“The savages in this land—savage in name as well as in appearance—should not be difficult for capable persons to lead, especially for those who know how to treat them gently and do them no harm.”
CAOM, DFC Louisiane n° 9, liasse 7, p. 77 (1721)


When the French arrived in Louisiana, they were far from landing in unknown territory. In fact, since the 16th century, Europeans had crisscrossed lands in which a number of Indian tribes had, for centuries, constructed a civilization.

Indiens du Mississippi, Peau peinte (XVIIIe siècle) avec des motifs empruntés à l’art européen
Musée de l'homme, Collections d’Amérique 78.32.161 Indiens du Mississippi, Peau peinte (XVIIIe siècle) avec des détails sur des campements Indiens et des maisons européennes
Musée de l'homme, Collections d’Amérique 34.33.7
  [1] Indians of the Mississippi, Painted hide(18th century) with motifs taken from European art
Musée de l'homme, Collections d’Amérique 78.32.161
  [2] Indians of the Mississippi, Painted hide (18th century) with details on the Indian encampments and European houses
Musée de l'homme, Collections d’Amérique 34.33.7

Even though the idea of an "Indian nation" signified a belonging to a group as well as a place, most of them lived within well-defined borders, which were, incidentally, the object of frequent conflict. To the Indians, the concepts of "nation" and "natural setting" were fundamental. They considered the Europeans to be troublesome tenants, from whom much could be learned, on condition that they paid for their presence with respect and gifts.

Indiens, Roi et Reine du Mississipi 
Musée Stewart, Montréal The North American Indians were not only aware of their country's resources, ecology and size, but they formed an army of approximately one hundred thousand warriors by 1700. This number diminished very rapidly. In Louisiana, the Jesuits estimated that in areas where the French established a presence, only 15% of the Indians were left after the first twenty years of colonization. Alcoholism, venereal disease and tribal wars—stirred up by the French and English in the name of their own interests—decimated tribes that had up to then lived in self-sufficiency.
Indians, King and Queen of Mississippi
Musée Stewart, Montréal


État des nations sauvages, Mémoire du gouverneur Kerlérec en décembre 1758
CAOM, C13A 40, f° 135 Fragment du journal du premier voyage de Le Moyne d’Iberville en Louisiane, le 6 juin 1699
AN, Marine, 2JJ 56 (X, 6)
  [1] State of the Indian Nations, Report by Governor Kerlérec in December 175State of the Indian Nations, Report by Governor Kerlérec in December 1758
CAOM, C13A 40, f° 135
  [2] Fragment from the Journal of the First Voyage of Le Moyne d’Iberville to Louisiana, June 6, 1699
AN, Marine, 2JJ 56 (X, 6)

The lack of European women led the French to take Indian women as partners, and to enslave the Indians for want of blacks. The duty to evangelize led priests and missionaries to tolerate interracial marriages and to recognize and baptize the children that resulted from such unions.

Prêche aux Indiens
La Hontan, Dialogues de Monsieur le baron de La Hontan et d'un sauvage dans l'Amérique, Amsterdam, 1704 : frontispice.
BNF, Imprimés
Preaching to the Indians
La Hontan, Dialogues de Monsieur le baron de La Hontan et d'un sauvage dans l'Amérique, Amsterdam, 1704 : frontispice.
BNF, Imprimés

From a cultural point of view, the ethnocide was even worse: Indian customs were the subject of much study, and Indians were even brought to France and put on display like strange animals, but the Indian civilizations were never taken as the equal of their European counterparts.

Augustin de Saint-Aubin, Visite d’un Indien d’Amérique dans un cabinet d’Histoire naturelle (1757)
Musée du Nouveau monde, La Rochelle
The Indian was therefore respected as an unholy brother, but not recognized as an equal. Sold as a slave, an Indian's worth was half that of a black; as a free man, an Indian was a stranger whose strength lay in the fact that the French possessed few means to purchase peace. Even though their customs were described, it was done in the same manner one would use to describe flora and fauna. The colonists' debt to the Indians-food in times of famine, remedies for illnesses, help in finding the best spots for plantations (significantly, most of these were located near Indian villages) -was mostly passed over in silence.
Augustin de Saint-Aubin, Visit by an American Indian to a natural history cabinet (1757)
Musée du Nouveau monde, La Rochelle


Le Page du Pratz, Naturels du Nord qui vont en chasse d'Hiver avec leur famille
Histoire de la Louisiane, Paris, 1758, t. 3 p. 164
BNF, Imprimés

Le Page du Pratz,Northern natives leaving on a winter hunt with their families
Histoire de la Louisiane
, Paris, 1758, t. 3 p. 164
BNF, Imprimés

Most astonishing of all, in spite of this treatment that ushered in the era of the "tristes tropiques", most historians correctly estimate that relations between the North American Indians and the French were more respectable and less violent than with the Spanish, English and Americans.


Locations of Indian tribes in 1720