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The Old Mobile
Project Newsletter

Issue 15, Fall 1997
"Port Dauphin"

In the waning days of 1701 Pierre Le Moyne d'lberville established a port for his colony of Louisiana at the southeastern end of Isle Massacre, so named for the pile of human bones observed during his first visit to the island in 1699.

A few days later, the French colonists rowed north to their new townsite, which they called Mobile after the native peoples living in the immediate vicinity. Apart from a few missionaries and traders living among the villages of various southeastern Indians, the occupants of these two settlements - Port Dauphin and what we now refer to as Old Mobile - comprised the whole of French Louisiana for nearly a decade.

Although French mapmakers grandiosely claimed vast expanses of the midcontinent at the turn of the 18th century, the reality on the ground consisted of a few hundred French and Canadian colonists whose very survival remained in doubt. Understanding the story of those colonists, and their evolving relations with the original Indian occupants of the north-central Gulf coast, has been the goal of our research since 1989.

Following years of intensive excavations at the Old Mobile site, most recently our research has led us to Port Dauphin, on what came to be called Dauphin Island.

This barrier island lies at the mouth of Mobile Bay, and about a 50-mile row from Old Mobile. Natural obstacles blocked the passage of large ships into the upper bay, so the colonists counted themselves fortunate to have found a serviceable harbor behind a sand spit on the south side of the island.

The distance between port and town, however, remained a hardship for the colonists, and contributed to the decision in 1711 to relocate the town to its present site at the head of the bay, only half as far from Dauphin Island.

At first the port had few occupants, usually just a few guards at the warehouse, but eventually some families moved there - partly to escape the scrutiny of contentious neighbors at Old Mobile and partly for the opportunities that this coastal location offered for private trade with passing vessels.

By 1710 the little community that had grown around the anchorage attracted the unwelcome attention of a Jamaican pirate crew, who pillaged the islanders' homes.

Soon afterwards a wooden fort was erected just west of the settlement to protect the harbor from future assaults.

Port Dauphin's heyday was the second decade of the century, when as many as 20 homes lined the village's single street. Beginning with a devastating hurricane that struck the island in 1717 and blocked the roadstead, the village experienced a gradual decline in population, which accelerated in the early 1720s as the colony shifted attention westward to New Biloxi and New Orleans.

A last flurry of activity occurred during the war with Spain, between 1719 and 1722, when the island served as a staging area for French troops, colonial militia, and their Indian allies attacking Pensacola.

By 1724 or 1725, the village was virtually deserted.

Archaeological investigations began at the fort site (1MB61), portions of which were excavated by Read Stowe of the University of South Alabama in the 1970s and by George Shorter (then a graduate student at Louisiana State University and now a research associate at the Center for Archaeological Studies) in 1992-1993.

This year (1997), for the first time, excavations have occurred within the Port Dauphin village site (1MB221). Due to the timely assistance and cooperation of the site's landowners, officials of the Town of Dauphin Island, members of the Dauphin Island Foundation, and a grant from the Alabama Cultural Resources Preservation Trust Fund (administered by the Alabama Historical Commission), we have been able to excavate an entire house site within the village.

This particular structure seems to have been occupied between about 1715 and 1725. The recovered artifacts include all sorts of types and styles never previously found at Old Mobile or any other site in the area, so they should provide many months of challenging analysis and study. The collection looks domestic in nature, but an abundance of wine glass fragments and some other finds hint that the building may have functioned as a tavern for a time.

In striking contrast to the paucity of religious items found at Old Mobile are the metal crosses and rosary beads recovered from the Port Dauphin structure. And the discovery of brass ornaments that apparently came from horse tack offers an intriguing challenge to the historical record, which includes no mention of horses on the island in French times.

As fascinating as the Port Dauphin excavations have been, they nearly met with disaster midway through the dig. The site has been hidden for most of its 285-year existence beneath 3 feet of dune sand. We removed that protective layer by hand this spring and had been carefully excavating the upper zones of the site, piece-plotting the artifacts as we worked down to the level of the structure's floor.

Just as excavation began to reveal the floor plan of the building, buried beneath clay bousillage that once covered the walls and chimney, on the 7th of June the island received 15 inches of rain - not an unusual occurrence for the Mobile area in late spring, but enough to raise the island's watertable and bring digging to a halt.

Normally we use pumps to lower the watertable, but this proved impracticable in the beach sand, since unexcavated parts of the site periphery would have to have been sacrificed as sumps. So we waited. Summer rains continued through July, up until the arrival of Hurricane Danny, which remained stationary over Mobile Bay and inundated the island with a nearly unbelievable 42 inches of rain on July 25-27.

Excavations were finally resumed after Labor Day and the house floor plan mapped at last. The site has witnessed many such storms, but the more immediate threat comes from private home development.

With a second grant from the Alabama Cultural Resources Preservation Trust Fund we hope to identify other French colonial sites, as well as British colonial and Civil War-era sites, on the island before they are lost to development.

Fort Gaines Sand Island Light House Shell Mounds on Dauphin Island Dauphin Island History Dauphin Island Sea Lab Estuarium

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