[Note: This is a single part of what will be, by my classification, about 240 compact tribal histories (contact to 1900). It is limited to the lower 48 states of the U.S. but also includes those First Nations from Canada and Mexico that had important roles (Huron, Micmac, Assiniboine, etc.).
This history's content and style are representative. The normal process at this point is to circulate an almost finished product among a peer group for comment and criticism. At the end of this History you will find links to those Nations referred to in the History of the Houma.
Using the Internet, this can be more inclusive. Feel free to comment or suggest corrections via e-mail. Working together we can end some of the historical misinformation about Native Americans. You will find the ego at this end to be of standard size. Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to your comments... Lee Sultzman.]
The delta of the Mississippi River and the adjoining Atchafalaya Basin of south-central Louisiana. According to their tribal tradition, the boundary of the Chitimacha homeland was originally defined by four sacred trees: the first was at Maringouin, Louisiana; the second southeast of New Orleans; another at the mouth of the Mississippi; and the last a great cypress located in present-day Cypremort Point State Park. Of the four tribes associated with this group, the Washa in 1699 had in a single village on Bayou Lafourche in Assumption Parish, with the Chawasha just to the south. However, hunters from either of these tribes could be encountered as far south as the mouth of the Mississippi River. With the exception of the Yagenechito
(apparently an eastern band of the Chitimacha), the Chitimacha villages were farther west near Grand Lake, lower Bayou Teche, or the natural levees of the Atchafalaya Basin. The Chitimacha's name occurs regularly on the early French maps of Louisiana. Grand Lake was once called Lac des Chetimacha, and Bayou Lafourche was known either as Lafourche des Chetimachas or La Rivire des Chetimachas. The Chitimacha's attachment to their homeland has proven to be unbelievably strong over the years. Although forced to surrender almost all of their land to whites, they are the only one of Louisiana's original tribes that has retained a portion of their ancestral lands. Most Chitimacha today still live on or near their reservation at Charenton, Louisiana.
As a group, the four tribes of the Chitimacha may have numbered as many as 20,000 in 1492. While their direct contact with Europeans during the next two centuries was virtually nil, Old World epidemics spread west from the Spanish mission system of northern Florida and devastated native populations in the lower Mississippi Valley. In some areas of the Southeast during this period, the numbers of Native Americans dropped to ten percent of their former levels. Based on losses incurred by neighboring tribes, the Chitimacha appear to have fallen to half of their original size when the French first began to settle the lower Mississippi Valley in 1699. Even then, there is no clear indication of exactly how many Chitimacha there actually were. Because their villages were remote, the initial estimates by Bienville and Beaurain were little more than guesses. Depending on whose figures are accepted, the Chawasha and Washa together numbered somewhere between 700 and 1,400, while the Chitimacha are thought to have had a little more than 4,000. No separate estimate seems to have been made for the Yagenechito. Hostilities after 1706 made more accurate estimates impossible, and the French apparently did not become aware of the western groups of Chitimacha until 1727.
During a twelve-year war (1706-18), the French almost exterminated the eastern Chitimacha. No figures are available for the western Chitimacha, but by 1718 a battered remnant of 400 was all that remained of the eastern bands. The French resettled them along the Mississippi under the watchful eyes of the 250 Washa and 200 Chawasha that had served as French allies during the war. The new location exposed all three tribes to disease and alcohol, and by 1758 their combined populations had fallen below 400. Only 135 remained in 1784, and shortly after 1805, the Mississippi band of Chitimacha disappeared. The survivors, if any, are thought to have been become part of the Houma. The United States Indian agent that year noted five Chawasha-Washa living among the French settlers in the area, but this was their last mention. Only the western Chitimacha have managed to preserve their tribal identity, but it was "touch and go." By 1880 only six families (less than 100 persons) remained. The 1910 census listed 69 Chitimacha, 19 of which were children at the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania. After federal recognition and the placement of their last 260 acres under trust in 1917, the Chitimacha began a slow recovery. By 1950, 89 Chitimacha were living on the reservation with another 400 residing in the immediate area. Current tribal enrollment is 900.
Chawasha (Chaouacha, Chauocha) - a Mobilian or Choctaw for "raccoon place."
Chitimacha (Chetimacha, Chettimanchi, Chitamacha, Chittamacha, Shetimasha, Shyoutemancha, Tchetimanchan) - sometimes said to come from a Choctaw word for "they have cooking pots," but this explanation seems suspect since just about every tribe in the region used cooking pots. The Chitimacha (who should know something about this) say that their name is taken from their own language "Pantch Pinankanc" meaning "men altogether red."
Washa (Ouacha) - from a Choctaw word for "hunting place."
Yagenechito (Yaknachitto, Yaknechito) - "big earth or "big country."
Tonikan. However, the relationship of Chitimacha to Tunica, for whom the entire group is named, is distant and indicates that the separation between them was quite ancient. Chitimacha (as well as the related dialects spoken by the Atakapa, Chawasha, Opelousa, Washa) has so many distinctive characteristics that for many years, most linguists considered it an isolate. The Chitimacha have lost their language over the years, and there are no longer any fluent speakers. Many of their elders, however, speak Cajun French.
Chawasha, Chitimacha, Washa, and Yagenechito. The French in 1699 noted that the Chitimacha were a confederation of approximately 15 villages. By the time their war with the French ended in 1718, the Chitimacha had divided into two divisions: the Mississippi (or eastern) band on Bayou Lafourche; and a western band on lower Bayou Teche, Grand Lake, and the Atchafalaya River.
Amatpannamu (2), Bitlarouges, Grosse Tetenamu, Hachita, Hipinimshnamu, Kamenakshtcatnamu, Kennipessa, Kushuhnamu, Mahe Hala, Mino, Namukatsi, Nekuntsisnis, Nepinunsh, Okunkiskin, Shatshnish, Shetinamu, Shoktangihanehetcinsh, Tanxibao, Tcatikutinginamu, Tcatkasitunshki, Tsahtsinshupnamu, Waitinimsh, and Yghilbssa.
