Jean-François Benjamin Dumont de Montigny (1696 - 1760)

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Dumont de Montigny, Fort Rosalie and the French settlements at Natchez ca. 1728, detail of the Terre Blanche concession
Archives Nationales de France, Cartes et Plans, N III Louisiane 1/2


Dumont de Montigny: Historian and Memoirist of French Louisiana

Jean-François Benjamin Dumont de Montigny was born in Paris and educated in Jesuit grammar schools there. His father was a lawyer and the family was rising into the "noblesse de robe" or class of aristocrats who had acquired noble titles by virtue of administrative functions. As the youngest of six sons, however, Jean-François was destined for a career in the military. He went to Quebec in 1715, and then after a brief spell in France got a commission as a sub-lieutenant and engineer in Louisiana. At this moment in 1719, investment and emigration in Louisiana, which was controlled by the financier John Law and his Company of the Indies, had reached a speculative bubble. It collapsed in 1720 and the disgraced Law was forced into exile. Many new colonists who found themselves in Biloxi and New Orleans in the early 1720s died before they could clear land, build shelter and grow food along the swampy, malarial bayous. Dumont, however, lived in Louisiana until 1737, shifting between New Orleans, Pascagoula, Natchez, and the Yazoo River area. He did not acquire a large plantation, and did not rise through the military ranks. In fact, his defiant behavior toward Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the governor of Louisiana during much of this period, and Chépart, the commandant at Natchez during the cataclysmic revolt of that tribe in 1729, led to demotions and brief periods of incarceration.

Dumont published a two-volume history of the colony, Mémoires historiques sur la Louisiane (1753) edited by the Abbé Le Mascrier. This book has not been widely used by American historians, however, because no full English translation has ever been published. The book is only loosely based on the manuscripts that Dumont composed and that survive today. During the period from 1750-1753 he evidently lived in Paris and tried to build a career as a writer, as well as seeking appointment as an officer or explorer of Louisiana. In August of 1750 he wrote a letter to the French royal cartographer, Philippe Buache, describing his experience on an exploration of the Arkansas River in 1722, and offering advice for a future expedition to that region. In 1752 he published four brief articles in the Journal Œconomique, at the same time that the journal was publishing a twelve-part series about Louisiana by Le Page du Pratz.

Until recently I knew nothing about his life after 1753 nor about his death, but in January 2012, with help from colleagues Alexandre Dubé and Erin Greenwald, I learned of a document in the archives of the Company of the Indies that records Dumont and his wife sailing to the colony of Réunion, and then to Pondicherry, India, in 1754-55. He died in India in 1760, and left behind an estate containing much more money than he had been able to amass during his life in Louisiana.

Dumont's real contribution to the documentary history of French Louisiana comes from his manuscripts. Only a few historians have been aware that three of Dumont's manuscript works are extant, and that these documents offer a much more personal and artistic account of his time in Louisiana. He wrote two versions of an epic poem about Louisiana which appears to have penned in the early 1740s. One version is at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and the other at the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, a branch of the Bibliothèque nationale located in the former home of the poem's dedicatee, Marc-Pierre de Voyer de Paulmy, Comte de Weil-Argenson. The poem's title, in the latter version, translates as Verse poem on the establishment of the province of Louisiana or Mississippi, with all that occurred there from 1716 to 1741: The Massacre of the French at the post at Natchez, the Manners and Customs of the Indians, their dances, religions, etc.; and all that concerns that land in general. I have translated an excerpt from the first canto that recounts the 1729 uprising of the Natchez Indians, in which more than 250 French were killed. The translation is based in part upon one by Henri Delville de Sinclair done as part of the WPA writers project in 1940.

The third manuscript is held at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois, Ayer MS 257. It bears the title Mémoire de L___ D___ which presumably is a mask for "Lieuténant Dumont." I collaborated with Carla Zecher, director of of the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry, and Shannon Dawdy of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago to edit and publish this text. We received in 2004 an NEH grant to complete this edition, and it appeared in 2008 from Septentrion publishers of Québec. In 2007 I began working on an English translation of the manuscipt. This is being published in November 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press, as part of the series of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. The books include color reproductions of many of the 23 illustrations that accompany the manuscript.

