First-time visitors to the western settlements of the United States were often shocked to discover that English was not the language of the majority of the inhabitants. The initial reaction was often one of dismay, displayed perfectly in the words of William H. Keating, a member of Stephen Long’s expedition to the Upper Mississippi in 1823. Passing from the state of Ohio to the state of Indiana and arriving in Fort Wayne, Keating wrote: “Not being previously aware of the diversity in the character of the inhabitants, the sudden change from an American to a French population, has a surprising, and to say the least, an unpleasant effect; for the first twenty-four hours, the traveller fancies himself in a real Babel. ... The business of a town of this kind differs so materially from that carried on in our cities, that it is almost impossible to fancy ourselves still within the same territorial limits.”1 Keating’s sense that he had passed into a new and rather foreign country had a firm basis in reality. The French language or a patois derived from it could be heard in an enormous region stretching from Detroit to St. Louis to New Orleans. The entire western fringe of the young republic had a French or Creole flavor.2 French cultural hegemony only gradually receded during the decade of the 1830s, retaining pockets of influence in the larger cities and their suburbs and in frontier villages such as Kansas City. By the end of the nineteenth century, French was spoken only in isolated areas of Louisiana and Missouri and in the parlor rooms of certain neighborhoods of New Orleans, Detroit, and St. Louis.3 It is not the ultimate demise of French hegemony that should surprise us, but rather its persistence over so large a region for so many decades after the incorporation of that region into the United States.
Who were these French-speaking Americans? Where did they come from? The French empire in North America had fallen in 1763 when France ceded the east bank and Canada to Great Britain. Why was French still the predominant language in areas that had belonged to England or Spain before becoming a part of the United States? Sadly, we are still asking the same questions today that uninformed travelers asked during the 1820s. We are ignorant because the story of this French corridor, this crescent-shaped francophone world, has never found a place in American history textbooks. It has never found a place for three related reasons: the dramatis personae have never been correctly identified; the geographical setting of the story lies upon a north-south axis and therefore lies counter to the traditional east-west presentation of U. S. history; and the story has been dismissed as being irrelevant to the general themes of American history. In short, the story of the French has been seen as nothing more than a quaint interlude in the dynamic drama of national expansion. Much of the blame for this can be laid at the doorstep of nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman. As James Axtell has noted, most textbooks “continue to pattern the French story after the dusty scenarios of Francis Parkman.”4 To situate the story that unfolds in the following chapters, we should begin with a closer look at the historiographical trajectories that have obscured it.
It was the misfortune of the French to have their story told by one of the nineteenth century’s great amateur historians. Parkman, born in Boston in 1823, was the son of a Unitarian minister, and in all respects, was truly a Boston Brahmin. He attended Harvard, was financially independent, and counted members of the city’s best families as his friends. He wrote nine volumes during his life: The Oregon Trail (1849); The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851); and his seven-volume magnum opus, France and England in North America (1865-1892). He was a great storyteller, but as modern critics of his work have pointed out, he was not a great historian. His interpretations were often simplistic; he was not above distorting his sources; and above all, he was one of the foremost proponents of scientific racism and often substituted pseudo-biological attribution for historical explanation. As Francis Jennings has noted, Parkman “created the grand new epic myth. ... Invoking Providence, race, spirit, and the inevitability of progress, he sang the glories of his people and their most splendid prototypes, centered, not by chance, in Boston.”5 The French never had a chance.
The competition for empire in North America between the French and the English was Parkman’s grand story, which ended with the triumph of the English—read Anglo-Saxon race—on the Plains of Abraham in 1760. With the death of both Louis Joseph Montcalm de Saint-Véran and James Wolfe on that battlefield, we are led to the ultimate victory of self-government and civilization on the continent, the emergence of the American republic. So, in essence, Park-man’s task throughout his histories is to explain why the French and their Indian allies must fail. In Parkman, the dangers of teleological reasoning are magnified by his faith in Social Darwinism. To explain the failure of the French and the Indians, Parkman returns again and again to their “national” or racial characteristics. Indeed, the Indians rarely even receive national attributes from Parkman. Most often they are simply likened to wild animals. As savage brutes, incapable of becoming civilized, they must disappear as the wilderness gives way to progress. Voila, the vanishing red man.
