In 1699, after building a fort in present-day Biloxi, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville was temporarily recalled to France. His younger brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, just 19 years old, was left second-in-command of France’s growing Louisiana colony.
Over the next nearly-two decades, the capital of French Louisiana would move between present-day Alabama and Mississippi. Bienville would serve as governor of the colony several times, usually in a temporary capacity while a new governor was chosen and shuttled across the ocean. The French battled the British, American Indians, and disease, while also shipping impoverished French women to The New World in an attempt to grow the colony. This is all part of an extraordinary story, but unfortunately not something we have time for here.
Bienville wrote to John Law and his Company of the Indies — who now had control of the colony — in 1717. The correspondence notified the Company that he had discovered a crescent bend in the Mississippi River which he “felt was safe from tidal surges and hurricanes and proposed that the new capital of the colony be built there.”
Safe from hurricanes? Whoopsy, you son of a bitch.
But hindsight was only 20/20 back then, and permission was granted. Bienville founded New Orleans on May 7, 1718 and, by 1719, enough huts and storage houses existed for Bienville to begin moving supplies and troops from Mobile, Alabama. He ordered an assistant engineer, Adrien de Pauger, to draw up plans for the new city in 1720, and the blueprint for the eleven-by-seven block rectangle now called “the French Quarter,” was completed by the following year. Bienville called the new city “La Nouvelle-Orléans” in honor of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, the Prince Regent of France, and — by 1723 — during Bienville’s third term as governor, New Orleans had become the capital of French Louisiana.
For today’s adventure, I wanted to visit the massive statue to Bienville that sits in the French Quarter, on a small triangle of park, appropriately called “Bienville Place,” near where North Peters and Decatur streets diverge. How long had the statue — honoring the very first New Orleanian — been there?
I told my plan to Jenny Schwartzberg, Education Coordinator at The Historic New Orleans Collection, who has generously offered to help on these adventures however she can.
Jenny is turning out to be a very enthusiastic partner-in-crime. Three hours after my email, I received a response that began, “So evidently it was originally installed at the main bus station!!” Her excitement was infectious, and then I got really excited when I saw she had found and attached several articles about Bienville Place and the statue — one of which was written in 1938!
Having these kind of resources, and the ability to go back and in time and view New Orleans through the lenses other generations did, could make for an amazing year.
In a Times-Picayune from May 1951, a recurring op-ed from Pie Dufour cheekily called, “Pie Dufour’s A La Mode,” bemoans that — 233 years after he founded the city — New Orleans still hadn’t honored our hero with a statue. But an interesting and unexpected piece of the article is who he blames. “Perhaps the answer,” he begins, “lies in the fact that the Creoles didn’t go in for public statues very much.” He continues:
If you challenge that statement let’s check the important statues around town and you’ll find that none of them is erected to a Creole or a Frenchman.
It was the Americans who became statue-minded a century ago and, quite naturally, they built statues only to Americans. The most notable of these were Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and Benjamin Franklin.
Creole -vs- American isn’t a lens modern-day New Orleans use much anymore, and — while I know it was an important distinction in the 19th Century, with Canal Street literally acting as a dividing line between two different municipalities for a time — I was surprised to see it invoked as recently as the 1950s. My first thought was that, by that time, Creole -vs- American was code for black -vs- white, but Dufour’s inclusion of the French with the Creoles, muddles that theory.
Pie Dufour was back at it in 1955, with an article titled, “Bienville, at Last, to Get Statue City Has Owed Him 237 Years.” He writes how “for a year in New Orleans and two years in France, Angela Gregory, New Orleans sculptress, worked on the three-figure statue of Bienville, a missionary who accompanied him and an Indian.”
(I am definitely going to have to go on an Angela Gregory adventure. She is responsible for several of the city’s statues and architecture we admire. She’s also the subject of an article in the “New York Sun” with the mildly sexist title, ““Prison Walls Made Less Grim by Girl Sculptor, Who at 25 Executes Many Commissions.”)
Dufour concludes his piece, announcing the unveiling will take place on the upcoming Sunday, with French Ambassador to America, Maurice Couve de Murville participating, in front of Union Station.
So when did the statue move to the French Quarter’s Bienville Place? Not for awhile.
