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Place de la croix. A romance of the west.[]

There is much of beautiful romance in the whole history of the early settlements of Florida. De Soto and Ponce de Leon have thrown around the records of their searches for gold and the waters of life, a kind of dreamy character which renders them more like traditions of a spiritual than of a real world. They and their followers were men of stern military discipline, who had won honors in their conquests over the Moors; and they came hither not as emigrants, seeking an asylum from oppression, but as proud nobles, anxious to add to their numerous laurels, by conquests in a new world. The startling discoveries, - the fruits, the gold, and the natives that appeared with Columbus at the court of Isabella - gave to fancy an impetus, and to enthusiasm a power, which called forth the pomp of the "Infallible Page 241

Church" to mingle her sacred symbols with those of arms; and they went joined together through the wilds of America.

Among the beautiful and striking customs of those days, was the erection of the Cross at the mouths of rivers, and prominent points of land, that presented themselves to the discoverers.

The saved symbol thus reared in solitude, seemed to shadow forth the future, when the dense forests would be filled with its followers, instead of the wild savage; and it cheered the lonely pilgrim in his dangerous journeys, bringing to his mind all the cherished associations of this life, and directing his thoughts to another world. In the putting up of these crosses, as they bore the arms of the sovereign whose subjects erected them, and as they were indicative of civil jurisdiction and empire, the most prominent and majestic locations were selected, where they could be seen for miles around, towering above every other object, speaking the advances of the European, and giving title to the lands over which they cast their shadows.

Three hundred years ago the sign of the cross was first raised on the banks of the Mississippi.

From one of the few bluffs or high points of land that border that swift-running river, De Soto, guided by the aborigines of the country, was the first Europeans that looked upon its turbid waters, soon to be his grave. On this high bluff, taking advantage of a lofty cottonwood tree, he caused its majestic trunk to be shorn of its limbs; and on this tall shaft placed the beam which formed the cross.

This completed, the emblazoned banners of Spain and Arragon were unfurled to the breeze, and, amid the strains of martial music and the firing of cannon, the steel-clad DeSoto, assisted by the priests in his train, raised the host to heaven, and declared the reign of Christianity commenced in the valley of the Mississippi.

The erection of this touching symbol in the great temple of nature was full of poetry. The forests, like the stars, declare the wonderful works of the Creator. In the silent grandeur of our primeval woods, in their avenues of columns, their canopies of leaves, their festoons of vines, the cross touched the heart, and spoke more fully its office than ever it will glistening among the human greatness of a Milan cathedral, or the solemn grandeur of a St. Peter's.

Two hundred years after Ponce de Leon had mingled his dust with the sands of the peninsula of Florida, and DeSoto reposed beneath the current of the Mississippi, the same spirit of religious and military enthusiasm pervaded the settlements made by both French and Spanish in this "land of flowers."

Among the adventurers of that day were many who mingled the romantic ambition of the crusaders with the ascetic spirit of the monk, and who looked upon themselves as ambassadors of religion to new nations in a new world. Of such was Rousseau. It requires little imagination to understand the disappointment that such a man would meet with in the forest, and as an intruder of the untractable red man. The exalted notions of Rousseau ended in despondence, when away from the pomp and influence of his church. Having been nurtured in the "Eternal City," he had not the zeal, and lacked the principle, to become an humble teacher to humbler recipients of knowledge.

Disregarding his priestly office, he finally mingled in the dissipations of society, and in the year 1736, started off as a military companion to D'Arteguette in his expedition among the Chickasas.

The death of D'Arteguette and his bravest troops, and the dispersion of his Indian allies, left Rousseau a wanderer, surrounded by implacable enemies, he being one of the few who escaped the fate of battle.

Unaccustomed to forest life, and more than a thousand miles from the Canadas, he became a prey of imaginary and real dangers. Unprovided with arms, his food was of roots or herbs. At night the wild beasts howled round his cold couch, and every stump in the daytime seemed to him to conceal an Indian.

Now it was, that Rousseau reviewed the incidents of his past life with sorrowing he discovered, when it was too late, that he had lost his peace of mind, and his hopes of future existence, for a momentary enjoyment. Wasting with watching and hunger, he prayed to the Virgin to save him, that he might, by a long life of penance, obliterate his sins. On the twelfth day of his wanderings he sank upon the earth to die and, casting his eyes upward in prayer, he saw, far in the distance, towering above every other object, the cross!

