Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of the American West has almost certainly come across a historical character with a French name. When I first became interested in western history, the more I read, the more French people I seemed to come across—running a store along the Oregon Trail or trading furs and goods with a seemingly infinite number of Indian communities. At the same time, one can easily look at a map of the nation, especially at the middle third of the nation, and see a variety of towns with French names or names that suggest a French presence: St. Louis, Prairie du Chien, Detroit, Ste. Genevieve, Des Moines, New Orleans, Terre Haute, Vincennes, Baton Rouge — the list goes on. And when one digs a little deeper, it turns out that there were many more American places founded by the French: Mobile, Milwaukee, Chicago, Peoria, Grand Rapids, Kansas City, Galveston—again, the list goes on.
It seems natural to want to connect the dots. So many French people in the West, so many towns with French names in mid-America—were the towns all founded during the period of French rule, which ended formally in 1763? The answer, it turns out, is “no.” St. Louis, the most important of these places from the perspective of a historian of the American West, was founded in 1764 on the basis of a trading grant received from the last French governor of Louisiana after the territory had been transferred to Spain. Milwaukee was founded years later during the 1830s. This is clearly not a story about the French empire in North America. So is this then a story about French fur traders who might have been on the scene temporarily—traders of little consequence who lent their names to these infant towns and then left like so many absentee fathers?
Consider Milwaukee and its founder, Solomon Juneau. On a trip to Milwaukee, my family and I had dinner with a former student and his father. Out of curiosity, I asked them about Solomon Juneau, and they replied that he was just an illiterate fur trader. But I didn’t think so. After all, fur traders who ran their own operations, even if connected to a larger company, had to keep the books and handle a great deal of correspondence. It was unlikely that he was illiterate. So we went to the Milwaukee County Historical Society, which had a collection of Juneau’s papers, photographs of his family, and even one of his old coats. And his letters—some written in French, some in English. Not only had he mastered those two languages, but he probably knew at least one or two Indian languages as well—certainly Menominee, the language of the local native community. Obviously, he was not the supposedly illiterate fur trader. And there was a touching letter that his wife, Josette Vieau Juneau, wrote—in English—in 1838 that opened as follows:
My dear daughters:
I received your estimable and affectionate letter last Friday, which pleased me much to hear from you and Henrietta, and also to hear that you was both learning the French and Music. The French language, if you can learn grammatically, will please me above all other branch of education and I live in hopes that you will be able in a few months to write me a letter in the French language, as you know very well I do not understand the English. Tho I do wish in the same time that your English education should not be neglected and hope to see you both well educated in both languages. This is what I and your father wishes to see, all of you dear children well educated, which is the best Fortune we can leave you all after we are dead and gone.1
I had seen letters expressing such sentiments before. French traders and their families prized education, and letters between family members were at once respectful and full of warmth and affection. Such families were indeed bourgeois—and I mean that in the positive sense of the word. They sought a comfortable material existence, education, and respectability. And they were—as the etymology of “bourgeois” reminds us—citizens of the town. Indeed, they might well be founders of the town. Juneau’s nephew Joe was the cofounder of Juneau, Alaska.
Solomon Juneau was a determined town founder. After a typical American land craze from 1835 to 1837—with land he purchased for $1.25 an acre reaching prices of $2,000 an acre—the Panic of 1837 hit and the bubble burst. Juneau weathered the storm and did what any solid developer would do: he improved transportation and communication links, founded the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1837 to promote the place, and served as the infant city’s first postmaster and mayor. He was praised on his death in 1856 for his “generosity and public spirit.”2
The life and career of Solomon Juneau (1793-1856) exemplified the transition from fur trader to town founder. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society
The fur trade, of course, had brought Juneau to the area in the first place. (He had been born in Repitigny, Quebec.) He had first established his trading post in Milwaukee in 1818. The previous trader there had been his father-in-law, Jacques Vieau. His connection to the fur trade and to the Menominees who lived nearby served him well later on—when cash ran short—in his efforts to develop the town. His correspondence, for example, contains a note from William Brewer at the Indian subagency in Green Bay. In the note, Brewer relates the approval of a claim of Juneau’s to the tune of five thousand dollars.3 The claim for debts owed by the Menominees had been endorsed by commissioners approved by the tribe. On frontiers strapped for capital, such payments—made in cash by the federal government—made a difference and were invaluable for western developers.