Parkman’s French were more complex, although they were to share the same fate as their “uncivilized” allies. According to Parkman, the French were brave and courageous, yet simple. They were capable of rational behavior but were ultimately done in by their emotions. Whereas the Anglo-Saxon was “peculiarly masculine” and “fitted for self-government,” the “French Celt” was bound by “his own impulses and passions.” In short, Parkman stereotyped the French in much the same manner as he stereotyped women. They were capable of reason but seldom exercised it. They were capable of noble acts but were best left to simple lives. In the New World, the French in Canada showed signs of developing into a hardy race, but they were shackled by royal absolutism and the Catholic Church. And so Parkman concluded that “a happier calamity never befell a people than the conquest of Canada by the British arms.”6
Parkman’s legacy to future historians had two components. The first was a narrative influence. Because Parkman linked the fate of empire to national or racial characteristics, it followed that when the French empire fell, the French people in North America ceased to be historical actors of any importance or with any power. Parkman felt no need to take the story of the French in North America any further than 1763. Their tale was told. This from a man who in 1846 placed his life in the hands of his French guide, Henri Chatillon of Carondelet, Missouri, and accepted a safe-conduct and a line of credit from the powerful French Creole firm of Pierre Chouteau Jr. and Company.7
The second part of Parkman’s bequest consisted of the stereotypes he employed. His descriptions, inaccurate yet appropriate for the story he wished to tell, had a lasting influence on later historians. Here is Parkman: “The Creole of the Illinois, contented, lighthearted, and thriftless, by no means fulfilled the injunction to increase and multiply; and the colony languished in spite of the fertile soil.”8 At the turn of the twentieth century, historians of such stature as C. W. Alvord of Illinois and Reuben G. Thwaites of Wisconsin were still using such phrases. Indeed, Parkman’s adjectives threatened to become permanent fixtures. In an article written in 1938, Nelson Vance Russell, after granting that several French families in Illinois and Michigan had risen to prominence during the British regime “by industry, astuteness, and good fortune,” went on, immediately thereafter, to state: “Gay they were, and light-hearted, yet pious; honest beyond comparison, generous to a fault, hospitable, free, and laughter-loving, with no cares from ‘ambition or science.’”9
Although interest in the history of the French in the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley regions has consistently been shown, most authors, until recently, have been unable to escape the narrative and descriptive straitjacket that Park-man provided. Many books have focused on explorers during the French regime and have been filled with romantic portraits of “cavaliers” and black-eyed Creole “damsels.” Those historical works, both fiction and nonfiction, that have extended their coverage of the French beyond 1763 have generally chosen as their finale the capture of Vincennes by George Rogers Clark in 1779. In essence, the “simple, freedom-loving French” of the Old Northwest are redeemed by the actions of the Virginians. Reduced to being passive spectators in this historical tableau, the French shout “Vive Zhorzh Vasinton!”10
After Parkman, the historian who has wielded the most influence in shaping our interpretation of this French corridor in time and space has been Frederick Jackson Turner. Unfortunately, Turner’s influence has also been largely negative. In his famous essay of 1893, Turner proposed a narrative paradigm for historians that still, with many refinements offered by generations of critics, exerts its power. Elegant and seductive in its simplicity, Turner’s frontier thesis suggests that the process of settlement itself is the central drama of North American history. According to Turner, that drama was repeated numerous times as settlers, expanding from east to west, encountered the land. Turner also proposed a series of “stages” in that drama running from simpler to more complex socioeconomic activities. Like Parkman, he felt that the Indian peoples of North America were basically irrelevant to the process of economic and political development on the frontier. It was his view, developed in his doctoral dissertation, that the fur trade disrupted traditional Indian socioeconomic patterns and led to the disintegration of tribal integrity and independence. Fur traders, therefore, paved the way for European herders and farmer.11
Although Turner recognized that the fur trade had an effect on later economic development—primarily in the form of information, avenues of commerce (blazed trails and portages), and future sites for cities (trading posts) — he did not believe that the fur traders themselves had any future in this American frontier story. He felt that the traders, tied to the interests of the Indian trade, were bound to conflict with the Anglo-American frontier settlers who were looking to dispossess the Indians and claim their land. There was, of course, some truth to this point of view; however, Turner underestimated the ability of the fur merchants to diversify their economic activities.
