- Journeys to Louisiana and the Natchez Country
Marc-Antoine Caillot, bookkeeper and clerk, learned a great deal during his two years in New Orleans from 1729 to 1731. Fortunately for today’s readers, he wrote a lively memoir of his Louisiana venture, which, though unpublished and all but forgotten for 250 years after his death in 1758, has now come to light courtesy of a beautiful edition by The Historic New Orleans Collection. While Caillot’s account is emblematic of his time and place, it also bears on issues of cross-cultural encounters, gender, and sexuality that occupy a central place in recent historiography on colonial Louisiana and the Lower Mississippi Valley. The two books considered alongside Caillot’s in this review contribute appreciably to that scholarly literature. George Edward Milne’s Natchez Country analyzes “landscapes” of racial identity among Native peoples and colonials during the movement from uneasy coexistence to bloody warfare. Louisiana: Crossroads of the Atlantic World is a collection of essays elucidating imperial law and administration, international relations, and, above all, the intimacies of marriage and sexuality in a racially charged social order.
The Natchez War of 1729–31 is a stark example of French-Indian antagonism in contrast to “the Middle Ground” of the pays d’en haut and the mission villages of the St. Lawrence Valley. Scholars have generally attributed the war’s [End Page 227] outbreak to the Natchez Indian reaction against colonial land engrossment for purposes of commercial tobacco production. In Natchez Country, Milne follows this broad outline while tracing the geography of power relations over a thirty-year period prior to full-scale conflict. Most significantly, the author draws parallels between Natchez Indians’ internal divisions and coincidental discord within the colonial hierarchy during the mid-1710s, when the first serious violence erupted between the Natchez (“the people of the Sun”) and European newcomers. In Milne’s view, the Natchez were as much bewildered as angered by the French refusal to accept a subordinate role in Indian country.
Natchez-French relations deteriorated during the 1720s owing to Louisiana’s incipient turn toward a plantation economy under policies advanced by the Compagnie d’Occident and its successor the Compagnie des Indes. Milne’s study briefly addresses French entrepreneurial designs connecting the Lower Mississippi Valley to the Atlantic world. Under company policy, substantial land grants were awarded to concessionaires who obtained proprietary rights besides the command of indentured servants and enslaved Africans whom they purchased on credit or obtained by favor or other means.1 Milne meticulously maps the micro-geography of frontier relations in which European settlers, along with African slaves, were interspersed between Indian population centers. He also juxtaposes Natchez social hierarchies with customs prevalent in the court of Louis XIV. Indians and Europeans had certain mutually recognizable social traits, but differences in cultural outlook allowed only intermittent and limited understanding across ethnic bounds.
The Natchez attack of November 27, 1729, was triggered by exploitative conduct by Étienne de Chépart, the newly appointed officer of the local French fort. In one telling episode, the commander evicted an Indian man from his home in order to convert it into a domicile for African slaves. Milne sees the Natchez as readying for war by summoning a “red” identity embedded in their culture, and not mimed from European stereotyping (p. 170). This is an intriguing thesis, and one that should spark future debate. “Redness” was an indigenous cultural landmark, though Native pride in being red did not transcend disparate...