When Sophie Labbadie Chouteau died in St. Louis in 1862, “slaves of the various old French families carried her body from the Cathedral,” apparently with great pomp and circumstance.1 Given the bitter divisions in the city over slavery and loyalty, the funeral could easily have been regarded as a gesture of defiance. In St. Louis, a number of elite French families had already come under attack for having southern sympathies. When General Henry Halleck, the commander of the Department of the West stationed in that city, issued General Order No. 24 in December 1861 to assess prominent secessionists to provide funds for war refugees, many Creoles were on the list. Included were society matron Tullia Paul—whose brother Gabriel was a Union general in the Army of the Potomac.2 Paul’s husband, on the other hand, was a Kentuckian from an old planter family and related to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Her oldest son, Frederick W. Beckwith, was banished from the state by federal authorities for being a member of a pro-Confederacy group, the Broom Rangers.3 He later died trying to return to the city in disguise.
Prominent banker L. A. Benoist, of French Canadian origin, denied the charge of being a secessionist but paid up and contributed more than forty thousand dollars to support Union volunteers and their families4 The Free Soil mayor of St. Louis, Oliver D. Filley, seized the occasion to try to discredit his brother Giles’s powerful rival in the Missouri fur trade, Charles P. Chouteau.5 Giles Filley had served on the committee to assess southern sympathizers in 1862, the same year he posted a bond for the opposition to Chouteau’s American Fur Company in the western fur trade, La Barge, Harkness and Company. Not surprisingly, Chouteau became an early target, despite his having “filled large war material orders at cost, ... loaned the quartermaster at St. Louis $20,000 to pay for uniforms and supplied a Minnesota regiment for months at his own expense.” Chou-teau, whose profits depended to some degree on federal contracts, had always maintained a pro-Union stance; nevertheless, the Indian Office denied him a trading license in 1865 for “having been reported as a rebel.” That same year, Chouteau found himself arrested at Fort Rice in Dakota Territory by an overzeal-ous commander who threatened to shoot Chouteau—“whose Southern proclivities were well understood.”6 Whether those “Southern proclivities” were real or imagined seemed not to matter. The high-society extended French families of St. Louis had owned (or continued to own) slaves—including the famous Dred Scott, owned at the time of the Supreme Court decision by Pierre Chouteau’s son-in-law, John Sanford, yet defended by a French Creole lawyer, Chauvette Edmund Labeaume—and were easy prey for those on the lookout for traitors to the Union.7
In St. Louis, the struggle over union and slavery resonated on a personal level with the status of an elite francophone minority. The public face of French culture in that city had mostly disappeared by the Civil War. The funeral of Sophie Labbadie Chouteau in the midst of the Civil War seemed to represent the final covering of the visible veneer of St. Louis’s French heritage. That was not true in New Orleans—the last city in the French bourgeois world of mid-America to have a francophone public face. In Louisiana, the battle for the survival of francophone culture was fierce and more significant—and it was intertwined with the Civil War as Francophones had come to see the invaders from the North as a new horde of vandals determined to inflict a fatal blow on their linguistic lifestyle and cultural community.
New Orleans native Dr. Alfred Mercier, living in France, captured this sentiment when he published a pamphlet in 1863, “Du Panlatinisme,” urging the French government to support the Confederacy, claiming “a Southern victory would assist the survival of French in the new world.”8 In his pamphlet, Mer-cier posited “three forces, or elements of civilization,” “Russo-Slavism, Anglo-Saxonism, and Gallo-Latinism.” Although Mercier found much to admire about “Anglo-Saxonism,” he argued that its North American branch was aggressive and inclined to destroy other civilizations. Describing the situation in North America, Mercier wrote:
In this enormous theater, the Anglo-Saxon element has wiped out or is headed toward wiping out all the others: the Dutch on the banks of the Hudson, the Swedes in Delaware, the French in Missouri, Michigan, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Alabama, the Spaniards in Florida, California, and New Mexico; it is on its way to absorbing all the varieties of the white race. As for the red and black races, it has largely destroyed the former or violently cast all of that race’s remnants to the extreme frontiers of its sphere of action; and the latter, in the North, has been pushed away with a cold, hard caste pride that considers even living as neighbors sullying; while in the South [the Anglo-Saxon element] has been juxtaposed with it in the more sociable conditions of master and slave.9
Defending and linking the survival of francophone culture and slavery, Mer-cier echoed the sentiments of many of his compatriots back in Louisiana. One, Emile Hiriart, founded a new journal in 1861, La Renaissance Louisianaise: Organe des Populations Franco-Américaines du Sud, and wrote that it had simply become impossible to “conciliate American citizenship with Louisiana patrio-tism.”10 The emphasis, however, was on defending francophone Louisiana, on maintaining a political framework that would ensure their culture a permanent status. Even French nationals living in New Orleans formed a Légion Frangaise to defend “leurs familles, leurs foyers, et la ville qui leur donne l’hospitalite.”11 Across the northern border, French Canadians in Canada East (Quebec) rallied around the cause of the Confederate raiders of St. Albans, Vermont, because they saw southerners as an embattled minority struggling to resist the cultural and political dominance of the Yankee North.12
The connection between francophone culture and the Civil War has largely gone unnoticed. The one American historian who has explored these issues is Joseph Tregle—who has done much to untangle the loaded myths and stereotypes of Creole New Orleans. In a 1992 essay, Tregle traced the rivalry between the Creole and American factions in New Orleans that began as soon as the Louisiana Purchase was consummated.13 He concluded that the Creoles had “clearly lost” the battle for cultural, economic, and political supremacy by the time New Orleans—like ancient Gaul—was divided into three parts in 1836.14 According to Tregle, the bitterness of this failure festered, especially among ardent francophone intellectuals, until the Civil War. That war, in Tregle’s words, “provided what some saw as their last chance for [the] revival of creole supremacy.... But this recrudescence of Gallic nationalism almost immediately yielded precedence to a passion which swept all before it, a virulent negrophobia.”15 In short, to quote Tregle again: “Despite the claims of so many later defenders of their cause, it was not ruination attendant upon the Civil War which displaced creoles as the ruling class in the community. That fate befell them long before the dislocations of the tragic conflict.”16
But Tregle has foreshortened his picture of francophone New Orleans to put the very real racialization of francophone postwar attitudes in perspective. Since we are concerned here primarily with the state of the francophone community at the time of the Civil War, it is important to revisit that community in New Orleans during the decades preceding the war. I would suggest that the francophone community had not succumbed, it had simply changed, retaining and even expanding its influence in some ways.
As we have observed in this book, far from being politically inept or naive, the French quickly adjusted to republican norms at the time of the Louisiana Purchase and learned how to manipulate the rules of the game. In Detroit and St. Louis, the French bourgeois elite maintained a position of economic and political prominence as individuals—albeit, individuals with shared values and interests. Especially in St. Louis, French Creoles realized that their minority position in the city and the state meant that they must seek power through personal connections and, on the federal level, through lobbying and influence peddling.
Of course, most of the political contests, large and small, were fought in New Orleans, for the stakes were higher. Of the three main French urban communities in the antebellum United States, only New Orleans had the opportunity, given its size, of maintaining an institutional framework adequate to sustain a vital francophone culture. The battle went well early on. The state constitution in 1812 magnified the voting strength of francophone parishes.17 The civil law, a focal point of francophone concerns, was maintained, though blended with common-law procedures and substance.18 Political success was partly due to the continuing emigration of French speakers from the West Indies and from France.
