Sieur de Bienville

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Sieur de Bienville

The French colonizer and administrator Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville (1680-1768), founded New Orleans in 1718. Largely through his leadership the French colony of Louisiana survived and eventually prospered.

Jean Baptiste de Bienville was born of an aristocratic family on Feb. 23, 1680, in Ville Marie, later called Montreal, Canada. In 1697, as a midshipman in the French navy, he served under the command of his elder brother Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville, on an expedition to the Hudson Bay region. In the following year he traveled with his brother to rediscover the mouth of the Mississippi River and to colonize the area.

D'lberville founded the colony of Louisiana at Biloxi in 1699, and Bienville remained as second in command to Governor Villantray. Bienville explored the lower Mississippi River in 1699 and the Red River in 1700, learning the Native Americans' languages in the process. On Villantray's death in 1701, Bienville became governor of Louisiana. In 1702 he transferred the colony to Mobile Bay, then Moved it to Mobile, which he founded.

When Louisiana became a monopoly of the French merchant Antoine Crozat in 1712, Bienville served under the new governor, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. In 1716 he commanded a military expedition that defeated the hostile Natchez Indians. Once again governor of Louisiana in 1717, Bienville founded New Orleans in the following year and made it his capital in 1722. In 1719 he twice captured Pensacola from the Spanish.

African American slaves had been brought to Louisiana under Bienville's direction; after he led an unsuccessful campaign against the Natchez Indians in 1723, he feared slave insurrections. Bienville therefore promulgated the Code noir (Black Code), which regulated the behavior of African American slaves for almost 100 years until Louisiana passed to United States control. The code was a detailed prescription of rights and duties and at the time was regarded as a humane document.

Summoned to France in 1725 to defend his leadership of Louisiana, Bienville was soon deprived of his authority. He remained in France until 1733, when the decline of the colony provoked his reappointment as governor and his return to Louisiana. He remained for 10 years, launched strenuous but indecisive campaigns against the Natchez and Chickasaw Indians, and finally retired to France, where he died in Paris on March 7, 1768.

Bienville was responsible, particularly after the death of D'lberville in 1706, for keeping the colony alive. His heroic efforts overcame famine, Native American depredations, Spanish hostility, Canadian jealousy, and French neglect. The French tradition, which remains in Louisiana to this day, is a tribute to his skill as a colonial administrator.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Bienville is Grace King, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville (1892). Background studies include Henry E. Chambers, A History of Louisiana, vol. 1 (1925); John Francis McDermott, ed., The French in the Mississippi Valley (1965); and Charles L. Dufour, Ten Flags in the Wind: The Story of Louisiana (1967). □