We have it by the pen of a shipwright. André Pénicaut was born around 1680 in La Rochelle, France, and in 1699, joined Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville’s second Louisiana voyage as a skilled carpenter. Upon arrival, he settled in Mobile (originally located upriver at 27-Mile Bluff) and traveled extensively throughout the colony. Between then and 1721 when he returned to France, he witnessed many remarkable things that he recorded in a series of journals, or annals, published much later.
According to an entry for the year 1707, though it was actually autumn 1705, Pénicaut accompanied two dozen men commanded by Antoine Le Moyne de Châteaugué, the second-youngest of Iberville’s many brothers, to ferry some flour over to Spanish Pensacola. If a presumed portrait of Châteaugué is to be believed, he had a pudgy face and the merest curling wisps of a moustache at the edges of his upper lip — he was only 22 — but he was a decisive leader, as events would soon prove.
On their return to Mobile, the French spied a vessel aground at Sand Island. Châteaugué feared it might be English and cautioned his men to be on their guard. “Approaching nearer,” Pénicaut wrote, “we saw some people signaling us to help them. M. de Chateaugué had the traversier [a larger boat] close up to calling distance. Then we heard them shouting distinctly enough in French for us to have pity on them and to please come and save their lives.” Châteaugué immediately steered alongside, where his men began offloading the crew into a longboat and transporting them the short distance to Dauphin Island. When the boat’s prow grated onto the shelving sand, the grateful survivors staggered onto shore, where according to Pénicaut, they “kissed the ground.” They were so weak that they could barely stand. Pénicaut and the others gave them food, “but only a little at a time, for fear that much would make them sick.”
The distressed vessel turned out to be the Saint-Antoine, a Martinique merchantman commanded by one Capt. Maurice. Safely on shore, Maurice related what had happened. His ship was on a run from Veracruz to Havana, he said, when disaster struck off the western tip of Cuba. The ship was becalmed for 18 days, and the food supply steadily dwindled. By Pénicaut’s lights, it was a morality tale. Rather than “imploring the aid of heaven,” he declared, the “heathen” sailors “began to blaspheme and utter curses against God. They hurled overboard a little wooden image of St. Antoine with a stone tied to its neck.” The following day, a violent storm smashed into the vessel, sweeping eight “blasphemers” overboard, snapping masts and crushing the prow. Massive waves and lashing winds drove the helpless wreck to the very mouth of Mobile Bay, where Pénicaut and company found her.
The crew rescued, Châteaugué turned his attention to salvaging the Saint-Antoine’s cargo. This was a juicy prospect, given that there were at least 70,000 piasters of gold in her sand-filled hold. Capt. Maurice promised the coins to Châteaugué as a gesture of thanks, but the latter was more inclined to haul it upstream and let officials there disburse it. Even as the French scurried over the wreck in a race against the weather, two Spanish longboats each loaded with 30 armed men hove into view and pulled alongside.
News sometimes traveled surprisingly fast in the 18th century, and Pensacola’s governor, Don Joseph Guzmán, decided to use the wreck of the Saint-Antoine as an opportunity to assert his authority. He and Bienville had intermittently squabbled over exactly where the dividing line between French Louisiana and Spanish Florida lay. Guzmán believed that a rhumb running down the center of Mobile Bay was the most logical boundary, whereas Bienville claimed both sides of the Bay. Since the Saint-Antoine was conveniently lodged on the eastern side of Sand Island, Guzmán demanded salvage rights.
It must have been a tense scene, 60 Spaniards and two dozen Frenchmen seated in their bobbing longboats in the Gulf sun, staring at one another and wondering what would happen next. Outnumbered or not, Châteaugué was unintimidated, held his position and stated in no uncertain terms that all of Mobile Bay belonged to the French. He denied the Spanish any right of salvage and suggested they leave at once. It was a dangerous bluff. The Spanish might have won a fight at the wreck, but they did not desire a shooting war over the matter. Pensacola was too poor and needed French Mobile’s help if it was to survive, as indeed Mobile needed Pensacola’s. Sanity prevailed, and the Spanish withdrew. There was no longer any dispute about who controlled Mobile Bay. From Bon Secour to Fort Louis, and Ecor Rouge to Dauphin Island, all of its waters were under the fleur-de-lis.
John S. Sledge is the author of “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.”