"Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound," by Josh Foreman and Ryan Starrett, (History Press: Charleston, S.C.), $21.99 paperback.
Pounding waves and sandy beaches make the coastlands between Lake Borgne and Mobile some of the most attractive in the world. This stretch of the Mississippi coast, The Sound, was not always so benign. Indeed, Josh Foreman and Ryan Starrett are born Mississippians and scholars who hope to bring the hidden, indeed in some cases "forgotten," history of this part of their home state to public awareness. In this they've performed remarkably well.
Take for instance Pierre Le Moyne D'Iberville, a French explorer whose expedition in late 1699 was to determine for his French Canadian government the possibilities for profit and settlement in the distant reach of the Mississippi River. He came wholly 150 years after the massacre of Spaniards in their early encounter with nearby natives of the Mississippian Culture. These people were sub-tribes of the monumental builders of Cahokia Mounds and the great mounds of present day Alabama. In the interim, the Europeans left one thing: disease.
The century and a half interval between the Spanish and French arrivals left one climactic, ominous notation. Whereas before few, if any, buffalo were recorded by the Spanish, when the French arrived, masses of the American bison populated the area. The difference? The population of Indians died out to diseases brought by the Spanish, leaving the land open to the return of the giant buffalo.
So too did the area attract crime. Most know of the Lafitte brothers, who valiantly helped Andrew Jackson defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans. Really? Indeed, they were notorious slavers whose goal was to circumvent the ban on foreign imports of slaves to America in 1808. In further stories, Foreman and Starrett recount tales which show the indomitable spirit of the Sound's locals, despite dangers both man-made and natural.
We hear of the wild woman of Horn Island, whose personal vigor and humanity made her precarious life good for her family (of 17 children) and eight more she adopted. This she did despite living on that distant and remote scrap of land off the coast. More insidiously, we see how it took the bravery of Father LeDuc, a local priest, to keep an invading Union Army from burning his Catholic Church by confronting them with a crucifix.
Need we not add how Hurricane George beset the area in 1947, as did later Katrina, both laying waste to the indomitable people, who rose yet again. And then, as history progressed, there was the race confrontation. A peaceful Dr. Gilbert Mason, recently of Chicago, was incensed that his son was unable to enjoy the beach near where they lived in Biloxi. Whereas he could swim anywhere in far north Chicago, in Biloxi such was reserved only for white people under Jim Crow laws. Such led first to a peaceful protest, then conflict.
Foreman and Starrett are masters of suggesting deeper stories. They hope others will enjoy hearing of these events, then study further. They are crisp writers, with an eye to the appropriate and surprising quotation. Well-researched, heartily presented, and truly worth a day's reading to ponder, I hope you get a chance to enjoy this book.