As a new French settlement, St. Louis quickly became a boomtown,1 but it had started just as the French empire in North America ended. This is an irony that deserves closer examination. The French and Indian world in mid-America — which has been described variously as a “middle ground,” an “empire of trade,” or simply as the pays d’en haut—had from its earliest years existed both within and beyond constantly shifting imperial policy directives and agendas emanating from France and the colonial centers of Canada and Louisiana. As historian Colin Calloway puts it, “The collapse of the French empire in North America ... did not mean the end of French presence and influence. Long after the Peace of Paris removed the French nation from North America, French, French Creole, and French-Indian populations, social systems, and cultures survived across large swaths of Canada, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi Valley.”2

That the so-called “interior French” not only endured, but prospered after 1763 suggests that Francis Parkman misunderstood the French colonial enterprise in North America. Writes J. F. Bosher: “The Parkmanian image of the French colonial government, as a leviathan hampering the development of private enterprise, no longer appears in the writings of our best historians. The converse might now be shown ... because there is evidence that rampant private enterprise prevented the proper functioning of the government.”3Under the French regime, commercial competition shaped colonialism as many of the most lucrative fur-trading posts were sold for fairly exorbitant fees. In addition, illegal trading had long been a fact of life in the French colonial West. With regime change, the entrepreneurial pattern remained, only the fees disappeared and “these Frenchmen prospered by the change in government.”4 During the Seven Years War and afterwards, young Frenchmen were leaving the war-torn St. Lawrence Valley to seek opportunities in the western Great Lakes and the Illinois Country.

The establishment of St. Louis provided a new center of gravity for a region whose economic importance was on the rise. This western entrepôt now provided an alternate market for furs and a new source of goods through New Orleans. With two viable avenues of trade—the Great Lakes route linking Michilimackinac (in present-day Michigan), La Baye (Green Bay, Wisconsin), Detroit, Montreal, and Quebec and the Mississippi route through St. Louis and New Orleans—goods, capital, and enterprising merchants began to flow into what we might call a new Creole Corridor.5

One place that grew and prospered during the tumultuous decades of the 1760s and 1770s was Prairie du Chien at the junction of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers in present-day Wisconsin. New Englander Jonathan Carver visited the place in 1766 and described it as a “large town,” a “great mart where the adjacent tribes, and even those who inhabited the remote branches of the Mississippi, annually assembled, about the latter end of May, bringing with them their furs and peltries, to dispose of to the traders.”6Seven years later, another New Englander, Peter Pond of Milford, Connecticut, came to Prairie du Chien to trade and described a colorful scene with merchandise and traders arriving from both ends of the Creole Corridor. Hams, cheeses, and wine came in boatloads from New Orleans. Local and distant Indian groups came to trade, camping out and playing fierce but peaceful games of lacrosse. The French, according to Pond, practiced billiards.7 Several times a year, the place became a gigantic trading fair with amusements in addition to a significant exchange of valuable commodities. The permanent population, a mix of French and métis trading families, grew slowly as homes exhibiting a blend of French and native characteristics were built along the river on typical narrow French longlots to fully utilize the frontage. What mattered most about Prairie du Chien was that it provided, as Lucy Murphy has noted, “a safe haven, a place of refuge and peace for the purposes of trade.”8 It was a location where rival Indian communities agreed to put aside their differences, even if temporarily, and a trading zone beyond the reach of imperial soldiers and officials. The French or Creole Corridor was shaped by the calculus of commerce. As General Thomas Gage, the British commander in chief in North America, noted in frustration in 1766, “the Traders, particularly those upon the Lakes, shew little Regard to the Regulations that have been made to oblige them to traffick only at the Forts, which they avoid, and rove at Pleasure.”9Rather, as Gage observed to the British governor in Canada, Guy Carleton, a year later, the French from Detroit, the Illinois Country, and Canada “all ramble over the Country without restraint, holding Conferences with each other, planning mischief by exciting Savages against us, and carrying on illicit trade.”10 In short, the Creole Corridor that emerged after 1763 was a new West, a West “beyond the frontier.” Built upon the foundation of the old French and Indian pays d’en haut—but with a critical new anchor in St. Louis—this far western region drew the fur trade from all directions, defying the attempts of two great empires to establish their sovereignty over areas that had previously been part of the French empire. Nevertheless, this francophone zone did not exist in a vacuum, and the four decades between the end of the Seven Years War and the Louisiana Purchase were tumultuous ones that would ultimately change the context, if not the calculus, of western commerce.