Another Times-Pic article, this one in 1986, announces the rededication of the statue, which had fallen into disrepair, at its Union Passenger Terminal location. “Green corrosion, overgrown bushes and litter had tarnished the bronze monument, showing a collective disrespect for the founder of New Orleans and ruler of the wild Louisiana territory.”
Sculptor, Angela Gregory, at that point 82 years old, was interviewed and said, “When you have spent as many years as I have creating something, it’s rather heartbreaking to see it looking pretty shabby. I was ashamed to look at my monument when I drove by.”
But the U.S. Navy directed a group of reservists to clean up the monument under the direction of a New Orleans historian. Ms. Gregory’s heart was mended and nothing was written about the statue for another decade. Then, in 1996 or 1997 (depending on if you’re looking at recores online, or at the plaque near the monument) the statue was moved to its current location. And that’s where I biked one chilly — but not nearly as chilly as the days just before it — afternoon.
I approach the statue, a towering Bienville, lording over his domain. Cars wizz up North Peters Street, between the H&Ms and three police vans lined up along the small park that houses the statue. On the other side of the monument, bubbly jazz music emanates from a tourist t-shirt shop on Decatur Street, and the smell of candy apples, cotton candy and chocolate waft over from a shop down the same street. I pass a woman, with dreadlocks falling out of her green winter beanie, hoola hooping in the shadow cast by our hero.
I walk around to the upriver side of the statue to a small placard that reads, “Bienville Place.” A chubby man, with two independent and receding patches of red curls, stands beside me, somehow — despite the 40-degree temperature — only wearing shorts and a red t-shirt that says “Drunk 2.” He reads another plaque naming the committee members and councilmen claiming credit for the statue’s creation. I spot Angela Gregory’s name, and then scan the area for “Drunk 1.”
I don’t find him, and my mind creates a scenario in which this guy is traveling alone and, for some reason, buys the “Drunk 2” shirt.
“Big statue,” he says.
“It is,” I smile. “Do you know who he is?”
We face each other. “He’s the guy who founded our city. His name’s Bienville.”
“When was that?” Drunk 2 asked.
“1718,” and then I launch into the story detailed in the blog post you are currently reading. He hangs in with as many nods as he can before I take the glaze overtaking his eyes as a sign I should wrap things up.
A car blasts its horn at pedestrians impatiently scurrying across North Peters. “Well, I’m glad he did what he did,” the man says. “I love it here.”
“Yeah, me too.”
We part ways, and I go to admire the three figures on the monument. I walk to the Priest, poring over his Bible, here to introduce a European way of thinking to a new world. I make my way to the American Indian — muscular and thoughtful, admiring his pipe. I can’t ignore that — even though the city of New Orleans was only possible because of his people’s knowledge of how Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne connect to the Gulf of Mexico (and, as a result, the rest of the world) — he was sitting while the two European Americans stood above him.
And, finally, there is Bienville. I consider his face. He was made to look fearless. But, with the life he led, I don’t see how that’s possible. Born in a small town that would, decades later, become Montreal. Leaving home at 17 years old to compete against the British, the strongest military in the world, for a settlement in a land full of danger. And then carrying the full weight of that burgeoning colony on his shoulders. How could he be fearless?
Bienville left New Orleans for the final time in 1743. He lived the rest of his life in France, but — even while across the Atlantic — he fought for New Orleans, trying unsuccessfully to discourage the French from ceding the colony to Spain.
But, today, the sun drops behind the buildings of the Central Business District as a young African American boy sits on the sidewalk against the t-shirt shop and drums a driving rhythm on an upside-down bucket set between his legs. How many people made this moment possible?
American Indians, with their knowledge of the region’s waterways. The French-Canadian explorer who chose to create a city on a bend in the river. A crew which, the Times-Picayune reported in 1938, cleared a shed on a triangle of land in the French Quarter to beautify “Bienville Place.” A skilled sculptor who, in the 1950s, overcame the gender stereotypes of her time and spent half a decade creating a monumental commemoration. And now this young boy, drumming on a bucket across the street, his music filling the park like the smell from the candy shop a few store fronts away.
A young girl in a puffy, green coat is on her father’s shoulders, walking through the park. Her family argues about where to eat.
“What do you want to eat?” the mom demands.
“Food,” one daughter pokes the bear.
But the little girl looks around her and takes it all in. Everything she sees is part of the same story, and none of it is possible without Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.