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  • Plotting the Natchez Massacre:Le Page du Pratz, Dumont de Montigny, Chateaubriand
  • Gordon Sayre (bio)

J'étais encore très jeune, lorsque je conçus l'idée de faire 'l'épopée de l'homme de la nature,' ou de peindre les Moeurs des Sauvages, en les liant à quelque événement connu. Après la découverte de l'Amérique, je ne vis pas de sujet plus intéressant, surtout pour des François, que le massacre de la colonie des Natchez à la Louisiane, en 1727. Toutes les tribus indienne conspirant, après deux siècles d'oppression, pour rendre la liberté au Nouveau-Monde, me parurent offrir au pinceau un sujet presque aussi heureux que la conquête du Mexique.

—François-René Chateaubriand, Preface to Atala (1801)

I was still very young when I conceived the idea of composing an epic on the Man of Nature, or delineating the manners of the savages by connecting them with some well-known event. Next to the discovery of America, I could not find a more interesting subject, especially for the French, than the massacre of the colony of the Natchez in Louisiana, in 1727 [sic]. All the Indian tribes conspiring, after two centuries of oppression, to restore liberty to the New World, seemed to me to furnish a subject nearly as happy as the conquest of Mexico.

—Quoted in Chateaubriand, The Natchez 1:4

In introducing the novella that launched him to literary fame, Chateaubriand declared that the Natchez massacre offered an epic tableau that in all the history of America was comparable only to the battle between Cortes and Montezuma. The comparison may seem preposterous, a symptom of the author's notoriously melodramatic and self-aggrandizing persona. After all, Atala did not fulfill this epic pretension. Although the novella's hero, Chactas, is a Natchez, the story does not portray the Natchez massacre. Chateaubriand's "epic on the Man of Nature" was instead Les Natchez, the epic romance that he had begun writing in exile in London in [End Page 381] the 1790s, but did not publish until 1826. Atala was an immediate success in Europe, and Caleb Bingham's translation, Atala, or The Love and Constancy of Two Savages in the Desert (Boston, 1802), found wide readership and influence in the United States (Seelye 174). But Les Natchez remains little-read, a lost epic for France's lost colonies in North America. To appreciate Les Natchez one must recover the literature of French colonial Louisiana that dramatized the events at Natchez as the tragic outcome of an alliance between a native nation and a colonial power linked by a common destiny of loss and regret.

The uprising of the Natchez nation, which actually occurred on 28 November 1729, not 1727, took the lives of about 250 French colonists (out of a total in the Natchez area of about 700, including slaves), and destroyed a settlement that had been established barely 10 years before.1 It left unscathed the colonial capital, New Orleans, and the initial French Louisiana forts at Mobile and Biloxi. The eminent Franco-Americanist Gilbert Chinard wrote in his preface to Les Natchez that Chateaubriand "magnifié un banal incident des guerres coloniales de la France et transformé un soulèvement local en une guerre d'indépendence" (30; "magnified a banal incident from the French colonial wars and transformed a local rebellion into a war of independence"). The romantic notion of not merely the Natchez but "all the Indian tribes conspiring" to overthrow the European colony was a myth common in colonial history writing.2 But this is no reason to disregard Chateaubriand's work. Epic imperial history has always worked to turn minor battles into major events, and in the words of ethnologist John R. Swanton, probably the foremost expert on the Natchez, they "so strongly appealed to French imaginations . . . that this tribe has been surrounded by a glamour similar to that which until recently enshrouded the Aztec of Mexico and the Quichua of Peru" (2). Because the Natchez and French Louisiana were both defeated in colonial wars, they both have been largely forgotten. It is necessary to imagine an alternative historiography of...


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