Recalling the single biggest con in New Orleans history
For months, they had seen only native Americans. So French explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne — better known as Bienville, the man who would go on to found New Orleans — was understandably piqued when, in late summer 1699, he and his men rounded a bend in the Mississippi River just below present-day New Orleans to find moored there an English corvette, the Carolina Galley, loaded with 10 cannons and dozens of settlers. Bienville, with five men in two bark canoes, paddled over and informed the English captain, Louis Bond, that the area already had been claimed for France, which he said was ready to defend it with fortifications established upstream. It was a total and absolute lie, but Bond bought Bienville’s bluff, turned around and sailed away. From that moment, that bend in the river became known as “English Turn.”
More than 300 years later, that elbow in the river — about 28 leagues, or 75 miles, from the river’s mouth — is still called English Turn. A historical plaque marks the spot, although the name “English Turn” is probably better known for the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and surrounding community of the same name built on the West Bank near the site.
- The story of English Turn is an amusing one, but it is also an important one in Louisiana history. The incident confirmed to Bienville that the British were actively seeking to establish a colony in the region, thus lighting a fire under the French to set about establishing those fortifications Bienville had lied about — including building a fort on either side of the river at English Turn.
- Bond wasn’t inclined to call Bienville’s bluff for a good reason. The two had met years earlier when Bienville’s brother, Iberville, took the English captain prisoner on Hudson Bay.
- Most see the word “turn” functioning as a verb in the place name “English Turn,” describing the Carolina Galley’s act of turning around. Many historians, however, argue that it was intended as a noun, describing the bend — or the “turn” — in the river where the meeting took place.
- The name of the English captain is reported at “Banks” and “Bond” in various accounts. Additionally, the date of the meeting has been reported as Sept. 15, 1699 (Iberville), Aug. 3, 1699 (Henri de Tonti) and even 1700 (Andre Penicaut).
- The West Bank land around English Turn was for years known as simply “Lower Coast Algiers.” That changed in 1990 when the New Orleans City Council officially changed the name to English Turn.
From riverboat gamblers to politicians to the guys who bet you $10 they can tell you “where you got your shoes at,” New Orleans has long had a reputation as a grifter’s paradise. So it is fitting that the founding of the city was the result of one of the biggest cons in the history of the Western Hemisphere — one that gave the French supremacy over the mouth of the Mississippi River, the front door to the American continent. Had Bienville’s bluff not worked, there very well might not have ever been a New Orleans, and there’s no telling the impact it would have had on American history.