The history of Colonial Louisiana is filled with colorful individuals from Henri di Tonti to Jim Bowie, but one of the most important of these adventurers has never gained a niche in its folklore.
Pierre Vial was born in the French province of Lyon at an uncertain time and of uncertain antecedents. There is no record of his arrival in Louisiana, but from remarks he later made it has been deduced that he had been a trapper on the Red and Missouri Rivers before the American Revolution. Other data on his earlier activities are mostly conjecture.
He made his name in history as the man who opened up the Santa Fe Trail.
Francois Simar de Bellisle
Francois Simar de Bellisle was one of the early explorers of Southwest Louisiana, but under quite tragic circumstances.
Bellisle was a young French ensign who sailed from Lorient in 1719 aboard the ship Marechal d’Estries, bound for Louisiana with troops aboard to reinforce the garrison and convicts being sent as colonists. The ship was under the command of Gervais de la Gaudelle, and his subsequent actions make one wonder how he ever qualified as a mariner. His first landfall was to be the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. The ship sailed past the island without the captain realizing it. It was stopped by pirates who thought it was an English vessel. Upon learning their mistake, they corrected the captain’s course and pointed him toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Pere Antoine Davion
Of all the missionaries who preached the Catholic faith in colonial Louisiana there were few who could equal the devotion of Pere Antoine Davion. A native of France Father Davion came to Canada in 1690 as a priest of the Seminary of Quebec and the Foreign Missions. The seminary was formed to supply priests for New France and missionaries to minister to the native tribes.
It was not until eight years later, however, that priests were dispatched to Lower Louisiana. Three missionaries – Father Davion, Father Fracois de Montigny and Father Jean-Francois Buisson de Saint Cosme – were chosen.
The trio departed from Lachine on July 24, 1698, with a party of 12 others, including brother Alexandre, a member of the Hospitallers of St-Joseph-de-la-Croix, three servants and eight voyageurs in four canoes. Paddling by way of the Ottawa River, Lake Nipssing and the French River, the party arrived at Fort Michillimackinac on lake Huron September 8.
Etienne de Bore
The father of Louisiana’s sugar industry was a scion of a noble family in Normandy, but was born "in the Illinois" in Kaskaskia. Jean Etienne de Bore first saw the light of day on December 27, 1742, the son of Louis de Bore and Celestene Therese Carriere.
When he was four years old the family returned to France, where young Etienne was educated in French schools. After he reached maturity he became a musketeer in the King’s Household Guards in 1768, and in 1770 he was promoted to captain of the Second Company of Cavalry of the Mousquetoires Noires.
On November 5, 1771, he was married to Jeanne Marguerite Marie Destrehan des Tours, a member of a prominent and wealthy Louisiana family. With new responsibilities he and his bride returned to Louisiana in 1776 and settled in St. Charles Parish to live the life of a country gentleman and his lady.
Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent
A Frenchmen from Longy in France was destined to become one of the richest men in the colony of Louisiana through his business acumen and his military service.
Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent, born in France in 1724, migrated to Louisiana as a young man and settled in New Orleans. About five years later he married a young Creole widow, Elizabeth La Roche, who brought him a dowry of 5,000 Spanish pesos (a peso at the time having a purchasing power of between $15 and $20 in 2003 currency).
With his dowry St. Maxent was able to open a business firm which furnished supplies to Indian traders in the colony. These traders ranged through the colony along the rivers from the Red to the Missouri, trading pelts from the native tribes in the fall and winter. In the spring they would load their furs on flatboats and float down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where they sold their furs and bought the supplies and trade goods they needed for the next season. St. Maxent prospered in this business.
Di Tonti of the Iron Hand
The kingdom of the Two Sicilies produced a number of outstanding men and women, but few of them gained a more prominent place in history than Henri di Tonti.
His exploits in the Mississippi Valley were the stuff of which legends are made. His indomitable energy overcame a weak physique. He endured privations which would have broken lesser men. He was at home on every environment, with the court of Louis XIV as well as with the Coureurs de Bois, squaw men and renegades of the frontier, and in the red men’s lodges.
He was the son of Lorenzo di Tonti, a banker who fled his native Naples after participating in an unsuccessful revolt. Lorenzo took up residence in Paris where he became a financier and where he invented the form of lottery known as a “tontine.”
Athanase de Mezieres
One of the significant policies of the Spanish regime in Louisiana was its decision to retain many French officers in Spanish service. One of these was Athanase de Mezieres, who was lieutenant-governor stationed at Natchitoches during the decade 1769-1779.
