First Contacts with European Explorers
Hernando de Soto (1496 – 1542)
In 1539, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and 600 men landed on the east coast of present-day Florida. They marched for three years, crossing parts of modern Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and eventually came upon the Mississippi River near Natchez. In 1542, de Soto died on the river’s bank. The surviving members of the expedition, led by Luis de Moscoso, journeyed downstream in seven small boats, passing by West Baton Rouge Parish lands and finally exiting the mouth of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1543.
Rene Robert Cavalier La Salle (1643 – 1687)
French explorer René-Robert Cavalier, le Sieur de la Salle, came upon the mouth of the Mississippi River on the April 7, 1682. Two days later, La Salle proclaimed that all the territory watered by the Mississippi belonged to France in the name of French King Louis XIV. This included the entire river from its mouth to its source and all the streams flowing into it on both sides – and, of course, the land that now makes up West Baton Rouge Parish.
All the while, La Salle’s comrade, Henri de Tonti, feared La Salle was lost somewhere along the Mississippi River and set out to search for him. While Tonti was travelling down the Mississippi, he wrote a letter to La Salle on a piece of tree bark, which he left with the Quinipissa Tribe. Years later, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville would retrieve that letter from the Bayougoulas.
Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville (1661 – 1706)
Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville was a French naval officer from Quebec, Canada. Sieur d’Iberville, along with his younger brother, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, led an expedition from France to explore the lower Mississippi River and colonize Louisiana. In 1699, Iberville and a party of 50 men traveled upstream from the mouth of the Mississippi and eventually arrived at the bluffs which are the location of the present-day city of Baton Rouge. A red pole had been erected near this spot by Native Americans, to mark the boundary between Bayougoula and Houma hunting grounds. By mid-March the expedition party sailed passed the Mississippi River banks that would one day be the eastern boundary of West Baton Rouge Parish. They continued upstream to the junction of the Red River and the Mississippi River, where they met the Houma Native Americans. Bienville then turned around and led a party downriver, past the future site of New Orleans, and out the mouth of the delta. Iberville took the second party across Bayou Manchac, southeast of modern Baton Rouge, through Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne, and into the Mississippi Sound. These expeditions are considered the first comprehensive French explorations of the inland lower Mississippi Valley. In 1703, Iberville was named the first Governor of Louisiana.
Jean Baptist Le Moyne de Bienville (1680 – 1767)
Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, born in Montreal, Quebec, was an explorer and colonizer. In 1699, at the age of eighteen, Bienville joined his brother, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, on an expedition to establish the colony of Louisiana. During this expedition, Bienville and Iberville explored the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, including the Chandeleur Islands off the coast of Louisiana as well as Cat Island and Ship Island off the coast of what is now the state of Mississippi, before moving westward to sail up the mouth of the Mississippi River to what is now Baton Rouge. Before heading back to France, Iberville established the first settlement of the Louisiana colony, Fort Maurepas, in Ocean Springs, Mississippi (Old Biloxi), and appointed Sauvolle de la Villantry as the governor with Bienville as Lieutenant and second in command.
In 1700, Henri de Tonti, Iberville, and Bienville sailed up the mighty river again, passing by the lands of West Baton Rouge Parish. Iberville and Bienville returned to the ill-fated Fort de la Boulaye, which was about 50 miles above the mouth of the Mississippi, leaving Tonti at the present site of Natchez. After the death of Iberville in 1706, French leadership was passed on to the 23-year-old Bienville. Between 1701 and 1743, he was appointed governor of French Louisiana four separate times.