Hancock County, Then and Now

Bay Saint Louis overlooks the Bay of Saint Louis, the Mississippi Sound and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico from the highest water-front elevation on the Gulf of Mexico. However, this beautiful little city is not the first cultural center to occupy this prestigious location. The exact date when Native Americans first arrived is veiled in the mysteries of time, but it is certain that they occupied this land for thousands of years before the brothers Iberville and Bienville arrived to claim it for France in 1699.

The oral history of the Indians that was passed down through generations both fascinates and gives us endless sources for speculation. Every question answered brings a dozen more elusive than the last. While this is also true of the Europeans, there is somewhat more documentation available for research.

The pagan world had been divided by Pope Alexander VI between Portugal and Spain with Portugal controlling Brazil and Spain controlling nearly all the rest of both North and South America. Spain, however, being unable to settle these vast continents effectively, guarded the Gulf of Mexico from several islands in the Caribbean and from St. Augustine on the east coast of the Florida peninsula.

In 1535 the French explorer Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence River Valley in Canada but France was unable to occupy the area until 1604 when a settlement at Port Royal, Nova Scotia was established and was followed in 1608 by the settlement at Quebec.

When affairs in Europe permitted, Louis XIV of France began expanding his colonial possessions . La Salle explored the region of the Great Lakes. In 1682 he descended the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, and claimed the vast area drained by the Mississippi in the name of France. He named Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV. Two years later he sailed from France to secure a harbor on the Gulf Coast and establish control over the mouth of the river. However, he missed the elusive mouth of the river and died after being shipwrecked in present-day Texas.

War between France and England engulfed Canada before another expedition could be launched. England took Port Royal but was unable to capture Quebec. A young Canadian named Sieur LeMoyne d’Iberville distinguished himself in the capture of the British settlements at Hudson’s Bay for which he was appointed Governor. In 1694 he successfully attacked a superior force of British ships and the following year he captured Fort Bourbon and further distinguished himself with additional naval victories.

After the Treaty of Ryswick in September 1697, Louis XIV directed his minister of finance, Compte Pontchartrain to immediately commission LeMoyne, Sieur d’Iberville to locate the mouth of the legendary Mississippi River and establish a colony there to secure for France the area drained by the river.

Iberville Departed France

The French explorers first sailed from La Rochelle, France on September 5th but were forced to put into the port at Brest for repairs because one of the ships had begun taking on water. Finally, on October 24th they lifted anchor opposite Brest at 7 o’clock in the morning. The flotilla consisted of two frigates, La Badine, of thirty guns and two hundred men, commanded by Pierre d’Iberville, and Le Marin, of thirty guns commanded by M. le Compte de Surgere in company with two store ships. Aboard these ships were some two hundred colonists, mostly Canadians who had gone to France to assist in her defense. Among them were some women and children. When they arrived at Santo Domingo, they found Le Francois, a frigate of fifty guns, commanded by M. the Marquis de Chateau Morant, who was instructed to accompany them.

Iberville’s little fleet arrived off the coast of Pensacola on January 26th, 1699 and found about three hundred Spaniards building fortifications. The Spanish refused the French ships entry into the harbor but supplied them with requested wood and water.

They then proceeded westward along the coastline, arriving off Mobile Bay on February 5th. They explored an island on which were strewn the bones of many men whom they assumed to have been killed in battle, but it is more likely they were victims of the yellow fever epidemic which struck the Indians the previous year. The French called this island, Ile le Massacre.

Iberville Arrived at the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Working their way westward inside the channel islands, they finally arrive on February 10, 1699 at an island they called Ile aux Vaisseaux (Ship Island). On the 11th and 12th they explored the island, bringing their cattle ashore to graze. Then they raised the flag of their king and country.

The Fleur de Lis of France
1699 - 1763

They remained on Ile aux Vaisseaux the following day due to bad weather. On the 13th Iberville and his brother Bienville with a party of thirteen men went ashore, sailing due north from the west end of the island. Their landing would have been somewhere between present-day Beauvoir and Edgewater.