As historian Paul Lachance wrote: “The addition of white immigrants to the white creole population enabled French-speakers to remain a majority of the white population until almost 1830. If a substantial proportion of free persons of color and slaves had not also spoken French, however, the Gallic community would have become a minority of the total population as early as 1820.”19 In short, the addition of this new francophone element was indispensable to the maintenance of French culture in the city. Nor did the immigration of Francophones cease after 1809. Annual arrivals from 1832 until the Civil War “ranged from three thousand to over seven thousand.” Although “only some” of those entering the United States through the port of New Orleans stayed in the city, the French remained “the third largest immigrant group ... after the Irish and Germans,” with the census of 1850 enumerating 7,522 natives of France and the census of 1860 listing 10,515.20 These Foreign French kept New Orleans well supplied with francophone professionals, shopkeepers, and marriage partners.21
The francophone community after 1830, though no longer a majority, maintained its influence. The francophone newspapers—and there were a number of important ones, such as L’Abeille; Le Louisianais et l’Ami des Lois, which later became L’Argus and finally merged with L’Abeille; and Le Courrier—habitually goaded their readers into doing more to support their institutions in competition with the Anglo sector of the city.22
Claims of French illiteracy and ignorance are simply not borne out by the record. Citing evidence from marriage contracts signed in the city, Lachance claims that Anglo-Americans, male and female, enjoyed virtually universal literacy with white Creole and European French men at 96.5 percent, and grooms from St. Domingue at 93.7 percent. White francophone females from Louisiana and St. Domingue were also more than 90 percent literate.23 Creole illiteracy was a myth.
As for the educational system, it is true that Anglos such as Samuel Peters took the lead, securing the passage in 1841 of a state law establishing independent school districts in the city and importing a school superintendent, teachers, and textbooks from New England for the Second Municipality or American District. The other municipalities, both francophone, quickly followed their lead. Francophone leaders Charles Gayarré in the First Municipality and Alexander Dimitry in the Third were also admirers of Horace Mann. They, too, imported teachers and texts for the English-language schools in their districts. Indeed, both men supervised the state system of public schools, Dimitry being the first to hold the position of state superintendent in 1848.24 In the two French downtown districts, francophone schools taught English as the required “foreign” language.25 In short, a progressive bilingual school system flourished in New Orleans, and in 1861 French newspaper editor Emile Hiriart characterized the system as “la gloire de la Nouvelle-Orléans.”26
In addition, many private schools were available to the francophone community, and many elite Creoles sent their children to France or to such Catholic colleges as Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and St. Mary’s in Maryland for higher education. The same was true in St. Louis throughout the antebellum period.27 The French Quarter of New Orleans also boasted a substantial public library, housed on the third floor of the Cabildo (the seat of municipal government over several regimes; it now houses the Louisiana State Museum). Whereas the library of the American District featured the works of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Daniel Webster, one could find books by more radical social thinkers such as Charles Fourier, Louis Blanc, and Étienne Cabet in the Cabildo.28
As for the dominant cultural institution of the city—its opera houses—the French community responded to the opening of James Caldwell’s $325,000 St. Charles Theater (the American Theater) in 1835 by forming a new corporation with a capitalization of $600,000 the following year. The previous manager of the French Orleans Theater, John Davis—despite the name, a French-born refugee from St. Domingue—was replaced by J. A. Durel, who in 1837 brought in a new prima donna of international repute, Mlle. Julie Calvé, and a new conductor, Eugene Prevost, who had won the grand prize in composition at the Paris Conservatoire. Though Caldwell’s American opera house with an Italian opera company remained a stellar organization, the refurbished French theater took back pride of place in the eyes of the general public.29 The Orleans Theater and its successor, the French Opera House, remained the preeminent cultural institution of the city until the latter burned down in 1919 — the same year, as one historian has pointed out, that New Orleans Dixieland jazz was first taken abroad.30 The opera was, indeed, an important institution in the city, and the French theater— as one letter writer pointed out—played a key role in preserving “the tongue and customs of our ancestors.”31 The American or Italian and the French opera houses were the pride of the city and the finest in the nation. The opera also served as a link to France, with New Orleans serving as an important provincial metropole for performers from that country throughout this period. The Franco-African community or Creoles of color had their own Philharmonic Society in the decades before the Civil War. Several individuals studied in France. One, Edmond Dede, later became the conductor of an orchestra in Bordeaux.32
As for the economic position of the francophone community, it is true that the American (Anglo) upper districts during the 1840s and 1850s had pulled away from their downtown rivals. Topography played a part in this success. These were boom times for the city in general, with cotton, sugar, tobacco, pork, and other products piling up on the wharves. Merchants from the Northeast came down to the city, carved out fortunes, and built magnificent homes in the Garden District. One historian has called them “southern Yankees.”33 But as a neutral observer wrote in 1860, the Creoles could “teach a Yankee tin peddler lessons in economy.”34 In fact, the historian Robert Reinders has concluded that Creoles and Americans and immigrants could all be found on “the directorships of the city’s railroads and most of the city’s banks, insurance companies, and other commercial enterprises.” Describing the New Orleans business community of the 1850s, Reinders notes more than forty Anglo-Creole partnerships in the directory of 1858 and suggests that the “tendency” was “toward a shared economic life.”35
Yet the city had split into three municipalities in 1836 (with reunification in 1852), and there can be no doubt that ethnic hostility played a role. However, it is easy to overemphasize this. Many of the complaints that led to the division had to do with the city’s investment in the various districts and suburbs. Starting in the 1820s, Bernard Marigny—the developer of the Third Municipality or Faubourg Marigny—complained bitterly of the favoritism shown by francophone Mayor Roffignac to the upper city. Americans complained, in turn, about the special treatment accorded Marigny’s suburb.36 Complaints such as these continued into the 1830s until the city was finally divided. A boom in real estate values ensued in all three municipalities; speculation was rampant. One Creole businessman, Nicolas Noel Destrehan, planned a new suburb in present-day Harvey, Louisiana, to be called Cosmopolite City, full of broad boulevards and public squares.37 In fact, it was the more typically American suburban tract, the future Garden District, with its emphasis on private estates and distinctive homes, that proved most successful during the boom period that occurred after the city and state had recovered from the Panic of 1837. Its developer, Samuel J. Peters—Marigny’s bitter rival—bought his land, ironically, from Marigny’s sister, Madame Livaudais. In fact, many Creole landholders profited by the uptown property boom. Peters himself married a Creole woman, as did his children.38 When the municipalities reunited in 1852, the decision to do so had broad support. All the municipalities were having credit problems, and the failure to coordinate their repairs on the levees had led to flooding in 1849.39
Interior of the steamship Princess/Imperial (1861) by the French-born watercolorist Marie Adrien Persac (1823-1873), who made his home in Louisiana. Gouache and collage on paper; 17 by 2215/16 inches. According to H. Parrott Bacot, the former executive director of the LSU Museum of Art and Natural Science, this “is the only known surviving painting of the interior of one of the great pre-Civil War Mississippi River floating palaces.” The side-wheeler Imperial, built in 1858, “engaged in the St. Louis-New Orleans run until 1863. The French-born artist married a Creole woman (Odile Daigre) from Bayou Manchac near Baton Rouge in 1851. (They are the couple pictured on the lower left. The painting was apparently an anniversary present.) Steamboats were the primary mode of travel between the two Creole cities of St. Louis and New Orleans. They were also a key technology in the consolidation of the Chouteau family’s control of the Upper Missouri fur trade. Various Creole companies in St. Louis such as P. Chouteau Jr. and Company; Berthold, Tesson and Company; and Pratte & Cabanné were shareholders in steamboats that traveled between the two cities and bore the names of family members such as the General Pratte and the Julia Chouteau. Pierre Chouteau Jr.'s son Charles, an acknowledged expert on the subject, published a book in 1878 titled The River Transportation of the West: Its Present Condition and Probable Future. The elegant interior of this vessel captures the gentility and sophistication of life, at its best, enjoyed by the French inhabitants of mid-America as they traveled between cities. LSU Museum of Art 75.8. Gift of Mrs. Mamie Persac Lusk. Photograph by David Humphreys. LSU Museum of Art.