It seemed a miracle, and inspired with strength his trembling limbs; he pressed forward that he might breathe his last at its foot. As he reached it, a smile of triumph lighted up his wayworn features, and he fell insensible to the earth.

Never, perhaps, was this emblem more beautifully decorated or more touchingly displayed than was the one that towered over Rousseau. From indications, some fifteen years might have elapsed since the European pilgrim had erected it. One of the largest forest trees had been chosen that stood upon the surrounding bluffs; the tall trunk tapered upward with the proportion of a Corinthian column, which, with the piece forming the cross, was covered with ten thousand of those evergreen vines that spread such a charm over the southern landscape. It seemed as if nature had paid tribute to the sacred symbol, and festooned it with a perfection and beauty worthy of her abundance. The honeysuckle and the ivy, the scarlet creeper and fragrant jasmine, the foliage enamelled with flowers shed upon the repentant, and now insensible Rousseau, a shower of fragrance.

Near where he lay, there was a narrow and amply- worn footpath. You could trace it, from where it lost itself in the deep forests, to where it wound around the steep-washed bank, and touched the water's edge. At this point were to be seen the prints of footsteps; and traces of small fires were also visible, one of which, still sent up puffs of smoke.

Here it was that the Choctaw maidens and old women performed their rude labor of washing.

In the morning and evening sun, a long line of the forest children might be seen, with clay jars and skins filled with water, carrying them upon their heads, and stringing up, single file, the steep bank, and losing themselves in the woods; - with their half clad and erect forms, making a most picturesque display, not unlike the processions figured in the hieroglyphical paintings of Egypt.

Soon after Rousseau fell at the cross, there might have been seen emerging from the woods, and following the path we have described, a delicately-formed Indian girl. In her band was a long reed and a basket, and she came with blithe steps towards the river. As she passed the cross, the form of Rousseau met her eyes. Stopping and examining him, with almost overpowering curiosity, she retreated with precipitation, but almost instantly returned. She approached nearer, until the wan and insensible face met her view. Strange as was his appearance and color, the chord of humanity was touched, the woman forgot both fear and curiosity, in her anxiety to allay visible suffering. A moment had hardly elapsed before water was thrown in his face and held to his lips.

The refreshing beverage brought him to consciousness. He stared wildly about, and discovered the Indian form bending over him; he again sank insensible to the earth. Like a young doe the girl bounded away, and disappeared.

A half hour might have elapsed, when there issued out of the forest a long train of Indians. At their head was the young maiden, surrounded by armed warriors in the rear followed women and children. They approached Rousseau, whose recovery was but momentary and who was now unconscious of what was passing around him. The crowd examined him first with caution, gradually, with familiarity; their whispers became animated conversation, and, finally, blended in one noisy confusion.

There were, among those present, many who had heard of the white man and of his powers, but none had ever seen one before. One Indian, more bold than the rest, stripped the remnant of a cloak from Rousseau's shoulder; another, emboldened by this act, caught rudely hold of his coat, and as he pulled it aside, there fell from his breast a small gilt crucifix, held by a silken cord. Its brilliancy excited the cupidity of all, and many were the eager hands that pressed forward to obtain it. An old chief gained the prize, and fortunately.


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"He stared wildly about him, and discovered the Indian form bending over him."--page 246.

for Rousseau, his prowess and influence left him in undisputed possession. As he examined the little trinket, the Indian girl we have spoken of, the only female near Rousseau, crossed her delicate fingers, and pointed upward. The old chief instantly beheld the similarity between the large and small symbol of Christianity; and extending it aloft, with all the dignity of a cardinal, the crowd shouted as they saw the resemblance, and a change came over them all.

They associated at once the erection of the large cross with Rousseau; and as their shout had again called forth exhibitions of life from his insensible form, they threw his cloak over him, suspended the cross to his neck, brought, in a moment, green boughs, with which a litter was made, and bore him with all respect toward their lodges. The excitement and exercise of removal did much to restore him to life; a dish of maize did more; and nothing could exceed his astonishment on his recovery, that he should be treated with such kindness; and as he witnessed the respect paid the cross, and was shown by rude gestures, that he owed his life to its influence, he sank upon his knees, overwhelmed with its visible exhibition of power, and satisfied that his prayer for safety had been answered by the accomplishment of a miracle.

