Happy Bastille Day!

By on 11 July, 2011 in Holidays, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Our source for most of this material.

We know it’s not a conventional holiday here in the US, not the least because some people think it’s hilarious to make fun of the French, but we’re here to pitch Bastille Day (July 14) as a holiday that Alabamians need to get behind. First, there’s the matter of our French roots. France’s first contact with Alabama was not especially glamorous, as the Alabama history textbook Mounds to Missiles informs us:

When the French brothers, Iberville and Bieville LeMoyne, the founders of Mobile, sailed into beautiful Mobile Bay in 1699, they made a startling discovery. Stepping offshore at an island a few miles out in the bay from the present city of Mobile, they discovered what appeared to be a “natural mountain of bones.” On closer inspection they found that it really was a huge pile of bones of Indians, both braves and squaws. It was obvious from the bones that the Indians had been beheaded – a gruesome spectacle indeed. The Frenchmen called the spot Massacre Island and later changed the name to Dauphin Island. Today Dauphin Island is a favorite resort center in the Mobile area. (1969, 4th ed., p. 30)

Betcha the Dauphin Island Chamber of Commerce isn’t too eager to advertise the grisly first impression its lovely shores made on the visiting Continentals – perhaps because it turned out that the pile of bones was from a burial mound that a hurricane broke open. The LeMoyne brothers (Mounds to Missiles gets their names partially correct – Mobile was founded by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville) weren’t easily scared off, and ventured up the river to find a suitable capital for the Louisiana colony. There they found a site that, like most places in the Americas, was already occupied (by the Mabilians, familiar to Alabamians for their leader, Chief Tuskaloosa, and his fight with De Soto a hundred years before the founding of Mobile). Prior occupancy was, as elsewhere, was not seen as a barrier to setting up shop – the Le Moynes simply named their town after the resident natives and moved in. Bienville, as the second governor of Mobile, was the first to proclaim a Masque of St. Louis holiday. This later became a little festival known as Mardi Gras.

The French set up Fort Toulouse up in present-day Wetumpka as a countermeasure and tripwire to anticipated aggression by the British and Spanish. “The post in the Alabamas,” said then-Louisiana Governor Kerlerec, “as is well-known, is one of the principal keys of His Majesty’s domains on this continent” (that’s from Fort Toulouse: The French Outpost at the Alabamas on the Coosa, by Daniel H. Thomas, 1989, p. 15 – purchased in the fort’s gift shop). William Weatherford, aka “Red Eagle,” who caused so much trouble for Jackson and others before surrendering after Horseshoe Bend, was the great-grandson of the first commander of Fort Toulouse.

Not convinced? France gave us the azalea, a flower that’s just as Alabamian as grits or collard greens. And Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (better known simply as Lafayette) took a tour of Alabama when he was the last surviving general in the Revolutionary War. He stayed right here in Montgomery, at Lucas’ Tavern – now at the heart of Old Alabama Town. This was after meeting then-Governor Israel Pickens, who had come in from the state capitol at Cahaba for the occasion, and who (according to Mounds to Missiles) supposedly got so choked up that he was unable to speak, so moved was he to meet Lafayette in person.

And France gave us the Statue of Liberty! She was meant to be an American version of Marianne, the iconic French emblem. Liberty’s original designs called for her to wear something called a pileus (as did Marianne), a hat traditionally given to freed slaves. But evidently Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (yes, that Jefferson Davis) objected to the hat as an abolitionist symbol and ordered it to be changed to a helmet.

In any case, we go way back with the French. So it’s only right that we should celebrate their revolution. Bastille Day marks the day in 1789 when French people stormed the Bastille – a medieval fortress where the king was storing guns and more than 30,ooo pounds of gunpowder. Six weeks later the monarchy was done. Another Alabama connection – the key to the Bastille is now at Mount Vernon. Evidently Lafayette sent it to George Washington in 1790.

So how to celebrate?

Á votre santé!

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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