What, then, was the state of the francophone community during the 1850s? Though Francophones no longer represented a linguistic majority in the city, they had built a bilingual school system in two of the four city districts, and French continued to be an officially recognized language of the state. Despite continual calls from Anglocentric foes “to banish the French language” and complaints that “the proceedings and records, in open violation of the Act of Congress for the admission of the State of Louisiana in the Union, are kept in the French Language,”40 the francophone community in New Orleans, far from becoming “poor losers” had in fact maintained a certain level of “institutional completeness” to ensure the survivance of their language and culture for at least some time.41 That was not true, however, in Baton Rouge. There, a smaller francophone population and a more dominant Anglo business community resulted by the 1840s in the loss of an environment where French could be maintained.42
In New Orleans, by the 1840s, Francophones and Anglophones had reached something of a rapprochement. Intermarriage was not uncommon. If Americanization had become a fact of life, so in turn had Creolization. Especially among the Anglo elite, it had become fashionable to do things à la frangaise. Harriet Martineau, writing in 1838, “witnessed with strange disgust the efforts of a young lady of Philadelphia to make herself as French as possible,” not understanding, however, the proper Creole use of rouge and pearl powder.43
The Creole Sabbath had been attacked any number of times, often by visiting Protestant ministers. In 1819, Benjamin Latrobe predicted that “the American majority led by such men as the Presbyterian and Episcopal preachers would so combat the pretended profanation of the Sabbath as to make that day as gloomy and [tedious], as elsewhere among us.”44 In 1831 a number of Protestant ministers supported a move to restrict the ball season. L’Abeille portrayed this group as men “who were ordered by God to preach to the world that the dance is a Satanic invention ... that the Creator gave us the instinct of pleasure only so that we might procure the glory of resisting it.” The ministers not only failed to restrict the pleasures of the Creole population, but in that same year, 1831, the American Theater, for the first time, gave Sunday evening performances to packed houses.45
Shopping, predictably, assumed a Creole and most cosmopolitan tone. At the French Market in New Orleans, female Indian vendors (referred to on occasion as “chumpa girls” from the old Mobilian trade language46 ) sold filé powder for gumbo and strings of dried grasshoppers for the mockingbirds. Black women sold chocolate bon bons, pralines, and candied oranges.47 (Similarly, at the Soulard Market in St. Louis in the Frenchtown neighborhood, Anglos and Creoles bought wild turkeys and mococks of maple sugar from Indian women.48 This sugar, mixed with water, became the popular Creole drink eau sucré.) And if one could not go to Paris, one could bring Paris here. Eliza Ripley, a Protestant from Uptown New Orleans, left us a vivid memoir of the social life in the city during the 1840s and 1850s. She described a day of shopping:
Woodlief’s was the leading store on Chartres Street and Barrière’s on Royal, where could be found all the French nouveautés of the day, beautiful barèges, Marcelines and chinée silks, organdies stamped in gorgeous designs...
The first black silk dress worn on the street, and that was in ‘49, was proudly displayed by Miss Mathilde Eustis, who had relatives in France who kept her en rapport with the latest Parisian style. ... Mme. Pluche’s shop, on the corner of Royal and Conti, ... dealt only in French importations...
The fashionable milliner was Olympe. Her specialty was imported chapeaus. ... She met her customer at the door with “Ah, madame”—she had brought from Paris the very bonnet for you! No one had seen it; it was yours! And Mam’zelle Adèle was told to bring Mme. X’s chapeau. It fit to a merveille.49
Upper-class American children in New Orleans, and also in St. Louis, were expected to learn French.50 Ripley noted that many of her American friends were sent to Mesdames Granet, Delarouelle, or Desrayoux to learn French at their respective schools for girls in the Quarter. Some were also sent to Senor Marino Cubi y Soler’s class on Royal Street to learn Spanish.51 Though Spanish had ceased to be the language of state after the secret retrocession of Louisiana to France in 1800, New Orleans remained tied to the Caribbean world.
On a more official and public level, the secretary of the Louisiana senate and the clerk of the house of representatives were required by the state constitution of 1845 to be bilingual, and elected representatives were allowed to address either house in either language. The state constitution and all state laws were required to be published in both French and English. The new state constitution of 1852 continued these practices.52 Banks issued bilingual notes, with the ten-dollar bill, or billets de dix, possibly popularizing the term “dixie.”
I have painted this portrait to suggest that the francophone citizens in New Orleans, far from being haunted by their failure to maintain their ethnic identity and cultural integrity, were instead nervous survivors. All, of course, was not beer and skittles—or shall we say, gumbo and beignets. The biggest threat during the 1850s, as in Quebec during the 1960s, seemed to come from immigrants—anglophone immigrants, namely, the Irish, and immigrant Germans, who seemed inclined to support the looming danger of abolitionist policies. By 1860, New Orleans contained almost twenty thousand German-born residents and almost twenty-five thousand natives of Ireland. Some members of the Creole elite temporarily embraced the Know Nothing Party. Though they quarreled with the national party over their stand on Catholics, Creole supporters of the local party were themselves often at odds with the church. Known to be rather liberal in their views, Creole men who were members of the Masonic order and served asmarguilliers(churchwardens) of St. Louis Cathedral struggled bitterly with several bishops in 1805 and again in the 1840s.53 Some would-be Gallicans denounced the “ultramontane” inclinations of the church hierarchy and muttered about the slavish adherence of the Irish to the Pope. By 1858, however, the Creoles had left the party that in New Orleans had abandoned its anti-immigrant character and embraced all segments of the working class. The Creole and American elite, instead, united behind an independent party that nominated Major P. G. T. Beauregard for the mayoralty. Beauregard lost.54
On the eve of the Civil War then, the francophone citizens of New Orleans were hanging on. Perhaps the clearest statement of their feelings and hopes came in an 1856 memorial preserved in the minutes of the board of directors of the public schools of District Two—the Vieux Caré. Resisting the pressure to merge city school systems, the Creoles expressed their desire to be “one people, entirely separated from other nationalities and bound together by a community of feelings and interests.” “We hope that this language [French] will never be suffered to die out amongst us; that from the two main elements of our population, in the crucible of American institutions, there will spring a people with original characteristics.”55 In short, they maintained the hope that they could continue to define themselves as both American and French. From our vantage point, such a hope may seem to have been unrealistic; nevertheless, the city’s francophone community had certainly proved Lord Durham wrong when he wrote in his famous report of 1839 that “Louisianisation” would work in Quebec—that is, that economic, social, and political interests would press the elite to abandon their language and nationality.56
The Civil War changed everything. Creole fears that a new wave of abolitionists and Anglocentric Yankees would destroy the delicate local balance they had forged were well founded. Union general Ben Butler consolidated the public school districts of New Orleans in 1862 and “ended the use of French as a teaching language.”57 In Louisiana in 1864, a Free State convention met with few francophone delegates. When one, M. Jean P. Montamat, moved that the proceedings be printed in English and French, delegate Alfred C. Hills moved to strike the word “French.” Said Hills, “I believe in a homogenous people, in one language and one system of law, and I believe that the publication of the laws of this State, or the proceedings of any convention, or any English court, in the French language, is a nuisance and ought to be abolished in this State or any other.” Hills was seconded by another delegate who argued that the proceedings should be kept only “in the language in which the constitution of the United States is written. That language is my doctrine, and I never will vote for any other language but the American.”58 In fact, the convention agreed to publish the proceedings in French and English (and German), but not before one delegate sarcastically suggested that the Irish language be included.59Their work was not over. The convention eliminated the requirement for any state officials to be bilingual (Article 128). Most importantly, the convention struck a blow at francophone education. The original language of Article 142 read, “The English language only shall be taught in the common schools of this State.” Mon-tamat proposed a change to, “The English language shall be taught in the public schools in this State.” The final wording read, “The general exercises in the common schools shall be conducted in the English language.”60 The Reconstruction constitution of 1868 went further—despite the presence of many francophone blacks at the convention—declaring that “the laws, public records, and the judicial and legislative proceedings of the State shall be promulgated, and preserved in the English language; and no law shall require judicial process to be issued in any other than the English language”61 It was also forbidden to teach French in the elementary schools.62
It is telling that only a French Canadian historian, Réginald Hamel, has previously observed this dimension of cultural erasure within the policies of Louisiana’s Reconstruction politicians: “With peace reestablished, the occupiers imposed on Louisianians a constitution which held francophones in contempt. The abolition of slavery and the abolition of French — in the spirit of new masters— were inseparable. For the Yankees, it was necessary to integrate all dissidents, cultural and biological. They imposed English on all — on the Acadians for trying to remain neutral; on the Creoles for choosing the South; and on black francophones to render them part of the melting pot” (my translation)63 The fate of francophone Louisiana has not been the focus of historians, though.
