How Bienville Got His Name
His name was Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne. His brother’s name was Pierre. Because of the intricacies of 17th century peerage and tradition, both would have extra words tagged to their name. Both would be more commonly known in history by names that had nothing to do with how they were baptized.
Landmarks in their honor, which would one day include parishes in Louisiana, streets in New Orleans and, in Pierre’s case, a town in Mississippi, memorialize them with add-on ceremonial names, Sieur de Bienville and Sieur de Iberville. Where did those names come from?
Due to the exploits and lineage of their father, Charles, the Montreal- based LeMoyne family had achieved French aristocratic status in Quebec. The French title of Sieur is equivalent to Sir in British aristocracy. As was the custom, nobility was often identified by land that they controlled. Dad Charles owned several pieces of land in France as well as Canada.
According to historian Micheline Giard, Sieur d’Iberville got his name “from a fief held by his father’s family, near Dieppe, in the province of Normandy.” Likewise, there is a village in Normandy known as Bienville, from which Jean- Baptiste got his name though through a quirk.
“We do know that Jean-Baptiste assumed the title by default after the death of a sibling.” According to Giard, “When his brother François sieur de Bienville, died in 1691, Jean-Baptiste received the landed title by which he would be known.” (Just for fun, imagine if New Orleans was still a colony under the ancient French peerage system and a guy named Joe Smith would somehow inherit Bucktown, which did not exist back then, but play along. He would be known as Sir Joe Smith of Bucktown. That would distinguish him from other Joe Smiths and also establish the fact that he had land. With such a long name he might eventually be commonly referred to simply as “Bucktown.”)
There are a couple of other curiosities to the founder’s name. One is that the biblical character, John The Bapist (Jean Baptiste), is popular among the French. In the new world alone, there are two French Canadian cities named after St. John; one in New Brunswick the other in Newfoundland. In the French Caribbean colony of Santo Domingo, a voo doo culture evolved for which the high holiday has been St. John’s Eve. And in New Orleans, the stream that the Indians called Choupithatcha was changed by the French to Bayou St. John. So the city would be founded by a man whose given first name is very much in keeping with local French-based culture.
And the other curiosity is the origin of the name “Bienville.” It was common in France, as it is in Louisiana, to take the word “ville”, meaning city, and adding a descriptive word to it. “Bien” in French means “good” so whoever first settled that Normandy location thought enough of the place to cell it “good city.” Amazingly, the name would become the inheritance of a young explorer who would carry it to the new world where it would be attached to a town that in many wonderous ways is very much a bien ville.