Officially recognized in 1917 after many years of being ignored by the United States government, the Chitimacha were, until recently, the only tribe in Louisiana to achieve federal status. However, their claim to being the oldest tribe in Louisiana can be extended far beyond the last hundred years. Their occupancy of the region appears to be very ancient, and they may well be the original residents of Louisiana. Human occupation of the lower Mississippi Valley has been traced back to 12,000 B.C., but the earliest artifacts found in the Chitimacha's homeland are only 6,000 years old. The reason for this is that the region is an archeological nightmare. Sea levels rose after the last ice age and inundated most of the probable coastal sites. In the interim, floods, changing drainage patterns, and countless tons of silt deposited by the Mississippi River radically altered the adjacent inland topography. Acidic soil destroyed all but the most durable objects, and without an underlying bedrock, artifacts sank ever deeper into the ground through a phenomena known as "subsidence."
All of which combined to make a precise identification of Louisiana's earliest residents almost impossible. However, it can also be said that nothing has been discovered thus far to indicate that the first people to live in Louisiana were not the ancestors of the Chitimacha. When the first anthropological studies were made during the late 1800s, a researcher finally got one of the Chitimacha to admit that his people had originally come from somewhere east of the Mississippi. This might actually have been true for this one individual, since the Chitimacha by this time had absorbed remnants of several tribes from east of the river. However, the Chitimacha themselves have no memory of having lived anywhere else, and their tradition simply states "We have always been here." In any case, there seems little doubt that the Chitimacha have lived in south-central Louisiana for a very, very long time. Bayou Teche has been continuously occupied since at least 800 B.C. by native peoples with cultural characteristics similar to the Chitimacha, and almost no one disputes the Chitimacha occupation of the area after 500 A.D.
When the French arrived in 1699, the Chitimacha, in combination with their Chawasha, Washa, and Yagenechito allies, were probably the most powerful tribe on the Gulf Coast west of Florida. Politically, the Chitimacha were organized into a confederacy of approximately 15 semi-autonomous villages whose central authority was vested with a Grand Chief who lived at the main village near Charenton, Louisiana. Surrounded by a natural fortress of swamps and rivers, the Chitimacha were virtually invulnerable to an attack or invasion by their neighbors. Villages were fairly large (averaging more than 500 people) and were located along the natural levees of streams or lake shores. Fortification was usually unnecessary since nature had already provided them with a natural defense. Housing varied somewhat according to what was available at the location: walls were a framework of poles covered with either mud or palmetto leaves; roofs were thatched or palmetto.
Agriculture was the responsibility of the women and easily provided the majority of the Chitimacha diet. Corn was introduced into the southeast United States from Mesoamerica sometime around 300 B.C. Blessed with several hundred feet of top soil and a 320 day growing season, the Chitimacha had little trouble raising enough for their needs and, unlike some of their neighbors, rarely went hungry. Beans, pumpkins, melons and several varieties of squash were also part of the bounty. The women supplemented this by gathering wild fruits, vegetables, and nuts, while the men provided meat from hunting (deer, buffalo, turkey, alligator) and fishing. The huge shell middens discovered near former village sites attest to a heavy dependence on shellfish. For the winter months, each village maintained an elevated community granary to protect their dried corn from rodents and other pests. Beside the granary and chief's house, the typical Chitimacha village had one other public building. Unlike many neighboring tribes, the Chitimacha did not have dedicated temples. Instead, their religious ceremonies and public meetings were held in a building that the French referred to as the "dance house."
In an area crisscrossed with rivers and swamps, dugout canoes were their primary means of transport. Size varied according to purpose, but some Chitimacha canoes were hollowed from huge cypress logs and could hold more that 40 people. The one essential resource that was lacking in their homeland was stone needed for tools and arrowheads, and to acquire this, the Chitimacha frequently exchanged a portion of their agricultural surplus with the Avoyell and other tribes to the north. However, they never seemed to have enough and were forced to compensate. Besides utilizing cane arrows (a shaft without an arrowhead), they also made good use of the blowgun and cane darts for birds and other small game. Fishbones and garfish scales were also effective substitutes as projectile points. The Chitimacha (or more likely, the Washa and Chawasha) also employed the atlatl (spear thrower) long after its use had been abandoned by other tribes in the region.
To enhance their appearance, the Chitimacha flattened the foreheads of their male children. Most men wore their hair long, but there were occasional reports of some of their warriors having a scalplock. With the mild climate, male clothing was limited to a breechcloth which allowed a display of their extensive tattooing of the face, body, arms and legs. Women limited themselves to a short skirt. Their hair was also worn long but usually braided. Socially, the Chitimacha were divided into matrilineal (descent traced through the mother) totemic (named for an animal) clans. The most distinctive characteristic of Chitimacha society was their strict caste system of two ranked groups: nobles and commoners. The separation between them included the use of two distinct dialects with commoners required to address nobles in the proper language. The Chitimacha were unique among Native Americans with their practice of strict endogamy (a person can only marry someone from their own group). A noble man or woman who married a commoner forfeited their higher status.
Work was divided along gender lines with most of the labor falling to the women. Men usually held all the hereditary chiefships. However, the Chitimacha were strict monogamists, and women exercised considerable authority in the tribe's day-to-day affairs. Many were healing shamans, and some women ruled as Chitimacha queens. Men also dominated the Chitimacha religion that the French chose to describe as sun worship. Before contact the Chitimacha built both effigy (animal shaped) and platform (flat on top to accommodate a building) mounds. However, this practice had been discontinued by 1700 . . . presumably because the weight of the mounds caused them to sink into the underlying mud almost as fast as they were built. During the historic period, the Chitimacha continued to use the simple burial mounds that still dot the region. The dead were initially buried but disinterred a year later so their bones could be stripped by designated "turkey buzzard men." When this task was completed, the remains were placed in a communal burial mound.
After 1719 most Chitimacha adopted the Roman Catholicism and Cajun language of their French neighbors. As a result, most of their culture and language has been lost. However, one especially noteworthy craft that has survived is their renown split-cane basket. The unique "double weave" technique employed results in an intricately woven basket with a different design on the inside and outside. Unfortunately, the creation of these treasures is extremely tedious and is still practiced by only a few Chitimacha women. The result is an object of great utility and beauty, and Chitimacha baskets have the reputation of being in the southeastern United States . . . perhaps in all of North America.