Let us quickly review the imperial boundaries that emerged as a result of the Seven Years War. The Spanish now had jurisdiction over Louisiana—in essence, three subregions: Lower Louisiana, including the great port of New Orleans; the Arkansas country; and Upper Louisiana—also known as Spanish Illinois—which included the towns of Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis and a number of smaller settlements. The British gained jurisdiction over Canada, which, of course, contained the cities of Quebec and Montreal. Canada also included the former pays d’en haut, the Great Lakes region anchored by the settlements and forts at Detroit and Michilimackinac. Finally, the British had jurisdiction over the French villages in the present-day states of Illinois and Indiana. The villages in this last region—including Vincennes, Peoria, Kaskaskia, and Cahokia— were the weakest links in the imperial chain, being removed from the centers of power yet connected by ties of trade and family to both Spanish Illinois and New Orleans to the west and south and the Great Lakes and Montreal to the north and east.

The great show of imperial, and later republican, plans and agents notwithstanding, the reality was this: the West beyond the old military fault line in western Pennsylvania that had been the focus of the imperial struggle between France and Great Britain was dominated by Indian people who controlled the land, raised the crops, and gathered fish and furs. The tribal majority cast a long shadow over the pretensions of non-Indian politicians. In between Indian communities were French villages and incipient cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, Natchez, and New Orleans, inhabited by fur traders and merchants who managed the commerce between Indian North America and Europe. Although a plantation economy—mostly sugar, tobacco, and cotton—had emerged in Lower Louisiana, and the French in Illinois with the help of African labor raised a significant amount of wheat and maize, this vast area was best described as a trading-post frontier—a region of colonial towns within Indian country. French was the lingua franca that tied together this complex polyglot, multicultural area of mid-America.

All the subregions within the former boundaries of French North America had much in common, and the leading merchants in towns from New Orleans to St. Louis to Vincennes to Montreal often corresponded — primarily about business matters, but also about the political events that affected trade. Children might be sent to Montreal, to New Orleans, or to France to be educated. In the end, neither the Spanish nor the British were successful in controlling their new acquisitions. The Spanish retreated to Texas, the British to Canada. In the middle of this period, of course, a new player emerged—the republic of the United States. The French, in the meantime, went about their business.

Spain accepted the port of New Orleans and the trans-Mississippi portion of Louisiana by the Treaty of Fontainebleau in November 1762. Louis XIV ceded this territory to Charles III as compensation for the loss of Florida to Great Britain. France thus avoided British domination of the entire mid-continent of North America and gave itself the possibility of a colonial comeback at a later date. Although Spain eventually played a constructive role in the growth of Louisiana, the province was always considered a defensive buffer zone between the British colonies and New Spain. Only that rationale allowed Spanish officials to justify the annual subsidy of four hundred thousand pesos that the Crown spent to administer Louisiana. Even this amount proved insufficient. Officials in Louisiana were constantly facing budget deficits. One distraught official, Juan Ventura Morales, intendant at New Orleans, harassed Charles Dehault Delassus, the lieutenant governor of Upper Louisiana, over the price of peas and barrel staves in 1798.11 Spanish Louisiana was neither a profitable nor essential part of the empire. Few Spaniards ever visited the colony; fewer settled there.

Spain, after years of procrastination, finally sent Antonio de Ulloa to Louisiana in 1766 to serve as the colony’s governor. After further delays to the formal transfer of sovereignty, Ulloa was essentially booted out by the French inhabitants, who feared Spanish trading restrictions and were in the midst of a currency crisis. This Louisiana Revolt of 1768 anticipated the American Revolution by seven years. Several leaders of the revolt even suggested setting up a republic and hoped France would back them up. (French ministers briefly considered this course, thinking that a Louisiana republic would encourage English colonists to follow suit.) The following year, however, Spain sent an Irish officer in the Spanish service, Alejandro O’Reilly, to put down the revolt and establish Spanish rule once and for all. Five of the French rebels were executed.

Despite the brief flirtation with republican ideas, the French in both Upper and Lower Louisiana soon realized that the Spanish regime would essentially be benign. As historian Stuart Banner has noted, “Spanish officials responded to [the] gap between their theoretical and actual power by allowing the French residents of Upper Louisiana to retain the institutions of self-government they possessed before they lived under Spanish sovereignty.” What mattered most in a colony that depended on the Indian trade was that civil disputes could be swiftly resolved—and here Spanish procedures “mirrored earlier French colonial practice”—and that the maintenance of friendly relations with tribal neighbors be guided by the counsel of leading merchants well-versed in the practices of the middle ground.12 The inability to do the latter would plague Spain’s imperial counterparts east of the Mississippi.

