Did you know that a French fort used to sit at the mouth of the Mississippi River? That’s not terribly surprising given the French and Spanish history of Louisiana. It’s also not terribly surprising that you won’t find a trace of it today given Louisiana’s ever shifting and disappearing coast.
La Balize disappeared for the first time around 1740 but resurfaced more than once. Hurricanes kept knocking it down, and it kept being rebuilt. It was important to control the mouth of the river — and to guide ships.
A few years ago, we went on a cruise that took us from New Orleans to Mexico (and back). We set off from New Orleans, and everyone got out their phones to pull up Google Maps and track the progress past Plaquemines Parish and into the Gulf. We hadn’t gotten too far when a small boat pulled up alongside the giant cruise ship. A man jumped from the boat through an open door in the side of the cruise ship. He was a river pilot, arriving to guide us out the mouth of the river just as his predecessors did hundreds of years ago.
But back to La Balize … today, it’s completely gone. Pilottown is several miles from the original site of La Balize.
La Balize was substantial enough that the Catholic Church established a parish there in 1722. That got me wondering about what the church records could tell me about the little settlement.
I learned a few things. First, there was never a church at La Balize. The priest must have just visited from time to time. Also, the parish only lasted 30 years before those pesky hurricanes prompted the Catholic Church to scrap it.
Wikipedia (I know – not the most reputable of sources) gives a good timeline for the fort’s history:
- 1740 – La Balize was destroyed in a hurricane. A new island arose which was called San Carlos. The village was built again on San Carlos.
- October 7-10, 1778 – La Balize was destroyed, but was rebuilt at this location.
- July 25-28, 1819 – Ships anchored near La Balize suffered through a 24-hour gale, but only three were grounded.
- 1831 – La Balize suffered major damage.
- April 3-4, 1846 – This was the most damaging storm since that of 1831. It was a hurricane-like storm but likely not of tropical origins, given the time of year. It cut a new channel between Cat Island and its lighthouse.
- By 1853 La Balize had been relocated to the Southwest Pass, where it was built on the western bank about five miles (8 km) northwest of its first location.
- September 15-16, 1855 – At Cat Island the lighthouse keeper’s house was destroyed and the lighthouse imperiled. Almost everything else was swept away in the storm surge.
- August 11, 1860 – In the first hurricane of the season, trees were uprooted and up to 10 feet (3.0 m) of water flooded the region of La Balize.
- September 14-15, 1860 – The second hurricane struck at the mouth of the Mississippi and destroyed La Balize. Tides were six feet above the high-water mark. The village was abandoned and rebuilt upriver at what became Pilottown.
- October 2-3, 1860 – In the third hurricane of the season, there was widespread damage as far inland as Baton Rouge.
- September 13, 1865 – Although La Balize had been abandoned since 1860, this hurricane destroyed the last traces of the village.
In 1819 architect Benjamin LaTrobe visited Balize and was less than impressed.
He wrote: “The building gives its name to one of the most wretched villages in the country … The regular population consists of 90 men and 11 women. The tavern, which is the principal building and a few other houses are built on the United States land … There is nowhere a more convenient spot from which smuggling may be carried on and connived at.”
In 1858, a steamboat left New Orleans every Tuesday and Friday for Balize.
I turned to census records for a more thorough telling of La Balize’s story.
In 1727, La Balize was home to:
- Father Gaspard, commander at Balize Capuchin.
- St. Michel, a storekeeper.
- Baldie, a surgeon.
- Francois Friou, chief pilot with a wife and two children.
- Pierre Triet, second pilot with a wife.
- Pinault, second pilot.
- Mathurn Lebas, a carpenter.
- Resin Delauriers, a knacker.
- Francois Ligny, a knacker.
- Jean Bureau
- Joseph Gay
- Vincent Baugremont, a knacker.
Next, I turned to the records of the New Orleans Diocese for hints about the people who once lived at La Balize. Here’s what I found:
- Marie Chaterine De Monlion, daughter of Henry and Marie Elizabeth De Gauvery De Monlion, was a native of La Balize. She married Charles August De Lachaise on Feb. 4, 1765, at St. Louis Cathedral.
- Baltazard Ricard de la Chevalleray, son of Sieur De Villier and Marie Jouarist, was the commandant of the Fort of La Balize. He married Francoise Voisin on Aug. 12, 1760 at St. Louis Cathedral.
- Heleine Charlotte Voisin, daughter of Jacque and Francoise Bonaventure, was born at La Balize on Dec. 18, 1757. Ten months later, she was christened at St. Louis Cathedral.