Gordon M. Sayre: The Founding of New Orleans: A City of Floods

The Memoir of Lieutenant Dumont, 1715–1747: A Sojourner in the French Atlantic, translated by Gordon M. Sayre, edited by Gordon M. Sayre and Carla ZecherWe welcome a guest post today from Gordon M. Sayre, translator and co-editor (with Carla Zecher) of The Memoir of Lieutenant Dumont, 1715-1747: A Sojourner in the French Atlantic, to be published in November 2012 by UNC Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia. In 1719, Jean-François-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny set sail for Louisiana with a commission as a lieutenant after a year in Quebec. His memoir documents the life of an itinerant soldier and self-proclaimed “French Robinson Crusoe” in the eighteenth-century French Atlantic World. In the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, Sayre turns to Dumont’s memoir to shed light on the origins and watery history of New Orleans.—ellen

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Exactly seven years after the devastating Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and southern Louisiana were hit by another storm, Hurricane Isaac. As the entire nation learned in 2005, the danger of such storms lies not so much from the winds as from the drenching rains and surge of water that a hurricane pushes in from the Gulf of Mexico. A large portion of New Orleans lies below sea level, although the historic and touristic French Quarter, the part of the city that dates to the French period in the mid-eighteenth century, is just barely above sea level and suffered the least from Katrina. The reasons for New Orleans’ vulnerability, and the reasons why the city was established where it is, are revealed in the narrative of Jean-François Benjamin Dumont de Montigny, which I have translated under the title The Memoir of Lieutenant Dumont, 1715-1747: A Sojourner in the French Atlantic.

Dumont was the youngest son of a Paris lawyer, and whereas his five older brothers found careers in law or the church, Jean-François was set up with a commission as a lieutenant in the Compagnie franches de la marine, a division of the Navy that served in the French colonies. In 1719 he set sail for Louisiana and landed first on Dauphin Island (today part of Alabama), then at Biloxi, in Mississippi.

The purpose of French Louisiana, from its founding in 1699, had been to control the outlet of the Mississippi and thereby control the trade in furs and other resources coming out of the heart of North America, including the Ohio and Missouri valleys. But to sail an oceangoing ship up the river from the Gulf was a tedious process. It often took three weeks or more to travel from La Balize, the fort the French established at the outlet, to the site of New Orleans. The location of the city was chosen because it was accessible from Biloxi along a route that had been used by Native peoples long before the French arrived. As Dumont describes on his first visit to the site of New Orleans in 1721:

[W]e traveled across Lake Pontchartrain, later known as Saint Louis, to a small river that in this country is called a bayou. We entered it and rowed upstream for two leagues to a portage, where there were some sheds that served as a depot. At that time, there were only three habitants living in this place. On the right bank of the river as one went upstream was a Canadian called Joseph Girardy, with his wife and children and Indian slaves; and on the left of the bayou was the Sr. Lavigne, who also had a family and a fine farm, and the Sr. François Dugué, who was a bachelor. It was at his place that we landed. We slept there, and he received us very well. There were several sheds within a hundred paces of his dwelling, as I’ve said, where the supplies brought from New Biloxi were covered and stored, ready for the new settlement that was planned to be built one league away from the Bayou Saint Jean, on the Saint Louis River [the Mississippi]. It was on this river that we now had to travel, going upstream to get to Yazoo, where the company of the Sr. Bizard already was. To reach this river on a well prepared trail with carts to carry all our cargo through the forests and brush might have been a simple matter, a pleasure, even. But no, we found upturned trees blocking the path, which our soldiers had to cut up and remove, and then a small ravine that was swollen with rainwater that had flooded the area and made the ground muddy and the trail very bad. It was no small matter to transport the supplies and the equipment for the troops. We had even more trouble in transporting our five boats, which, as soon as we got to the post known by the name of New Orleans, were put into the water of the beautiful Saint Louis River. All this required only a few days, after which we reloaded our boats once again, embarked the soldiers in them, and left behind this little outpost, where there were then only four or five houses all separated from one another, belonging to various habitants.

In a manuscript map held at the French naval archives, Dumont drew the city as it appeared later, in the 1730s, with the dense grid of the French quarter in the middle and the Ursuline convent on the riverbank at right.

Dumont's map of 1730s New Orleans
Dumont’s map of 1730s New Orleans (image via rla.unc.edu)

The map also shows at upper right the lands of Dugué, Girardy, and Lavigne (10, 11, and 12 in the key). A “canal, recently built” (likely in the 1730s) drains Mississippi flood waters around the city and into the Bayou. The portage route from the Bayou Saint Jean runs diagonally across the map. Difficult as it was when Dumont first traversed it, this portage was what determined the location of New Orleans. It connected the navigation routes along the coast with Mississippi River, avoiding the need to navigate the arduous curves and shifting silts of the last 100 miles of the birdsfoot delta. By this route the initial French settlements of Mobile and Biloxi were a few days away from the Mississippi, rather than a few weeks.