The Choctaws, into whose hands the unfortunate Rousseau had fallen (although he was not aware of the difference), were of a kinder nature than the Cherokees, from whom he had so lately escaped. Page 248

Years before, the inhabitants of the little village, on their return from a hunting expedition, discovered the cross we have described; its marks then were such as would be exhibited a few days after its erection. Footsteps were seen about its base, which, from their variance with the mark left by the moccasin, satisfied the Indians that it was not erected by any of their people. The huge limbs that had been shorn from the trunk bore fresh marks of terrible cuts, which the stone hatchet could not have made.

As is natural to the Indian mind, on the display of power which they cannot explain, they appropriately, though accidentally, associated the cross with the Great Spirit, and looked upon it with wonder and admiration.

Beside the cross there was found an axe, left by those who had used it. This was an object of the greatest curiosity to its finders. They struck it into the trees, severed huge limbs, and performed other powerful feats with it, and yet fancied that their own rude stone instruments failed to do the same execution, from want of a governing spirit, equal to that which they imagined presided over the axe, and not from difference of material.

The cross and the axe were associated together in the Indians' minds; and the crucifix of Rousseau connected him with both. They treated him, therefore, with all the attention they would bestow upon a being who is master of a superior power. Page 249

The terrible and strange incidents that had formed the life of Rousseau, since the defeat of his military associate, D'Arteguette, seemed to him, as he recalled them in his mind, to have occupied an age. His dreams were filled with scenes of torment and death. He would start from his sleep with the idea that an arrow was penetrating his body, or that the bloody knife was at his heart; these were then changed into visions of starvation, or destruction by wild beasts. Recovering his senses, he would find he would find himself in a comfortable lodge, reposing on a couch of soft skins; while the simple children of the senses, woods, relieved of their terrors, were waiting to administer to his wants. The change from the extreme of suffering to that of comfort, he could hardly realize.

The cross in the wilderness, the respect they paid to the one upon his breast, were alike inexplicable; and Rousseau, according to the spirit of his age, felt that a miracle had been wrought in his favor: and on his bended knees he renewed his ecclesiastical vows, and determined to devote his life to enlightening and christianizing the people among whom Providence had placed him.

The Indian girl who first discovered Rousseau, was the only child of a powerful chief. She was still a maiden, and the slavish labor of savage married life had, consequently, not been imposed upon her.

Among her tribe she was universally considered beautiful; and her hand had been vainly sought by all the young "braves" of her tribe.

Wayward, or indifferent to please, she resolutely refused to occupy any lodge but her father's, however eligible and enviable the settlement might have appeared in the eyes of her associates.

For an Indian girl she was remarkably gentle; and, as Rousseau gradually recovered his strength, he had, through her leisure, more frequent intercourse with her than with any other of the tribe. There was also a feeling in his breast that she was, in the hands of an overruling Providence, the instrument used to preserve his life. Whatever might have been the speculations of the elders of the tribe, as day after day Rousseau courted her society and listened to the sounds of her voice, we do not know; but his attentions to her were indirectly encouraged, and the Indian girl was almost constantly at his side. Rousseau's plans were formed. The painful experience he had encountered, while following the ambition of worldly greatness, had driven him back into the seclusion of the church, with a love only to end with his life.

He determined to learn the dialect of the people in whose lot his life was cast, and form them into a nation of worthy recipients of the "Holy Church;" and the gentle Indian girl was to him a preceptor, to teach him her language. With this high resolve, he repeated the sounds of her voice, imitated her gesticulations, and encouraged, with marked preference, her society.

The few weeks passed by Rousseau among the Choctaws, had made him one bitter, implacable enemy. Unable to explain his office or his intentions, his preference for Chechoula, had been marked by the keen eye of a jealous and rejected lover.

Wah-a-ola was a young "brave," who had distinguished himself on the hunting and war paths. Young as he was, he had won a name. Three times he had laid the trophies of his prowess at the feet of Chechoula, and as often she had rejected his suit. Astonished at his want of success, he looked upon his mistress as laboring under the influence of some charm, for he could find no accepted rival for her hand.

