Today marks the 350th anniversary of the birth of Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, one of Canada’s great soldiers and explorers, though at the time his homeland was still called New France - indeed he is dubbed Canada’s first hero. A few of his journals have been published, notably those recording voyages to the Mississippi to establish a colony in Louisiana. Other accounts of the same exploration also exist.
D’Iberville was born on 16 July 1661 one of many children fathered by Charles LeMoyne who had arrived in New France 20 years earlier as an indentured servant. When he died in 1685, he was considered one of the wealthiest and most powerful citizens in Montreal. Young Pierre, who had grown up in Montreal, sailed on his father’s boat and was sent to France on several occasions. In the 1680s and 1690s, he led expeditions against the British fur-trading posts on Hudson Bay. In 1690, he took part in a raid on Schenectady, and in 1692 he unsuccessfully attacked Fort Pemaquid, Maine. Later, he successfully attacked St John’s, Newfoundland, and temporarily ousted the British from the area.
In 1698, he set out from France with his younger brother Bienville and four ships full of colonists. They landed on the Gulf of Mexico and founded Old Biloxi. D’Ibberville is considered to be the first man to ascertain the mouth of the Mississippi from the Gulf approach and to explore its delta. Between 1700 and 1702, he kept the new colony supplied; and built additional forts. But then illness prevented him making further voyages.
After recovering his health, d’Iberville led a force which captured the British islands of Nevis and St Kitts in the West Indies. He was ready for further forays when he died at Havana, probably in 1706, having gone there to trade and collect supplies. Further information on d’Iberville is readily available at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (which names him as Canada’s first hero) or Wikipedia.
D’Iberville’s own French journals of three ‘voyages to the Mississippi’ were edited and translated by Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams and published by the University of Alabama Press in 1981 as Iberville’s Gulf Journals. Part of this book is viewable online at Googlebooks. However, a fuller (and richer) account of the same explorations is freely available (at Internet Archive) within the Historical Collections Louisiana and Florida published by Albert Mason (New York) 1875. The relevant section is entitled Historical Journal: or Narrative of the Expedition made by order of Louis XIV, King of France, under command of M. D’Iberville, to explore Colbert (Mississippi) river and establish a colony in Louisiana.
Here are two extracts, both about the same day: one from D’Ibberville’s own diary, and the other from the anonymous record of the expedition as contained in Historical Journey.
14 February 1699
‘I continue to follow the tracks of the Indians, having left at the place where I spent the night two axes, four knives, two packages of glass beads, a little vermillion; for I was sure that two Indians who came at sunrise to watch me from a distance of 300 yards would come there after we left. [. . .] I noticed a canoe crossing over to an island and several Indians waiting for it there. They joined five other canoes, which crossed over to the land to the north. As the land where I was was separated from them by a bay 1 league wide and 4 leagues long, I got into my canoe and pursued the canoes and overtook them as they were landing on the shore. All the Indians fled into the woods, leaving their canoes and baggage [. . .] I found an old man who was too sick to stand. We talked by means of signs. I gave him food and tobacco; he made me understand that I should build a fire for him. This I did and, besides, made a shelter, near which I placed him along with his baggage and a number of bags of Indian corn and beans that the Indians had in their canoes. I made him understand that I was going half a league from there to spend the night. My longboat joined me there. I sent my brother and two Canadians after the Indians who had fled, to try to make them come back or to capture one. Toward evening he brought a woman to me whom he had caught in the woods 3 leagues from there. I led her to the old man and left her, after giving her several presents and some tobacco to take to her men and have them smoke.’