Juneau’s story is not exceptional. With variations, it resembles the story of Alexis Coquillard in South Bend, Indiana; Joseph Campau in Detroit, Michigan; Louis Campau in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Antoine LeClaire in Davenport, Iowa; Hyacinthe Lasselle in Terre Haute and Logansport, Indiana; and all the extended Chouteau kin in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri. The dots have proved hard to connect for a variety of reasons. First, we have not wanted to connect the story of the fur trade with that of town-building. The former is full of adventure, Indians, and challenges that call for physical bravery and cunning; whereas the latter is a bit dull and prosaic and provides little room for fantasy. But the connections are there, and both stories are stories ultimately about business.
It is also hard to connect the dots because the dots are located, more or less, on a north-south axis—from the Great Lakes region to Lower Louisiana—and the usual story of American frontiers moves from east to west. This axis deserves a name, and I have called it the Creole Corridor, even though the term “Creole” has shifted meaning with time. It is the term that the French in New Orleans and St. Louis used for themselves, but not the French in Detroit. There, they simply used “French” or “Canadien.” That last term would not do for Louisiana, a place with such a large and varied group of Francophones that separate categories arose during the nineteenth century: the old Creoles, Gens de couleur or Creoles of color, Acadians, the new Creoles from St. Domingue, the Foreign French (those who recently emigrated from France).
In addition, the stories of these places, each with its own set of actors, have meaningful parallels but specific differences. For example, the French inhabitants of these different places came under the sovereignty of the United States at different times: New Orleans and St. Louis after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Illinois Country after the Treaty of Paris in 1783 (though arguably a few years earlier), Detroit in 1796, Natchez in 1798. Still, when we look at the stories in this book, the francophone actors from different places had certain characteristics in common: a dedication to commerce and the pursuit of profit; a Catholicism that was often tempered with a receptivity to enlightenment philosophers, freemasonry, and other modernizing forces; an understanding that doing business with native peoples meant learning their languages and maintaining their goodwill; an acceptance of slavery but also the possibility of marriages or liaisons across ethnic and racial lines; a dedication to family as the cornerstone of both business and society; and, above all for our purposes, a willingness to use the political culture of any regime, imperial or republican, to their own advantage. They were loyal to family and business; their political allegiance was situational.
It seems clear that there is a coherent story worth telling, but the problem is how to situate that story. There is a frontier story, a story of the role of French traders in the transformation of Indian lands into American private property. This story, I have argued, properly begins after the Seven Years War. It is during the era between the end of that war and the War of 1812 that the French begin to understand that the middle ground of the fur trade can become a negotiable instrument, a profitable position from which to broker the transition to an American regime of settlement—that is, to facilitate the dispossession of native peoples. The French, in this story, become the advance guard of American empire. It is a national story that moves from Illinois to New Mexico, a story of frontiers in motion.
But there is also a regional story of town-building. This is a story of politics, culture, race, and urban development. It begins, at different times in different places, when American settlers and bureaucrats arrive. In each place, from New Orleans to Detroit, St. Louis to St. Joseph, francophone inhabitants moderated their incorporation, avoided marginalization, and capitalized on their priority. They did so with varying degrees of success, but the challenge produced francophone “first families” throughout mid-America. The local stories of these individual communities deserve to be seen as a whole, thereby revealing a mid-America that has, from the start, been urban, cosmopolitan, connected, and diverse. Once we acknowledge the significance of the French, not simply in a distant and irrelevant past, but into the American period of growth, we see that Catholicism and languages other than English are deeply embedded in our national narrative and are not just more recent phenomena.