The following morning they explored eastward along the beach, following footprints in the sand until they caught sight of three Indians in a canoe leaving Deer Island. Iberville pursued them across Biloxi Bay, catching up just as they reached shore at Ocean Springs. The younger natives fled into the woods leaving an old and dying man. The Frenchmen made him a bed of straw and built him a fire before withdrawing to make a camp for themselves. Unfortunately, the grasses around him soon caught fire and though the fires were extinguished, the old man died half an hour later.

Iberville’s hunters captured an old woman in the woods and heaped gifts upon her to take to her people. The first diplomatic contact with the native people had been accomplished and the Indians told them of the great river to the west.

On February 27 Iberville set out “in wind and drizzle” with Bienville, M. Sauvolle and about 48 men to visit the Mississippi River. They spent the night near the south end of the later named Bay of Saint Louis and the following day traversed the Breton Sound in fog and rain which continued through the following day. On March 2nd, running before a storm, they located and entered the mouth of the Mississippi and traveled up stream making contact with various tribes until on March 16th they came upon a decorated pole which marked the boundary between the Houmas and the Bayagoulas tribes. They called the place Red Stick or “Baton Rouge”. On the return trip, Iberville discovered the proof he sought in the form of letter written by Henri de Tonti to La Salle fourteen years earlier. The letter had been left with the chief of the Mongoulachas who bartered it to Iberville for a few hatchets and knives.

Iberville shortly thereafter divided his party into two groups. Bienville returned by the mouth of the Mississippi while Iberville explored the area of Pass Manschac, lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain and returned to the open water by the Rigolets.

When Iberville departed from his ships on April 27th, he instructed them to return to France if he had not returned within one month. On March 30th he camped near the mouth of the Bay of Saint Louis where he built a large fire to signal his return.

The following morning he recognized Cat island, and shortly thereafter reached his ships. About an hour later Bienville and his party arrived.

Construction of Fort Maurepas begun

Construction was begun on Fort Maripas on April 8, 1699 and the fort was completed by May 1st. Iberville sailed for France on May 3rd to report to his king, leaving 81 men at Fort Maurepas. He wrote in his journal, “I left M. de Sauvolle in command; DeBienville, King’s Lieutenant; Levasseur, Major; DeBordenac, Chaplain; Care, Surgeon; two Captains, two Pilots, four sailors, eighteen military adventurers, thirteen Canadians, ten mechanics, six masons, thirty sub-officers and soldiers.”

The Bay of Saint Louis explored

August 25, 1699, Bienville explored the Bay of Saint Louis. Penicault, a ships carpenter on the expedition, recorded in his journals, “We shortly afterwards found a beautiful bay, about one league in width, by four in circumference, which M. Bienville named the Bay of St. Louis, because it was on the feast day of St. Louis we arrived there. We hunted there three days and killed fifty deer.”

The exploration proceeded westward through the Rogolets and as far as the present site of New Orleans, On the return trip he recorded, “Next day we camped at the entrance of the Bay of St. Louis, near a fountain of water that flows from the hills, which M. de Bienville named Belle Fontaine. We hunted several days around this bay and filled our boats with venison, buffalo and other game.”

J.F.H. Claiborne wrote that Iberville arrived the second time from France with two frigates, the Renomée and the Gironde, on December 8, 1699, though McWilliams lists the date a month later. With him was M. de Surgere, bringing supplies and reinforcements, including sixty Canadians.

In December Bienville had a fort constructed on the bluff at the “Baye de Saint Louis” garrisoned with fifteen soldiers and five families under the command of a sergeant. Thus the colony at Bay Saint Louis became the third settlement on the Gulf of Mexico following Pensacola and Biloxi (Ocean Springs).

After exploring the Mississippi River again in search of a site for a permanent colony, Iberville hastily selected a site about 50 miles upstream from the river’s mouth and construction was begun on a small fort called Fort Boulaye, or Fort Mississippi.

Iberville departed a second time for France on May 28th, 1700, this time leaving 120 men at Fort Mauripas, 140 total between Mobile and Fort Mississippi . When he returned to Biloxi Bay in December 1701 he brought instructions to move the colony to Fort Louis (Mobile Bay) because France had formed an alliance with Spain against England and the new location afforded joint protection against a British attack.