While exploring the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico in 1519, Alfons Alvarz de Pinda discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River and became the first European to look upon the Chitimacha homeland. However, there was no contact because the treacherous maze of waterways and mudflats in the area discouraged any attempt to land. Although the Spanish were immediately interested in the "Great River" as a possible route to the "South Sea" (Pacific Ocean), the barrier at its mouth kept the Chitimacha isolated from the Europeans for another two centuries. The expedition of Pnfilo de Narvez coasted by during its abortive attempt to reach Mexico from northern Florida in 1528, but the Spanish navigators apparently were careful to remain well south of the delta. Unfortunately, the survivors of Hernando de Soto's army had no other choice.
After a four-year rampage through the southeast United States (1539-43), the Spanish conquistadors were stranded in an inland wilderness without supplies and increasingly confronted by hostile native peoples. De Soto had taken ill and died in the spring of 1542, and fearing attack if the natives learned of his death, his men had secretly buried his body in the Mississippi. Luis de Moscoso assumed command and ordered an immediate overland march to reach the nearest Spanish posts in northern Mexico. However, mounted Spanish cavalry no longer awed the natives it encountered. On the plains of eastern Texas, the expedition came under constant attack by Caddo warriors and simultaneously was unable to find enough corn for themselves and their horses. Moscoso turned the army around and headed back to the Mississippi, where the Spanish spent a desperate winter building a makeshift fleet to carry them downstream to the Gulf and then west along the coast to Mexico.
Departing in late June after the river's annual spring flood, the Spanish discovered that their reputation for abuse and plunder had preceded them. The tribes along the river either resisted or fled at their approach. A ten-day running battle was required to fight their way past the powerful Natchez in southwest Mississippi before they reached the mouth in July. Here, they paused for two days to rest before entering the Gulf but were suddenly assailed by a new group of warriors (most likely Chawasha or Washa) using "staves with sharp heads of fish-bone" and atatls (spear throwers). Drawing upon their last reserves of strength, the Spanish fought off their attackers and escaped into the Gulf. The survivors finally reached safety at Panaco, Mexico in September, but their terrifying tales of suffering and hardship, as well as the failure to find any gold or silver, discouraged further exploration of the region.
Guido de Bazares coasted by during 1558, but Spanish sailors were reluctant to push their clumsy deep-water galleons into the maze that they called the "Scorpions" (the mudflats at the entrance to the Mississippi). Instead, the initial Spanish efforts to establish themselves in "La Florida" (southeast United States) were well to the east of the Chitimacha. The expeditions of Lucas Vsquez de Aylln (South Carolina 1526) and Tristn de Luna y Arellano (Mobile Bay 1559) both ended in failure. However, the establishment of a French Huguenot (Protestant) colony on the St. John's River in northeastern Florida in 1564 was a direct challenge to Spain's claim of the area. Pedro Menndez de Avils arrived with a Spanish army the following year, and after destroying the French fort and massacring its defenders as heretics, founded St. Augustine, the first permanent European settlement in the United States.
Anticipating that his conquest would invite French retaliation, Menndez wasted little time in establishing Spanish authority over the area. Apparently ignorant of the actual distance involved, he dispatched Captain Juan Pardo with and 125 soldiers from Santa Elena (South Carolina) in 1566 to find a land route to Mexico. Pardo and his men penetrated the interior no farther than the Appalachian Mountains before being forced to turn back by a war they had created among the local tribes. Meanwhile, Menndez personally led several other expeditions to establish peaceful relations with the Timucua, Calusa, and other resident tribes of Florida. These met with some success, but Menndez's most effective effort was bringing the Franciscans to St. Augustine in 1573. During the century that followed, the Spanish missionaries created a mission system (the largest ever within the United States) that at its height stretched from the South Carolina coast to the Florida panhandle.
Although the Chitimacha and other tribes of the lower Mississippi had virtually no contact with Europeans after the De Soto expedition left in 1543, they felt the effects of Spanish presence in Florida. The missions proved a perfect incubator for the new European diseases that decimated the Florida tribes almost as fast the priests could baptize them. Major epidemics occurred at the Florida missions in 1564, 1570, 1576, 1581, 1585, 1596, 1613, 1649, 1653, 1659, and 1672 and soon reduced the Timucua, Apalachee, and Guale to less than ten percent of their pre-contact populations. Meanwhile, native traders carried Spanish trade goods inland (the Spanish themselves rarely left the coast) and in so doing spread the sicknesses throughout the Southeast. By 1675 the native populations of the southeastern United States had fallen to 25 percent of what they had been in 1500. Protected somewhat by their isolated location, the Chitimacha fared better than some of the others and only lost about half of their people in this holocaust.
Strangely enough, the Chitimacha's isolation was finally ended by Europeans that reached their homeland from the north. Following the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Spain no longer had sufficient naval power to keep other Europeans out of the New World. The French established themselves in Nova Scotia and along the St. Lawrence River during 1604, the English settled at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, and Dutch traders routinely visited New York's Hudson River after 1610. Propelled by the profits of the fur trade and easy water routes into the interior, the French reached the north end of Lake Michigan in 1634. However, the destruction of the Huron Confederacy (the main French trading partner and ally) by the Iroquois in 1649 prevented their further exploration of the western Great Lakes until after 1665.
After a treaty ended the war between the French and Iroquois League in 1667, fur traders and missionaries were able to make the long journey from Quebec to Wisconsin. From the local tribes, they soon learned of the existence of a "great river" to the west, and in the spring of 1673 the Jesuit Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Joliet, accompanied by five Miami guides and paddlers, set off from St. Ignace (Mackinac, Michigan). Taking the Fox River west from Green Bay, they portaged to the Wisconsin and followed it to the Mississippi at Prairie du Chein. Marquette and Joliet proceeded downstream but never reached the Chitimacha. Discovering Spanish trade goods at the Quapaw villages at the mouth of the Arkansas River (Spain and France were enemies at the time), they turned back. Actually, they had little reason for fear, because no Spaniard had visited the area since De Soto's army in 1543.