But how do we connect these two stories—the regional story about place and the national story about process? It seems to be the old Turnerian dilemma— the frontier, place or process—most recently revisited in the thesis of Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron.4It is clear that French families such as the Chouteaus, Campaus, and Coquillards invested their profits from the fur trade and the Indian business of annuity goods and treaty debts into urban real estate, transportation ventures, banks, and other enterprises. The problem with Turner, however, was that his use of process to create place was weak on history. History existed only on one side of his frontier line — Indian agency was erased. This book has focused on the French, their roles as traders and negotiators, but Indians were the other party in this business—albeit often a party with unequal power. By restoring the French as historical actors and connecting the region-building and nation-building contexts of their activities, we remind ourselves that the development of mid-American places cannot be understood apart from the story of native communities—and that aspect of midwestern history is rarely told.5 To understand the map of both region and nation and how it evolved, we must see both native and nonnative places on it. It is my hope that seeing this story of transition, of the brokering of frontiers, will remind us that native people, their pain and their survival, are deeply involved in every phase of the process. Turner’s concept of a frontier line of settlement placed native people on the side without agency and without history. Understanding the critical role the French brokers played reminds us that there never was a simple line that came to life as a magic wand creating a new American landscape. Nor are these stories only about noble or tragic combatants whose victories or defeats are recorded on the scorecards of history. On the contrary, these messy and complex frontiers involve families, business transactions, and treaties—actions that are familiar and hard to romanticize. The consequences linger.
For me, the intersection of place and process resides in urban history, and I have always thought of this book as an urban history of the first phase of the American Midwest and its port city, New Orleans. For the French merchants who played a critical role in this region for arguably three-quarters of a century after the fall of the French empire in North America, the learned experience of social and cultural accommodation and situational political allegiance allowed them to build and expand a network of urban places. The history of cities, after all, combines a place-based story of community and a process-oriented story of commerce and investment. In the end, this is a story about the private sector, about merchants using social and economic capital (including federal funding of Indian treaty provisions) to develop their home bases such as Detroit and St. Louis and expand outward to new urban links such as Grand Rapids and St. Paul, Kansas City and St. Joseph. But these merchants and their families were also French, and as I have argued, it mattered that they were French for a variety of reasons, such as their past experience with native peoples, their priority and land claims, and even their Catholicism.
The activities and the towns of the French in mid-America provided a bridge between the era of colonies and empires and the era of nation-making. Historian Peter Kastor, in his book The Nation’s Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America,argues that the incorporation of that seemingly un-American place, Louisiana, was central to the formation of national identity and the political process of nation-making.6 I hope that this book has shown that French mid-America was equally important in providing a model for the pursuit of American empire.
Ironically, the French themselves, perhaps more aware than others that the cities of their making were built on Indian lands, also understood the process of historical erasure. As one French descendant—remembering the anti-French attitude of incoming Anglos a century and a half earlier—observed in a talk given in St. Louis in 1953: “Woe to the conquered, woe to the absorbed.”7 The standard meta-narrative of the American frontier privileges individuals, often explorers or adventure-seekers, clearing a pathway for humble settlers. All, of course, speak English. This is a story of French-speaking traders, embedded in families (sometimes with native partners), exhibiting not so much “undaunted courage” but a careful and clear business sense and the ability to balance risk and return. “Mountain men” may have reveled in their isolation, but French traders in the field wrote letters back home to their loved ones.
Walnut brass-bound writing box belonging to Jules de Mun (circa 1815). Perhaps no other artifact can more effectively counter the well-worn stereotype of self-sufficient mountain men seeking rugged adventures far from the constraints of family and home. De Mun likely dragged this portable writing desk with him during his ill-fated trading and trapping journey to the southern Rockies between 1815 and 1817. During the expedition, he wrote long and touching letters to his wife, Isabelle Gratiot. Photograph by Cary Horton. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
It is high time we understood the central importance of this francophone world in the story of national expansion and the urban history of mid-America. Frontier history was, until recently, Anglocentric and simplistic. The past two decades have seen attempts to restore the Indian side of that history, but the French have remained invisible, in part because their story demands that we accept a frontier past that transcends our old dichotomies of heroes and villains, settlers and Indians.
The title of this book was meant to startle with the juxtaposition of “bourgeois” and “frontier.” We end with another such juxtaposition: “French” and “American.” It may be hard to acknowledge that these frontier actors were both, but we must recognize this side of our national ancestry. Move over Uncle Sam and make room for Oncle Auguste.