April 22, 1702 Iberville sailed back to France and never returned. He died aboard a French ship in the harbor of Havana, Cuba on July 9, 1706.

Bienville was only 22 years of age when he became governor of the colony. His capital remained at Mobile until January 1720 when it was moved back to Biloxi because the harbor at Dauphin Island had become too shallow. Construction of Fort Louis at Nouveau Biloxi was never completed, and in 1722 Bienville moved his residence, and with it, the capital, to New Orleans.

After New Orleans became the capital, its deep-water access for shipping rendered the colonies eastward to Mobile of little value to the French.

There was little, save hides and pelts, of commercial value produced in the area and those were transported to New Orleans for shipping. Hard life and disease left the colony chronically under-populated and agriculture was never developed. Though several valiant efforts to bring women to the colonies were made, none were totally satisfactory. There were frequent marriages with Indians and later with Negroes. In 1727 the few troops remaining at Fort Louis in Biloxi were withdrawn and the area was left to fend for itself.

The lifestyle that developed became one of rural peace. During the rest of the 1700s there was little development of cultural, social, religious or political organizations. There were no schools, and although the population was exclusively French or Spanish and Catholic, no churches were built. Occasionally an itinerant priest traveled from Natchez performing marriage and burial rites, often after the fact. The people hunted or fished for food, they dressed and groomed themselves in the fashion of the Indians, and built their homes of thatch and mud. The settlers were destined to remain much the same for nearly a century.

The British Red Ensign
1763 - 1780

England defeated France in the Seven Years War and all of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River except the Ile d’Orleans, was awarded to England. Louisiana west of the Mississippi and the Ile d’Orleans went to Spain. The total white population of all of Louisiana was only about 3,000. Charles Sullivan in The Mississippi Gulf Coast: Portrait of a People, wrote “..the French failed in their attempt to colonize the Gulf Coast because they did not begin by cultivating the soil.”

In spite of grand intentions, the Gulf Coast became more isolated and with the approaching revolution in 1775, the crown ordered the West Florida colonial administration to grant land to the Tories who were forced to flee from other areas of the country. France joined on the side of the colonists against England.

Spain declared war with Britain in June 1779 and as a result of the ensuing treaty, British West Florida Became Spanish West Florida.

Lions and Castles of Spain
1780 - 1810

Spain moved quickly to recognize the property rights of persons who occupied their holdings in West Florida and who would swear allegiance to the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church.. New grants for land were issued freely. Although the Spanish did not send many settlers to the territory, their liberal land policies made it attractive for the settlers already there to remain. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte sold the vast Louisiana Territory to the United States. Shortly thereafter, the people living between the Perdido and Pearl rivers declared their independence from Spain.

Lone Star, Republic of West Florida
Sept. 23 - Dec. 7, 1810

President Madison viewed the acquisition of Florida as inevitable and generally pursued a cautious policy. Americans on both sides of the border were not so complacent. During 1809-1810 events with West Florida as well as those within Spain (Napoleon had installed his brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne) gave encouragement of direct intervention.

The Madison administration permitted Governor Claiborne of the Orleans territory to offer verbal encouragement to American settlers in the Baton Rouge area and, reacting to this maneuver the Spanish commandant permitted the inhabitants some degree of self government in the form of a convention.

The Revolutionaries took over the convention and authorized seizure of the fort at Baton Rouge. With arms secured from Mississippians to the north, an insurgent force of 80 men overwhelmed the Spanish soldiers. On September 23, 1810 the convention drew up a Declaration of Independence for the free and independent Republic of West Florida.

The little country existed in theory and to some degree in reality, for 74 days. Fulwar Skipwith was elected President and the lone star flag was designated the official flag of the country. (This flag predates the Texas Lone Star flag by 26 years).

President Madison issued a proclamation annexing the region west of the Perdido River to the United States and instructed Governor Claiborne to incorporate the area into the Louisiana Territory.

Star Spangled Banner, United States
1811 - 1861

The Congress of the United States created the Mississippi Territory on April 7, 1798, which included, in effect, all that land presently composing the states of Mississippi and Alabama.

