Jean Baptist “Don Juan” Filhiol, soldier-adventurer

  • Filhiol

Jean Baptist “Don Juan” Filhiol is considered the Founder of Fort Miro, which became Monroe Louisiana. Filhiol was the typical soldier–adventurer of his time. The figure of the commandant under the Spanish and French regimes looms large in the settlement of the entire Ouachita Valley, and his good name, instinctive courtesy and unbounded hospitality have been preserved to the present day. The original form of Filhiol’s given name was “Jean Baptist Filhiol.”  The Spanish title “Don Juan” was acquired when he accepted the post of military commandant of the Ouachita country assigned by Don Estevan Miro, Governor General of Louisiana under Hispanic rule.   Filhiol was born at Eyment, in Perigold, department of Dardongue, France, September 21, 1740.  At the age of 23, he left his native France to seek fame and fortune in the New World beyond the seas. Santo Domingo, scene of the exploits of so many bold adventurers, was his first objective.  Apparently this expedition was not successful, so far as the acquirement of wealth was concerned, for after seven years he left Santo Domingo and went to Philadelphia with the intention of joining the squadron of Count d’Estaing on its way back to France after serving in the American War of Independence. He arrived too late to join the command, and this circumstance altered the whole future course of his life. Instead of returning to France he decided to take a ship for New Orleans with a group of high-spirited youths who were lured by the prospects of adventure in Louisiana. He reached New Orleans in May, 1779, and in August of that year on the declaration of war between England and Spain, Filhiol took service under Galvez in the campaign against West Florida.

It was this service which earned him the favor of King Charles X, and in the year 1783 he was appointed a captain in the army and commandant of the militia, and assigned to duty at the Poste d’Ouachita under instruction from Governor Don Estevan Miro. He was given grants of land in the new territory and a commission to take a company of soldiers and settlers to northern Louisiana. His lieutenant in the new enterprise was Joseph de la Baume, who was likewise given grants of land in the virgin wilderness.

Filhiol was now 43 years old. Romance of a more tender quality touched him while living among the people of south Louisiana, as we find him taking a bride just before beginning the long journey into the far-flung forests of the north.

His wife was a beautiful young woman, Francoise Poiret, a member of a prominent and wealthy family of Opelousas. Filhiol had met her at a country ball following his return from the Florida campaign. Enamored by her loveliness, Filhiol openly courted the Opelousas beauty, who was thrilled with the attentions of the French officer. Even though a newly-wed, she was willing to share with her soldier-husband the rigors of an adventurous journey into an unknown land.

They were married at Opelousas March 12, 1782.

A year was spent in the southern part of Louisiana, preparing for the journey north and recruiting the force that would accompany them. Accompanied by his bride and his lieutenant, de la Baume, Filhiol began the long arduous journey early in 1783 into the wilderness to the new outpost of Spanish conquest. The route was entirely by water, a flotilla of bateaux affording the means of transportation.

It was a toilsome difficult journey, beset by unknown hazards and infinite possibilities of danger from treacherous waters and possibly hostile Indians. The Company of experienced soldiers, hardy pioneers and courageous women, led by an intrepid commander, was subject to tests of endurance before finally reaching their objective. Food was plentiful, fresh supplies being constantly available from the wild game and fowl with which the country abounded. The chief hardship was the difficult task of propelling the heavy boats against the current of the Ouachita River.   Commandant Filhiol first established his post at Ecore-a-Fabry, now Camden, Ark. In 1785 he left that place, turning downstream and relocated in Port d’Canoes (an Indian trading post on the Ouachita River). Favorite crossing spots for Indian trade with the settlers at the Ouachita Post are three areas called the “Prairies Des Canots.”  One spot is located where the City of Monroe now stands, another above on the river at Park and Riverfront (the spot called Forsythe Point today) extending to the foot of today’s Pine Street. The third trading place is below the city to the foot of Layton Street.

There Filhiol established Post d’Ouachita and by February 15, 1791, had built Fort Miro, named in honor of the governor of the territory, where Monroe now stands. The Spanish government granted him the land on both sides of the river upon which downtown Monroe is now situated.

Etienne Repon, my 4th great grandfather, born in Marseille, France, traveled up the Ouachita River with Filhiol or arrived very soon after. Repon helped Filhiol establish the Post d’Ouachita and build Fort Miro. Filhiol and Repon were close friends and Repon’s step-daughter, Lucilla “Lucy” LeBlanc Repon, married Filhiol’s son, Jean Joseph Filhiol on Oct 21, 1822. Lucy and her husband, Jean Joseph, lived on the Filhiol Plantation.

While acting as commandant of the then important Post d’Ouachita, Filhiol received many grants of land as a reward for his civil and military services from the Governor Miro, who was, by Spanish colonial laws, vested with full power to make grants of land, and convey by such grants the absolute, fee simple to the lands thus granted. Filhiol was, however, a most modest and unselfish man, and it is said refused the entire territory between Monroe and Columbia.

Commandant Filhiol retained the office of commandant until 1800, when he resigned it into the hands of Don Guillaume de la Baume, captain of the dragoons in the militia, who was in his turn succeeded by Don Vincente Fernandez Texeiro.

Filhiol’s descendants, as well as the many worthy citizens, point with pride to him who founded their lovely town, and watched over the destinies of the then infant settlement, delight to dwell upon his virtues, and perpetuate, in unbounded praise, his sacred memory.

Filhiol died on his plantation, across Ouachita River from Ft Miro in Ouachita Parish on September 28, 1821, at the age of 81.  Over the years, the cemetery fell into disuse. Surrounding homes used some of the stones as paving. When Filhiol Street (West Monroe) was widened, the remaining graves (including Jean’s) were dug into by the family to move the bodies to St. Matthew Catholic Cemetery. All that was found of Filhiol were the coffin nails. All that remains of Filhiol are believed to be on Filhiol Street, under the I-20 Overpass in West Monroe. A memorial has been placed at West Monroe City Hall by the Daughters of American Revolution.