The task of completing the journey to the Gulf of Mexico fell to Ren-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, a late entrant into the Great Lakes fur market whose entrepreneurial enthusiasm in trading with the Illinois in 1680 had rekindled the war between the French and Iroquois League. Ignoring the presence of Seneca war parties near his trading post, La Salle, with his assistant Henri Tonti and Father Zenobuius Membre, left the Illinois country in the spring of 1682 and reached the Gulf of Mexico in April. With the exception of the Quinipissa, a small Choctaw-speaking tribe just north of present-day New Orleans, the tribes that the French encountered along the river were friendly. In a brief ceremony conducted at the mouth of the river, La Salle named his "discovery" Louisiana in honor of Louis XIV and claimed the lands drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries, including its native peoples, for France.
Earlier, La Salle had taken the time to explore and map the waterways of the delta and in the process encountered groups of what were most likely either Washa or Chawasha. Father Membre has provided us with the first French observations of the Chitimacha, and with the exception that they no longer used the atatl, they apparently had not changed much from the time of De Soto. Membre noted that they were curious and friendly, but the Chitimacha might well have proven otherwise if they had realized that they were about to be annexed into the French Empire. La Salle returned to Illinois where his triumph was greeted with the news that officials in Quebec had terminated his trading rights in Illinois. Leaving Tonti in charge, he returned to France to plead his case before the king and promote a scheme to establish French control of Louisiana with a fortified colony at the mouth of the Mississippi.
La Salle finally won royal approval for his plan and, after arranging a rendezvous with Tonti, sailed from France with 200 hastily recruited colonists in 1684. Tonti came down from Illinois as scheduled in February, 1686 but was unable to locate either La Salle or his colony. Through a gross navigational error, the French fleet had missed the Mississippi Delta and landed on the Texas coast 400 miles to the west. Tonti waited at the mouth of the river for two months using the time to establish amiable relations with the neighboring Quinipissa and Chitimacha. When his supplies became exhausted, he headed back to Illinois giving permission enroute for Jean Couture and five other French to build Postede Arkansea (Arkansas Post) near the Quapaw villages at the mouth of the Arkansas. For the next thirteen years, this solitary outpost was the only indication of the French claim to Louisiana.
Meanwhile, the French colonists on the Texas coast were facing starvation and the hostility of the resident Karankawa. While leading a party overland to the Mississippi River to find help, La Salle was murdered by his own men in March, 1687. The murders sought refuge among the Caddo in the area, but Henri Joutel and six other survivors of the party managed to reach Arkansas Post in July. They proceeded to Illinois afterwards but, for obvious reasons, did not inform Tonti about La Salle. When Tonti finally learned of his leader's death a year later, he left Illinois to rescue the survivors of the colony. However, he left the river at the Taensa villages, well north of the Chitimacha, to proceed overland to Texas. At the Caddo villages enroute, Tonti learned that there was no longer anyone to rescue . . . the Karankawa had massacred the remaining French colonists at Matagorda Bay. For the second time, he turned around and returned to Illinois empty-handed.
Tonti had little time to think about Louisiana or the failure of La Salle's Texas venture. The fighting in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes between the French and their Algonquian allies with the Iroquois League escalated into total war during 1687. The following year the King William's War (1688-97) broke out in Europe between Great Britain and France and quickly spread to North America. Hard-pressed French officials in Quebec concentrated on their more-immediate concerns of keeping the British at bay in the east and cajoling their sometimes reluctant Algonquian allies to maintain an offensive against the Iroquois. The distant wilderness that La Salle had claimed was of no consequence . . . especially since it had very few beavers. Isolated and neglected, the French at Arkansas Post survived without trade goods to barter with the neighboring tribes.
France may have neglected Louisiana, but other Europeans did not. Spain at first reacted strongly to a French claim to territory it considered its own. In 1686 an expedition of Apalachee and Chatot warriors commanded by Marcos Delgado was sent from Florida to expel the French from Arkansas Post. Unfortunately, Delgado's Christian guides were unfamiliar with the area to be crossed, and he got no farther than the Upper Creek country in western Alabama. Two years later, a military force under Alonso De Len, the governor of Coahuila arrived from northern Mexico to destroy La Salle's post on the Texas coast, but the Karankawa had already done this. The Spanish only found the burned remains of the French fort, captured two French deserters, and ransomed five children prisoners adopted by the Karankawa. Aside from a brief effort to establish a mission in eastern Texas (1690-93), Spain made no further attempts to establish its authority in the region.
This opened the door for British colonists that had settled at Charleston, South Carolina in 1670 as a commercial venture of plantations and native trade. The Treaty of Madrid between Britain and Spain the following year gave Spain the right to whatever land it already controlled in North America. Since Spanish claims bore little resemblance to what they actually controlled, the agreement allowed the British to trade with any tribe in the Southeast except those in northern Florida. However, the Charleston colonists soon discovered that their rivals from Virginia already dominated the trade with the Cherokee and Siouan tribes immediately west and north. They compensated for their late start by extending their commerce west with astonishing speed. By 1685 the Charleston traders had a permanent post among the Upper Creek in Alabama and shortly afterwards reached the Chickasaw villages in northern Mississippi. By the 1690s visits by Charleston traders to the Chickasaw had become routine.
The Spanish were interested in converts and the French in beaver, but the British concept of how to exploit the region's resources was different. Deerskin was important at first, but greater profits could be made by supplying native slaves for British plantations in the West Indies and Carolinas. Since the Creek and Chickasaw villages were distant from their settlements along the Atlantic coast, the British saw no danger to themselves in supplying their trading partners with firearms to acquire the necessary "merchandise." While the Creek and Yamasee concentrated on the villages around the Spanish missions in northern Florida, heavily armed Chickasaw warriors began to raid the tribes (including the Chitimacha) in the lower Mississippi Valley. In this way, thousands of native people, mostly women and children, found their way to the slave docks at Charleston, and another European misery was added to the epidemics that had ravaged the native populations during the previous two centuries.
Largely because of the naval exploits of Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, France emerged from the King William's War in 1697 as the dominant power in North America. Although hamstrung by the (1696) royal proclamation curtailing the fur trade in the western Great Lakes, the successful conclusion of the war allowed officials in New France to direct their attention to their long-neglected province of Louisiana. Especially disturbing was the news that Jean Couture, the commandant at Arkansas Post, had switched sides during 1698 and guided the Charleston trader, Thomas Welch, to the Quapaw villages west of the Mississippi. Welch had provided the Quapaw with firearms and suggested the small Chakchiuma tribe east of the river as a likely target. The Bishop of Quebec was the first to react and, after declaring Louisiana part of his diocese, sent the Jesuit missionaries Francis Antoine Davion and Joliet de Montigny down the Mississippi to establish missions in 1699.
