Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville

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(July 20, 1661–July 9, 1706)

French Naval Officer; Explorer

D’Iberville was an outstandingly successful military leader of New France with an impressive record against numerous English forts and settlements. He gained even greater renown for exploring the Mississippi River and for founding the colony of Louisiana.

Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville was born in Ville-Marie (Montreal) on July 20, 1661, one of 11 brothers and two sisters. His father, Charles Le Moyne de Longueuil, came to Canada as an indentured servant to the Jesuits, worked hard as a merchant and Indian translator, and died in 1685 one of the province’s richest men. Pierre acquired the title d’Iberville through his father’s practice of granting names from regions surrounding his native Dieppe in France. D’Iberville joined the French navy in 1675 at age 14 and acquitted himself well. In 1683, Governor-General Le Febvre de La Barre chose him to carry royal dispatches back to France, a singular honor for such a young man. His military reputation commenced in 1686, when he was selected to accompany the Chevalier Pierre de Troyes on an expedition against English settlements dotting James Bay. In a series of small but savage encounters, wherein quarter was neither asked for nor granted, he helped orchestrate the captures of Moose Fort and Charles Fort, and he successfully cut out the trading vessel Craven with a handful of determined followers. Troyes was so impressed by his youthful subordinate that he appointed d’Iberville commander of the captured installations. When promised reinforcements failed to arrive the following spring, d’Iberville sailed directly to France and appealed for help.

Consequently, he secured command of the warship Soleil d’Afrique and returned for the protection of French interests along James Bay. He was subsequently blockaded there by three English warships of greater size, but d’Iberville successfully evaded capture over the next few months. Moreover, he constantly interfered with the English crews’ ability to hunt for fresh food and awaited the inevitable onset of scurvy to occur. Once this dehabilitating malady had weakened the English crews, d’Iberville attacked and captured all three vessels. He then returned to Quebec in triumph on October 28, 1688, with prisoners and booty in tow.

In 1688, King William’s War between Britain and France erupted and the governor-general of New France, Comte de Frontenac, Louis de Buade, ordered several offensive actions against nearby English settlements. D’Iberville and several of his brothers then accompanied the French and Indian raid against Corlaer (now Schenectady), New York. On the night of February 18, 1689, he participated in the destruction of that town and the massacre of many inhabitants. He then returned to Hudson Bay to assume command of three small warships and seized the important fur-trading post of New Severn in August 1690. Over the next seven years he raided and plundered the vicinity of Hudson Bay with near impunity, capturing fur posts, seizing valuable cargoes, and thwarting repeated attempts by superior forces to capture him. In the course of this work, conducted with the utmost, Indian-style cruelty, he killed an estimated 200 settlers and captured 700 more.

But d’Iberville’s greatest battle and most celebrated victory occurred while at the helm of the 44-gun frigate Pelican. On September 4, 1697, he encountered three British warships and, by dint of superior sailing skills, sank one, captured the other intact, and drove off the survivor. Once reinforced, d’Iberville then besieged York Fort, Maine, which fell to him on September 13, 1697. It was here that his younger brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, was severely wounded. When France and England concluded the war by signing the Treaty of Ryswick, all of these captured posts were returned to their former owners, but d’Iberville had become renowned as New France’s greatest warrior.

D’Iberville’s reputation for courage and dash did not go unnoticed by the Count de Pontchartrain, Louis XIV’s minister of marine. Having returned to France in November 1697, d’Iberville was selected by the minister to lead an expedition to the Gulf of Mexico for the purpose of founding a new French colony. In October 1698, he sailed from Brest with his younger brother, four warships, and 200 settlers. The following February he dropped anchor off the mouth of the Mississippi River, a goal that had eluded the famous explorer La Salle 16 years earlier, and commenced laying the foundations of Louisiana.

Probing upstream, he explored the Mississippi Valley and also established friendly contacts with numerous Indian tribes of the interior. D’Iberville proved far-sighted in his treatment of Native Americans, realizing that France could not acquire, let alone govern, such a vast tract without their explicit friendship. He therefore advocated that young French boys be placed among them to learn their language and help bridge the two cultures. The government was also strongly advised to reward the Indians with yearly gratuities to cement their allegiance to France. D’Iberville then authorized construction of Fort Maurepas (present-day Biloxi, Mississippi), the first French settlement in Louisiana, before returning to France in May 1699. There he received the prestigious Cross of St. Louis, becoming the first native-born Canadian to hold this distinction.

D’Iberville subsequently made two more ventures to Louisiana, in 1699 and 1702. Each time, he was engaged with either exploration, fort construction, or diplomacy to strengthen French ties to the Indians. In these affairs he was assisted by his brother Bienville, who was also fluent in several dialects. For all his military prowess, d’Iberville did not despise cash, and in 1700 he arrived at New York City with 9,000 animal skins that he illegally sold to the English at great profit. He then returned home in 1703, gaining at that time an appointment as Louisiana’s first governor-general. However, d’Iberville never lived to fulfill the responsibilities of that office.

When Queen Anne’s War with England broke out in 1702, d’Iberville became commander of an eight-ship naval squadron. Bouts of malaria kept him sporadically sidelined over the next three years as he was unable to accomplish much. By 1706, d’Iberville had recovered sufficiently to assume control of a 12-ship task force, and he was detailed for the capture and reduction of British possessions in the West Indies. In April 1706, his forces captured and sacked the island of St. Nevis, taking upward of 6,000 slaves. D’Iberville then began pressing superiors for permission to attack New York and the New England coastline, but he died of yellow fever at Havana on July 9, 1706. A final blot on his otherwise sterling reputation occurred soon after, when it was revealed that he had embezzled funding from his recent expedition. His widow was obliged to make amends to the state. Save for this transgression, the cruel, audacious d’Iberville remains highly regarded as Canada’s greatest colonial hero, a naval commander of real ability.