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Coast oysterman discovered historical treasure 123 years ago

By Kat Bergeron

COURTESY/PAUL JERMYN COLLECTION 
 The Biloxi Community House became site of the USO during World War II, as this circa 1940s post card representing the "Army Air Force"indicates. The so-called Iberville cannons remain on public display.
COURTESY/PAUL JERMYN COLLECTION The Biloxi Community House became site of the USO during World War II, as this circa 1940s post card representing the "Army Air Force"indicates. The so-called Iberville cannons remain on public display.

Within weeks of his 26th birthday, a physically fit and curious Eugene Tiblier made the discovery of a lifetime.

The historical treasures Tiblier brought up from an old shipwreck in the Bay of Biloxi continue to feed the imagination, spawning conjecture and embellishing story-telling for more than a century after he dove off a schooner to explore the "rock pile."

Was it a pirate ship he found? Was it one of the ships of Iberville or Bienville, the LeMoyne brothers who carved out a huge French colonial territory in the New World for King Louis XIV? Was it a ship lost to hurricane when Nouveau Biloxi was being carved out as the French capitol before the colony's center became New Orleans?

These were questions unanswered in 1892 when Tiblier proved his diving prowess.

Still, the questions remain

The questions remained unanswered when he died in 1936 and remain so in the 21st Century, although some historians suspect it is a French colonial ship lost in a 1722 hurricane. A diary account of the storm places a lost ship near the location, a Back Bay site now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tiblier brought up artifacts from the wreck in September 1892 and his family displayed them at their house for years. Several times one of four recovered cannons was shot off, once in 1905 on "the occasion of a French Fete" and another on Christmas Eve 1924.

Most of these curiosities disappeared over time, with several swords reclaimed by water when a hurricane struck a year after their salvage. Barrels of the four cannons have survived and are embedded in a cement stand in a public park in front of Biloxi's small craft harbor.

Biloxi has displayed the cannons since the mid-1920s, when the Tiblier family loaned, then donated, them to the city. Coincidentally, hurricanes caused the display's relocation.

Who were the Tibliers?

As is the case for most history-making events that survive more than a century of re-tellings, the original story gets muddled. Some accounts credit his father -- Henry Eugene Tiblier, Sr. -- with the discovery but that's likely a result of similar names.

Both father and son were respected Biloxians and hard-working fishermen whose roots, they claimed, traced to men connected to the LeMoyne brothers, who planted the French flag on the Mississippi Coast in 1699. Both Tibliers had reputations as keepers of Coast history.

At his death in 1936, the junior Tiblier was lauded: "Captain Tiblier, veteran sailor and fisherman, could be easily termed the personification of old Biloxi . . . There was no one who knew more traditional stories of Biloxi's famous past. He had a remarkable memory and well did he know the lore as handed down by his parents and their parents."

Tiblier Jr. was born on the north shore of the Bay of Biloxi and died at his home on Holley Street. According to this newspaper (then called The Daily Herald) his cause of death at age 70 was "an infection received on a boat, which at first was thought to be trivial."

This newspaper also provides an unusually detailed account of Tiblier's 1892 discovery. The Sept. 24 article is headlined "A Mysterious Find. The Wreck Of An Ancient Man-of-War ... Supposed to Have Laid Under the Water for Nearly Two Centuries."

The 1892 article both substantiates and brings question marks to later accounts of the Tiblier discovery. Its timeliness, however, adds an authenticity found nowhere else.

We should remember Tiblier's dive came at a time when treasure was considered fair game and archaeological preservation techniques were little-known. Today, we should know better and should respect the site's protected status, but in Tiblier's time, this was a celebrated find.

The exact wreck location on Back Bay is now redacted from official state and national records. Through the decades others have tried, and some succeeded, in locating the site, but that later treasure-troving, unlike Tiblier's openness, is generally kept quiet and is now unlawful.

That makes the descriptions of Tiblier's findings a rare tool for understanding Coast history. Keep in mind when reading them that the following excerpts from the 1892 Herald are in the wordier newspaper style of that era. The story, datelined Ocean Springs, is marked "Special" but with no byline.

How it all began

"About a month ago a young man named Eugene Tiblier Jr., who was following his occupation of oysterman, and while catching such on what has been known for years as the 'rock pile,' which is located in Biloxi bay . . . on the beachfront of Ocean Springs, he struck a very hard substance, and after sounding two or three times made up his mind to investigate and did so by diving.

"The result of this was the finding of a cannon. He immediately made known this find to his father, E. Tiblier, and in connection with Captain Jose Suarez of the schooner Maggie, they proceeded to secure the find.

"For twelve days they have been at work, and in that time discovered that it is the sunken wreck of some war vessel, possibly one of the fleet that came to this section under the command of Iberville in either 1699 or 1703, as everything so far recovered tends to confirm the impression that the wreck is very old.

"As far as can be ascertained, the wreck is about 55 feet in length by probably 20 wide. The parties engaged in this recovery suppose that they are now working between the gun deck and the hull. The water at high tide is over 12 feet deep where the sunken craft is imbedded."

What they found

"Everything points to the certainty of the wreck, having been a war vessel. The wood so far recovered is of oak and mahogany in a fair state of preservation, owing to its being below the mud bottom. A great amount of stones and boulders, foreign to this section, have been taken out, which evidently was part of the ballast of the vessel. Also some fire brick, much different from that now used, as it is but 1 and 3/8 inches thick, 8 inches long and 4 wide.

"Every part of the wood shows that the putting together was done by wooden pins, and where a bolt was used in iron work, it was of copper.

"A block eye when found was 12 inches in diameter, but since exposure to the air, has shrunk to 8 inches. This is made of some singular deep-grained wood. The size of the block eye would denote that the vessel was of considerable tonnage. "

Bringing up the cannons

"So far the workers on this wreck have found four iron cannon, one 6 feet long and in fair order. The letters 'H.E. Or F.O.S.' are discernable and are located about 1 foot from the vent. This gun has a muzzle of 3½ inches. A small charge of powder was placed in this gun and it was fired off by the fishermen, and stood that test.

"Another cannon 7 feet long has a part of the gun carriage attached, made of some hard wood and which is on its right side. Two other cannons each 4 feet long and 2½ inches at muzzle have been taken out. These latter are badly eaten by iron rust.

"Cannon balls of different sizes . . . have been found, also parts of gun carriages and on some of these can be seen pieces of rope that were used for working the gun. Since their recovery exposure to the air causes the rope to dissolve into dust rubbing.

"A rather singular find is a quantity of gun power in chunks, and which retains it peculiar smell to this late day. A bung-stopper of one of the water casks, made of several thicknesses of woolen cloth, is also a curiosity. The scabbard of an officer's sword retains enough of its original form to show its former use. Muskets, apparently capable of carrying an ounce ball, with very old fashioned locks, the nipple and vent perfect, and many other curios, are being taken out daily.

"Nothing can be learned of the history of this wreck, and the oldest inhabitant never knew of the spot except as the 'rock pile' and which was a good oyster reef."

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-4567.

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