Why did Turner fail to see that these early merchants did, in fact, often play an important role in facilitating the development of an urban civilization in frontier regions? In part, it was because he generally overemphasized the rural, isolated nature of the early frontier. Eager to demonstrate that the frontier was responsible for the evolution of the “national character,” an ill-defined assortment of “agrarian” virtues and democratic political inclinations, Turner tended to downplay the role of financiers, speculators, and other citizens of the metropolis. He was certainly not the first American to locate the source of democracy in the yeomanry, but in so doing, he weakened his historical analysis. Frontier development was always tied to metropolitan investment, and pioneer farmers and merchants themselves understood, even if they did not always appreciate, their interdependence.12
Also evident in Turner’s analysis, though not as blatant as in Parkman’s, was a reliance on national or racial stereotyping. Turner recognized that the majority of fur traders in the frontier regions of the United States were French. Indeed, he even noted that “in parts of the Great Lake basin the old French life went on until the end of the first third of the present [nineteenth] century.”13 But Turner, like Parkman, felt that the French could play no important role in the development of American republican culture. In an article titled “The Rise and Fall of New France,” he stated his case: “The English farmers and seamen stood for the ideals of political freedom and local self-government. They were implacable foes to the Indian and to the wilderness—a solid, substantial people, hewing out homes for their race. They lacked in picturesque elements, but what they took they held and reduced for the purposes of civilization.”14 The French, on the other hand, were “boon companions of the Indians, they ate and drank and sang and fought side by side with their savage brothers, married with them and took up their life. The gay, adaptable Frenchman was no wilderness conqueror.”15 Later in the article, Turner praises various republican leaders of Huguenot descent in the United States. It would seem, therefore, that the French traders of mid-America were insignificant actors in the drama of national expansion because of both their Roman Catholic religion and their relations with the various Indian groups.
This Parkman-Turner interpretation of the French presence in the American Midwest has been reinforced recently and ironically by historians investigating the métis people of the region. In trying to reconstruct the complex social and cultural worlds of the “people in-between,” scholars such as Jacqueline Peterson perhaps have overemphasized the extent to which French and métis traders identified themselves as nonwhite or non-European. For example, in her article on the Great Lakes métis, Peterson makes it clear that the métis distanced themselves from their native cousins. At the same time, she notes that “early 19th-century Americans, in general, were contemptuous of these suspiciously Indian-like folk who had lost their sense of private property and its full exploitation.” Elsewhere Peterson describes métis villages as “practicing a subsistence-barter economy”16 Yet here is Augustin Grignon, a member of one of the families described in her study, remarking on a certain chief of the Menominee nation: “He is among a very few Menomonees who contract debts, and pay them as they promise.”17 This remark and many others would seem to indicate that the Grignons of Wisconsin and many of their associates had not forgotten how to be businesspeople. Peterson herself points out in her article that competition from the powerful American Fur Company proved disastrous to many of the French traders in the Great Lakes region. Surely competition along with the lack of opportunities to accumulate land grants and political power in Wisconsin during the British regime must be acknowledged when one tries to account for the relative lack of success of the French in that area under American rule.