Dumont and the Natchez Revolt

As Dumont (and Le Page) wrote their histories of Louisiana in the 1750s, it was the Natchez Massacre of 1729 that they perceived as the turning point in the history of the colony. During the boom period in the early 1720s when new plantations or concessions were being built by investors in Law's company, the Terre Blanche and St. Catherine's concessions at Natchez were among the most successful. The fertile land atop the bluffs at Natchez, Mississippi, were safe from the annual floods of the Mississippi, and well situated to participate in trade between New Orleans and the Illinois colony. The Natchez Indians were friendly toward the French, and a few Natchez women married French colonists. But when commandant Chepart demanded land to build his own concession, the natives were incensed, and began to plan an uprising. On November 29th, a surprise attack took the lives of about 240 French men. Dumont in the Mémoires historiques claimed he had been in Natchez until the day before the attack. His manuscript reveals that he actually left in January, fleeing from Chepart, who had imprisoned him for insubordination. Dumont's wife Marie, however, was living near Natchez at the time of the revolt and was held prisoner for several weeks by one of the chief women of the Natchez. Her information likely formed the kernel of Dumont's account of the rebellion in his manuscript and book. See my article "Plotting the Natchez Massacre" for more. Or consult the wikipedia page on the Natchez Massacre which I wrote with help from my son Joshua.

Perhaps the most detailed narrative of the Natchez revolt and the French response is one by the Pointe Coupée militia captain Jean-Baptiste de Laye. This is found in the colonial archives collection "Depôts et Fortifications des Colonies" 04DFC38. As you can see in my translation of the document, de Laye rejects outright the notion of a mass conspiracy of many tribes to attack on the same day as the Natchez. For the transcription of the original document I am grateful to Arnaud Balvay, who has also written the best, and only, book about the Natchez Massacre, La Révolte des Natchez.

Dumont's Watercolors

Dumont created maps and illustrations for his prose manuscript and for the manuscript of his poem that is held in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in Paris. His skills as a figure artist were modest at best, and the result is a charming, child-like style. You can find more of his watercolors included among the images at the on-line exhibition French Louisiana 1682-2003.

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Dumont's Maps

Dumont has at least twenty maps extant in the French archives, including the one at the top of the page, as well as about two dozen that he drew to accompany his three manuscripts. I have prepared a draft carto-bibliography of Dumont maps. Another excellent source for Dumont's and other maps of Louisiana is the site created by Vin Steponaitis of the University of North Carolina, a specialist in the archaeology of the Natchez, Mississippi area. Search for Dumont among the many cartographers and historians included on his page of colonial maps of Natchez and other settlements in the southeast.

During a 2005 trip to Paris, I examined and photographed six manuscript maps by Dumont in the Delisle collection at the Archives Nationales de France. These are not available on Steponaitis's site, but were the basis for my presentation in Chicago listed below.

Prof. Sayre's publications and presentations on Dumont

I have published several articles and made many presentations about Dumont's work. Please write to me if you are interested in reading any of these.

Articles

“How to Succeed in Exploration without really Discovering Anything: Four case studies from Colonial Louisiana, 1714-1763” Atlantic Studies 10:1 (2013).

“Natchez Ethnohistory Revisited: New Manuscript Sources from Le Page du Pratz and Dumont de Montigny” Louisiana History 50: 4 (Fall 2009) 407-436.

[with Carla Zecher and Shannon Dawdy]A French Soldier in Louisiana: The Memoir of Dumont de Montigny” The French Review 80:6 (May 2007), 1265-1277.

"Plotting the Natchez Massacre: Le Page du Pratz, Dumont de Montigny, Chateaubriand."   Early American Literature 37:3 (Fall 2002): 381-413. Awarded Richard Beale Davis Prize, 2003.

Presentations

" The Memoir of Dumont de Montigny: a picaresque autobiography of the 18th century French Atlantic." French Atlantic History Group, McGill University, April 4, 2012, and University of Virginia, Sept. 12, 20012

“Dumont de Montigny: Son oeuvre cartographique, ethnographique, et autobiographique.” Oregon Association of Teachers of French, Confederation in Oregon for Language Teaching 2007 conference, Corvallis, OR, October 13, 2007.

“The Origins of New Orleans: French Colonials Struggle against Floods, Hurricanes, Bugs, and Silt.” Deschutes County Public Library, Bend, Oregon, February 25, 2007.

"The French Maps of North America from Lahontan and Delisle to Le Page and Buache." Chicago Map Society, Newberry Library, January 23, 2007.

“Shamanism, Providence, and the Picaresque in Dumont de Montigny's Memoires de L___ D___”
University of Louisiana, Lafayette, December 13, 2006.

“New Perspectives on the Natchez Massacre of 1729.” Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, Natchez, Mississippi, December 12, 2006.

"The French Maps of North America from Lahontan and Delisle to Le Page and Buache."  Early American Cartographies, Newberry Library, Chicago, March 2006, and Society for the History of Discoveries, Portland OR, September 2006.

“Dumont de Montigny’s Underbelly of Sovereign Authority in Louisiana.” Society of Early Americanists. Alexandria, VA,  April 2005.

 

Site updated Sept. 28, 2012
Gordon Sayre

gsayre@uoregon.edu



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