I had fallen behind Gail, Charlie, and Marcia as we walked through the City of Ocean Springs at the beginning of the fourth leg of our hike across the Mississippi Gulf Coast. My mind started to wander. What if Jefferson hadn’t bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803, and France had established a French-speaking country in the Mississippi Valley? What would have become of the area now known as Ocean Springs? Perhaps it would have retained its original French name, Vieux Biloxi.
It was here in Vieux Biloxi, on the sandy shores of the muddy Biloxi Bay, that the salty French explorer Pierre Le Moyne Sieur d’Iberville first landed on the Gulf Coast to plant the flag of Louis XIV and establish the French colony of La Louisiane in 1699. He built a temporary fortification called Fort Maurepas to protect a garrison of 81 men from the local Biloxi Indians and the threat of westward Spanish expansion from Florida. Vieux Biloxi was the capital of New France for one year before the government seat was transferred to a new fort on the Mobile Bay and then to New Orleans. But it was here, where the City of Ocean Springs sits now, that a French territory stretching from Appalachia to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, all began. Essentially, Vieux Biloxi is the French version of the first British colony of Jamestown.
Snapping back to reality, I caught up with my hiking companions as we left the tree-shaded streets of Ocean Springs and crossed over the new Bay Bridge to the City of Biloxi. We hiked past gaudy casinos, beach-front hotels, and theaters and stopped for an oyster po’boy at the perdurable McElroy‘s HarborHouse Restaurant. We then continued past the Old Biloxi Lighthouse and Keesler Air Force Base, to where we had left our car at Sharkheads, a bright pink souvenir shop on the Biloxi Beach. If history had taken a different turn, I mused, and La Louisiane had remained the country of New France, perhaps I could have bought a tee-shirt here on the beach that said, “BILOXI EST POUR LES AMANTS.”
Total distance: 9.8 miles.