In another article on the métis traders of early Chicago, Peterson paints a vivid portrait of Mark Beaubien and his nephew Madore (Medard) Beaubien. She suggests that these “golden youngsters,” possessing many advantages, in the end were unable to thrive in their own community when they came up against Yankee prejudice and economic ambition. Noting that Mark Beaubien disposed of his lots in an unprofitable manner and, in his words, “didn’t expect no town,” Peterson leads us to conclude that the métis generally were ambivalent capitalists who found it impossible to achieve status and recognition in the new Anglo-American order. It may be that Mark Beaubien was simply reflecting on the established urban hierarchy of the day when he made his remarks about Chicago. Chicago, after all, was no more than a minor post during the heyday of the fur trade. The more ambitious and important French merchants were located in St. Louis and Detroit. It may also be that the Beaubiens of Chicago were not very good businesspeople. And, of course, it may be that Peterson is rights.18
But it would be wrong to conclude that all métis traders were like the Beaubiens. Antoine LeClaire, a French-Potawatomi man, grew up in a number of different French/métis communities: St. Joseph, Michigan; Peoria, Illinois; and Portage des Sioux, Missouri. During the 1830s, he established the town of Davenport, Iowa, and spent the next thirty years acquiring land, building hotels, and securing emigrants, capital, and railroad lines for his new city. He was the prototypical town booster.19 Then there was Jean-Baptiste Richardville, the métis chief of the Miami tribe. Unlike LeClaire, Richardville obtained prestige and power primarily by virtue of his tribal position. He capitalized on the fur trade and the federal policy of removal. At his death, he was reported to be the richest man in the state of Indiana.20
The point is that not all métis traders were ambivalent capitalists unable to adjust to a new regime. It is almost as if defeat and withdrawal in the face of American expansion provides the only proof of métis distinctiveness. There is also a tendency to exaggerate the hegemony of métis culture by blurring the boundaries between French and métis society. It is true that the French were influenced by Native American customs and techniques, but the reverse is also true. However, the borrowing of cultural traits did not necessarily signal, in this case, the abandonment of a French or Creole identity or even the beginning of a métis identity. After all, bridges can mark boundaries just as effectively as moats. As one historian, borrowing from the insights of anthropologist Fredrik Barth, has observed, “distance and antagonism are not necessary to maintain distinctions between peoples. Frequently relations may be close and friendly; cultural elements as well as individuals may pass relatively freely among communities. Yet practices are maintained that perpetuate distinctions.”21
It does indeed seem that an incipient métis culture existed throughout this French corridor. Peterson and others have already gone a long way toward reconstructing this complex world. Despite the brilliance of their work, however, three points have not been made clearly. First, some of the métis were able to thrive in the new republican and capitalist order. Indeed, some profited from the very policies that forced their kin to remove across the Mississippi. And failure should not necessarily be attributed to biological or cultural inclinations. Powerlessness and racism played an important role. We need to put Parkman behind us. Second, we must remember that métis nationalism was not a factor in the Midwest. When forced to choose between a native or a nonnative future, some chose the former, some the latter, and still others continued to occupy the periphery on reservations in the West. Any attempt to analyze the decision-making process that occurred and explain the structural basis underlying social classification must await further research.
Third, and most important in our attempt to clear the historiographical dust from our eyes, we must use travelers’ accounts of métis and French groups with an extremely critical eye. In an article by R. David Edmunds on the métis of the Old Northwest, the author, following his sources, tends to lump the two groups together, in one case inserting the term “métis" in brackets after “Frenchmen” in the text.22 But we need to examine further the observers Edmunds quotes most often: William Hull, William Keating, Judge J. B. C. Lucas, and Lewis Cass. Hull, the first governor of the Territory of Michigan, alienated the French residents of Detroit and its environs almost as soon as he arrived. In 1809, four years after Hull assumed his office, the inhabitants sent a petition to President James Madison requesting Hull’s removal. Not surprisingly, Hull’s letters to Secretary of War William Eustis in 1810, which Edmunds quotes, were full of invective against the French and tried to portray them as being friendly with and similar to the Indians.23Lucas and Cass began their careers as Jeffersonian appointees. Although both were intelligent men with principles, they were also zealous in the pursuit of frontier fortunes and acquired land as fast as they could. Like many other Jeffersonian bureaucrats, Lucas and Cass endeavored to pry real estate out of the hands of Indian and French holders and into the open market where they could engross it themselves. Both were quite successful, but in the process, they ran into resistance from French merchants. Lucas, whose 1807 letter Edmunds quotes, was not a favorite of the French Creole faction in Missouri, especially during the years he sat on the Board of Land Commissioners for Missouri (1805-1812). Lucas, Hull, and Cass all knew the difference between a relatively poor métis laborer and an unambivalent French capitalist. None of them was above insinuating to officials back in Washington, D.C., that the French in the West were an indolent people whose claims to the land were generally without merit—like their Indian friends, an impediment to progress.24 Edmunds does note in his conclusion that métis ties to French, not English, culture made them “doubly undesirable” to American observers, but he fails to acknowledge the role of frontier politics in producing descriptions that deliberately blurred the very real class distinctions in fur-trade society.
