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For the founder of New Orleans, some beliefs were skin deep
When Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville first caught sight of the future New Orleans he wrote, “on the banks of the river is a place very favorable for the establishment of a post with one of the finest crescents on the river.” The crescent shape could also have been easily characterized as a sickle representing sickness, death and hard labor – all of which early colonists experienced. Years after Bienville’s observation, one eyewitnesses described the “village” of New Orleans as being no better than a vast sink or sewer where reptiles croaked, malefactors and wild beasts lurked, and the air was congested with mosquitoes delivering a “red-hot nail” sting to their prey. Crescent or sickle, Bienville’s destiny as founder of New Orleans required him to be as fluid and multifaceted as the river itself, striving to fulfill his colonial mandate while tirelessly willing his city to survive and prosper.
Bienville was born in 1680 in Montreal, Canada. He joined the French navy at the age of 12, serving under his older brother Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville. After years of service, he was wounded in battle in 1697 and travelled to France to recuperate. The next year, the crown sent the Le Moyne brothers to set up the colony of Louisiana for Louis XIV. In April 1699, Iberville established the first settlement as Fort Maurepas (present-day Ocean Springs, Mississippi) appointing Sauvolle de la Villantry as governor with Bienville second in command. Later that year, the teenaged Bienville was traveling down the Mississippi with five other men in two canoes when they discovered an English warship captained by Lewis Bond. Bienville paddled up to the ship loaded with ten cannons and calmly (and untruthfully) informed Bond that the French had claimed the lands, established a settlement, and had a fort a short distance upriver with cannons and soldiers ready to defend the king’s claim. Bond bought the lie by the brash young Frenchman, who had more on his side than his ability to bluff – he had his bloodline. Iberville had defeated and held Bond captive during King William’s War and surely Bond had second thoughts about challenging another Le Moyne brother. Bond turned and retreated. Thus, the area became known as Le Detour des Anglais, or English Turn. Two years later, after Sauvolle’s death in 1701, Bienville became governor for the first of what would be four terms. He was 21 years old.
Bienville’s ability to bluff (as well as outthink and outmaneuver his opponents) was essential in navigating the politics that stretched from the gilded palace of Versailles to the banks of the Louisiana bayous. In Lawrence Powell’s book The Accidental City, Powell recounts how Bienville secretly sent the map that engineer Adrien de Pauger drew of the modern-day French Quarter to the crown. Powell surmises that the reason regent Phillippe, duc d’Orléans chose New Orleans in 1722 as the new capital over the favored Biloxi was likely an act of desperation spurred by the years of vacillation on where to put it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the city was named after Phillippe and its streets were a grid devoted to royal egotism. After paying homage in the nomenclature to France’s royalty and their saints, Bienville also named a street after himself.
Bienville was the quintessential politician, serving the people’s needs while being cognizant of lining his own purse. Throughout his career he faced charges of corruption, malfeasance, and profiting from his position (which were never substantiated but dogged him for years). Louisiana was never given the proper resources or manpower it needed from the crown and Bienville’s deftness and rebelliousness against authority helped keep the young colony afloat. He allocated supplies from the crown’s warehouse for the impoverished, gave food to soldiers without deducting it from their scant salaries, and violated French law by trading with other countries (England and Spain). In a letter to Comte de Pontchartrain he claimed he did not make a profit from his actions, instead expending his youth and health on the colony. Bienville’s congenital diplomacy also assisted him in working with the Native American tribes, which was imperative to the colony’s survival. He was one of the first colonists to speak their languages without a translator, he established trade, and against colonial social norms, he embraced aspects of their “savage” culture – particularly tattoos.