The presence of Rousseau - the marked preference which Chechoula exhibited for his society, settled, in his own mind, that the "pale face" was the charmer.

With this conviction, he placed himself conveniently to meet his mistress, and once more pleaded his suit before he exhibited the feelings of hatred which he felt towards Rousseau. The lodge of Chechoula's father was, from the dignity of the chief, at the head of the Indian village, and at some little distance. The impatient Wah-a-ola seated himself near its entrance, where, from his concealment, he could watch whoever entered its door. A short time only elapsed, before he saw, in the cold moonlight, a group of Indian girls approaching the Indian lodge, in busy conversation, and conspicuously among them all, Chechoula.

Her companions separated from her, and as she entered her father's lodge, a rude buffalo skin shut her in. Soon after her disappearance, the little groups about the Indian village gradually dispersed; the busy hum of conversation ceased; and when profound stillness reigned, a plaintive note of the whip-poor-will was heard; it grew louder and louder, until it appeared as if the lone bird was perched on the top of the lodge that contained Chechoula. It attracted her ear, for she thrust aside the buffalo-skin, and listened with fixed attention. The bird screamed, and appeared to flutter, as if wounded. Chechoula rushed toward the bushes that seemed to conceal so much distress, when Wah-a-ola sprang up and seized her wrist. The affrighted girl stared at her captor for a moment, and then exclaimed,

"The snake should not sing like the birds!"

Wah-a-ola relaxed not his hold; there was a volcano in his breast, that seemed to overwhelm him as he glared upon Chechoula with blood-shot eyes. Struggling to conceal his emotion, he replied to her question, by asking "If the wild-flowers of the woods were known only to their thorns?"

"The water-lilies grow upon smooth stones," said Chechoula, striving violently to retreat to her father's lodge. Page 253

The love of Wah-a-ola was full of jealousy, and the salute and reply of his mistress converted it into hate. Dashing his hand across his brow, on which the savage workings of his passion were plainly visible, he asked, if "a brave" was to whine for a woman like a bear for its cubs?

"Go!" said he, flinging Chechoula's arm from him: "go! The mistletoe grows not upon young trees, and the pale face shall be a rabbit in the den of the wolf!"

From the time that Rousseau was able to walk, he had made a daily pilgrimage to the cross, and there, upon his bended knees, greeted the morning sun. This habit was known to all the tribe. The morning following the scene between Wah-a-ola and Chechoula, he was found dead at the foot of the sacred tree. A poisoned arrow had been driven almost through his body.

Great was the consternation of the Choctaws. It was considered a mysterious evidence of impending evil; while not a single person could divine who was the murderer.

"The mistletoe grows not upon young trees!" thought Chechoula; and for the first time she knew the full meaning of the words, as she bent over the body of Rousseau. She attended his obsequies with a sorrow less visible, but more deep, than that of her people; although the whole tribe had, in the short residence of the departed, learned to respect him, and to look upon him as a great "Medicine." His grave was dug where he had so often prayed, and the same sod covered him that drank his heart's blood.

According to Indian custom, all that he possessed, as well as those articles appropriated to his use, were buried with him in his grave. His little crucifix reposed upon his breast, and he was remembered as one who had mysteriously come, and as mysteriously passed away.

A few years after the events we have detailed, a Jesuit missionary, who understood the Choctaw language, announced his mission to the tribe, and was by them kindly received. His presence revived the recollections of Rousseau, and the story of his having been among them was told. The priest explained to them his office, and these wild people, in a short time, erected over the remains of Rousseau a rude chapel; his spirit was called upon as their patron saint, and Chechoula was the first to renounce the superstitions of her tribe, and receive the Holy Sacrament of Baptism.

In the year 1829, a small brass cross was picked out of the banks of the Mississippi, near Natchez at the depth of several feet from the surface. The crucifix was tolerable preservation, and was exposed by one of those cavings of the soil so peculiar to the Mississippi. The speculations which the finding of this cross called forth, revived the almost forgotten traditions of the story of Rousseau, and of his death and burial at the Place De La Croix.

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