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The first recorded hurricane on the Coast was 300 years ago and it likely caused Petit Bois cut

When the 1717 hurricane choked the entrance of Mobile Bay with sand, the French decided to move the colony back to the Mississippi Coast, and built Fort Louis opposite the Ship Island road stead at Biloxi.
When the 1717 hurricane choked the entrance of Mobile Bay with sand, the French decided to move the colony back to the Mississippi Coast, and built Fort Louis opposite the Ship Island road stead at Biloxi. Biloxi Public Library

This is the time of year when hurricanes are on everyone’s mind.

But, many people may not know that late August this year was the 300th anniversary of the first recorded hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast.

Fortunately we have an eye-witness to the storm that first came ashore at Dauphin Island and likely inflicted damage to the Mississippi Coast as well. Dauphin Island’s original name was Massacre Island because of the many human remains that Iberville found when he explored the island on Feb. 3, 1699. Bienville changed the island’s name to “Isle Dauphine” in 1711.

In his book Fleur de Lys and Calumet, first published in 1953, Andre Penicaut, a ship carpenter at the French settlement on Dauphin Island, reports: “In late August, the entrance to the Isle Dauphine harbor was blocked by a stupendous mass of sand, which a dreadful storm piled up there. The waves from the sea drowned a great deal of livestock.” It has been said that during this hurricane present-day Petit Bois Island split off from the west end of Dauphin Island.

Yet, the split is not indicated on the portion of this 1732 French map, only shoals appear between Horn and Dauphine. Also, the island is not mentioned in the 1722 narrative, The History of Louisiana by Le Page du Pratz, who gave a first-hand description of the islands from Cat to Dauphin. Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams, who translated the Penicaut book from French to English, footnoted that “At one time Dauphin Island was much longer than it is today. The western half is now cut away and is called Petit Bois Island. He also notes that for a while Petit Bois was called Massacre Island, probably because Iberville’s grizzly discovery was located on the western end of Dauphin.

Petit Bois or Massacre Island appears on some 18th century maps, others show a blank space between Horn and Dauphin.

A 1763 Spanish map clearly depicts Petit Bois, but on a 1768 map it does not exist. However, Thomas Hutchins, a British cartographer, states in the 1784 edition of his “Louisiana and West Florida”: “The island of Massacre is upwards of 2 miles to the eastward of Horn Island. He then writes that “from Massacre Island to Dauphin Island is 5 miles.” It is not known exactly when the island split off from Dauphine Island or when it was renamed renamed Petit Bois.

When the 1717 hurricane choked the entrance of Mobile Bay with sand, the French decided to move the colony back to the Mississippi Coast, and built Fort Louis opposite the Ship Island road stead at Biloxi.

Map courtesy of the local history department, Biloxi Public Library.

Murella H. Powell, a local historian, writes the weekly Flashback column. Do you have a local photograph to submit to Flashback? It can be of any subject or event in the Coast's distant or recent past. Please send a description with your name, address and phone number to Flashback, Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535; call 896-2424; or email living@sunherald.com.

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