Relying on their friendly meeting with La Salle, Davion stopped first at the Chickasaw villages, but the reception to his missionary efforts was cool, and he moved to the Tunica village downstream. Meanwhile, preparations were underway in France for an expedition commanded by Iberville to fulfill La Salle's dream of a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi. The Spanish soon became aware of this, but with the approach of another European war (Queen Anne's War 1701-13), they found themselves in the awkward position of being a French ally. Unable to directly oppose Iberville with military force, Spain's opposition was limited to the hasty construction of a new fort at Pensacola. Accompanied by his brothers Jean Baptiste Le Moyne d' Bienville and Sieur de Sauvole de la Villantry, Iberville sailed from France in late 1698 and, after acquiring a naval escort from the West Indies, arrived off Pensacola in January. After noting the new Spanish fort, he sailed west along the coast searching for the entrance of the Mississippi.
His reputation as a naval hero not withstanding, Iberville had no better luck negotiating his way through the maze of the delta than the Spanish, and on February 10th, 1699, he decided to land just to the east at Biloxi Bay (Mississippi) and proceed overland to the river. This would later have serious consequences for the Chitimacha. The first tribes that the French met near Biloxi were Muskogean-speaking Acolapissa, Bayougoula, Houma, and Pascagoula as well as Siouan-speaking Biloxi and Moctobi. There appears to have been a long-standing animosity between these relative newcomers and the Chitimacha who were the original residents. If Iberville had succeeded in finding a passage through the delta, the Chitimacha would have been the first tribe he met, and an entirely different pattern of alliances would probably have emerged between the French and the tribes in the area.
Instead, the French established relations with tribes that were at best neutral and in many cases antagonistic to the Chitimacha. The Bayougoula and Moctobi (a Biloxi sub) guided Iberville to the Mississippi in the spring of 1699 and introduced him to the Mugulasha and Houma. On their return to Biloxi, Iberville and Father Paul du Ru explored Bayou Lafourche (recorded on his map as "La Rivire des Washas"). Later French maps would alter this to "Lafourche des Chetimachas" or "La Rivire des Chetimachas." Iberville met and signed treaties alliance with three bands of the Chitimacha who in turn honored their guests with a feast of alligator. A true Frenchman in his culinary tastes, Iberville found it "quite tasty." However, he was aware that there were still important groups of the Chitimacha that he had not met and, before departing for France in May, he left instructions with his brother Bienville to attempt further contact with the Washa.
Bienville left Biloxi in July but was unable to locate the Washa. However, the British found them easily enough. Strange as it may seem after years of futile attempts by the French and Spanish, the first entry from the Gulf into the Mississippi was a British ship commanded by Captain William Bond. The Washa greeted the British in the same manner that they had said farewell to the Spanish in 1543, but Bond and his crew were able to fend off their attacks and enter the main channel. When Bienville discovered them in September, the British had reached a bend in the river 70 miles above the mouth (English Turn) and were patiently awaiting a favorable breeze to carry them farther upstream. Bienville informed Bond that he was an intruder into territory belonging to France only to be instructed in turn that the British had as much right to the lower Mississippi Valley as the French and there were plans to establish a British colony near Chickasaw villages upstream.
Perhaps discouraged more by the current than Bienville's threats, Bond turned around afterwards and headed downstream, but the incident created considerable alarm among the French at Biloxi. Iberville returned from France in January (1700) and immediately purchased land from the Bayougoula chief to build Fort Mississippi to block British access. Located 40 miles above the Gulf, the site of the fort probably belonged to the Chitimacha, but Iberville found it convenient to overlook this. Although hampered by dysentery, the French had completed Fort Mississippi when Iberville left to rendezvous with Bienville and Louis Juchereau de St. Denis at the Taensa villages upstream to explore the Red River and renew French contacts with the Caddo to the west. Unfortunately, by the time he arrived, Iberville's knees had grown so painful that Bienville and St. Denis were forced to make the journey without him.
Threatened by a British invasion or an attack by their Chickasaw allies, Iberville needed to forge alliances with the other tribes in the region. For some reason -- probably their isolated location west of the river -- he did not consider the Chitimacha and their allies important in this effort. Under constant threat of Chickasaw slave raids and decimated over the years by repeated epidemics, most tribes in the area were eager to unite with the French. With the Quapaw, Taensa, Tunica, Bayougoula, Acolapissa, and Houma already attached to the French, Iberville ignored his painful knees to sign a treaty with the Natchez during his return to Biloxi. The only remaining obstacle to French control was to win over the Choctaw (the largest tribe in the area) by forcing the Chickasaw to end their raids and expel the British slave traders from their villages. To this end, Iberville enlisted the services of Henry de Tonti who had closed his operations in the Illinois country to join the new French colony in Louisiana.
Iberville returned to France for supplies and reinforcements at the end of May leaving his brother Sauvole in charge at Biloxi. Unfortunately, Native Americans were not the only people susceptible to disease. Sauvole fell ill with a fever and died in August which placed the 22-year-old Bienville, by default, in temporary command of the colony. Iberville returned in December bringing news of impending war with Great Britain. To be closer to their Spanish allies at Pensacola, Iberville ordered the French to abandon Biloxi and relocate east to Mobile Bay. Meanwhile, Tonti had visited the Chickasaw and, after reminding them of their friendly meetings with La Salle in 1682, had secured a promise from their minkos to meet with Iberville and the representatives of other tribes at Mobile. The conference convened in the spring of 1702 with the usual exchange of gifts, but Iberville quickly got down to the business of detaching the Chickasaw from the British. Warning them that the British would take their land, he also threatened to arm the other tribes in region if the raids did not stop. As further inducement, Iberville offered French trade goods at prices far lower than the British. The Chickasaw agreed and an uneasy truce settled over the region.
