Ask Rufus: A visit to Massacre Island

July 28, 2018 10:00:37 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Last week we went to Massacre Island, Alabama, which is not only a delightful vacation spot but a place intertwined with the history of the Tombigbee River Valley.


As a barrier island off of Mobile Bay, it served in the 1700s as a gateway to the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers and for French explorers who visited and traded with the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian nations of present day Mississippi.


After the disaster of the 1540s Hernando de Soto expedition and Tristan de Luna's failed 1559-1561 settlement at the site of present day Pensacola, European interior exploration of what is now Alabama and Mississippi all but ended until the 1680s. The Luna settlement, though unsuccessful, was the first multi-year European settlement within the continental United States. In the 1698 Spain established a settlement that is today's Pensacola. France was also exploring the Gulf Coast and in 1699 established a settlement that became Ocean Springs and Biloxi.



Before the French established a settlement on what is now the Mississippi coast, they examined a barrier island off Mobile Bay as a likely location for a settlement with a good harbor and at the mouth of a river system. In early 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, governor of French Louisiana, explored the island where, on February 1, he found some 60 skeletons. He therefore named the island Massacre Island.


After not locating a suitable harbor, Iberville sailed west to a more suitable location that became Biloxi.


The following year the settlement at Biloxi was devastated by illness and a more suitable harbor was found on Massacre Island. As a result, Le Moyne de Bienville, the French Commandant at Fort Maurepas on the Bay of Biloxi, began moving to Massacre Island on January 4, 1702. The French were soon constructing a warehouse for the protection of the new colony of Louisiana's supplies.


The harbor at the island was found to be a good one and was described by Nicolas de La Salle, a veteran of Cavelier de La Salle's voyage down the Mississippi River, as: " is one of the best harbors on all this coast, and vessels of forty and fifty guns would be completely safe here." Forty members of Fort Maurepas' 60-man garrison were then transferred to Massacre Island.


Those early soldiers, explorers and settlers were a mixture of Frenchmen and French Canadians. The first building constructed was a 50-foot by 25-foot warehouse. During its construction the members of the colony lived in tents or in "make-shift lean-tos" in pine trees behind the sandy beaches.


Plans were made both for the establishment of a town that was to become Mobile and for sending a French expedition into the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations seeking peace and trade relations. On January 20, 1702, Canadian workmen began clearing a site 50 miles from the island across Mobile Bay and up the Mobile River (formed by the junction of the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers) that is known as 27 Mile Bluff. This, the first Mobile with its Fort Louis, was the capital of French Louisiana from 1702 until the town moved to Mobile's present location in 1711. The move was to find a healthier location and to be closer to the colony's principal port on Massacre Island.


In 1702 Henri de Tonti, another of La Salle's Mississippi River veterans who had landed on Massacre Island, was sent on a peace mission to the Chickasaw Nation. He traveled up the west side of the Tombigbee to the Chickasaw villages in the prairie south of present day Tupelo.


Tonti's description of the Chickasaw village is fascinating. In a village he encountered an Englishman "that I had trouble recognizing for one. He was seated holding a gun in his hand and a saber at his side. He had on a rather dirty blue shirt, no pants, stockings or shoes, a scarlet wool blanket and some discs at his neck like a savage."


Though the Louisiana Colony's first principal port, Massacre Island -- which between 1703 and 1707 became known as Dauphine Island -- soon encountered problems. On September 9, 1710, English privateers from Jamaica attacked and sacked the settlement located there. Then in 1717, a hurricane washed sand into the ship channel, silting it up. The closing of the channel to larger vessels ended the port's importance, and by 1725, the port and its associated village were all but abandoned.


In about 1715, Louisiana Governor Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac described the island: "Dauphine Island, hitherto Massacre, is six leagues long. It is wooded with pines for about one league. It is scarcely one quarter of a league in width. For five leagues to the west it is simply nothing but a sandbank and white and shifting sand. To the north the sand island has a border of woods of various sorts."


The island basically dropped out of significance until its surrender by France to England in 1763. In 1781 England ceded the island to Spain with the surrender of west Florida after the Spanish capture of Mobile. In 1813 the US claimed Dauphin Island and took possession of it from Spain.


In 1818 construction of Fort Gaines across the entrance of Mobile Bay from Fort Morgan was initiated. However, work stopped in 1821 and did not resume until 1857. In January 1861 Alabama state troops occupied the fort for the Confederacy. The Confederate garrison there surrendered on August 8, 1864, after the Battle of Mobile Bay.


The fort, with added gun batteries built 1901-1905, was transferred to Alabama after World War I but was again put in service during World War II. It is now open as a state park.


Dauphin Island, Alabama, was a gateway to much of our early history. Today it is a delightful vacation spot where one can not only enjoy beautiful Gulf beaches but also historic sites that have a tie to local history.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]