About Fort Tombecbe

Historical Background

Located on the high white bluffs of the Tombigbee River in Sumter County, Alabama, Fort Tombecbe was an eighteenth century outpost for three major European powers. The French established the fort in 1736 to strengthen their presence in this remote part of the Louisiana colony and to strengthen their alliance with the native Choctaw Indians. The governor of La Louisiane, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, also planned for Tombecbe to serve as a depot from which to launch an attack on the Chickasaw, whose stronghold was centered in several large villages near present-day Tupelo, Mississippi. The Chickasaw harbored the remnant Natchez Indians, who in 1729 revolted against the French, and they were also allied with the English, whose growing Atlantic colonies and trade enterprises were a contant threat to French dominance on the continent.

Fort Tombecbe in May 1737, drawn by Ignace Broutin.
In May 1736, Bienville gathered 600 men at Fort Tombecbe, including all the troops he could gather from throughout the colony, a company of black slaves commanded by free black officers, and volunteers. They joined with nearly 600 Choctaw warriors and moved upstream toward the Chickasaw towns. Because of supply delays, a lack of necessary artillery, and a failed rendezvous with a French force from the Illinois country, Bienville's assault failed. Twenty-five of his force were killed, including Fort Tombecbe's commandant, Captain Joseph de Lusser, who had overseen construction of the fort. Sustaining a tenuous alliance with the Choctaw, the French maintained Fort Tombecbe as a trading and listening post until ceded to the English in 1763.

Rechristened Fort York, though still referred to as Tombecbe, it was occupied by the English intermittently until they finally abandoned it in 1768. When surveyor Bernard Romans passed through in 1772, he described the fort as being in ruins.

Fort Confederation in 1794, drawn by Lt. Antoine Palao.
The final European power to occupy the white bluffs of the Tombigbee River was Spain. In an attempt to defend its boundaries against the encroachments of the United States, in 1794, the Spanish established Fort Confederation on the remains of the earlier fort. They constructed walls of earth and stone, but the Spanish flag flew for only three years over the site. In order to avoid a territorial war with the Americans, Spain ceded all lands north of the 31st parallel in 1797, including old Fort Tombecbe.

Archaeological Background

Fort Tombecbe was investigated in 1980 by archaeologists from the Alabama Historical Commission, students from Livingston University (now the University of West Alabama), and volunteers from the Alabama Archaeological Society. Lead researcher, Jim Parker, focused on the remains of the Spanish earthworks, which are still visible today, and the structures within Confederation. He found many colonial period artifacts of European and Choctaw origins. One remarkable discovery was the unearthing of the Spanish bread oven, which had been built of block cut from the chalk bedrock.
1980 excavations revealed the Spanish oven.

In 2010, the University of West Alabama launched a new program of excavations at Fort Tombecbe. The goals were to map, survey, and conduct small excavations in an attempt to locate undisturbed French period remains. Comparisons of Broutin's1737 plan of Tombecbe with Palao's 1794 plan of Confederation (see above) indicate that the footprint of the French fort was larger than that of the Spanish one. Using this as a guide, our survey focused on locating French-period materials outside of the extant Spanish earthworks. There were two important results. First, the southwest bastion of the fort was found outside the remnant walls of Confederation, as expected. This enables the alignment of archaeological remains with the 1737 French map of the fort. Second, an intact midden dating primarily to the French period at the site was found near the bastion. This is an important find, because the Spanish destroyed much of Tombecbe by incorporating its remains into the walls of Confederation or by building on top of earlier French structures. The French midden corresponds to the area where the French bread oven and bake house, or boulangerie, would have been located.

This close-up of the 1737 map of Fort Tombecbe shows the southwest bastion corner, the bake house (G), and just below the bake house, the end of the garrison's barracks. We are investigating this area in 2012.
Finding the bread oven, excavating a portion of the fort wall, and locating the garrison's barracks are general goals of the Fort Tombecbe Archaeological Project in 2012.  We hope to learn how the oven and palisade wall were constructed, as well as to learn more about daily life for the Europeans and Choctaw Indians who occupied this bluff. Historical documents paint the relationship between these two vastly different cultures as political and economic. Archaeology may provide a more intimate glimpse of their daily interactions, connections, and interdependencies that developed on this eighteenth century frontier. 

The 2012 field school is funded by a grant from the Alabama Historical Commission and support from the Division of Educational Outreach and the College of Liberal Arts at the University of West Alabama.

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