Prior to the West Florida revolt, the population of the Gulf Coast was sparse. A report in 1804 showed about 48 families “eking out an existence”. Another account, presumably before the revolt, listed “not 20 families on the east bank of the Pearl, 10 or 15 French families at the Bay of St. Louis, 4 or 5 French free negroes and mulattos at Pass Christian, where the citizens of New Orleans were beginning to take refuge in the summer, about 12 families at Biloxi, half as many again on the Pascagoula, with more living up that river.”

The territory was opened to settlers and in a three year period between 1813 and 1816, 3300 families came down from Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Georgia, all of whom were Anglo Saxon Protestants. They moved into the coastal areas, overwhelming the French and Spanish Catholic population until they reached the eastern shore of the Bay of Saint Louis where the migration ceased. The little town on the western shore of the bay, by that time called Shieldsboro, could be reached by carriage or wagon from the east only by traveling north from Pass Christian to Delisle, westward to the Kiln and finally southward to the town itself. The community remained fiercely loyal to its French and Spanish heritage throughout the 1800s.

It would be was years before the first rail would cross the Bay of Saint Louis in 1870 and 112 years before the first automobile bridge was opened in 1928. In a letter written by Governor Adelbert Ames as late as 1878 he stated that the language of the boarding houses and stores in Bay Saint Louis was exclusively French.

Battle of 1814

On the night of December 12th, 1814, more than 1000 British troops and 42 barges enroute to New Orleans moved through the pass between Ship and Cat Islands and sailed westward along the Mississippi coast. They were closely watched by Lt. Thomas Ap Catesby Jones, commanding the seven American boats standing off Malheureux Island as the British proceeded to anchor off Henderson’s Point the night of the 13th of December. He dispatched the tender, Sea Horse, under the command of Sailing Master William Johnson into the Bay of Saint Louis to assist in the removal of the public stores lest they fall to the British. He then sent the ship, Alligator to Chalmette to warn General Andrew Jackson of the British approach.

Word of the British fleet’s arrival spread throughout the county and a large crowd gathered at sunrise on the 14th, along the bluff to watch the fleet passing. Three British boats were dispatched to capture the Sea Horse as it endeavored to load munitions below the bluff at Ulman Avenue. Among the crowd was an elderly lady on crutches, a Miss Claiborne, who was visiting from Natchez. About 2 p.m., on observing the impending attack, she is quoted as saying “Will no one fire a shot in defense of our country” whereupon it is said that she took Mayor Toulme’s cigar and lighted one of the cannon. The ball sailed past the Seahorse and landed close to the approaching British. Assuming that he had fire cover from shore, Capt. Johnson seized the initiative and attacked the British fleet. He had a 6-pounder (canon) on his deck and after half an hour of intense barrage the British retreated. Four more barges joined the first three and the seven renewed the attack. Although Capt. Johnson’s defense was gallant, superior numbers forced him to blow up the little schooner rather than surrender her.

The rest of the American fleet in the Mississippi Sound, consisting of four barges, was anchored in the westerly current between Malheureux Island and Point Clear. On the morning of the 15th, the British rowed their boats into the current until they were about two miles away where they anchored to take tea (breakfast) and rest before attacking. About 10:30 they closed on the brave little fleet under the command of Lt. Thomas Ap Catesby Jones.

By 12:40 the battle was over. Six Americans were dead and 35 were wounded. The British suffered 17 dead and 77 wounded.

The greater significance of this battle and the greater loss to the British was the passage of time allowing General Andrew Jackson to gather more troops and to complete fortifications for the defense at Chalmette where victory over the British was achieved on January 7th.

The British were so certain of victory that they brought civil servants to assume governing the areas they expected to conquer with them, as well as wives and children who were waiting on the Mississippi Coast islands. However, the great victory for the Americans was rendered inconsequential because the peace treaty had already been signed and word had not reached the Coast.