Athanase Christophe Fortunat Mauguet de Mezieres was born in St. Sulpice Parish in Paris March 26, 1719, the son of Louis Christophe de Mezieres and Marie Antoinette Clugny. His family was well connected. Two of his sisters married noblemen and one of his uncles was a general in the French army and another was a minister of state.
He came to Louisiana, probably before 1740, as a Marine cadet and was stationed at Natchitoches where he soon became friends with the St. Denis family. In 1746 he was married to one of St. Denis’ daughters: Manuela Marie Petronelle Felicite Juchereau de St. Denis, and began a long and close association with his in-laws, gaining prestige and honor as well as financial gain, through the association.
Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus
It fell to Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus, a Spanish Franciscan friar, to establish the first church in what is now the state of Louisiana.
Fray Antonio spent many years preaching the Catholic faith in Mexico and Central America before he came to Louisiana to leave his mark on its church history.
He was born in Valencia, Spain, August 16, 1675, and at 15 received the habit of the Order of Friars Minor. In 1674, just before his 17th birthday, he made his profession as a "religious." Continuing his convent studies, he was ordained to the priesthood at age 24.
Charles-Phillipe Aubry was one of the key figures in the transfer of the colony of Louisiana from France to Spain in 1762. He was also a stalwart soldier of long service to the French Crown.
Born in France about 1720, Aubry was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry in the French Army in December of 1734. He served with distinction in Bavaria, Bohemia and Italy during the War of the Austrian Succession until peace was made in 1748.
He was promoted to captain in 1750 and assigned to Louisiana just in time to fight in the Seven Years War, another of those bitter struggles between the French and the English. This one had been ignited when a 22-year-old Virginia militia officer named George Washington ambushed a French party on the Ohio River in 1754.
Andre Penicaut, Louisiana’s first historian, was born in La Rochelle, in France, about 1680. In his teens he was apprenticed as a carpenter, and he must have been an apt student because at age 18 he was selected to accompany Pierre Le Moyne D’Iberville’s expedition that was to establish the French colony of Louisiana.
In October of 1698 he sailed aboard La Marin, a 32-gun frigate commanded by the Count de Surgeres, the second ship of D'Iberville's small squadron. After an uneventful voyage the two ships made landfall at Cat Island and Ship Island near Biloxi Bay on January 6, 1699.
As the 18-year-old stood on the deck of La Marin and gazed ashore at the little-known continent, inhabited by rare beasts and savage men, he must have felt a thrill of adventure.
Mother Marie de Saint-Augustin Tranchepain
Marie Tranchepain was born in the Province of Normandy, probably around 1680, into a Hugenot Protestant family. As a young girl, however, she was converted to the Catholic faith and entered the Order of Saint Ursula at Rouen in 1699.
The Ursulines had been founded by Saint Maria Merici in Italy in 1565 as an order of nuns working in the world dedicated to the education of poor girls, and it had been active in France almost from the beginning. It has been called “the oldest and most considerable teaching order in the Roman Catholic Church.”
In 1726 when the Rev. Ignace de Beaubois, Jesuit Superior of Upper Louisiana, arrived in Rouen seeking religious sisters for the new colony of Louisiana, Sister Marie volunteered her services, along with two other Ursuline sisters.
Louisiana at that time was owned by the Company of the Indies, so a contract had to be worked out with the proprietors. This “treaty” was signed by the company and approved by King Louis XIV on Sept. 18, 1726. Father Beaubois sought other recruits for the Louisiana Mission, and the final company consisted of eight nuns, one novice and two postulants. Sister Marie was elected the superior of the group, which sailed for the New World from L’Orient on the ship Gironde on Feb. 22, 1727.
Manuela Sanchez y Navarro
Manuela Maria Stefania Sanchez y Navarro, at age seventeen, probably had not the slightest inkling of the impact she would have on the histories of 18th-century Texas and Louisiana.
A member of one of the great Spanish families of the New World, Manuela was probably born in Monclova, Mexico, where her grandfather was governor, about the year 1697. Her grandfather, Diego Ramon, was leader of the expedition that founded San Juan Bautista del Rio Grande, the founding date being recorded as January 1, 1700. As a young man Don Diego had soldiered with Francisco de Elizando and later accompanied Alonso de Leon on his expedition north of the Rio Grande in 1688.
Don Diego was named the commandant of the new Presidio at San Juan Bautista, and he brought his growing family to the new post. As the years passed a regular tempo developed. The priests worked with the Indians, the vecinos tilled the land and the garrison kept watch over the river fords.