost protecting the mouth of the invaluable Mississippi. In French hands, a post could help protect the Gulf possessions and "contain" the English of Carolina, perhaps even set up a contrary movement which might push their rivals back into the sea.
There was also the extensive trade with the Indians of the whole area, a trade which had been monopolized by the business men of Albion. The natives were developing an insatiable desire for European commodities for which they would exchange deerskins estimated at a total of 100,000 annually. The river system could, of course, be used in this trade. In addition to this advantage, Charleston was 425 miles distant whereas Mobile was only 180.
As significant as were the geographical and economic potentialities of the site, the possibility of using it as a diplomatic post among the Indians of the area could be equally decisive in the contest. The success of the new colony of Louisiana, which was sparsely settled by whites, depended upon the ability to win the red men as allies or as benevolent neutrals. Agents were sent to the councils of the Indians to make treaties and alliances with them, and often Indian chiefs went to the posts to go through elaborate ceremonies of friendship and to secure presents. There was the keenest rivalry for the friendship of the Indians.
The four Indian groups in the area were the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, and Creeks. The Choctaws were the Indians nearest the French, and their country extended north of Mobile, covering what is now most of western Alabama and southern and central Mississippi to the Mississippi River. The relations between the French and the Choctaws remained friendly during most of the French occupation. The Chickasaws occupied the country above the Choctaws in what is now northern Mississippi and western Tennessee. Although closer to the French in Louisiana than to the English in Carolina, the Chickasaws were generally to be found on the side of the English. The Cherokees lived between the Chickasaws and the English of Carolina, occupying what is now eastern Tennessee, western portions of the Carolinas and northern Alabama and Georgia. They were closer to Carolina and were usually found in the British camp, although there were noteworthy exceptions. Occupying much of the area between the English of Carolina and the French of eastern Louisiana, the Creeks lived in what is now central and southeastern Alabama and across the Chattahoochee in Georgia. These were said by James Adair to be the most powerful and to hold the "Indian balance of power in our southern parts," and he was the principal British contemporary authority on the natives. This was one point on which he and his French counterparts could agree.
The Upper Creeks occupied the area around the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa and up each stream. The Alabamas were the southernmost group of the Upper Creeks. Having villages in and around the peninsula formed by the rivers, they held a key position along the natural route between many of the other Upper and the Lower Creeks to the east. This is one reason why they held the balance of power among these Indians, exerting an influence far beyond their numbers. As long as the Alabamas remained neutral in the Franco-British rivalry, this most strategic geographical area would not be in hostile hands, and the French would have a degree of security. If French soldiers, agents, traders, and priests would use this advanced site as a base and could turn the Creeks and Cherokees against the English, the southern colonies of Britain would be in grave danger.
If the Alabamas were to espouse the French cause, or even to become neutral, however, there would have to be a revolutionary change in their attitude. The Creeks generally had been unfriendly to the French and the Alabamas had been particularly hostile. Shortly after Fort Louis de la Mobile was founded, the Alabamas showed their hostility. Thereupon, two expeditions were led against them by Jean Baptiste Lemoine de Bienville, younger brother of Iberville, who would eventually become the outstanding governor of Louisiana. Both expeditions failed, and the Alabamas in turn formed an Indian alliance in 1708 and threatened a great expedition against Mobile. Bienville offered a gun and five pounds of powder and ball for each Alabama scalp and the war dragged on for several years.
In the winter of 1712-13, the Alabamas were reported by a Canadian who had been held prisoner there to have 300 dug-out canoes readied for descent against Mobile, and Bienville reported: "They can come down here in five days." As late as the spring of 1715, the English still had trading posts in these villages and it was reported that the Alabamas were receiving muskets, balls, and powder and were ready to receive English carpenters and soldiers who would construct a fort and build flatboats which, loaded with Indians, would descend on Mobile.
Naturally, the French were in their turn striving to win the Indians to their side. In this, they would be aided by certain fortuitous events which would enable them, rather than the English, to construct such a fort in the Alabama country.CHAPTER 2
Conditions and Events Leading to the Establishment of the Post
This post appears to be absolutely necessary in order to bring the savages into the interest of the French. —(Minutes of the Council of Marine, Paris, Sept. 8, 1716.)
One reason for the bleak prospects of the struggling French settlements on the Gulf had been the war known as the War of the Spanish Succession in Europe and as Queen Anne's War in America, 1702-13. Louis XIV had concentrated his efforts on the Continent, and the British had the advantage at sea and in the colonies. In addition to reports of impending British and Indian aggression by land, there were rumors of attack by an English fleet. Little wonder that the Mobilians were startled and, no doubt frightened, in the early summer of 1713 when a fifty gun ship sailed up the bay with cannons booming. But concern turned to joy when she proved to be French and the bearer of good tidings: The war was over, and there were new policies and promising plans for the colony. The wealthy Antoine Crozat and his Company of Louisiana had been made proprietor of Louisiana with the right to control and promote trade and establish posts; in turn, the Company was required to recruit colonists and furnish supplies. The new plans were to be executed by an experienced colonial official who had been appointed governor.