Mississippi became a state in December, 1817 and the first act of the Mississippi legislature was to incorporate the city of Bay Saint Louis to become the capital of the state. The incorporation was completed at the morning session but at the afternoon session, the representative from Rankin County changed his vote and Natchez was designated capital instead. It remained the capital for two years before the capital was moved to Jackson where it remains.

Civil War

Magnolia State Flag
1861 - 1894

The first official state flag of Mississippi was adopted on January 26th, 1861, several weeks after Mississippi became the second Southern state to leave the Union. In a show of independence, the banner was designed on a white background, with the traditional magnolia tree in the center, and the familiar Lone Star in the upper left corner.

Confederate Stars and Bars
1861 - 1865

Mississippi was the second state to sign an act of secession following South Carolina. The Civil War brought difficult and hard times to the coast although there were few actual battles fought here. Abraham Lincoln sent the iron-clad ship Massachusetts to the channel at the west end of Ship Island thus effectively blocking the entire Mississippi Sound to traffic entering or leaving, there being no other deepwater channel into the sound. Flat bottom packet boats continued to sail between New Orleans and Mobile, but connections to the eastern seaboard and with Europe were completely severed.

The famous Battle of Pass Christian occurred when the Massachusetts, mistaking a fire on a pier for cannon fire, began shelling the town. The 3rd Mississippi Regiment which was stationed in Pass Christian, had marched toward Biloxi expecting a Union landing there, leaving Pass Christian completely unprotected. A housewife dashed to her upper floor balcony and waved a white bed sheet, the flag of surrender, and the bombardment ceased. Union soldiers plundered the town before withdrawing, there being little of value, including food, for them to confiscate. This skirmish became known as Bedsheet Surrender.

Mississippi State Flag
1894 - Present

The flag with the magnolia was replaced with an official state flag in 1894, and it still flies. The canton corner of the red, white and blue flag is the Beauregard Battle Flag, in the square shape that it was originally intended. At the time of the flag change, the state’s population was about 1.3 million, and the Coast’s was about 44,000. (Sun Herald/Kat Bergeron)

The Resort Era

At the end of the Civil War, real property in the state of Mississippi was said to be ninety percent destroyed. Rebuilding was a long and painful process. However, families made every effort to resume as normal a life style as possible. Carpetbaggers in governments for a period caused many properties to be forfeited, but gradually commerce and social activities resumed.

Northerners had learned much about the south during the war and began flocking to the warm climates, and resorts sprang up everywhere. Also, the rail between Mobile and New Orleans was completed in 1870 bringing New Orleans to within one hour’s travel time. This allowed families to come to Bay Saint Louis in early Spring to avoid the sickness and mosquitoes prevalent in the city. Commuter trains ran regular schedules allowing men to board their “club car” in Bay Saint Louis at 8 a.m., have a leisurely breakfast en-route, and debark at the Canal Street Station one hour later. In the afternoon, they could board the train at 5 p.m. and be picked up at the station here after an hour-long cocktail period on the train.

At one time Bay Saint Louis had as many as 10 or 12 hotels. Some were, in fact, quite large like the Crescent, later called the Pickwick, the Bay Saint Louis, and the Clifton. After 1900 came the Liberty, the Klock, and the Weston which became the Reed (now the Reed Nursing Home). There were many boarding houses. Every Friday during the summer, hoards of New Orleanians came over to “The Bay” for swimming parties on the beach. Hotels had “bachelor quarters” for the single men, and every Saturday night there were dances at the various hotels which began after the heat of the day had begun to cool. These were relatively grand affairs with prominent bands, both local and from the city, and were always accompanied by veritable feasts of food and drink.

Sunday mornings found everyone at church, no matter how late they had been out the night before. Then, after a grand lunch at one of the commercial establishments, they gathered at the Woodmen of the World Hall on Second Street next to the cemetery and were entertained with musical recitals, poetry readings or the presentation of contemporary plays. At 5 p.m. they boarded their train for the return trip to the city.

The Bay had deep artesian wells with water that had a strong sulfur content. Since it smelled so bad, it was assumed that it therefore had to be healthy, so a strong reputation as a health spa developed, contributing to the summer activities.