14 February 1699
‘On Saturday, the 14th, having breakfasted, we marched along the shore. M D’Iberville and his Indian guide at the same time perceived the tracks of two savages who had come from their hiding-place. He returned to our fire, took two hatchets, four knives, some beads, vermilion, and two pipes filled with tobacco, as presents, and to show them that our intentions were peaceable. The shallops and bark kept along the shore, while M D’Iberville, his Indian guide, and Father Anastasius walked on foot. At some distance they saw three Indians who took flight in their canoes; seeing which M D’Iberville also took to his canoe and forced them on shore. Two made good their escape, but the third, who was old and sickly, fell into his hands. Presents were given to him, and he was made to understand that our mission was friendly and not warlike. The Indian appeared to comprehend and be well satisfied. M D’Iberville added that he was going to tent a short distance from this spot; he made a sign for us to go on shore and kindle a fire for him, which we did with pleasure. His thigh was badly diseased. Some of our men who had gone out to hunt, surprised an old woman who had concealed herself. They conducted her to the old man where we were. She was nearly frightened to death. We gave her some presents, and she saw how well we treated the old man, who promised that so soon as his people returned he would make them pull some Indian corn for us. We left them together and returned to our cabin. The old woman visited the Indians that same evening and told them all that had happened.’
And here are two more extracts from Historical Journey (i.e. about d’Iberville, not written by him).
7 March 1699
On Saturday, the 7th, we embarked, after having erected a cross, and marked some trees. Weather calm. At nine o’clock, in ranging along the river we saw three buffaloes lying down on the bank. We landed five men to go in pursuit of them, which they could not do, as they soon got lost in the thick forest and cane-brakes. A short time after, in turning a point, we saw a canoe manned by two Indians, who took to land the moment they saw us and concealed themselves in the woods. A little farther on we saw five more who executed the same manoeuvre, with the exception of one, who waited for us at the brink of the river. We made signs to him. M D’Iberville gave him a knife, some beads and other trinkets. In exchange he gave us some dried bear’s meat. M D’Iberville commanded all of our men to go on board the long-boats for fear of intimidating him, and made signs to him to recall his comrades. They came singing their song of peace, extending their hands towards the sun and rubbing their stomachs, as a sign of admiration and joy. After joining us they placed their hands upon their breasts, and extended their arms over our heads as a mark of friendship. M D’Iberville asked them by signs, if the Indians we had seen on the sea-shore, where the vessels were at anchor, had arrived. They gave us to understand the affirmative, and that they had gone up by a branch of the river, which empties into the sea, near the same place where he had crossed it. He then asked them if their village was far off. They told him it was five days journey hence.
What troubled us most, was, that we began to be wearied, and our provisions were falling short. M D’Iberville gave them some beads, knives and looking-glasses; in return they gave us dried bear’s meat, which they had in their canoes. Our men also trafficked with them for some trifling objects. One good old man extended his meat upon the ground, after the same manner our butchers do in our markets of Europe, and sat down beside it. Two of our men went to him, and each one gave him a knife and took the whole of the meat, consisting of at least one hundred pounds. All seemed satisfied with their bargain. M D’Iberville asked them if they would show him their village. They gave him to understand they were going on a hunt, and could not accompany him. But having offered a hatchet to one of them, who seemed very desirous to possess it, he agreed to go. We asked them if they had heard the sound of the swivel; they said they had heard it twice. We fired it again before them, at which they were greatly astonished, for it was the first time they had ever heard it so near them. We passed two hours among them. One of them came on board of our shallop. We made him a present of a shirt, the others did not appear jealous of the gift, so indifferent are they. The river at this place was NW by SW.
At one o’clock we dined. Our course was now SSW by S. With a half a league again tended NW by W. At six o’clock landed and encamped, our men standing guard as usual. This day we made five leagues, and were thirty-five leagues from the mouth.
8 March 1699
On Sunday, the 8th, after mass, we embarked at seven o’clock; river tending SW by NW and W. The current was stronger than ordinarily, which made it necessary for us to keep in the bends and cross the river from one point to the other, three or four times. The weather was very warm all day. Towards five o’clock a storm arose, which compelled us to land and encamp. Some of our men killed a crocodile (alligator), which they skinned and afterwards cooked the flesh to eat. They also killed a rattle-snake upwards of six feet in length, the bite of which is said to be mortal. The wind was from the north all night and very cold. We this day made four leagues.