Carl Brasseaux’s work on the Acadian experience and the work of several historians—most recently Joseph Logsdon and Caryn Cossé Bell—on the Franco-African or Creole black community of New Orleans are the notable and admirable exceptions64 Indeed, as Bell and Logsdon have shown in their various published works on black New Orleans, the attack on francophone culture was in part a carefully thought-out strategy for dividing the radical Franco-African community and anglophone black Louisianiansd.65Black anglophone newcomers to New Orleans, like their white counterparts, had little use for Franco-African Catholicism and were offended by the Creole Sabbath and, in general, by the city’s public and private amusements. Black Anglophones viewed black Creoles as too radical and integrationist, suspiciously wealthy, and disturbingly un-American. Conservative white Republicans, first under Butler’s replacement, General Nathaniel Banks, and then under Henry C. Warmoth, managed to isolate the black Creole leadership. It was not a difficult goal to achieve. As Belgian scientist Jean-Charles Houzeau, the managing editor of the New Orleans Tribune—the first black newspaper published in the United States—observed in 1868, “the so-called French colored element, the Franco-Africans" hate the “Yankee adventurers arriving in the baggage of the federal army” for they considered “the colored race as a simple instrument ... for profit and advancement.”66 The paper’s Creole of color owner and publisher, Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, was denounced by his Republican opponents as a “Napoleon,” a “monarchist who preferred France to America.”67 Logsdon and Bell suggest that “throughout the late nineteenth century, the major division among black politicians still ran along the Creole-American rift that had been exacerbated by the Banks leaders in 1865.”68
Despite the rift within the black community, Creoles of color continued to press for what historian and professor of law Rebecca J. Scott has described as “equal public rights.”69 Creoles of color such as Roudanez, author Rodolphe Desdunes, and lawyer Louis A. Martinet organized the Comité des Citoyens that “recruited Homer Plessy and supported his legal challenge” (Plessy v. Ferguson) to its unsuccessful conclusion before the Supreme Court in 1896.70
If the black francophone community had found an opportunity and a focus in the aftermath of the Civil War, the white francophone community seemed only to experience a sense of loss and defeat. Madame Louise Fortier’s short story “Chronique de vieux temps: un incident de la Guerre Confédérée" captured the feeling well.71 In between the romantic descriptions of chivalrous and charming Creoles can be found the phrase “la Confédération perdue.” What exactly did this francophone author have in mind—what was her “lost cause"? In retrospect, it seems clear that it referred not only to the defeat of a southern nation, but also to the “lost cause” of francophone culture in Louisiana. The story was published in Comptes-Rendus de l’Athénée Louisianais, a journal founded in 1876 by our pamphleteer Alfred Mercier—now back in Louisiana. In 1879, this organization fought for the partial restoration of French language instruction.72 Mercier himself produced several novels, including L’Habitation Saint-Ybars, ou, Maitres et Esclaves en Louisiane: Recit Social in 1881. In that work, considered his masterpiece, Mercier attacks slavery and racism not only as degradations of the human spirit, but also as divisive forces between francophone groups with common goals and cultural values. It was too little and much too late. A line from Mercier’s novel might have captured the spirit of his community after the Civil War: “La vie est un naufrage, sauve-qui-peut” (Life is a shipwreck. Save yourself.).73
Tregle was right to argue that in postbellum New Orleans, cultural concerns gave way to a “consuming preoccupation with race.”74 A few reactionary intellectuals such as Charles Gayarré spent the next few decades spinning myths and vilifying authors such as George W. Cable who dared present less flattering images of Creole life. Carl Brasseaux notes that the old Vieux Carré or French Quarter had become a “glorified slum” by the end of the Reconstruction period in 1877.75 Ironically, the francophone communities of St. Louis and Detroit had become genteel enclaves by the Civil War. The more substantial and central francophone districts of New Orleans became impoverished after the Civil War, and their white Creole residents dispersed. Francophone poet Georges Dessommes captured the theme of exile in his poem “Un Soir au Jackson Square” (1880):
Cependant au milieu des promeneurs joyeux,
D’autres passaient, muets et seuls, de pauvres vieux,
Fletris par la misère et l’exil, sans familles,
Mal vêtus, mais gardant encor sous leurs guenilles
La dignité des jours meilleurs ...76
Before the war, the ties of language, religion, and culture had bound all Francophones across the boundaries of race. Yet white Francophones had done nothing to prevent the increasing repression of free Creoles of color during the 1850s. At war’s end, white Creoles found that they themselves were threatened by a now dominant two-tier black and white racial hierarchy. Their own “negrophobia” was certainly a reaction, in part, to the tendency of Anglos increasingly to view all French people in racialized terms, as being nonwhite.