The British accepted Canada and the trans-Allegheny portion of French Louisiana in 1763 with none of Spain’s initial reluctance. Indeed, they entered the West with confidence. The departing French governor of Louisiana, D’Abbadie, described the British as “men drunk with success, and who regard themselves as masters of the world.”13 The outbreak of Pontiac’s War in the summer of 1763 destroyed those illusions. An Ottawa warrior named Pontiac coordinated the pan-tribal attack on the British garrison at Detroit. His actions inspired other Indians in the West, and many posts fell thereafter, including the important post of Michilimackinac. Smaller posts such as Green Bay were abandoned at this time, never to be reoccupied by the British.

The British quickly realized that defeating the French empire did not mean that they had won the West. One British detachment under a Major Loftus, attempting to occupy the Illinois Country by sailing up the Mississippi, was turned back by a group of Tunicas in Pointe Coupe in Louisiana in March 1764. Captain Thomas Morris, sent by General John Bradstreet to take possession of Fort de Chartres in Illinois by traveling overland through present-day Indiana, was held prisoner by the Miamis at their town of Kekionga (Fort Wayne). Only the intervention of a French trader named Godfroy saved him from being killed.14 The British finally occupied Fort de Chartres in 1765 — two years after the Treaty of Paris.

The British faced three dilemmas. First, they quickly realized that they could not wrest control of the western fur trade from the French. Second, they could not reconcile the conflicting agendas that informed British policy: the desire to maintain good relations and trade with Indian communities and still create new areas for settlement that would satisfy both the demands of backcountry colonials and the speculative dreams of various elite groups that often included the policymakers themselves. Third, they inherited a moving frontier that already carried with it the historical burden of decades of mistrust and ethnic hatred. Partially obscured by the military struggle between European powers during the Seven Years War, the strong undercurrent of settler-native violence emerged full-blown toward the end of Pontiac’s War with the murder of Christian Indians by the Paxton Boys in Pennsylvania in December 1763.15 This episode “politicized Indian-hating in Pennsylvania.” Thereafter, “opportunistic squatters from Pennsylvania and Virginia once again pressed, remarkably quickly, onto Indian lands. This time they came as Indian-haters, hardened by the experience of war and organized for self-defense.” Leaders might lament the situation—Benjamin Franklin wrote, “It grieves me to hear that our Frontier People are yet greater Barbarians than the Indians, and continue to murder them in time of Peace” — but British policymakers could not find a way out of the morass.16 In the end, the first two dilemmas fed on each other, and the third overwhelmed them both. “Faced with a huge new territorial empire in North America in 1763, the British tried to defend it, administer it, and finance it. Instead they lost it.”17

In essence, there were two Wests, and each carried a different legacy. In the trans-Appalachian backcountry, two “village worlds,” to use Richard White’s phrase, with much in common—a history of multiple dislocations, violence, alcoholism, evangelical visions, political fragmentation, and small-scale economies dependent on a similar mix of grazing, hunting, and agriculture—increasingly found themselves on either side of a dividing line with no ground for cooperation. Beyond this polarized “dark and bloody ground” bordering the Ohio River, the Creole Corridor continued to privilege trade relations and respect Indian sovereignty. With the piece-by-piece collapse of British policy during the decade between Pontiac’s War in 1763 and Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774, the British found themselves unable to avoid the vortex of violence and wound up on one side of what amounted to state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing from 1777 to 1782. In the Creole Corridor, the Spanish provided a measure of security and authority that helped Indian and French communities to distance themselves from the Ohio country. The two Wests had this essential difference. In the Creole Corridor, commerce and kinship relations sustained complementary French and Indian worlds. The bridges of exchange held because there were, as yet, no demands being placed on Indian homelands. In the British-Indian West farther east, the bridge of commerce—which did exist on a smaller scale—could not resist the pressure of competition over land and animals. The settlers’ need to create more and more property stiffened Indian resistance, and countless episodes of brutality deepened patterns of racial violence. When Major Arent DePeyster, the British commandant at Detroit in 1782, tried to explain to his superiors why the western Indians were “fickle allies” in the war against the colonials, he reported the natives as saying simply that “we are well off that there are no Virginians in this quarter.”18