He was Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac who had served well in Canada. But his imperious and antagonistic nature did not endear him to the natives of the American forest any more than to most of his colleagues. In fact, his savage contemporaries in Louisiana rejected his haughty advances and his French critics would eventually have him confined for a time in the Bastille after his recall to Paris. He soon offended Bienville to such an extent that the latter considered the possibility of demanding satisfaction on the field of honor!
Bienville himself was not slow to accept a quarrel and vicious bickering among officials was almost continuous during Cadillac's period of service as well as during much of the history of the colony.
One of the many differences of opinion was the advisability of establishing a post well above Mobile. Several new posts including tills one were authorized in 1714, but men and supplies were not sufficient for all of them. As a consequence. Cadillac preferred to send the few available troops to new posts on the Mississippi. Bienville acknowledged that a fort on a distant frontier could exist only as long as the Indians in the region were friendly, but he urged the establishment of one above Mobile in an effort to attach the Creeks to the French cause. While the governor was on a long voyage to the Illinois country in the spring of 1715, Bienville noticed that the Alabamas had stepped up their trade with the French. Thereupon, he decided to send agents to their villages.
There must not have been time for the arrival of the agents before there began in April 1715, a general rebellion against the grasping English traders and the expanding frontier settlements of Carolina. This is known as the Yamasee War of 1715-16. It proved to be a serious if temporary blow to English trade and westward expansion. The Creeks probably initiated the conspiracy. and they were to be the last to lay down their arms. In the autumn the Upper Creeks sent a delegation of chiefs to Fort Louis to ask the French for an alliance and to send traders to their country to replace the British. This could mean, it was estimated, the acquisition of 100,000 deerskins a year.
The Yamasee War was a rare opportunity for the French. Fortunately for them, Cadillac was still on the lengthy mission up the Mississippi and Bienville was in command. This Metternich of the forest realized that the Creeks held the balance of power. They were more aggressive warriors, were more determined and successful hunters, and had used larger quantities of the white man's goods than more indolent tribes such as the Cherokees. Bienville recognized also that, among the Creeks, it was the Alabamas who "must be won over to the French cause;" he had "essential genius for forest diplomacy" and would be equal to the occasion. He readily promised to send French traders to their country to replace the British. "The key to the Creek country and the most valuable strategic possession on the Carolina-Louisiana border was within French grasp."
Astonishing as it may seem, the French came perilously close to missing the opportunity. Upon Cadillac's return, he still opposed the establishment of a fort above Mobile. One new argument was that a post established so soon after the uprising would cause the French to be blamed for instigating the massacre, an accusation which was already being made. Another was that he still did not trust such new-found allies as the Creeks. There were only sixty soldiers for the three posts under consideration. Two of these were up the Mississippi—at the Natchez villages and at the mouth of the Wabash. The third was up the Alabama. The council of local officers considered the matter, and, according to Cadillac, the majority favored his proposal of postponing the establishment of the Wabash and Alabama posts in favor of the Natchez fort.
According to Bienville, the majority favored his proposal and that of the Ordonnateur Duclos
to make the establishment on the upper part of the river of the Alabamas in order to prevent the English from regaining the alliance with the Indians by means of a good trade that we should carry on at this fort so that all the nations hitherto in alliance with the English might find the same advantage with us that they had with the English, and to put in it the garrison of forty men as the Court had ordered and to postpone for that purpose the establishment of St. Jerome until we had here the thirty-five soldiers that his majesty had assigned to it, ...
At any rate, the very next day, Cadillac ordered Bienville to prepare to depart for the Natchez to construct Fort Rosalie!
On two occasions within the next several months, there were reports that the English had won back the Alabamas who were about to lead an attack on Mobile. These proved to be false reports, but they strengthened the supporters of the Alabama post.
Although the rumors that the British had regained their influence were inaccurate, the Carolinians did make a serious effort to recoup their losses as soon as the Yamassee War ended. In an effort to prevent unscrupulous traders from again bringing enraged savages down upon their settlements, a law was passed in June, 1716, establishing the strictest control over Indian trade. It was to be a public monopoly managed "for the sole Use, Benefit and Behoof of the Publick ..." A board of commissioners was empowered to establish "factories" or trading posts and appoint "factors" with the sole right to trade with the Redmen. Soon there came a resumption of trade with the Cherokees. Then, the Creeks sought peace and trade once again with the Carolinians. Whatever the motives of the Creeks in the rapprochement with the English—whether they were tired of the procrastination of the French or were playing Hanoverian off against Bourbon at which they were skillful—the maneuver was successful. Colonel Theophilus Hastings, the Principal Factor for the Cherokee Trade, was granted a leave from his post in order to proceed to the Creek nation. This was on June 17, 1717. This "extraordinary peace mission" included the veteran trader, John Musgrove and eight or ten others. Pack horses, supplies, and gifts were collected for the trip to the southwest to attach the Creeks to the English once again.
Excerpted from Fort Toulouse by Daniel H. Thomas. Copyright © 1989 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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