Historian Elliott West, describing the construction of “a new racial order encompassing western as well as southern people of color” during what he termed the period of “Greater Reconstruction” from the Mexican War until 1877, explained that western expansion complicated the black and white paradigm of slavery. How would the greatly enlarged United States incorporate new non-white peoples—racial outsiders now within the national boundaries? Turning to the Southwest, West observes that “Hispanics posed little cultural threat and played useful economic roles ... the upshot was partly to ignore the racial issues raised by expansion and partly to turn vices into virtues. Mexican-Americans were either rendered invisible, segregated in cities and countryside, or they were reimagined as a bit of American exotica in a region we could afford to fantasize as an escape from fast-paced modern life. In the land of poco tiempo, these people of color became what was much tamer: people of local color.”77
West’s phrase — “local color” — seems particularly appropriate to describe that act of ordering that followed the decline of visible francophone communities in mid-America from the 1840s in St. Louis and Detroit to the 1860s and 1870s in New Orleans. But is it really appropriate to include the French as a nineteenth-century “nonwhite” group in what today is mid-America?78 First, as West reminds us, in the nineteenth century, the words “race” and “nation” were both used to describe all ethnic groups, and each “race” was thought to have innate and immutable traits. In addition, the French in the United States were thought to be more inclined than Anglo-Saxons to racial mixing—specifically, they had liaisons with both Indians and blacks. And just as the more highly charged racial landscape after the Civil War forced white Francophones in Louisiana to contest the new racial implications of the word “Creole,” the French farther north encountered similar difficulties when it came to acknowledging Indians in their family histories. But as historian Matthew Jacobson has pointed out—and as elite French families of the nineteenth century knew—whiteness in the United States was never simply about race; rather, it involved class and culture and could be fully achieved only through assimilation.79
The process of transforming French Creoles in Louisiana into “local color” began with the works of George W. Cable, Lafcadio Hearn, and Grace King from the 1870s onward. The creation of the French Quarter as a tourist site mostly after World War II completed the task and further obliterated the history of the cultural community, even though the effort saved historic buildings.80
In Michigan, the process of reimagining the French as “local color” began with the appearance of the popular Shoepac Recollections, written by Orlando B. Wilcox and published in 1856. Describing Detroit in the 1820s, the author wrote that one could “behold the Frenchman, riding in his two-wheeled cart to market with white fish and onions, and screaming a rascally patois.”81 Although many French families in Detroit continued to play an active role in commerce and community life throughout the nineteenth century, the local histories of these places, like the national histories, employed the same trivializing stereotypes. The French are portrayed as peasants incapable of progress, and their language is reduced to gibberish. So powerful are the stereotypes that a short historical sketch of Grosse Pointe, written by T. P. Hall and Silas Farmer in 1886, includes both descriptions of wealthy French residents and a pitiful story titled “The Habitant’s Lament” written in childish Frenchified English:
‘Waat naeu haouse eez dat,’ ma waife Angelique saay toa mea h’aas weez raide hoame fraam de maarkaet de oddaire daay, whaire weez goan toa saell de leetle froag h’an beeg caatfeish ... Daen Angelique loak saad h’an saay toa mea, ‘Ah, Jean! Grosse Pointe aant laike eet waas whaen weez waar baoy h’an gaerl.’ De moare h’i taink h’of dat, de moare ma maind goa baack h’on de h’oldaine taime whaen de Fraench peepale waas haappee h’on cauntaent weed de oale staile h’of doaing beesenaess. Eet make ma haeart feil toa baust whaen h’i taink haow de taime haas changed.82
Cast as comfortably simple and close to nature, this French couple looks back to the past—frog and catfish in hand. Indeed, they seem to be characters in a French habitant minstrel show. Yet earlier in the same publication, there is a list of the members of the Grosse Pointe Club—the booklet was intended as a souvenir for that highly select circle. Grosse Pointe was already on its way to claiming a national reputation as an elite and utterly white Anglo-Saxon summer and suburban place; however, scattered in between such names as Phelps Newberry are the names of many older French elite families: Beniteau, Du-charme, several Morans, and five Campaus—one of whom had organized the club. Indeed, a number of the Anglo families also had French descendants or relatives, including one of the authors, Theodore Parsons Hall. Hall, a New York banker and Yale graduate, was married to Alexandrine Godfroy from an old and established French family—and they had children named Alexandrine Eugenie, Marie Archange, Madeleine Macomb, and Godfroy Navarre. Another member of mixed Anglo and French descent is described as speaking French fluently. To complete the picture, the booklet mentions several neighboring institutions, including the French Catholic Church of St. Paul and the Academy and Convent of the Sacred Heart.
So, what are we to make of this—the fairly painful depiction of colorful French living relics situated next to high-society elites from French founding families? One can only suggest that the latter had reached a comfortable layer of whiteness by the 1880s. Class had created enough distance to turn a wince into a wink. Yet the failure of those French elite families to contest such portrayals and the shaping of collective memory had consequences when it came to the production of history.
In 1951, American Heritage magazine celebrated the 250th birthday of Detroit with a series of short historical articles. The usual cast of characters made their appearance: Cadillac, Pontiac—than quickly onward to Mayor Albert E. Cobo and Walter Reuther. Raymond Miller, then chairman of the department of history at Wayne State University, wrote a brief summary of Detroit’s history. Not surprisingly, he described the first Detroit as having been born in 1701 and having died in 1805. The great fire of that year cleared the air—in his words, “the old Detroit was gone.” The French village now began to give way to new buildings and institutions—Miller mentions the Masonic lodge as an example (ignorant of its French members). New settlers from New York and New England swarmed in, giving the city a vital infusion of energy and leadership83
Historian Melvin Holli, writing in the late 1970s, pursued such a theme in an article titled “French Detroit: The Clash of Feudal and Yankee Values” and also in his introductory essay to a documentary history of the city. Wrote Holli, “the French habitant culture [was not] able to withstand the invasion of the aggressive, literate, and institutionally mature ‘cultural imperialism’ of the Yankee.”84 Earlier in the century, the historian Almon Parkins stated the case bluntly: “French conservatism stood in the way of progress.”85What all three historians were saying in slightly different ways was that the French past was irrelevant to the story of Detroit. The history of the city began with the arrival of Yankees and other Anglo-Americans.
Erasing the relevance of the fur trade as a source of capital and investment in the building of nineteenth-century Detroit and the agency of French families in the continuing story of their city, historians consigned the French to the second “prelude” chapter in their texts, the one that followed similarly irrelevant native peoples. Written to reinforce the self-congratulatory patriotism of nineteenth-and twentieth-century Americans and borrowing heavily from the racial categories established by Francis Parkman, such histories left the French to serve as mere bit players in Anglo fantasies. Not unlike the attraction of white Americans to vanishing Indian clichés and pseudo-Indian tribal names and lore, so beautifully described by historian Phil Deloria in his book Playing Indian,86 French cavaliers and black-eyed Creole damsels appealed to the American imagination. From the French Quarter in New Orleans to Grosse Pointe outside Detroit, nostalgic French types at once reinforced the superiority of Anglo-American culture and provided a release from the tensions of modernity.
In St. Louis, a similar reduction of the French past occurred at almost the same time as it had in Detroit—on the eve of the Civil War. Richard Edwards and Menra Hopewell, authors of the first book-length history of St. Louis— which appeared in 1860—wrote, “The love of liberty is inherent in all men, and consequently, when the news came to St. Louis that Louisiana was purchased by the United States, the inhabitants rejoiced in the change.” The incoming “race” of Anglo-Saxons, the authors continued, “possessed more industry, a superior knowledge in agricultural and mechanical pursuits, and above all, an enterprise and expansive views, which soon gave them a controlling influence” to the “mortification” and “envy” of the “native inhabitants,” who were forced to “occupy only a secondary position.” The authors then go on for several pages to describe the virtues of the old French, offering the usual stereotypes of “good humor, gaiety, limited education, humble fashions and cabins, love of music and dancing.”87
This local-color trivialization had great staying power. Ernest Kirschten, in his popular history of St. Louis, Catfish and Crystal, published a century later in 1960, described the transfer of sovereignty in 1804: “no doubt the St. Louisans were happier to be under the American flag than under the Spanish.” He goes on to state that “the American flag meant for the French of St. Louis the invasion of ‘the Bostons.’ That was their name for the Yankees and for all Americans from east of the Mississippi. ... Less ambitious than the new fortune seekers, most of the French were inclined to maintain their old pace, to enjoy life, and to wonder why the newcomers did not also do so.”88 In St. Louis as in Detroit, the language and customs of the French had become a private, familial affair by the 1840s. Many of the descendants of the first families had become part of their cities’ social aristocracy, and intermarriage had extended the popularity of French as a second language. Beyond the cachet of class, smaller and poorer Creole communities in Missouri—places such as Carondelet and Old Mines—were now considered local color, the homes of quaint and out-of-step folks who likely had Indian blood as well. Moreover, the history of the modern city, the history that mattered, began when Yankees and other Americans replaced the French— this despite the fact that third- and fourth-generation members of the original French families remained important members of the city’s business community and occupied positions of civic leadership throughout the nineteenth century (and into the present). In short, the French legacy in mid-America by the 1870s could be found only in private attics and quaint stories about “rascally” habitants and dreamy Creoles. The past had been downplayed and disconnected from the present and the future.