To explain how the French fit into the events that brought these two Wests together from 1763 to 1803, let us return to Pontiac’s War. British officers in the field were convinced that French traders in the West were partly responsible for the hostilities.19 Major Henry Gladwin, commandant at Detroit; General Jeffrey Amherst, the commander in chief; and General Gage, the man who replaced Amherst at Montreal in 1763, all accused the French of mischief and perfidy. Governor James Murray at Quebec recommended to Lord Halifax, the new secretary of state for the southern department, that the French inhabitants of the interior be removed. This recommendation would be reiterated many times over the course of the next ten years. Halifax needed little convincing. He and Lord Hillsborough, the new president of the Board of Trade, desired a program of strict imperial control that would achieve their vision of orderly Protestant settlement. Expansion would be limited by Indian reserves in the interior. To that end they issued the Royal Proclamation of October 1763. Neither minister had much use for the French Catholic population that Britain had acquired by conquest. Halifax hoped Quebec would become another Nova Scotia. It was hard enough to know how to deal with the French in Quebec. Those living in the interior were even more problematic, and Hillsborough kept hoping they would somehow disappear. Legally they did. The Proclamation of 1763 left the interior outside the jurisdiction of any civil government. Even commanding officers at the western posts could not exercise legal jurisdiction until passage of the Mutiny Act of 1765. By the time Detroit was fully included within a civil jurisdiction in 1788, it was de jure no longer a part of the empire.20

British officials might ignore the need for civil government in the interior, but they could not ignore the need to regulate the fur trade and maintain relations with western Indian groups. Indeed, they suffered the presence of the French in large measure because they realized that—in the words of one British officer in 1762 — “The french Inhabitants and Indians are soe much connected that if you disoblige one of them, the other takes Part.”21 At first, the British tried to control the fur trade through a plan formulated by Sir William Johnson, the northern superintendent of Indian affairs. Influenced by Dutch practices in New York, Johnson’s plan called for a line of posts with commissaries, interpreters, and blacksmiths, strictly controlled by the superintendent. Indians would have to come to these posts to trade, and fur traders would not be allowed to operate in Indian villages. A similar system would be tried by the U.S. government later on with a strikingly similar lack of success. Johnson’s plan, issued in July 1764 but not fully implemented until 1766, also called for the licensing of all traders in Indian country. By 1765, sixty-five Montreal fur traders and merchants were petitioning British officials to abandon this plan, claiming that the Indians of the Great Lakes region were simply carrying their furs and skins to French traders operating under Spanish protection.22

In short, British officers and policymakers were stymied. Pontiac’s War showed them that the French were there to stay—the Indians insisted on that. Yet the British could hardly rely on the French. When one trader, Alexander Henry, asked his neighbor, Charles de Langlade, to hide him during the attack on Michilimackinac, Langlade coolly replied, “Que voudriez-vous que j’en ferias?” (What do you want me to do about it?).23 The French understood that they, too, were in Indian country. Johnson’s restrictive fur-trade policy only put British traders at a further disadvantage—which they hardly needed. As a British officer noted, “the Indians here will never be in our Intrest, for although our Merchants sell them a Stroud for 3 Beaver, they will rather give six to a Frenchman”24Confined to their posts, British traders watched the furs flow to French traders who continued to visit or even lived among their Indian customers. The British commander at Fort de Chartres in the Illinois Country wrote in 1768: “As I am very Sensible of the great Expence this Country is to the Crown, and the little advantage the Publick has hitherto reaped by the Trade with the Savages; And the reason is that the Inhabitants have continued to Send their Peltry to New Orleans, which is shipped from thence for old France, and all the Money that is laid out for the Troops and Savages, is immediately sent to New Orleans, for which Our Subjects get French Manufactures”25 The officer, Captain Gordon Forbes, hit the nail on the head. The inability to control the fur trade led to further cost-cutting measures, which further weakened British authority. One short example will show how this worked.

Baynton, Wharton, and Morgan of Philadelphia had entered the Illinois Country with great enthusiasm and an investment in trade goods of seventy-five thousand pounds sterling in 1766. After alienating his French customers, failing to capture an expected number of furs, and losing a bid to supply provisions to the troops stationed at Fort de Chartres, George Morgan—the company’s resident trader in Illinois—had to rely on supplying the commissary at the fort with Indian goods, but the commissary was removed in March 1769 to reduce the mounting costs of empire. The firm had failed by 1770 and sold its stock of goods to a rival company. The principals of the company now relied even more on a land scheme, the Illinois Company, to recoup their losses.26

And so it went. In 1768, the architect of the disastrous fur-trade plan, Sir William Johnson, negotiated the rather cynical Treaty of Fort Stanwix. This treaty extended the line of colonial settlement, set aside a tract for the “suffering traders,” and alienated the Indians of the Ohio country both by opening their hunting grounds to settlement and by ignoring them in the negotiations as Johnson allowed the Iroquois to speak for the native parties who were directly affected by the deal. The treaty nicely summarized the bankruptcy of British policy and its conflicting agendas. By 1768 the British had admitted their weaknesses—and once again, a flurry of schemes to deport the French surfaced. (As Keith Widder has observed, such schemes “amounted to no more than hallucinations brought about by a desire to wish away a group of people whom they [the British] neither liked nor trusted but could not live without”27 ) That same year, regulation of the fur trade was given back to the individual colonies.