A 1722 Dumont returned to:

New Orleans, now capital of all the country. It quite rightly carries this name, given its beauties: attractive and well-made buildings, made all of brick or half timber and half brick. The streets are laid out perfectly straight, along which each habitant is in possession of a lot twenty yards wide and forty deep. Each island or block is one hundred yards square. All the lots are enclosed by pilings sunk in the earth and pointed at the top, arranged and secured in a straight line. The houses are covered with shingles or with flat tiles. The streets are twenty-eight feet wide, reduced, however, to eighteen feet because all around the palisades that enclose the properties, there is a three-foot-wide walk that serves as a parapet, and around this parapet there is a drainage ditch, or little moat, two feet in width and at least eighteen inches deep. Next to the city, along the riverfront, a strong levee of earth has been built, as wide as the streets, to protect the city from being flooded by the waters of the river, which rises every year beginning on the twenty-fifth of March (Annunciation Day) up until the twenty-fourth of June, when it starts to subside. And it must be understood that, when it is in flood, it rises above its bed by about three and a half feet and thus above the surrounding land, and it would flood the city if not for this earthen levee that has been built to prevent such a flood. Behind the levee, there is a large moat to receive the water that, when it is full, flows through one ditch and then another in the gutters of the streets, which carry it off behind the city into the cypress woods.

The highest ground in New Orleans was on the natural levee. During annual floods the Mississippi overtopped its levees and silt settled out as the water flowed down the backside of the levees and into the swamps. The annual floods were much greater before the Mississippi locks and dams were built in the twentieth century (although we have seen major floods in 1993 and 2011). Those floods gouged out a channel nearly 300 feet deep carrying water into the Gulf, but also provided silt to keep the bayou region above sea level. Efforts by New Orleans residents to keep their city dry have denied it these annual loads of replenishing dirt. The earthen levee and drainage ditches the French built kept the floods, and the silt, out of the French Quarter, delivering it instead to the cypress swamps behind. The bald cypress trees shown on Dumont’s map were quickly cut down (because their wood was highly resistant to rot) and was used for pirogues or piling to anchor forts and houses.

Today the enormous system of levees, locks, and dams along the Mississippi direct that silt out into the Gulf, and the city gradually subsides as the muddy ground compresses. Today parts of the city are 10 feet below sea level, and rely upon huge electric pumps to prevent rainwater from filling it up like a lake.

The Author’s Farm on the River. VAULT oversize Ayer MS 257, map 8. Courtesy the Newberry Library, Chicago
The Author’s Farm on the River. VAULT oversize Ayer MS 257, map 8. Courtesy the Newberry Library, Chicago

Dumont did not really understand the long-term ecological and geological processes that began when New Orleans was founded. For him the symbiosis of land and water in the bayous was what made life in the colony possible. All travel was by water, and although it took months to go upstream from New Orleans to the Illinois colony, it might take just days to descend with the current during spring runoff.

The silt of the Mississippi made for fertile farmland, and Dumont supported himself as a market gardener both at a farm some nine leagues downstream of the city, on the east bank, in 1729-31, and then later in the city itself. Transport was difficult and goods from France were exorbitantly priced, so his produce was valuable. Dumont owned two or three slaves but rented them out and worked his land himself. He took great pleasure in growing grapes and hops and raising chickens, but he also dug oysters in the bayous to sell in New Orleans markets. In a map he drew for the memoir published by UNC Press, Dumont depicted his first farm with its house, barn, slave quarters and chicken coop on the levee, two pirogues tied up alongside, and three drainage ditches running into the cypress swamps behind. Dumont never rose through the ranks of the colonial military, and seemed happiest in an occupation his parents would have scorned: market gardener. His narrative reveals much about daily life and environmental history of the lower Mississippi.

Gordon M. Sayre is professor of English and folklore at the University of Oregon. The Memoir of Lieutenant Dumont, 1715-1747: A Sojourner in the French Atlantic, which he translated and co-edited with Carla Zecher, will be published in November 2012 and is available for pre-order now. Sayre’s previous books include The Indian Chief as Tragic Hero: Native Resistance and the Literatures of America, from Moctezuma to Tecumseh and Les Sauvages Américains: Representations of Native Americans in French and English Colonial Literature.