One might therefore suggest that by this time, the French heritage of mid-America—especially before the preservation and transformation of the French Quarter in New Orleans as a tourist mecca—had been largely erased. There was, however, a complication in northern states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Starting primarily in the 1840s, a new wave of French Canadian immigrants began arriving in the United States. The French Canadian population of New England almost doubled during that decade, reaching close to twenty thousand. Immigrants, especially from the Montreal region, also came in substantial numbers to midwestern states such as Michigan, which by 1850 also boasted a French population of about twenty thousand. More than two-thirds of those were recent arrivals from Canada, the remainder being “first-wave" Francophones, the charter or founding group of colonists who remained centered around older towns such as Detroit and Frenchtown or Monroe.89
The lack of land and rise of rural workers ( journaliers or emplacitaires) seeking seasonal employment as farmhands or lumberjacks drove the movement of French Canadians south of the border, especially as the production of wheat in Quebec and timber in the Ottawa Valley declined during the 1840s. Political instability in Canada also played a role in the migration. The failed rebellions of 1837-1838 and the Act of Union of 1840, which threatened to establish a new Anglicizing regime, generated much uncertainty about the future in Quebec and talk of annexation (of Canada by the United States) as a means of protecting the language and religion of the French Canadian homeland. After the Civil War, the movement of French Canadians to the United States became “a veritable exodus,”90 with more than 325,000 emigrants arriving in New England from 1860 to 1900, the peak being the last two decades of the century. Michigan and other midwestern states also received their fair share of French Canadian immigrants during these decades, though the movement there paled in comparison to New England. Michigan, the primary midwestern magnet, drew French Canadians to the lumber mill towns of the Saginaw Velley and the copper and iron regions of the Upper Peninsula. Little Canadas soon dotted the map. According to the 1900 census, Michigan’s population of foreign-born French Canadians (32,483) ranked behind that of Massachusetts and New Hampshire but ahead of Rhode Island and Maine.91 The question for us, however, is how did this new influx of Francophones connect to the “first wave” of Francophones, especially those who had founded Detroit?
There seems to have been some connection, at least early on. A newspaper, Le Citoyen, was founded in Detroit in the early 1850s but had a short life. A mutual aid society was founded with a Canadian orientation, but the French Canadian leaders turned to a member of the older French first families, Daniel J. Campau, for help. Campau promptly changed the Canadian name—Societe Saint-Jean-Baptiste—to one with American resonance: the Societe Lafayette. By the 1860s, a variety of francophone organizations had emerged, but a division occurred at the end of the decade ostensibly over the issue of annexation. More likely, those groups outside of Detroit whose members were recent French Canadian immigrants were less concerned with promoting the legacy of Michigan’s French birth and more concerned with helping their immigrant constituency, maintaining ties to Quebec, and celebrating the Canadian holiday of Saint-Jean-Baptiste on June 24.92
It is hard to know whether the relations between the first or founding generation of Francophones and the second wave of French Canadian immigrants resembled that of German and Russian Jews in cities such as New York, but one suspects there were similar aspects. The first-wave French were established and considered themselves not only Americans but first families in every sense. The second wave maintained their connections to Canada and properly belonged to an immigrant and working-class narrative. The second wave produced several short-lived newspapers, many of them edited by Télésphore Saint-Pierre, who became a well-respected journalist and historian. But we may safely conclude that in general the two groups had “little interaction.”93 The various chapters of the Societe Saint-Jean-Baptiste around the state—twelve at the turn of the twentieth century—were connected with the headquarters in Montreal and protested the execution of Louis Riel, an event that rocked French Canada, in 1885.94 The old-line elite francophone families in places like Grosse Pointe may have permitted the publication of grotesque stereotypes of French Canadian habitants the following year in 1886 in part to distance themselves from contemporary working-class French Canadian immigrants. Neither group seems to have done much to contest the characterization of Michigan’s French legacy as noble but irrelevant and French town builders as illiterate fur traders. Rather, the lone voice to do so in the nineteenth century belonged to a French historian and sociologist, François-Edme Rameau de Saint-Père, who became interested in France outre-mer, traveled in North America, and published a number of volumes on French North America with a special focus on Acadia. He delivered a lecture to an audience in Windsor, Ontario—across from Detroit—in 1861. That lecture was published the same year in Montreal. The Frenchman did not mince words:
Quels étaient alors vos pères? ... combien de fois ne les avez vous pas enten-due dire que c'étaient de braves gens, mais ignorants, incapables, arriérés. ... A croire certaines gens aujourd’huy, il semblerait vraiment que l’art d’ecrire soit une innovation merveilleuse que l’invasion anglaise aurait importé en ce pays; — mais avant cette époque un grand nombre de vos ai’eux lisaient et ecri-vaient fort bien, et je dois dire qu’en parcourant les vieux papiers ... j’ai été étonné souvent de trouver dans l’ancienne population du Detroit une si forte proportion de personnes sachant lire et écrire. [Who, then, were your fathers? ... how many times have you heard that they were brave men, but ignorant, incompetent, backwards. ... To believe some men today, it would truly seem that the art of writing was a marvelous innovation imported to this country by the English invasion; but before this era a large number of your ancestors read and wrote very well, and I have to say that in browsing old papers, I was often astonished to find among the former population of Detroit such a strong proportion of people who could read and write.]95
If the two waves of francophone settlement barely connected in Michigan in the nineteenth century, the overlap was more consequential in the midwestern state with the second highest concentration of Francophones in the 1900 census, Minnesota. The commercial hub of early Minnesota had formed around Fort Snelling and the settlements of Mendota and St. Paul—which would become the capital of the territory in 1849 and the state in 1858. J. Fletcher Williams, in his History of the City of Saint Paul, first published in 1876, quoted St. Paul’s pioneer newspaper publisher James Goodhue as suggesting that “a knowledge of the French language was indispensable to a trader.” Williams went on to observe that St. Paul’s early stores often bore the sign, “Ici on parle Français [French spoken here].”96 Who were the French in Minnesota during the 1840s? The LaBis-sonières were refugees from the Selkirk Colony in the Red River valley. Joseph LaBissoniere and his son Isaac helped build the Chapel of St. Paul in 1841. Joseph had been educated in Canada; Isaac, a stonemason by trade who grew up in the West, never learned to read or write. Isaac’s great-grandson, William LaBissonière, became the University of Minnesota librarian.97 Other francophone settlers served as clerks for the American Fur Company; some, such as Alexis Bailly and Joseph Renville, operated as semi-independent traders. Still others such as Joseph Rolette Sr. were partners who owned a piece of the action. Rolette’s son, “Jolly” Joe Jr., is often the subject of “colorful” anecdotes, but he also grew up in a household with a piano — that symbol of bourgeois status—and was sent to New York for an education.98