Until June 1930, Hancock County had the largest sawmill in the world. Timber was brought from miles away to the Weston, Poitevent, Eads mill at Logtown. Subsequently, nearly all the houses at The Bay were built of heart pine. They were thereby especially susceptible to fire. Being built on land divided into arpents, (the French equivalent of an acre) houses that caught fire were unlikely to be saved. In fact, several very large fires devastated The Bay, such as the ones in 1903, 1907 and 1927. About thirty homes and businesses were destroyed in 1907, including Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church, the Bay Saint Louis Opera House, and the Planchet home and stores.

Beachfront homes nearly always had either a pier, with or without pier house, or a gazebo for the enjoyment of the evening breezes. After five in the afternoon, families gathered in these open buildings to socialize, both with their families and with their friends and neighbors. After about 1900, lemonade became the favored evening beverage and it was the most refreshing. This tradition continued to the middle of the century when, after World War II, families had been so scattered, serving in the military or working in defense-related companies, that few large family groups remained to gather. Also, there was the phenomenon, air conditioning. Today few piers remain, and even fewer gazebos, and a great tradition has been lost.

The 20th Century

Many changes came to the Bay after 1900.  An automobile bridge was built across the Bay of Saint Louis in 1928. However, it burned with such regularity that it was hardly considered reliable. There are many stories of suitors bringing their girls from The Pass over to the Bay to one of the fine motion picture houses only to find when the reel was finished that the bridge had burned and the trip back to The Pass would take much too long to fit within the curfew set by the girls’ parents.

In 1963, NASA and the Stennis Space Center brought new prosperity to the Gulf Coast in the form of employment. The impact of the arrival of gambling casinos in 1994 caused the prices of homes and property to soar to undreamed-of heights. New construction is going up on nearly every vacant lot on the shore and inland. Unemployment is limited to those who choose to be unemployed, and there is an appearance of abundance everywhere.


In 1990 the Mississippi State Legislature passed a bill allowing gaming in boats anchored on navigable waters and quickly brought a new and undreamed of prosperity to the Mississippi Coast. New revenue flooded into the coast cities though many at great cost to the natural ocean-front landscape. Bay Saint Louis, however, confined its single casino, presently called “Hollywood Casino” to the north end of the Bay of Saint Louis. There were no roads running by the casino - there was one road constructed leading to it. Those who objected to it were not forced to live with it and it quickly gained acceptance in the community. People joked that bi-weekly the casino sent and unmarked truck down to City Hall and dumped loads of money over the fence. In reality, the city was rapidly improving its infrastructure: sub-service drainage, street surfacing, lighting and many public facilities.

The Great Disasters

The Mississippi Gulf Coast had finally recovered from massive Hurricane Camille which roared ashore in 1969 killing hundreds and obliterating thousands of homes and businesses. It was the benchmark from which all modern hurricanes were compared. “We survived Camille, we can survive anything.” Wrong. Deadly wrong. On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made Camille look like a summer storm.  Thirty-eight foot waves crested the bluff at Bay Saint Louis, sweeping almost everything away. Houses that dated from 1787 were reduced to rubble. The beachfront mansions crumbled like paper models under the power of the wind-driven water.

In 1977 the Mississippi Department of Archives and History surveyed the houses in Bay Saint Louis and in 1980 assigned 728 of them to the National Register of Historic Places. There were 560 properties in the Beach Boulevard District alone and there were three other, smaller districts. Compatibility and charm were the defining attributes of the little city. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 completely destroyed all but sixteen of the mansions on Beach Boulevard. (Please view Preservation/National Register/Beach Boulevard on this site to view those homes before the hurricane.) Recovery of the beach front during the following decade was slow and meticulous. The new and improved seawall of impressive proportions provided an area for a wider boulevard and an extensive area of grass and trees between the two.

In 2014 the new harbor completed the waterfront landscape giving an added charm that the city had not traditionally enjoyed. With its easy access to the downtown complex, it quickly became a strong attraction, especially to the city’s night life. Waterfront restaurants and bars sprang up along the beach providing access to the cool evening breezes and views of the picturesque Bay of St. Louis.

© 2008 - 2018
Hancock County Historical Society
All rights reserved