A month later Iberville left for France and never returned. While leading French troops against the British in the West Indies, he caught Yellow Fever and died in Havana. Tonti succumbed to the same disease when it struck Mobile in 1704. This left very young Bienville as governor for the duration of the war. While he was extremely competent for his age, there were serious divisions among the French colonists that only Iberville might have solved. Foremost of these was that the newly arrived colonists from France and the French Canadians viewed one another as either incompetents or barbarians. To provide some separation between them, Iberville, before his departure, had placed St. Dennis and his rough-hewn Canadian fur traders in charge of Fort Mississippi. Bienville found it prudent not to disturb the arrangement. St. Dennis proved very popular with the Acolapissa and Bayougoula near the fort and during the summer of 1702 added to his following when the Natchitoches (Caddo), after their crops were destroyed during a spring flood of the Red River, came to the French seeking help. St. Dennis fed the refugees and then settled them among the Acolapissa.
As a general rule, the French were never successful in enticing many of their women to immigrate to North American, and the few that did come were usually unwilling to accept the difficulties that came with marriage to a fur trapper. This problem was especially noticeable in Louisiana, and it did not take long for St. Denis and his companions at Fort Mississippi to become "lonely." Their solution was to gather 80 Acolapissa and Natchitoches warriors for a raid that captured 20 Chitimacha women and children. Bienville was aghast when he learned of this. Not only did this make the French no better than the British slavers, but because of Iberville's treaty with them in 1699, the Chitimacha were French allies. However, his orders to stop were ignored by St. Dennis and his Canadians who were in no mood to be instructed by the Iberville's "kid brother" in the proper manner of acquiring feminine companionship. Although the Chitimacha exercised considerable restraint by not retaliating against the French, the effect of these continued "love raids" made them aloof and increasingly hostile.
Meanwhile, as part of the Queen Anne's War, South Carolina colonists and their Creek allies had laid waste to the Spanish mission system in northern Florida (1702-05) and burned Pensacola during 1707. Charleston traders lowered their prices to compete with the French, and by 1705 the Chickasaw had resumed their slave raids against the Choctaw and other tribes. Although the French provided firearms to their allies to counter this new aggression, it was not enough. Both the Tunica and Taensa were forced to abandon their villages and move south in 1706 -- the Tunica accepting the Houma's invitation to settle with them, and the Taensa moving in with the Bayougoula. Unfortunately, French allies were more inclined to fight with each other than the Chickasaw, and both relocations had tragic results for the host tribe. The Tunica attacked the Houma and drove them south to seek refuge with the Acolapissa near Fort Mississippi, while the Taensa soon after their arrival turned on the Bayougoula and killed most of them. The surviving Bayougoula also fled south and settled near the French.
The French reaction to these struggles between their allies was subdued and, in the case of the Bayougoula, was muted by the fact that the Bayougoula in 1702 had massacred the Mugulasha living among them. However, the Taensa still felt that they needed to make some amends to the French, and their penchant for treachery did not end with the massacre of the Bayougoula. In August they invited several Chitimacha and Yagenechito families to join them for a feast, and then took their unsuspecting guests prisoner to sell to the French as slaves. This exhausted what remained of the Chitimacha patience, and in January, 1707, they sent out a war party to chastise the Taensa for the kidnapping. Unfortunately, before its warriors could find any Taensa to kill, they stumbled upon the camp of Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, a Jesuit missionary to the Natchez, who, accompanied by his servant (a Christian native slave) and two other Frenchmen, had the misfortune to be descending the Mississippi enroute to a meeting at Mobile.
Although already in a bad mood, it was the presence of St. Cosme's native slave that provoked the Chitimacha. Seeing little distinction between a slave catcher and slave owner, they killed St. Cosme and the other French and threw their bodies into the river, but the slave was seen as a victim and allowed to escape. This soon proved a serious mistake. Many tribes were reluctant to accept members once they had been enslaved, especially if they had converted to the whiteman's religion. Although spared by the Chitimacha, St. Cosme's slave had no place to go other than the French, and when he met the Grand Vicar of Quebec (coming down the river from Illinois for same meeting at Mobile), he immediately told what had happened. When he got to Mobile, the Grand Vicar informed Bienville. The French tended to ignore the occasional murder or robbery of a fur trader, but there were always serious consequences when a tribe dared to kill one of their missionaries.
Bienville immediately declared war on the Chitimacha and ordered them to bring the warriors responsible to Mobile for punishment. When refused, Bienville asked the other tribes in area to also declare war. Because of traditional animosities and a promise of French firearms, Bienville had little trouble in organizing a coalition that included warriors from the Acolapissa, Bayougoula, Biloxi, Choctaw, Houma, Natchitoches, Pascagoula, and Taensa. With these reinforcements, St. Denis and his Canadians (who already had experience raiding the Chitimacha) led an expedition against the eastern Chitimacha villages during March of 1707. Having become dependent on French trade goods, even the Chawasha (normally Chitimacha allies) contributed 40 warriors to the offensive. Because they knew the way through the swamps west of the river, the Chawasha afterwards would prove valuable to the French and their allies in guiding war parties to the Chitimacha villages.
The war lasted for 12 years. The Chitimacha fought bravely, but they were outnumbered and without firearms (even the rock needed for arrowheads grew scarce after their normal source, the Avoyell (part of the Taensa), hesitated to trade with them). The French and their allies drove the Chitimacha deep into the natural fortress in the southern Louisiana. Although never able to defeat the Chitimacha, the French came very close to exterminating them through attrition. Many warriors died in defense of their homes and families. Prisoners, mostly women and children, were sold into slavery, and as a result, most native slaves held by the French during the early history of Louisiana were Chitimacha. One of St. Cosme's killers was eventually captured, brought to Mobile, and executed by tomahawk inside the square of Fort St. Louis. However, too much blood had been shed for the conflict to end here. Both the French and the Chitimacha were still angry with each other, and although they diminished in intensity, the exchange of raids between them continued until 1718.
Meanwhile, the Chawasha had proven so useful against the Chitimacha that Bienville decided in 1712 to move them to the west bank of the Mississippi near present-day Plaquemine, Louisiana. Unfortunately, this new location exposed this small tribe to attacks by their northern enemies. During 1713 a combined delegation of Chickasaw, Natchez, and Yazoo arrived at the Chawasha village asking for peace talks. When the grand chief of the Chawasha arrived to conduct the council, the visitors suddenly attacked. The chief and several of his family were killed, and 11 Chawasha (including the chief's wife) were taken prisoner and sold as slaves to the British. Bienville compensated for this loss in 1715 by relocating the Washa, who had recently disassociated themselves from the Chitimacha, to the west bank of the river. The location selected, for obvious reasons, was considerably farther downstream -- ten miles above the future site of New Orleans.