Francophone settlers occupied different rungs of the economic ladder; they also came from a variety of places. Many came to Minnesota from the mixed French-Indian communities of Pembina on the Red River and Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin—although not all of those who came from these places were métis themselves. Charles Bazille, for example, was born near Montreal and came to St. Paul by way of Prairie du Chien. He married a daughter of Abraham Perry, a francophone watchmaker born in Switzerland and another refugee from the Selkirk Colony. Benjamin Gervais was born in Rivière-du-Loup in Quebec but arrived in Minnesota via Red River. He married Genevieve Larans, a native of Berthier, Quebec. The well-known trader Jean-Baptiste Faribault also came from Berthier. Still others came to St. Paul from the Creole communities of St. Louis, among them Louis Robert, a successful businessman and steamboat captain born in Carondelet, and his brother-in-law Louis Desnoyer. Auguste Louis Lar-penteur, one of St. Paul’s most respected citizens, came west from Baltimore following in the footsteps of his uncle Charles, a clerk for the American Fur Company. After spending two years in St. Louis, Larpenteur removed to St. Paul in 1843 as a clerk—his most valuable skill being his ability to speak French. The Larpenteur family had come to North America in 1816 after Waterloo to escape the Bourbon Restoration. Although the majority of Francophones in Minnesota in 1850 were born in Quebec, the Great Lakes region, or St. Louis, the census of 1850 listed twenty-nine natives of France and the census of 1860 more than eight hundred. In short, like their confreres in francophone communities from Belleville, Illinois, to New Orleans, the Francophones of the St. Paul-Mendota hub occupied a variety of economic niches and came from a variety of places.99
They also came from mixed ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Pierre Bottineau was the son of a French trader and an Ojibwe mother. The sons of Jean-Baptiste Faribault were one-quarter Mdewakanton through their métis mother, Pèlagie Ainsé. Given this variety, how can we characterize the francophone community of St. Paul and its environs? One Quebecois scholar, Jean Morisset, has written that the “distinguishing trait” of French America is “the color of our language.”100 But the ability to speak French was not simply the unifying characteristic of a diverse collection of people of French extraction, it was a feature of Minnesota society in general. Make no mistake about that sign in the store; the preferred language of business in Minnesota during its territorial and early statehood period was often French. As Judge Charles Flandrau noted, “nearly all the people were French, and that language was quite as usually spoken as English. The town of Mendota was almost exclusively French and half-breed Sioux, the latter speaking French if they deviated from their native tongue.”101 Flandrau goes on to tell a story about a court case in Minnesota from the mid-1850s featuring two lawyers originally from New York. Major Jacob Noah, the son of a Jewish Jacksonian Democrat, allied himself with prominent Democrat and former fur trader Henry H. Sibley. Flandrau notes that Noah “spoke French like a native.” The other lawyer, Yale graduate John Brisbin, was a newcomer to town. Brisbin presented his case first with “an exhaustive argument ... fortified with numerous citations from English and New York cases, all of which he read to the court.” Then, according to Flandrau, Major Noah
opened his case to the court in French, and had hardly begun before Mr. Bris-bin interposed an objection, that he did not understand French, and that legal proceedings in this country had to be conducted in English. The major answered by saying: “I am only interpreting to the court what you have been saying.” Mr. Brisbin indignantly replied: “I don’t want any interpretation of my argument; I made myself perfectly clear in what I said.” “Oh yes,” said the major, “you made a very clear and strong argument; but his honor, the judge, does not understand a single word of English,” which was literally true.102
And so the ability to speak French was expected, even of the Anglos in St. Paul. Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor, had been born in the then bilingual city of Detroit in 1811 and spoke French fluently.103 The Sibley papers, for example, include a pamphlet he wrote in French in 1877 to promote the sale of railroad bonds, Les Bons de Chemin de Fer de l’Etat.104 Sibley business associates, William Forbes and Norman Kittson, although of Scottish extraction, also spoke and wrote French fluently, having grown up in Montreal and Sorel, Quebec, respectively.105 Flandrau tells a story about another Minnesota pioneer, George McLeod, with whom he served in the territorial assembly in 1856. McLeod was a tall red-headed Scotsman from Quebec whose brother was a Presbyterian preacher. Nevertheless, McLeod considered French his first language. After an altercation, McLeod was attended to by a Doctor Le Boutillier, the delegate from St. Anthony. The doctor said, “Georges, mon ami; ne bouge pas, tu a le bras casse [George, my friend; don’t budge, you have a broken arm].” McLeod responded, “Fiche-Moi la paix, on peut courber le bras à un Ecossais; on ne peut pas le lui casser [Leave me alone, you can bend the arm of a Scotchman; but you can’t break it].”106 (There is something humorous about this reply being made in McLeod’s mother tongue of French.)
If the use of the French language was a general characteristic of Minnesota society at this time, adherence to Catholicism was not. The church was a clearer marker of social boundaries—a national trait, if you will. Catholicism in Minnesota was established within a francophone cultural context, and that context continued to predominate until the Civil War. The church sent Bishop Loras of Dubuque to assess the situation in Minnesota in 1839. Two missionary priests born in France, Fathers Lucien Galtier and Augustin Ravoux, served the region during the 1840s, and the Right Reverend Joseph Cretin arrived in 1851 as the first bishop of St. Paul—an outward sign of that community’s emergence as a settlement of importance and permanence.107 The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school and a hospital in St. Paul during the 1850s—a sign of the city’s link with Creole St. Louis.108
But the most important link between St. Paul and St. Louis came in the person of Pierre Chouteau Jr., whose involvement in Minnesota affairs began in 1842. That year, Ramsay Crooks—on the verge of bankruptcy—sold his interest in the American Fur Company’s Western Outfit to Chouteau. The fur trade in 1842 was quickly becoming a business dependent on treaties and annuity payments. Chouteau and his field representative, Joseph Sire—a former steamboat captain and a junior partner—encouraged their Minnesota agents to diversify their investments and begin speculating in town lots, farms, and other ventures. Properties were registered jointly in Chouteau’s name and the name of his agent. By 1848, when the Minnesota division was reorganized as the Northern Outfit, with Chouteau holding a half interest and Sibley and Vermonter Henry M. Rice each holding a sixth, the outfit had essentially become an investment firm. If one reads the letterbooks and ledgers of Pierre Chouteau and Company for the 1850s, in between the Upper Missouri fur-trade accounts and railroad bonds, one will find the personal and business accounts of Dr. Charles W. Borup (a native of Denmark who married a French métis woman), future senator Henry M. Rice, future governor Henry H. Sibley, and John S. Prince, the future five-term mayor of St. Paul during the 1860s.109 (Prince had become a Chouteau employee in 1842, continuing as his agent after moving to St. Paul in 1854.) Although none of these Minnesota politicians seemed publicly to have a French connection, all received advances and salaries from Chouteau and handled his Minnesota investments.
And so Chouteau held a substantial interest in a variety of Minnesota ventures, including Kittson’s addition; the Central House and Ramsey House buildings in St. Paul; properties in St. Anthony, Mendota, Lac qui Parle, and Hastings; and the Minnesota Packet Company, which controlled the steamboats linking St. Paul and St. Louis.110 In exchange, Chouteau contributed two hundred dollars toward the completion of St. Paul’s new Catholic cathedral in 1857.111
This first wave of francophone Minnesotans and the powerful absentee presence of Pierre Chouteau Jr. resembled the charter or founding generations in Detroit and St. Louis with their connections to native peoples and the fur trade and their investments in an emerging American regime of property and network of transportation links. They were also deeply involved in the treaties of dispossessions, treaties such as Mendota and Traverse des Sioux, signed in 1851, which provided capital for such investments and poured profits into the coffers of the Chouteau home office in St. Louis. But in Minnesota, with its later nonnative timeline, the first wave was quickly reinforced by a second wave.
