A Brief History
On November 29, 1729, the Native American Natchez people who had been living peacefully with their French colonist neighbors in the area of what is now Natchez, Mississippi rose up and attacked the French, killing 138 men, 56 children, and 35 women at the French Fort Rosalie.
New France had extended in North America well beyond Canada and Northern part of what is now the United States, with a large Southern and Western territory claimed by France, much of which later became the property of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. French trappers and colonists often had better relations with Native Americans than did their Spanish and English counterparts, and in the Mississippi area the Natchez had lived together with the French, trading and even intermarrying. Alas, someone seems always ready to mess up a good thing, and in this case it was Sieur de Chépart, the French Commandant of Fort Rosalie who had tried to appropriate Natchez land to add to his own plantation. This latest insult was the culmination of a series of points of contention between the French and Natchez, and the Natchez had enough! Carefully plotting their “revolt,” the Natchez were not perfect in their operational security, and some Frenchmen overheard plans for the attack or observed what could be preparations for an attack. When these observant Frenchmen reported their fears to superiors at the fort, they were labeled liars and punished!
The French and the Natchez had not always gotten along well, with fighting breaking out in 1716 and again in 1722-1724. Petty grievances by both sides continued off and on and had been present before the massacre. When the attack was made, the Natchez attacked the fort and the homesteads simultaneously, burning most of the French buildings to the ground. Virtually all the French men were killed, though many of the women and children were spared, as were most of the African slaves. Women, children and slaves that resisted the attack were mostly killed. The Natchez had used deception and the ruse of normal trading to gain entry to the fort, even going so far as to carry with them a calumet, a type of pipe and a sign of peace. The reportedly hung-over fort commandant did not suspect foul play being afoot and was confident of his control of the situation, perhaps too confident! Natchez planning also too into account the galley (ship) tied up in the river nearby the fort, and that vessel was seized to prevent its use to allow Frenchmen to escape.
French authorities headquartered in New Orleans were appalled at the news of the massacre and feared a general uprising of Native tribes. In the time honored tradition of bureaucrats overreacting to a crisis, French authorities decided to put an immediate end to any thoughts of rebellion by Native Americans and began reprisals for the massacre. The French attacked and wiped out a Chaouacha village, even though those particular Native Americans had nothing to do with the Natchez Massacre! Then the French teamed up with Choctaws with whom the French had good relations, and attacked various Natchez villages, killing many and taking many more Natchez captive to be sold off into slavery. Operations against the Natchez continued for the next couple years, forcing the surviving Natchez to seek asylum with Chickasaw tribes and eventually the Natchez disappeared as a Native American nation, having been assimilated into the Cherokee and Creek nations.
Political fallout from the Natchez Massacre resulted in control of the colonial area reverting to the French Crown with power removed from the French West India Company in 1731. Louisiana governor Étienne Périer was recalled to France, having been removed from his office in 1732.
Natchez losses in the actual battle were light, with only 12 warriors reported killed. Of those, 8 were killed at a single homestead where the men were able to set up defenses in time to fight back. Commandant Chépart was captured by the Natchez and given the indignity of being killed by a “stinkard,” the lowest of social order of Natchez people. Before you start feeling sorry for Monsieur Chépart you should know he had previously gone on trial for corruption in 1728, including mistreatment of the relationship with the Natchez, though he was let off due to apparent high level interference and connections. Chépart was apparently a person that did not learn from mistakes, as he immediately went back to his abrasive ways with the Natchez after his trial, even threatening to burn their sacred places if the Natives did not comply with his demand for land for his own plantation.
The Natchez Revolt or Massacre shook the French both in America and in France, with the prospect of their holdings in the New World being threatened. Although the Natchez had contacted other Native American tribes about uniting against the French, the action at Fort Rosalie took place before any actual conspiracy could be put together. French reprisals against Native Americans did not take into account who had really been responsible or was in reality posing a threat to the French. Later historians mostly blamed Commandant Chépart for instigating the revolt. While an important event in French History, the Natchez Massacre (or Revolt) is largely ignored in American History books.
French colonization in North America was dealt a severe blow by the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) which saw the French lose New France in Canada and the Northern part of what is now the United States. The Louisiana territory, what could be called the Southern part of New France, was sold to the United States in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte who needed the money and was too preoccupied with war in the Old World to worry about trying to hang onto Louisiana.
The relationship between European colonizers and Native Americans has drawn much attention lately, with a somewhat “woke” realization that the Europeans were actually invaders that eventually took Native American lands and resources by force. Was this transfer of control of the Americas an overall good thing for humankind, or was it an outrage and crime against humanity? What if the Europeans, and later the United States, had respected Native American rights and never took over the land? These questions and others are complex and the subject of fierce disagreements. What do you think?
Question for students (and subscribers): Did the Natchez people have the right to attack and massacre the French? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Le Petit, Mathurin. The Natchez Massacre,: A full and authoritative relation derived from eye-witnesses of the massacre at the post of the Natchez on October 28th 1729 … and mode of warfare of the Natchez Indians. Poor Rich Press, 1950.
Myers, Kenneth. 1729: The True Story Of Pierre & Marie Mayeux, The Natchez Massacre, And The Settlement Of French Louisiana. Mayeux Press, 2017.
Pusch, Donald. The Massacre at Natchez in 1729: The Rheims Manuscript. Claitor’s Law Books and Publishing , 2013.
The featured image in this article, “View of the Fort of the Natchez”, from Georges Henri Victor Collot’s Voyage dans l’Amérique Septentrionale, ou Description des pays arrosés par le Mississipi, l’Ohio, le Missouri, originally published in 1796, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.