Dauphin Island, AL
Archive of Historical Data, Books, Maps
And Other Materials
The Old Mobile
Issue 15, Fall 1997
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
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 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.
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.
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.