Henri “Iron Hand” de Tonti, an Italian-born solider and explorer (nicknamed when he lost his right hand in a grenade explosion during the Sicilian Wars), who traveled with Sieur de La Salle, once wrote “an officer, a man of breeding whose name you would recognize, who as well as an image of the Virgin and the baby Jesus, a large cross on his stomach with the miraculous words which appeared to Constantine and an endless number of marks in the savage style, had a snake which passed around his body and whose tongue pointed toward an extremity which I will leave you to guess.” It is believed that he was referring to Bienville, and for that extremity, I leave the reader to guess. Jean-Francois Bertet de la Clue Sabran, a French admiral, wrote in his journal about how the southern Native Americans “have their skins covered with figures of snakes which they make with the point of a needle. Mr. de Bienville who is the general of the country has all of his body covered in this way and when he is obliged to march to war with them he makes himself nude like them. They like him very much but they also fear him.”
Scholar Arnaud Balvay claimed that tattooed Frenchmen were typically seen as libertines and operating outside of the strict societal standards. In the mid-eighteenth century, criminals were branded with the French royal symbol of the fleur de lis to distinguish them as such and if necessary, identify them as fugitives. Europeans of that era considered it a sin to mark the body. But for the Native Americans, tattoos marked entry into their indigenous community, embellished women’s beauty, and promoted warriors’ status. The more tattoos, the greater a warrior’s status. On their battlefields, the European tradition of sashes, stripes, and bars were useless. Native Americans’ naked bodies covered in scars and tattoos easily identified their rank and prowess. Tonti detailed the tattooing process, describing how the “marks of honor” weren’t “printed without pain.” After drawing a pattern on the skin, a needle or sharpened bone was used to prick the skin until it bled and then colored powder was rubbed into the perforated skin. Bienville’s tattoos, which blended French and Christian iconography with the wild natural designs used by the natives, could be viewed not only as a fusion of cultural adornment but a masterstroke of personal and public commitment to Louisiana’s cause. Although Bienville wasn’t able to lavish gifts on the tribes like the English, the Native Americans favored him because they trusted and respected him. Like many a warrior and politician, Bienville was crafty in tailoring his message and tactics to the audience and task at hand.
Bienville’s legacy in Louisiana was as complex as the man. He achieved many firsts: introducing the first cattle, hogs and chicken; growing and shipping the first cotton and tobacco, and operating the first lumber mills. He is credited with bringing the Ursuline nuns to Louisiana but also with instituting the Code Noir (Black Code), which strictly regulated the conduct of slaves, a brutal system of control that lasted for decades. In 1743, Bienville retired to France where he lived on a modest government pension. He died on March 7, 1767 at the age of 87 in his home along the Rue Vivienne on Paris’ right bank. The sailor, soldier, colonizer, diplomat, and four-time governor, who could be as gentle as the crescent bend and as cutting as the sickle, had worked throughout to forge a better Louisiana.
In 1917, the executive committee for the bicentennial proposed that City Park be renamed Bienville Park. At first the reception was positive, but a backlash formed (primarily the Fifth and Sixth wards residents), arguing that the change would be confusing. Proponents, such as historical organizations and Mayor Behrman, argued that City Park was a meaningless, generic, and municipal appellation that contributed nothing to New Orleans. In May 1918, it was announced that the park commissioners agreed to change the name, but after a popular outcry the plan was dropped. Another attempt occurred in 1926 led by the Louisiana Historical Association, with the argument that Bienville, who “not only founded New Orleans but persistently and courageously defended it” deserved having a park named after him, like John James Audubon. Over a dozen organizations with approximately 24,000 members agreed, as did state senator Joseph Randall, who “heartily endorsed” the movement. Members of the Fifth and Sixth Ward Civic Welfare League circulated petitions against the change. At a meeting in City Park, protestors booed and heckled “Bienville backers” so intensely that police were called twice. Obviously, the change never happened, but in 1955 Bienville was honored with a twelve-foot bronze statue designed by local sculptor Angela Gregory. The statue, located between North Peters and Decatur Streets in the French Quarter, features Father Douay, an unnamed Native American, and Bienville, gazing out over his city on the crescent.
The plaques on Bienville’s New Orleans statue and on his old residence over 4500 miles away at No. 17 Rue Vivienne in Paris don’t tell a fraction of his accomplishments and can’t possibly convey his craftiness and complexity. Both, however, note Bienville’s most consequential mark on history: “Founder of New Orleans."