By 1718 fighting with the Chitimacha had slowed to the point that Bienville felt sufficiently confident to found a new settlement at New Orleans. As new French colonists poured into the area, it must have become apparent to the Chitimacha that they could never defeat the French, and to survive they would have to reach an accommodation. After an exchange of peace feelers through a Frenchman named Pnicaut, a conference was held at New Orleans. The Chitimacha may have been battered but still had style. The grand chief and his wife came to their meeting with Bienville in a huge canoe propelled by 40 warriors. A calumet ceremony was followed by negotiations conducted through a word bearer (designated speaker) speaking on behalf of the Chitimacha while Bienville was forced to rely upon the limited interpretive abilities of Pnicaut.
Reflecting the discrepancy in power between them, the terms imposed by the French were harsh. The devastation of the war had fallen most heavily upon the eastern Chitimacha, and the treaty required the survivors to relocate to an assigned place along the Mississippi near the entrance to Bayou Lafourche (Plaquemine) where the French would be able to keep an eye on them. The eastern Chitimacha complied with the agreement and the following year quietly moved to new villages along Bayou Lafourche. Many French believed that, aside from this defeated remnant, the other Chitimacha had either been destroyed or enslaved during the war. With the coming of peace, French traders pushed west from New Orleans towards the Atakapa country and, much to the aggravation of the Spanish, into eastern Texas. There was, however, an undetected group of Chitimacha around Bayou Teche, and the French did not become aware of them until after they were visited by Father Du Poisson in 1727. To differentiate between the two groups afterwards, the eastern Chitimacha along Bayou Lafourche were referred to as the Mississippi band.
With the end of the Chitimacha war, the Chawasha moved downstream during 1718 to be closer to the new French settlement at New Orleans. At first, they settled west of the river, but so many French moved in that they crossed over to the east bank during 1722 and settled a short distance downstream. Their loyal service to the French against their Chitimacha relatives was soon forgotten. As part of John Law's "Mississippi Scheme," the number of French colonists in Louisiana increased dramatically after 1718. Accompanying the newcomers were large numbers of black slaves to clear the land for planting. Most of the new settlement was concentrated near New Orleans or upstream at Natchez and the mouth to Yazoo River. The inevitable friction created when French colonists began taking native land led to an uprising by the Natchez (Natchez War 1729-31) that killed over 250 French living near their villages.
There was panic when the news reached New Orleans. This worsened when it was also learned that the Natchez had invited black slaves to kill their masters and join them against the French. The Chawasha were no longer important allies for the French, but they had little love for the Natchez -- especially after the Natchez had killed their chief in 1713. However, Governor Etienne Boucher de la Prier (Bienville had fallen into temporary disfavor) saw an opportunity to allay the fears of New Orleans French and make Native Americans in the area hate blacks. Arming an army of black slaves, he sent it to destroy the small (less than 150) Chawasha south of New Orleans. The slaves dutifully reported back to Prier that they had killed everyone in the village, but they apparently were not that enthusiastic about the nature of their task.
The village itself was destroyed, but only eight Chawasha men were killed during the unprovoked attack. The remainder were absent hunting, and most of the women and children managed to hide in the woods. The Chawasha scattered afterwards, and many moved in with the Washa. The Washa seemed to have escaped this form of French gratitude, and some of their warriors served in the armies the French sent against the Natchez and Chickasaw during the next three decades. However, they could not avoid the alcohol and diseases contracted from the French settlers in the vicinity, and these continued to take a heavy toll on the remaining native peoples of Louisiana. By 1739 the Washa, along with a few Chawasha, were living in a single village near Cte des Allemands (Les Allemonds) Post on the west bank of the Mississippi above New Orleans (near the lake of the same name). A single village for both tribes was reported near New Orleans in 1758, but there is nothing else. The remnants are thought to have been absorbed by either the Houma or Chitimacha.
The remaining years of French rule in Louisiana were devoted to futile attempts to destroy the pro-British Chickasaw. The French and Indian War (1755-63) proved the last chapter in the long struggle between Britain and France for North America, and there was no doubt about its outcome in North America after the British capture of Quebec in 1759. However, the French were determined to keep Louisiana from falling to the British, and in a secret treaty at Fontainebleau in November, 1762, they transferred New Orleans and Louisiana west of the Mississippi to Spain. The British might have been surprised when they learned of this arrangement after their arrival in Paris the following spring to sign the treaty ending the war, but the Spanish were so stunned by this unexpected bequest that they did not extend their authority over Louisiana until 1765.
In the interim, "lame duck" French officials were left to cope with the sudden influx of French and former native allies from east of the Mississippi who wanted to escape British rule. Besides displaced French colonists, the newcomers included Biloxi, Pascagoula Pakana, Taensa, Apalachee, Chatot, Coushatta, and Alibamu. At first, the refugee tribes stopped and settled on the east bank of the river, but the arrival of large numbers of British colonists at Manchac and Natchez, as well as Choctaw aggression, quickly forced them to the opposite side of the river. Adding to this invasion were the Acadian French (Cajuns) deported from Nova Scotia by the British in 1755 at the onset of the French and Indian War. After years in prisons and refugee camps in Europe and the West Indies, many Acadians arriving in Louisiana after 1760 were sick, and this spread to the surrounding native populations.
By the time Spain decided that its possession of Louisiana might not be temporary, it was a lawless melting pot of competing groups. However, their initial attempts to bring order only aggravated the situation. Accustomed to thinking of the French as competitors, the first Spanish governor, Antonio de Ulloa, revoked French trading licenses without replacing them with Spanish traders. Tribes near the Mississippi could cope by trading with British merchants on the opposite side, but the Caddo in western Louisiana, already unhappy that France had given Louisiana to Spain without consulting them, began threatening war against the Spanish. Ulloa backed away from the brink by reinstating annual gifts to treaty chiefs and increasing the number of licensed traders -- a wise decision since British traders from east of the river had already started crossing into Louisiana illegally to supply both the natives and the French.
