Saturday, October 20, 2012

250 Years Ago ... Introducing the Becquets of Nouvelle Chartres

*Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014.

This coming week we celebrate the birthday of my ancestor Jean Baptiste Becquet.  On October 25, 1725 he was was baptized in the little chapel at Fort de Chartres in what is now southern Illinois.  We don't know the exact date of his birth but in those days children were baptized within days of their birth if possible.  37 years later, in 1762, he was still living in Nouvelle Chartres with his wife and children, supporting his family by working as a blacksmith.

Jean Baptiste Beccquet was born in Nouvelle Chartres but his father, Jean Baptiste Nicolas Becquet, was an immigrant from Paris (the parish of St. Sulpice).  The son of a locksmith, Jean Baptiste Nicolas also become a locksmith.  His wife, Catherine Barreau (or Barreaux), was a seamstress from Poitou.  In 1720 they set off for Louisiana and the New World, traveling on the French ship La Gironde.  It would have been a long (and dangerous) voyage back in the days of sailing ships.

 La Gironde would have set sail from La Rochelle and first made for Cape St. Vincent, off the southern coast of Portugal. From there the captain would hope to pick up a wind that would take the ship south past Madeira and the Canary Islands. The ship would then continue southwest across the Atlantic until it reached the correct latitude for Saint Domingue, where it would head due west.  A stop in Saint Domingue would have been welcome as the passengers would, by now, have been on the small, 75 foot keel length ship for seven to nine weeks, and maybe longer depending on the weather.

After a stop in Saint Domingue,  La Gironde would sail due west past Cuba before heading northwest.  From this point forward the ship would be working against contrary winds and currents. After two to four weeks it would finally reach the sandy coast between Pensacola and Mobile.  Before the port of New Orleans was built, ships put in at islands along the coast.  During this period their ship would have put in at Ile aux Vasseaux (Ship Island, Mississippi).

Cargo and passengers would then be transferred to a smaller boat to be piloted the 160 kilometers up the Mississippi to New Orleans.  This portion of the trip could take an additional one to two weeks because the lower Mississippi delta was so difficult to pass through. Sometimes, if the winds dropped, a ship could be stalled for up to two weeks at the bend known as Detour aux Anglais (English Turn), forty kilometers before New Orleans.

But finally they would glimpse the relatively new settlement of Nouvelle Orleans -  New Orleans.  I’ll let Kenneth Banks describe an arrival:

Only at this point did passengers and crews glimpse the first signs of the French settlement:  two small and incomplete sets of earthworks on either side of the river and the first smattering of thatched slave huts and rough log cabins along the riverbanks. Important and weary passengers, as well as critical dispatches, could be put ashore at this point as well and proceed by horse or on foot to New Orleans.  Although some historians have calculated that it was theoretically possible to sail to New Orleans from France in about twelve weeks, contemporary ships’ logs show that the average crossing approached seventeen weeks, at least a month longer.

La Gironde arrived in August 1720 and we don't know how long the Becquets stayed in New Orleans waiting for a convoy to leave for the Illinois Country and the new Fort de Chartres. After the long ocean voyage, the Becquets must have been relieved to arrive back on dry land.

We don't know exactly why Jean Baptiste Nicolas Becquet and Catherine Barreau decided to travel to Louisiana. We don't know if they were recruited to specifically go to the Illinois Country or if that decision was made when they arrived in New Orleans. Since Becquet was a skilled craftsman he was probably recruited as part of a scheme that led to what became known as the Mississippi Bubble. A Scottish financier named John Law formed a company for the exploitation of Louisiana and was given the monopoly by the regent for Louis XV, who was still a minor. As part of the charter, the company was required to recruit settlers. The Becquets were probably recruited as part of this scheme. The scheme is too complicated to go into since it is only a peripheral part of our story, but at the end of this post I've appended a video that explains it.

In any event, the Becquets did not stay in New Orleans.  The most arduous part of their journey was still ahead of them – a trip up the Mississippi River that would take at least three, sometimes four, months. This trip up the Mississippi would have been entirely by water. As historian Kenneth Banks remarks, “roads are barely mentioned in official correspondence relating to Louisiana." But in the days before steam engines, the trip against the fast current of the Mississippi would have been laborious.  The boats would have been rowed, poled and winched (by tying ropes to trees upriver and pulling the boats to them) in a long slow journey north.

Historian Margaret Kimball Brown writes:
The trip was hazardous.  The river itself was treacherous enough with snags, sawyers, currents and mosquitoes (a major complaint) but the greatest danger along the route was from hostile Indians, particularly the Chickasaw, who were affiliated with the English.  Many accounts tell of death or capture by the Indians.

Because of danger from the Chickasaw, travelers from New Orleans to the Illinois Country always traveled in convoy.  But at last they arrived in the Illinois country where the new fort and administration was being established.  Jean Baptiste Nicolas Becquet's services as a locksmith would have been invaluable at the fort. Locksmiths were a specialized type of blacksmith; they not only made locks for doors and boxes but also could make weapons.

Historian Margaret Kimball Brown has often referenced Jean Baptiste Nicolas Becquet in her work on the Illinois Country.  She has even created two fictional letters from Becquet back to his family in France to give us a better idea of what a journey up the Mississippi must have been like in those days.   You can read them here (starting on page 3).

In her book about Praire du Rocher Brown writes:

[Becquet] was apparently quite skilled, as a major part of his work in the Illinois was as a gunsmith.  He was not just a specialist though.  He was able to turn his hand to all types of blacksmithing  Becquet made locks, keys, and other items, including the metal work for the early churck of Ste. Anne at Fort de Chartres.  In 1725 a soldier, Francois Derbes, contracted with Becquet as an engage to work at the forge for him.  In the contract Derbes also agreed that he would arrange to have his guard duty done at Fort de Chartres at his own expense.

The trade as a locksmith/ gunsmith was an important one.  Becquet held a contract in 1737 to repair and maintain the guns of the troops and those in the royal storehouse.  He also was to keep up the guns of the Indians, some of whom were hunters employed by the government.  Later he had a partnership with a gunsmith in Kaskaskia to carry out royal contracts in gunsmithing. 

As Brown points out, from documents still existing from the era, we know that he was literate.  And he was successful.  As she said, "if he came to improve his lot in the New World, he apparently succeeded."

As he and his wife, Catherine, baptized their son, Jean Baptiste Becquet, in October of 1725 they could not have known that within that son's lifetime the French Regime in Illinois would end but that he would be a part of the founding of the last great French settlement in North America, St. Louis.

PS:  If you are interested, this video is an entertaining and, from what I can tell, accurate summary of the Mississippi Bubble.


Banks, Kennth J.,  Chasing Empire Across the Sea: Communications and the State in the French Atlantic 1613-1673, pp 84-96.

Belting, Natalia Maree, Kaskaskia Under the French Regime.

Brown, Margaret Kimball, History as they Lived It: A Social History of Prairie du Rocher, Ill.