French was spoken in Tennessee as far back as 1682 (Randolph)

Fort Prudhomme, at the center-west of the map

In early February 1682 Robert Cavelier de La Salle’s expedition of about 50 men stopped at the site of what is today Randolph, Tennessee, to stock up on game. In the woods, gunsmith Pierre Prudhomme got lost while hunting. La Salle then decided to build a fort on the second Chickasaw Bluff south of the Hatchie River for the duration of the search. He named the stockade Fort Prudhomme after the missing companion.

Thrown up quickly, the simple fortified habitation probably consisted of a small rectangle of pieux en terre, log posts or puncheons, set side by side in the ground and likely pegged together. It possibly included bastions on some or all corners.

At first, La Salle assumed that Native Americans of the Chickasaw Nation could have abducted the member of his team. This would explain the words “Fort built as a result of the abduction by the Chickasaws” on the map (above, in French) prepared by Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin in 1684, which is not perfectly accurate in terms of geography. About two weeks later, Prudhomme emerged from the wild safe and sound but starving. Following this worrisome episode, the expedition resumed its navigation downriver to reach the mouth of the Mississippi on April 6, 1682. According to some historians, before departing the historic search site, La Salle took the opportunity to claim what is now West Tennessee for France.

The first colonial structure in West Tennessee

Fort Prudhomme memorial at Desoto Municipal Park in Randolph, near Memphis

Although meanders of the Mississippi River since the 1680s may have destroyed the site completely, Fort Prudhomme lives on in Tennessee history. It is acknowledged that this French wooden fort is the first non-indigenous structure on western Tennessee land, west of the Appalachians.

Fort Prudhomme preceded old Fort Loudoun in eastern Tennessee by 74 years. Fort Loudoun was built by the British in 1756 near Knoxville within the Little Tennessee River Valley near the Appalachians. Surprisingly, it was under the command of Captain Raymond Deméré, from Nérac, France.