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Dauphin Island, AL
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"What's In A Name -
Dauphin or Dauphine"

by George Shorter, Center for Archaeological Studies,
Univ of South Alabama

Massacre Island, Isle Dauphine, Port Dauphin, Dauphin Island - these are some of the various names used for almost three centuries by Europeans to identify the small island that played such an important role in French Louisiana.

On an overcast and rainy day in early February 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville anchored off Mobile Bay. Finding Pensacola occupied by the Spanish, and without specific instructions from the crown, Iberville had moved westward to find a place to establish the first French settlement along the Gulf coast.

As his ships approached the mouth of Mobile Bay an island was visible to the northwest, but did it have a suitable harbor? He dispatched two long boats, one under the command of his younger brother, Bienville, a brash 21 year old lieutenant.

The boats returned to the ships the next day, but rain, wind, and fog had made soundings difficult and Bienville had failed to find the harbor.

On the following day, February 2, a break in the rain led Iberville to investigate the harbor himself. At about two o'clock in the afternoon, his party was met with a hard rain, a brisk gale, and such dense fog that they could not see their ships. By evening the soldiers were too exhausted to row back to the ships so Iberville elected to spend the night on the island.

The next day, February 3rd, Iberville began to explore. In his journal he recorded finding on the "southwest end" of the island a "spot where more than sixty men or women had been slain." Along with the skeletal remains were "some of their household belongings." He estimated that the remains had been placed no more than three or four years before. Thus with the name Massacre, Iberville succeeded in casting a spell on the island that is still today the source of many a tall tale.

Due, probably, to the bad weather, Iberville failed to find the narrow pass into the harbor on the north side of Spanish Island. Again moving westward, he built Fort Maurepas, at the site of present-day Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

One of the original settlers, P,nicaut, a carpenter who lived in the colony for most of the first two decades, published an account of his experiences in 1723. Although his memory appears somewhat clouded, he offers important and interesting information about the early colony. On an exploration trip to Mobile Bay from Fort Maurepas which eventually reached Dauphin Island, P,nicaut became "terrified" after finding such "a prodigious number of human skeletons that they formed a mountain " He reports learning that these skeletons were the remains of a large nation that fled to this region and died of sickness. He indicates that the bones were gathered together and brought to the island as part of a burial ritual. And though the details of P,nicaut's story are suspect, his description of this burial practice, unusual to this region, may have some merit.

M. Le Page Du Pratz published a book in 1758 relating his experiences and observations during his 16 years in the region from 1718 to 1734. He spent four months on Dauphin Island in late 1718. His description of "the bones" is far more interesting, or fanciful, than the short, dry notes of Iberville's journal. Iberville's "spot" becomes an "extraordinary eminence with the dead men's bones just appearing above the sand." Du Pratz has the Frenchmen cry out in horror, "Ah! What a Massacre!"

In his account, the unfortunate victims have been mercilessly pursued by their enemies to their peaceful island refuge where they are inhumanely massacred. Du Pratz even reports visiting this "fatal monument." Written almost 40 years after he heard the story and visited the island, the exact account must be suspect.

In the defense of Du Pratz, he was only retelling the second hand account of the event, which by 1718, having been told hundreds of times, must have been popular folklore in the colony. The vivid tale, however, surely did not hurt book sales.

Within a short time of establishing Fort Maurepas, Iberville realized that access to the vast river systems which led northward from Mobile Bay were key in forging military and trading alliances with the large local Indian societies which lived in the interior. So in late December 1701, he issued the order to move the colony back to Mobile Bay. The actual move began January 4, 1702. Three large tents were erected on the sandy beach just north of the harbor and construction started on the most important structure in the colony, the King's warehouse. A small village grew around the warehouse, but the main own was up-river at 27 mile bluff, Old Mobile. This created a unique arrangement between town and port that was noted by Du Pratz when he referred to Mobile as the birthplace of French Louisiane and to Dauphin Island as its cradle.

The growing population on the island disliked the name Massacre finding it "harsh," and perhaps Bienville thought a new name would bring a new image. At any rate, he decided to change the name of the island to Isle Dauphine and the port to Port Dauphin. In French, dauphin refers to the male heir to the throne and his wife is the dauphine. In April, 1711, the son of King Louis XIV (the dauphin) died, survived by his wife (the dauphine), Marie-Ad,lacde de Savoye. Confusion existed in France at the time as to who would ascend the throne after Louis XIV.

The historian, Peter J. Hamilton, clearly outlined this situation in his 1910 work, Colonial Mobile, although he concluded that Bienville had named the port and the island for the heirs. The fact remains that in his official report Bienville did not mention that the name change referred to any specific individual.

In French many words have gender usually expressed in their endings. Nouns and adjectives must agree. In French the noun for island is female agreeing with dauphine, and port is masculine agreeing with dauphin.

It is even possible that Bienville was referring to the French name for a fish. If he was referring to the heir to the French throne, he could have been doing it in a generic sense. Like the myths that have built up around the name "Massacre," the believe persists that Bienville named the island for the female heir to the French throne.

The historian, Jay Higginbotham points out that when Louis XIV approved the name change in 1712, the king assumed the name had been chosen to honor the heirs to the throne. However, other historians such as Marcel Giraud and Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams concluded that Bienville did not intent to honor any specific person, but intended to honor the title the way we might choose the name Royale for a street. The fact is we may never be sure. In time the ending 'e' was dropped in a more Anglicized form of the name to its present form, Dauphin Island.

So, what's in a name? Myth, fantasy, fact, one thing is certain - Dauphin Island can rightfully claim an important and colorful place in the history of French Louisiane as the oldest permanently occupied settlement in the region.

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