Memoir of a French Visitor
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du Pratz, History of Lousiana
John C. Van Horne
ittle is known about Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz (1695?-1775) beyond the meager personal revelations in his Histoire de la Louisiane.1 He was born either in the Netherlands or France and was raised in the latter country. He graduated from a French cours de mathematiques and considered himself an engineer and professional architect. Serving with Louis XIV’s dragoons in the French Army, he saw service in Germany in 1713 during the War of the Spanish Succession. On May 25, 1718 he left La Rochelle, France, with 800 men on one of three ships commissioned by the Company of the West (known also as the Mississippi Company) bound for Louisiana. Du Pratz arrived in Louisiana three months later on August 25, 1718. At that time the colony’s French population was very small and included secular and religious officials; a limited number of concessionaires, who received large land grants; a larger number of habitants, a group that included migrants sent by non-emigrating concessionaires to work their lands; and those who obtained smaller land grants of their own.2 It appears that du Pratz was one of the last group. All were supplemented by a far more transient population of traders, soldiers, and indentured servants.
The title page to the one-volume English edition of 1774 that Benjamin Smith Barton loaned to Meriwether Lewis to take along on the expedition of 1804-06.
Du Pratz spent four months at Dauphin Island before he made his way to Bayou St. John, where he established his grant and set up a plantation using indentured labor. The young settler was only about twenty-three at the time. After living on the banks of Bayou St. John for about a year, he left for the more promising area of the Natchez Indians, below the bluffs of the Mississippi, upon which the French Fort Rosalie had been constructed in 1716 (present-day Natchez, Mississippi). The climate there was more healthful and the soil richer and ideally suited for growing tobacco. Du Pratz took with him two African slaves, a man and his wife, and a young Chitimacha woman purchased in New Orleans. Upon his arrival he bought land from the Natchez Indians and began to grow tobacco. He also acquired two parcels of land on behalf of the commissary of the colony, Marc-Antoine Hubert, one for personal use and one for the Company.3
For eight years du Pratz dwelled among the Natchez Indians, observed their customs, and became their friend. With the Natchez as guides and companions, he traveled long distances through the surrounding countryside, from whence sprang his lengthy observations on the local flora and fauna. However, during this period French relations with the Natchez were deteriorating and in 1728 du Pratz accepted an offer from the Company to manage its plantation across the river from present-day New Orleans. This, the largest establishment in the colony, employed more than two hundred Africans, directly owned by the Company, in producing tobacco and cotton. Du Pratz also apparently supervised Africans imported by the Company before they were sold at auction, as the Company made temporary use of them for the manifold tasks of maintaining the city and its harbor.4
In 1729, the Natchez Indians massacred the French at Fort Rosalie. The subsequent retaliation by the French and their Choctaw Indian allies wiped out the Natchez as a nation. As a result of the massacre and other losses it had sustained, the Company of the West surrendered its charter to the crown and Louisiana became a royal province of Louis XV. Du Pratz retained his position as director of the plantation, now become the King’s in 1730. In 1734, there was a change of governor of Louisiana, the plantation was “put on a new footing,” and du Pratz’s position was abolished. At this point, he decided to return to France, arriving in La Rochelle on June 25, 1734. In all du Pratz had spent sixteen years in Louisiana.5
It is not known what the former colonial planter did between the time of his arrival back in France and the publication of his first Louisiana article in 1751. He apparently associated with a literary circle, for he claims it was his "learned friends" who persuaded him to begin writing his memoirs. These first appeared in a series of twelve installments in the Journal Oeconomique between 1751 and 1753.6
1. Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz, Histoire de la Louisiane, 3 vols (Paris: De Bure, 1758).
2. Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz, History of Louisiana, edited with an introduction by Joseph G. Tregle, Jr. (London: T. Becket, 1774; reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975), xx; Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz, History of Louisiana, edited with a foreword by Stanley Clisby Arthur (London: T. Becket, 1774; reprint, New Orleans: J. S. Harmanson, 1947), 11, 18; Jennifer M. Spear, “Colonial Intimacies: Legislating Sex in French Louisiana,” William & Mary Quarterly 3d ser. 60 (2003): 81. I have cited the text of the 1947 reprint, available on the Internet at www.gutenberg.org, for details of du Pratz’s life, and the Foreword to that edition, by Arthur. References to the 1975 reprint are to the Introduction only, by Tregle.
3. Du Pratz, History of Louisiana (1947), 20-24; Patricia Galloway, “Rhetoric of Difference: Le Page du Pratz on African Slave Management in Eighteenth-Century Louisiana,” paper presented at the 24th Annual Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, Monterey, California, 1998, 2. 4. Daniel Usner, “From African Captivity to American Slavery: The Introduction of Black Laborers to Colonial Louisiana,” Louisiana History 20 (1979): 25-48, cited in Galloway, “Rhetoric of Difference,” 2; du Pratz, History of Louisiana (1947), 70-1; Tregle, introduction to History of Louisiana (1975), xxi-xxii.
5. Tregle, introduction to History of Louisiana (1975), xxiii; du Pratz, History of Louisiana (1947), 85, 186-7.
6. Shannon Lee Dawdy, "Enlightenment from the Ground: Le Page Du Pratz's Histoire de la Louisiane," French Colonial History 3 (2003): 18.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.