The Spanish attempted to block their access with a string of new forts along the river and encouraging newly arrived Acadians to occupy the banks of the Mississippi north of New Orleans. Many Cajuns, however, wanted to put some distance between themselves and Spanish authorities and chose instead to follow the party of Joseph (Beausoleil) Broussard that had settled to the west in St. Martins Parish during 1765. Settlement of this area had started during the 1730s when a few French families arrived to raise cattle for the New Orleans market. A small trading post, Poste des Attakapas (St. Martinville), was added in 1755. However, as large numbers of Cajuns moved into the area after 1765, they began to occupy the remaining land of the western Chitimacha. To insure their loyalty, the Spanish recognized the Chitimacha in 1767 and issued a land grant to establish a reservation.
All of which added to the growing dissatisfaction of the French colonists with the Spanish administration, and an armed insurrection broke out in New Orleans in 1768. Ulloa was replaced by Alejandro O'Reilly who arrived the following year with 24 ships carrying 2000 troops and swiftly crushed the revolt. Five leaders were executed, but despite his initial ruthlessness, O'Reilly and his successors afterwards ruled Louisiana with a gentle hand. Spanish governors incorporated large numbers of former French officials into their administrations, and to all appearances, the only thing that changed in Louisiana after 1769 was the flag on the flagpole. To compete with British traders crossing the Mississippi, new licenses were issued to French traders. O'Reilly even went so far as issue a proclamation outlawing native slavery in 1769. However, his enforcement was lax, and the practice remained fairly common in Louisiana until 1808.
Although sixteen Spanish families founded New Iberia in 1779, the influx into the Chitimacha homeland was predominately French. Their ranks were augmented by aristocrats from the French Revolution in 1789 and St. Domingue planters fleeing the Haitian slave revolt after 1795. As a series of new epidemics decimated Louisiana's native peoples, an additional misery was added when a prolonged drought in the Southeast forced the Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw to hunt west of the Mississippi after 1792. Well-armed by the Spanish military to protect Louisiana from American expansion, these aggressive warriors were soon menacing the smaller tribes in the region. The Spanish proved too weak to deal with an invasion partly of their own creation, and many tribes living along the Mississippi were forced to relocate to western Louisiana and then eastern Texas.
With their Spanish land grant, the Chitimacha could afford to sympathize with the plight of their eastern neighbors and gave permission for two small groups of Taensa and Houma to settle on Grand Lake. Although the Houma have since been accused of helping the Spanish subdue Chitimacha resistance to new settlements along Bayou Teche, the relations between the two tribes appear to have been cooperative, and the western Chitimacha ultimately absorbed most of the Taensa and Houma in the area. Due in large part to the effects of tafia, a cheap rum distilled from sugar cane, fate dealt more harshly with the Mississippi band of Chitimacha. The Spanish census of 1768 mentions them as living in two villages: one of about 60 souls on Bayou Lafourche near Plaquemine; and the other with 15 people at Point Coupee. To consolidate these two groups, the Spanish assigned them to a reserve near Plaquemine in 1781. This was described three years later by a British officer as a single village with 27 warriors (about 100 total). An American survey in 1805 found a single mixed Chitimacha-Houma village on Bayou Lafourche, but this was the last mention of the eastern Chitimacha. Survivors are presumed to have joined with the Houma.
The Chitimacha on Bayou Teche were better protected by their location, but by 1790 there were almost 3,000 whites and hundreds of black slaves in the Attakapas district, and their isolation had ended. Relatively little violence accompanied the takeover. The Acadians began to intermarry with the Chitimacha and convert them to Christianity. As a result, most of their tribal tradition was lost, and the Chitimacha language was replaced by Cajun French. The Chitimacha retained their Spanish land grant but continued to sell their land in exchange for money. Only 7,544 acres remained in 1777, and another large tract was sold in 1802. In a secret treaty signed in 1800, Spain returned Louisiana to France. In fact, the agreement was so secret that most of the French in Louisiana had barely become aware of the transfer before Napoleon turned around and sold them to the United States in 1803.
When American officials made their first survey of Louisiana's native peoples the following year, all that remained of the once numerous and powerful Chitimacha, besides the single (soon to disappear) mixed village with the Houma on Bayou Lafourche, were 100 western Chitimacha living in two villages on Bayou Teche. Convinced that the Chitimacha were about to "ride off into the sunset," the Americans did not bother with a treaty. The Chitimacha, however, were not that anxious to become extinct, and during the 1830s filed suit in federal court for recognition of their Spanish land grant and title to their land. The government was forced to relent, but still refusing to sign a treaty with the Chitimacha, established a reservation for them from the 1,062 acres that remained.
Without treaty or formal recognition, the downward spiral continued. The Chitimacha were seriously reduced by the Yellow Fever that struck the area in 1855. By 1881 the eastern band had disappeared, and the remaining Chitimacha were all living on Grand Lake near Charenton, Louisiana. The 1900 census listed only six families with 55 people, only three of whom were full-bloods. Meanwhile, their land base had continued to decline as the reservation was divided among individuals who usually were unable to pay the taxes assessed on their land and forced to sell. A court divided the last 505 acres of reservation in 1903, but the attorney's bill two years later almost claimed 280 acres of this. Answering a plea from the Chitimacha women, Miss Sarah Avery McIlhenney purchased the land at a sheriff's sale in 1915 and then ceded it to the federal government who put the land in trust for the tribe. Federal recognition followed in 1917 making the Chitimacha the only tribe in Louisiana at the time with this status. The recognition and trust status proved timely, because under the pressure of World War I, oil companies had become interested in the region and were buying the land.
With their land secure, many Chitimacha found employment in the Louisiana oil fields as drillers and foremen. Following the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, the Chitimacha created a new tribal organization. Unfortunately, their small enrollment and success in finding work outside their reservation led to a government attempt to terminate their federal recognition in 1952. This was ultimately defeated, and the current Chitimacha constitution and bylaws have been in place since 1971. The tribe currently operates a museum, casino, fish processing plant, and school on the Charenton reservation. A successful casino developed from an earlier bingo operation, the Chitimacha have used the revenues from this and their other enterprises to reacquire land that was once part of the reservation. So far, nearly 1,000 acres have been added to the original 260.
Also see the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana's site...