Some travelers, like Keating, were simply ethnocentric observers who were genuinely “disgusted” (Keating’s word) by the sight of Frenchmen wearing native dress.25 And without a doubt, many of the French were influenced by their Indian neighbors. Keating, however, spent no time in St. Louis, Detroit, or New Orleans and never met members of the French middling and upper classes. To obtain an accurate picture of francophone society during this period, one must consult the accounts of those who were in contact with the bourgeois elite as well as those who saw only the engagés. And the French themselves left many documents for the use of historians. Although they were no match for the self-conscious New Englanders, who kept diaries and reminiscences, memoirs, and autobiographies, they kept careful records of their business transactions and were dutiful letter writers.
The picture that does emerge from the various sources is very different from the one Parkman drew. First of all, the communities of this French corridor were not simple or homogeneous. The assumption that the French in this region were primarily transplanted Canadians had some basis in reality for Detroit but much less so for St. Louis and New Orleans. The French came from a variety of provinces and colonies in the Old World and the New. Other ethnic backgrounds or “nationalities” were quite in evidence. In the major urban centers and even in the villages, a traveler could encounter French-speaking inhabitants born in the cities of Italy or Holland.26 The Native American contribution to French culture has often been observed, but the diversity of Indian cultures having an effect is rarely noted. The task of tracing the influence of individual Indian societies would be formidable, but not impossible. And no picture of French culture in this region would be complete without the men, women, and children of African descent. Nonwhite Francophones, slaves and free, were to be found in every settlement. Their effect on the culture-at-large was possibly as great as that of native people, yet except for Lower Louisiana, their presence has seldom been acknowledged.27 In addition to being ethnically and racially mixed, francophone society admitted and perpetuated distinctions of class. Although not rigidly hierarchical, French society in the western towns was certainly deferential and acknowledged the prerogatives of occupational rank even at distant fur-trading posts, much to the annoyance of the more egalitarian Anglo-Americans who might be present28
If the French communities in this region were generally more heterogeneous than has been acknowledged, they were also more cosmopolitan. They were cosmopolitan in two ways: the towns themselves were centers of cross-cultural contact and exchange, and the leading merchants of the towns were aware of prices and conditions in the major metropolitan centers of North America and Europe, often making long journeys to transact business and reconnect with creditors and suppliers.29
In the towns, a high percentage of the inhabitants derived at least a part of their income from commerce or support services adjunct to trade. A knowledge of or familiarity with the languages and customs of other cultures, usually native, was a necessity. It was not uncommon for French traders to know at least one, if not several languages in addition to their own.30 Keating was not the only traveler to be struck by the profusion of languages and dialects being spoken in the streets.
The French mercantile families, bourgeois to the core, were by necessity in touch with the world. Business concerns came first, but literature, art, and fashion were not ignored. Anglo-American travelers were quite surprised at the elegance and sophistication they found in towns they assumed to be out of touch with civilization. Captain Amos Stoddard, who took possession of St. Louis for the United States in 1804, wrote in a letter to his mother back home in Connecticut that “the people are rich and hospitable; they live in a style equal to those in the large sea-port towns.” After being entertained by the St. Louis elite, Stoddard politely threw a party in return and had to borrow four hundred dollars from Pierre Chouteau Sr., a local merchant, to pay the bills.31
It has long been my sense that the French world in this western borderland was primarily an urban one. Following the lead of historians such as W. J. Eccles and John Francis McDermott, I took an interest in the core group of merchants in towns and incipient cities such as Vincennes, Detroit, St. Louis, and New Orleans and was struck by how little they resembled the happy-go-lucky premodern stereotypes. Infantilized and trivialized as children of empire and associates of the Indians, these utterly bourgeois families have been written out of our histories. To create both local and national stories that celebrated the Anglo-American basis of moral, political, cultural, and economic progress, historians and novelists bypassed these francophone merchants and the messy world of race and class they presided over. The French, like the Indians, occupy, at best, that telling introductory chapter of colorful exploration and mythical foundings — irrelevant to the course of American empire.
