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The Newberry at 125

This blog was dedicated to delivering updates and behind-the-scenes coverage of the Newberry’s 125th anniversary exhibition, The Newberry 125, as well as retrospective musings on the library’s historical beginnings and evolution.

The Singular Life of a Self-proclaimed "French Robinson Crusoe"

Dumont de Montigny. Map.
Dumont de Montigny. Concession des Chaouachas.

In 1719 Jean-François-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny (1696-1760), the youngest son of a Paris lawyer, set sail for Louisiana with a commission as a lieutenant after passing a year at the French colony of Quebec. During his peregrinations over the next eighteen years, he witnessed the turbulent early history of Louisiana, including the founding of the colonial capital of New Orleans and the 1719 battle for Pensacola between France and Spain. In his writings he described the 1729 revolt of the Natchez Indians and gave account of the 1739-40 French expedition against the Chickasaw. He participated in the first voyage of exploration up the Missouri River, he drew maps for the Company of the Indies, and he came to challenge corrupt officials, writing legal briefs for fellow colonists, seeking justice. His fascinating life story, recounted by Dumont himself in a 443-page manuscript conserved at the Newberry, has just been published in English for the first time. The Memoir of Lieutenant Dumont, 1715-1747: A Sojourner in the French Atlantic, appeared in November 2012 as a joint publication of the University of North Carolina Press and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, located in Williamsburg, Virginia.

“Dodging death and success from La Rochelle to Biloxi and back, with some gardening in between, Dumont de Montigny survived to put quill to paper,” writes McGill University professor Catherine Desbarats. “His restless memoir, now briskly translated, offers a stereotype-shattering window onto eighteenth-century transatlantic life and writing.”

Dumont did not find his fortune in America. He watched his comrades die in battle, got lost in the coastal swamps, suffered from malaria and scurvy, survived quarantine on a pestilential ship, nearly drowned in the Mississippi River, was thrown in jail, and saw his home destroyed by fire. He married, raised two children, and eked out a living as a colonial subsistence farmer. Tired of struggling, he returned to France, where he recorded his adventures in his 1747 memoir, seeking to defend his reputation and document his many years of service – and perhaps to obtain a new army post or a pension. As it happens, we now know that his travels at that point were not over. Later, he and his wife would sail to the East Indies, where he died at the French colony of Pondicherry.

300 years after he first penned them, Dumont’s words have at last been translated into English and brought into print, thanks to the efforts of Gordon M. Sayre, professor of English and folklore at the University of Oregon, and Carla Zecher, Director of the Center for Renaissance Studies and Curator of Music at the Newberry. The English translation of the unabridged memoir features a new introduction, reproductions of Dumont’s own hand-colored maps, and a biographical dictionary to enhance the text. One of the maps, Dumont’s drawing of a concession (plantation) along the Mississippi, where he worked for a time, can be seen and studied at The Newberry 125exhibition.

Submitted by Carla Zecher.