Jean Baptiste Le Moyne,
Sieur de Bienville, Founder
Young adults have long played important roles in Alabama’s Port City. In fact, Mobile’s founder and guiding hand during its earliest decades was a 20-something, tattooed French-Canadian known as Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville (1680-1767). Though young in years, Bienville already had a good deal of experience by the time he clambered up the Mobile River’s steep bank at 27-Mile Bluff. In 1697, he had fought bravely at the Battle of Hudson’s Bay under his capable elder brother Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, and, at 17, sailed on with him to explore the Gulf Coast, helping to establish outposts at Biloxi and Dauphin Island. Bienville later served as the governor of the French colony of Louisiana and founded New Orleans in 1718.
The Pelican Girls, Bachelorettes
Though he never married, Bienville recognized the importance of establishing stable families in the new colony and together with d’Iberville worked to have marriageable French women of good character brought to America. They came in 1704 aboard the Pelican, more than 20 orphan girls escorted by “two gray nuns.” These brides-to-be, depicted above, were shockingly young by modern standards. Jeanne-Louise Burelle was 20 years old, but Marie-Catherine Phillipe was only 16 and Marie-Marguerite Dufrense, 14. Despite hardships of the voyage and a yellow fever epidemic, these young women persisted in the new land and all were married within weeks. Today, thousands of Americans can boast a Pelican girl in the family tree.
James Innerarity, Mayor
During Mobile’s boisterous early American years, it was very much a young man’s town, rowdy and freewheeling. Many of the men pouring into the Gulf Coast were foreigners or the second and third sons of old New England families. Stifled or blocked at home, they perceived the Gulf South as wide-open territory for their ambitions, and they weren’t wrong. Mobile’s first mayor, or president as he was called at the time, was a 37-year-old Scottish merchant and trader named James Innerarity. A critical figure in the town’s Spanish colonial period, as the local representative for the influential Panton, Leslie & Co., Innerarity transitioned successfully into American Mobile. It was he who warned Andrew Jackson of the impending British invasion of the Gulf Coast in 1814, which Jackson ultimately repelled at New Orleans. American Mobile’s first leading official also helped establish the town limits, regulate trade and levy taxes on, among other things, carriages and billiard tables.
James and Charles Dakin, Architects
Among the New Englanders who came here during the 1830s were James and Charles Dakin, a remarkable pair of architects who put a stamp on their adopted city that endures to this day. James was 30 and Charles in his early 20s when they designed and oversaw the construction of such prominent local landmarks as Barton Academy and Government Street Presbyterian Church. Shortly after the latter’s completion, Charles stood in its distinguished sanctuary and exchanged wedding vows with Carline Webb.
Octavia Walton Le Vert, Socialite
Augusta Jane Evans, Author
As an established and wealthy cotton metropolis during the mid-19th century, Mobile was able to support the education and aspirations of many young women. Two were especially remarkable. Octavia Walton, above, was a 23-year-old belle when she married a physician named Henry Le Vert. Together the couple purchased a Government Street mansion, where the young bride established a salon that was soon to be world-renowned. Among her charmed guests was Washington Irving, who declared, “She is such a woman as occurs but once in the course of an empire.” Equally accomplished was Augusta Jane Evans, a cotton factor’s daughter with a penchant for literature. At the tender age of 15, she authored her first book, “Inez: A Tale of the Alamo, ” and presented it to her family as a Christmas present. Three years later she followed up with “Beulah, ” which sold an astonishing 20, 000 copies, and the proceeds allowed her family to buy the handsome country residence Georgia Cottage on Spring Hill Avenue. Evans continued to write and, at 33, published her most successful novel, “St. Elmo.” This book became a cultural phenomenon when enthusiastic readers named towns, steamboats and even their children after the book’s titular hero.
Cudjo Lewis, Community Leader
Le Vert and Evans had the advantage of families with substantial resources to further their ambitions, but unfortunately this was not so for many Mobilians. There were too many who began with little to nothing and had to make their own way as best they could. Of these, perhaps no one’s story is as moving as that of Kazoola, an African teenager kidnapped and brought to Mobile in 1860 aboard the slave ship Clotilda. Kazoola spoke not a word of English when he was hustled naked and frightened into an unfamiliar world. Forced to work aboard riverboats as a slave, he survived and after emancipation carved out a position of leadership among his fellow shipmates in a little community known as African Town (called Africatown today). He took the name Cudjo Lewis and helped police his community, bought property, married and had children. Cudjo refused to lose his zest for life, and though he never ceased to pine for his native Africa, he made a successful life.
There are many other noteworthy young adults in local history, not to mention those who never got their names in the newspapers, but did their work and nourished their families. One and all, they helped make the city we call home today.
John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”
Text by John S. Sledge