May 18, 2013 5:27:50 PM
Rufus Ward - [email protected]
Today, few people realize the extent of European activity during the 1700s in the Tombigbee Valley or how European conflicts between the French and English spilled over into our region. The 1700s were turbulent times in northeast Mississippi and west Alabama.
The French had formed a military and trade alliance with the Choctaw Indians and in 1736 built Fort Tombecbe (at present day Epes, Alabama, about 75 miles south of Columbus on the Tombigbee River) to cement that relationship. English traders , mostly out of Charleston, S.C., established an alliance with the Chickasaw Indians, who were centered in the Tupelo area. In May of 1736 those competing alliances came to blows.
In the September 1736 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine, an early London news magazine, there is an article titled, "Indians Beat the French". It is an account of the May 1736 French and Choctaw Indian assault on the Chickasaw villages located at present day Tupelo. It was a North American extension of the European conflict between the English and the French but with a local twist.
The local part of the story of Fort Tombecbe and the fighting in 1736 began with efforts by Jean-Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville, the French Governor of Louisiana, to block the continued expansion of British influence in the Tombigbee Valley. In 1735, Bienville decided to wage a campaign against the Chickasaw Indians who were closely allied with the British.
The first step that the French took was the construction of a small fort on the Tombigbee River. The fort was to have a garrison of only about 30 soldiers but would anchor French interest in the region.
In May of 1736 Bienville assembled a force of some 600 French soldiers at the site of the fort to prepare for an assault on the main Chickasaw towns up river. Diron d'Artaguette was to lead another French force south from the Illinois District and attack the Chickasaws in coordination with Bienville.
Bienville's force of some 600 soldiers, including a company of black soldiers under a free Black officer, left Fort Tombecbe and traveled up river toward the Chickasaw Nation. They arrived at the mouth of Tibbee Creek (Plymouth Bluff) on May 14th and camped there for three days. They had hoped to be joined there by several hundred Choctaw warriors but the Choctaws were delayed by rain and the resulting high water. The French continued up river to what became Cotton Gin Port near present day Amory where they finally linked up with the Choctaws.
Meanwhile, D'Artaguette arrived at the Chickasaw villages first and -- without waiting on Bienville -- advanced on them. His force was soundly defeated by the Chickasaws. D'Artaguette, along with 16 of his men that included noted French explorer François-Marie Bissot de Vinsenne and a Catholic priest, was captured and over the objection of the Chickasaw chiefs, "burned at the stake". The Chickasaws, though, were much impressed with the "Black Robe," Jesuit priest Father Senat, who was said to have sung hymns from the time of his capture until "the last breath."
When Bienville attacked the Chickasaw villages, the principal one being Ackia (present day Tupelo), he found that the Chickasaws had been armed and supported by British traders and observed an English flag flying over one of the villages. Bienville was also defeated and forced to retreat back to Fort Tombecbe.
Although Tombecbe remained a French Fort it served principally as a post for trade with the Choctaw Indians. Then, in 1763, at the close of the French and Indian War, it was surrendered to the British. The British renamed it Fort York but only occupied it sporadically. In 1766 Fort York was garrisoned by 21 soldiers from the British 21st Regiment.
After the American Revolution the site passed to Spain and in 1794 the Spanish rebuilt the fort and renamed it Fort Confederation. The earthworks that remain today are from the Spanish fort.
The story of Fort Tombecbe is intertwined with the history of the upper Tombigbee River Valley. The site is now owned by the University of West Alabama and the Archaeological Conservancy and can be viewed only by special arrangement as there is ongoing archaeological research.
Today, during the Sunday at the Bluff program, Jessica Fleming Crawford the Southeast Regional Director for the Archaeological Conservancy will present a program on "The Archaeological Conservancy and the Preservation of Fort Tombecbe". The presentation is open and free to the public. It will be at MUW's Plymouth Bluff Center, 2200 Old West Point Road,Columbus, at 2 P M.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]