There is a statue in downtown Montreal of Charles le Moyne de Longueuil et de Châteauguay. There he was best known as a soldier, furrier and explorer. In New Orleans he is barely known, but should be remembered as the father of two daughters and twelve sons, including two with names as long as his, but better known in history as Iberville and his younger brother Bienville.
We will be hearing much about the latter in the next year. The idea of founding a city in the Louisiana territory and naming it after French regent Philippe II Duke of Orléans was not entirely his, but the decision to build that city along the big bend in the Mississippi river was his cause. There was debate about building the city elsewhere, including upriver by Bayou Manchac where the land was higher, or along the gulf coast where access to the sea was quicker. Bienville was adamant though. Not only was the water deeper at the big bend but there was a group of connecting lakes, which could provide access to the gulf. Then too there was Bayou St. John stretching from the lake toward the river. (Cynics would also suggest that Bienville was motivated because of the land grant he was given along a strip of the river.)
For whatever the reason, we owe the city’s location to Iberville’s little brother. Because of his persistence, it is possible to smell the beignets within site of where the big ships glide around the curve. Here, though, is another theory of why he chose where he did.
Several years ago I was in Montreal where I asked the guide if she could find the LeMoyne home. Fortunately she knew. The home no longer stands, but she showed me the site, which was in the old town section. What I remember most was looking down the street and seeing the activity from the St. Lawrence Seaway. As we toured, she noted that the town is surrounded by water with the Ottowa rivers connecting on one side and the St. Lawrence on the other. The city is referred to sometimes as the L’ isle de Montreal. Hmmmm. Where have I heard that sort of description before? How about Île d’Orléans, also bounded by a great river and then a chain of lakes? Both Bienville’s hometown and and the city he founded were inland islands. (Whatsmore, there is an island in the St. Lawrence River known as Isle d’ Orleans.) Standing along the river in the Louisiana territory he probably could not help but to think of Montreal.
People still debate if he made the right decision. Was the site too low; or too far upriver? Would it be vulnerable to hurricanes? What if the levees break one day? Nevertheless, it is a site so rich in geography that it just seems right. It also had a kinship with Montreal, both in terms of their surroundings and their history. Charles LeMoyne’s greatest accomplishment may have been giving birth to a sprit of exploration.