Immigrants from Canada were attracted to settlements established by members of the earliest francophone communities. Alexander Faribault, the métis son of fur trader Jean Baptiste Faribault, founded a French Canadian colony in 1844 in what is now the city of Faribault in Rice County, Minnesota. He brought Edmund and Nicholas La Croix from Montreal to Minnesota to oversee his flour mill, and they developed a middlings purifier that made it possible to produce white flour from the spring wheat grown in the region. A more substantial French Canadian colony was established by the retired métis engage Pierre Bottineau, his son Jean Baptiste, and a francophone merchant from St. Paul named Louis Fontaine. Bottineau and his son purchased nine thousand acres of land in Polk and Red Lake counties in 1877-1878 using so-called half-breed scrip. Fontaine and another partner, Rémi Fortier, served as chief promoters— inducing French Canadians headed to Manitoba to purchase farmland south of the border, placing ads in the French-language press, and distributing pamphlets in Quebec and New England. Their efforts were quite successful, and towns such as Gentilly and Crookston emerged as new centers of francophone life. Closer to St. Paul, another Red River pioneer, Benjamin Gervais, built a gristmill and attracted settlers to new towns such as Little Canada, Vadnais Heights, and Centerville — now all within the suburban orbit of the Twin Cities.112
The link between old and new francophone settlements aside, these stories also suggest that métis ethnicity and Red River origins were no impediment to economic success. Bottineau, Faribault, and Gervais—like Antoine LeClaire, the French-Potawatomi developer of Davenport, Iowa—were all careful businessmen. The careers of such men also seem to imply that capital — the color of money—was a potent factor in determining the future of a métis family.113 Perhaps we should also consider the possibility that many métis families settled in French Canadian communities like those of Minnesota during the 1870s and 1880s.114
In Minnesota as in Michigan, francophone life was clearly perpetuated by the arrival of French Canadian immigrants after the Civil War. A number of factors were involved: the growth of lumbering, the métis troubles in Manitoba, the opening of the Great Northern and Soo Line railroads (which expanded farming opportunities), and finally, the Canadian efforts to repatriate French Canadians who had moved to New England. Francophone settlers moved to Minnesota from Quebec, New England, and Michigan. Indeed, francophone consciousness reached a high water mark around the turn of the twentieth century, with
French-language newspapers being published in the Twin Cities and Duluth, notably the Echo de l’Ouest in Minneapolis and Le Canadien in St. Paul. Fraternal organizations, political clubs such as the Club Democratie Franco-Americaine and the Lafayette-Papineau Republican League, literary and theater clubs: all flourished for a time.115
Although the first and second waves of francophone settlement came one upon the other in relatively rapid succession, their narratives—though not without connection—seem rather distinct. Issues of class seem less salient than in Detroit, but the all-important nexus of the Indian business and the transition to American hegemony characterizes the first and not the second francophone wave. The very inclusion of the name Papineau in a later francophone political club certainly suggests that the second wave is best contextualized by a French Canadian narrative that highlights events in nineteenth-century Quebec, not a fur-trade narrative that begins much earlier in the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley. In short, Minnesota, like Michigan, experienced what we might call a re-Canadianization during the second half of the nineteenth century.
At the same time, the role of the French in the histories of both Michigan and Minnesota underwent the same type of erasure and trivialization. The complex story of cultural fluidity and, in the words of historian Maria Montoya, property translation never appears. Likewise, serious historical agents such as Pierre Chouteau Jr., Charles Larpenteur, Judge Charles Flandrau, and a host of others are never mentioned in accounts of St. Paul’s founding era. Instead, always mentioned in any popular account of the city’s beginnings, Pierre Parrant became the perfect comic representative of a historical phase characterized as being “colorful.” Not to be taken very seriously, poor Pierre was the ubiquitous voyageur—a purveyor of whiskey, a thorn in the side of Major Lawrence Taliaferro, the representative of legitimate authority at Fort Snelling. Blind in one eye, a member of the fur-trade proletariat who had served in St. Louis, Prairie du Chien, and Sault Ste. Marie before arriving in Minnesota, Pig’s Eye Parrant was described in 1876 by J. Fletcher Williams, St. Paul’s first chronicler, as having “intemperate and licentious” habits, speaking “execrable English,” and as being “the Romulus of our future city.”116 Today is he pictured on the beer cans produced by a local brewery.
And so, by the end of the nineteenth century in mid-America, the legacy, the historical importance of the French in the region’s and the nation’s past seemed to have been erased or at least reduced to that of colorful and irrelevant prelude. In northern states such as Michigan and Minnesota, the Canadian connection and context had been reinforced, but the once vital francophone worlds of New Orleans and St. Louis were fading from memory.117 Back in St. Louis, however, the death of that legacy would be contested by a number of Chouteau descendants, chief among them Pierre Chouteau, the grandson of Pierre Chouteau Jr.
His father Charles P. Chouteau, born in 1819, had begun working for the family business at the age of eighteen. He closed the books of the great fur-trading company in 1870 to focus on railroads and his iron business. His son, Pierre, was born the year his great-grandfather, Pierre Sr., died — 1849. Born into wealth, the young Pierre went to school at Seton Hall and in Belgium, where he received training as a civil engineer. He retired from business early and married late. His wife, Manette Chauvin, was apparently a descendant of Nicolas Chau-vin de Lafreniere, one of the leaders of the French revolt against Spanish rule in New Orleans in 1768.
Pierre’s father Charles had known the fur-trade business intimately and was considered a national authority on steamboats. As a young man, Pierre had witnessed the passing of generations. The last of those who had grown up in the Creole town and been acquainted with the founders were buried—and it seemed the memory of that place and the significance of the French past might be buried as well.
Pierre and a number of his cousins were determined not to let that happen. In 1893, the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis opened its doors to the public. Founded in 1866—Pierre’s father Charles had been a charter member—the society had operated much like a private club, and membership had dwindled by the early 1890s. Now in 1893, the society chose a university historian to be its president and hired its first librarian and curator. During this same decade, Pierre Chouteau took an active role in transmitting what had become a fragmented and very private collection of memories and stories, documents and objects, to newer, more publicly accessible contexts.118
In March 1898, Chouteau read a paper at an afternoon meeting of the society on his favorite topic, old St. Louis. The paper, a collection of anecdotes and details of Creole material culture, also contained several striking passages that contested the strain of Anglo-Saxonism that prevailed in the nation’s politics and histories at the time.119 Indeed, his portrait of the Creole community of early St. Louis anticipated the more nuanced rendering of a cosmopolitan and commercial people presented by historian John Francis McDermott in the twentieth century.
Perhaps more importantly, Chouteau, along with his first cousin Pierre Chouteau Maffitt, began to collect and prepare historical documents in the family’s private possession. Chouteau may have been pushed in this direction by Hiram Chittenden, an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers. Chittenden found himself stationed in St. Louis in 1896 and decided to study the fur trade. With Chouteau’s help, Chittenden in 1902 published the three-volume study The American Fur Trade of the Far West, the first scholarly work on the subject and still considered a fundamental text.120
Four generations of Chouteaus. Top left: Pierre Chouteau Sr. (1758-1849) cultivated good relations with native clients, especially the Osages. He and his half brother Auguste were acknowledged as the first citizens of St. Louis. Top right: Pierre Chouteau Jr. (1789-1865), also know as “Cadet,” or the younger son. Under his leadership, the family business achieved the pinnacle of its success, dominating the flow of goods and information in the expanding American western empire. Bottom left: Charles P. Chouteau (1819-1901). Educated in New York City, he returned to St. Louis to work in the family business. Like his grandfather, Pierre Sr., he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of the city; nevertheless, he remained active in St. Louis affairs and had a passionate interest in science and steamboats. Bottom right: Pierre Chouteau III (1849-1910). Educated at Seton Hall and trained in Belgium as a civil engineer, he also returned to St. Louis to help manage the family’s business affairs. He is credited with initiating the plans that led to the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. An enthusiastic supporter of the Missouri Historical Society, he began the process of collecting the family papers and making them accessible to historians. All images courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society Photograph and Print Collection, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
Three years before his death in 1910, Chouteau’s vast collection of documents came to the Missouri Historical Society. Those papers, along with a collection amassed by his cousin and several later additions, form the pivotal Chouteau Collections, whose richness as an archival source has provided a foundation for countless scholarly studies and a new understanding not only of the fur trade and Indian relations, but also of the French in the Mississippi Valley. Even in his own day, Chouteau encouraged historians such as Chittenden and Louis Houck to get the story right. The legacy preserved, the challenge—I hope — has been at least partially met.