Ask Rufus: The 'Bold Feat' of Simon, a Free Black French Captain

February 3, 2019 12:23:34 AM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


In the 1730s, conflict in Europe between England and France spread to the Tombigbee River Valley between the Choctaw-French alliance and the Chickasaw-English alliance. It was a North American extension of a European conflict with a local twist.


In 1735, Bienville, the French governor of Louisiana, decided to invade and subdue the Chickasaws, whose principal villages were at what is now Tupelo. In May 1736, Bienville led a French army of about 600 soldiers up the Tombigbee from Mobile to French Fort Tombecbe (at present day Epes, Alabama, about 65 miles southeast of Columbus). The French force included a company of 45 black soldiers under the command of Capt. Simon, a free black French officer.


The French plan was to rendezvous with a force of Choctaw warriors at the mouth of the Octibia River (the French name of Tibbee Creek). An account of the expedition was published by Dumont de Montigny in his 1753 "History of Louisiana." He was a member of the French militia during the Chickasaw campaign and told how: "On the fourth of May (1736) the army re-embarked (from Ft Tombecbe), and proceeding again up the (Tombigbee) river, reached a fort called Tibia (at the mouth of Tibbee Creek at Plymouth Bluff). All the way it had been forbidden to fire, in order to conceal from the enemy the march of our troops; but one of our Choctaws, seeing a deer in range, fired and killed it. ... The report threw the whole army into consternation, all ran to arms, and quiet was not restored till all was explained."



After waiting three days for additional Choctaws to join them, the French proceeded up river again. The 1753 account continued: "At last, on the twenty-fourth of the month, they reached the place of disembarkation (Cotton Gin Port near present day Amory); the troops landed, threw up tents, and began to erect a large palisade fort, with a kind of shed to protect the goods which they had brought. The army spent the night here." From there the French marched overland to assault the Chickasaw villages.


Diron d'Artaguette was leading another French force south from the Illinois District to attack the Chickasaws in coordination with Bienville. d'Artaguette arrived at the Chickasaw villages first, and without waiting on Bienville, advanced on them. His force was routed by the Chickasaws and d'Artaguette, with 16 of his men and a priest, were captured and later, over the objection of the Chickasaw chiefs, burned alive. The Chickasaws were much impressed with the "Black Robe" Jesuit priest Father Senat, who was said to have sang hymns from the time of his capture until "the last breath."


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 d'Artaguette's unsuccessful assault on the Chickasaw villages.


When Bienville attacked the Chickasaw villages, the principal one being Ackia (at present day Tupelo), he found the Chickasaws had been armed and supported by British traders. An English flag was observed flying over one of the villages. Bienville also suffered heavy loses, was defeated and forced to retreat back to Fort Tombecbe.


Bienville's account of the fighting dated June 28, 1736, stated: "I ordered him (ChevalierDe Noyan) to attack the (Chickasaw) village opposite that with the (English) flag. Meanwhile the detachment commanded set out on the march, and reached the hill (where the villages were) by means of some mantlets which indeed were not used very long, because the negroes who should have carried them up to a certain place, having had one from their number killed and another wounded, threw down the mantlets there and fled."


The reason for the black French soldiers fleeing becomes clear when the word mantlets is viewed in the light of what was happening.


A mantlet is defined by the 1823 edition of Barclay's Dictionary as a kind of movable fortification made of timber sawed into planks with a height of about six feet. They were used in sieges to serve as blinds to shelter soldiers from the enemy's fire. They would normally be on wheels, cased with tin and three inches thick. The ones carried by Simon's company apparently were smaller and carried by hand with his company advancing in front of the other French troops to shield them from the fire of the Chickasaws.


The Chickasaw fire was not just from bows and arrows but also from muskets provided by English traders. That meant Simon's company was used as human shields in front of the other French soldiers. Their casualties showed that the mantlets were little protection from musket fire and to continue was almost certain death.


Here the story of what next happened was related by Albert Pickett in his 1851 "History of Alabama." After the French force was soundly defeated, several officers questioned the courage of Simon's company. To show his bravery, Simon saw "a drove of horses" not far from the fortified Chickasaw houses and he then ran through the concentrated fire of the Chickasaws to the horses. There he threw a rope over the head of a "beautiful white mare ... mounted upon her back with the agility of a Camanche Indian" and rode her through a shower of musket fire to the French lines. He was greeted with cheers and no one ever again questioned the bravery of Simon or his company.


Did Simon's ride really happen? The French records do indicate a Capt. Simon was a free black officer in a company of 45 blacks. I recently found a translation of Dumont de Montigny's account of the incident published in 1753: "At the same time a free negro named Simon, a captain in the black company attached to the army, distinguished himself by a singularly bold feat performed before the whole army. He started at a run on foot to the height on which the fort lay, and though the Indians sallied out, and balls (bullets) were raining around him, he held on, and reaching a troop of horses at pasture, picked out a fine mare, sprang on her back, and rode back to the camp unscathed."


It is always interesting to read a old romanticized version of a story out of our past and find that it has a very real basis in fact. In his 1910 book "Colonial Mobile," Peter Hamilton was absolutely correct when he referred to "Simon the brave free black."


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