Historians such as Jacqueline Peterson, Tanis Thorne, and Richard White have turned our attention back to the French, in part, to search for stories of interaction and accommodation less disheartening than the stories with which we grew up—in White’s words, “the shared meanings and practices of the middle ground.”32 Though the middle ground signifies a shared world, the French are not at the heart of his history. Above all, he has tried to rediscover Indian meanings and agendas on a frontier where they had to be taken seriously. Similarly, métis histories for Thorne and Peterson force us to reconsider the importance of race and gender, inclusion and exclusion, in the story of American expansion. All of this is praiseworthy; however, a key group of actors has continued to occupy the periphery of these stories—the French merchants themselves. Balkanized by local historians of the Midwest, ignored by French colonial historians interested primarily in imperial policymaking, and out of view from Canadian historians who tend to focus either on the colonial St. Lawrence Valley or modern Quebec, these French merchants from Detroit to New Orleans have not been seen as a coherent or a relevant group.
Living in Louisiana, the Illinois Country, and the Great Lakes basin, the French had, by 1763, already established a landscape of villages and urban places alongside Indian communities. On this frontier, Europeans and natives did indeed live side by side. As Richard White has observed, “Their knowledge of each other’s customs and their ability to live together ... had no equivalent among the British.”33 But there is no need to essentialize the French. As White points out throughout his book, this knowledge had been achieved over decades of experiences—pleasant and unpleasant. Although we may view cross-cultural partners and métis men and women as inhabitants of a literal middle ground, French and Indian places remained distinct. But they were connected by a variety of bridges—primarily economic and linguistic, but also religious and social. For me, the idea of bridges comes closer to capturing the essence of this French and Indian world.
Marie-Anne Cerré—later to become the wife of Pierre-Louis Panet—was born into this world in the French village of Kaskaskia in 1769. In 1847 her niece wrote down the following family story about her:
Little Manon [her nickname] was very pretty and a favorite of her father, her mother and Madam de Renom. The Indians of the area, who used to crowd into her father’s store, would overwhelm her with affection. Early one day at Kaskaskias, a chief, well esteemed by my grandfather, and who had camped with his band across the river from the white village, saw little Manon alone in her father’s garden. He went up to her, took her by the hand and asked her if she wanted to go with him to the other side. The child, who knew the Indian well and was fond of him, consented; the man of the woods, without bothering about anything else, took her up on his shoulders and, entering the river Kaskaskias, crossed it, swimming upright with his feet, with [the child] astride his neck and holding on to her with his hands. He put her down safely on his side of the water and she spent the day at the chief’s hut, playing with the children and being much petted by the whole camp. Meanwhile, her poor parents were desperate, not knowing what had become of her, searching at all the neighbors’ homes, in this direction and that, without success, never once imagining that she could be on the other side. They were relieved of their extreme anxiety that same evening when the chief brought her home the same way he had carried her off that morning.34
This charming story illustrates the everyday cross-cultural familiarity of this rather unique frontier. But the ending is even more telling: aroused by this playful incident, Manon’s father, Gabriel Cerré, realized that he would have to send his daughter away before too long, and several years later, he took her to board at a convent school in Montreal. Friendly neighbors though they might often be, the French and the Indians envisioned different pathways through life.
The chapters that follow, then, are about the actions and pathways of this core group of French bourgeois families. My primary focus is on the Chouteau clan of St. Louis, but I also discuss merchants in other French communities to reinforce the interpretation and to provide some sense for the reader that a broader francophone world existed throughout this period, from the 1760s to at least the 1840s.
If Parkman’s picture of simple and irrelevant French people is truly to be dismantled once and for all, one more critical characteristic must be reemphasized. This francophone world was not a static one; rather, it was dynamic. The French communities in this western borderland were ready to confront and adjust to changing conditions. Those adjustments are at the heart of this narrative.
In the end, the French world of this borderland that so surprised and dismayed William Keating became increasingly invisible. It is my hope to write it back into our historical memory and show that the French merchants who went from being frontier brokers to brokers of frontiers played a significant role in the history of American western expansion. Moreover, as town founders and urban elites, they shaped the local histories of their native cities—a fact I have been continually reminded of by their descendants during my visits to Detroit, St. Louis, and New Orleans.