Several years of costly mismanagement later, the British were ready to dismantle many western posts in the backcountry. In December 1771, the decision was made to abandon Fort Pitt and Fort de Chartres. In 1770, General Gage had written Lord Hillsborough about the British dilemma in the West. Acknowledging that the French had secured both communications and “the Affections of the Savages,” he concluded that the British would not be able to match their success at such a “small Expence.”28 Hillsborough’s response was to suggest, once again, that the French inhabitants simply be removed. Aware that such a policy would be difficult to implement at Kaskaskia and merely result in a further removal to the Spanish side of the Mississippi, the policymakers agreed that Vincennes posed no such difficulties; therefore, a proclamation ordering the inhabitants on the Wabash to “quit those countries instantly and without delay” was issued on April 8, 1772. This Acadian solution—what historian John Mack Faragher has described as a form of frontier ethnic cleansing—drew an immediate response from those inhabitants.29 Claiming that they were indeed settlers with legitimate land titles, not “vagabonds” as they had been described, the French of Vincennes declared their fidelity to the king. In language remarkably like that of the French Canadians asked to support the British empire during the Boer War and World War I, the Vincennes French noted that they would be more than willing to sacrifice their lives and property for the King—but only when “his service shall in reality require it.”30 (The French in Vincennes were saved from deportation by a timely change in administration from Lord Hillsborough to Lord Dartmouth.31 ) In the meantime, the French at Kaskaskia, frustrated with the arbitrary and oppressive acts of their British commandants, John Reed and John Wilkins, sent a memorial to General Gage in 1772 that outlined a plan for a republican form of government modeled after the colony of Connecticut.32

Gage returned to England, and his reports and advice contributed to yet another change in British policy. The Quebec Act of 1774 restored the civil law in Quebec and guaranteed toleration of the Catholic Church. Indeed, this act— which infuriated Protestant Anglo-Americans—even granted certain key legal and political privileges to French Catholics in North America that were not extended to Irish Catholics in Great Britain—a fact that did not go unnoticed in Ireland. The Quebec Act also extended Quebec’s boundaries to include Indian country between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. In short, the commercial logic of the pre-1763 era had been restored, but British officials continued to ignore the need for civil government in the interior. For that matter, the competing interests of trade and land continued to prevent the execution of any consistent vision for the western borderlands. Imperial bureaucrats and colonial lobbyists squabbled with each other and among themselves over prerogatives, responsibilities, and expenses. Serious political considerations obstructed practical solutions. The growth of the British national debt cast a long shadow over the proceedings. Like their counterparts in Spanish Louisiana, officials at Detroit and Michilimackinac were constantly upbraided by their superiors in Quebec for exceeding their budgets. With one eye on the expenses of the Indian Department and the other on the latest trade reports, British officials gradually abandoned their Indian allies south of the Great Lakes. They beat a slow, but steady retreat from the region.33

In the Creole Corridor, the consequences of this retreat were at first negligible. Both Great Britain and Spain had experienced difficulty fitting these costly new territories into their imperial systems. The two countries also faced each other, with intermittent hostility, across uncertain and awkward boundaries. The Mississippi River had once been the central, unifying artery of Louisiana. It functioned considerably less well as a dividing line. Spanish and British officials complained constantly that trade was being siphoned off to the other side. Contraband was a fact of life. As one British official had noted, “Smuggling with them [the French] ... amounts to so considerable a Sum annually as to become a National Object.”34 It could hardly have been otherwise. The road that connected the two main settlements of Spanish Illinois, St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve, ran along the coast of British Illinois35

In the Ohio country, the consequences of this “vacuum of authority” were disastrous. Eric Hinderaker, in his book Elusive Empires, has summarized the situation perfectly: “A confusing jumble of ventures arose during the interminable period of ministerial indecision. Old and now invalid Indian grants to individual colonists were converted into real estate and sold off in lots; the governor of Virginia defied royal authority to pursue the interests of speculators (including himself); eager to establish their own claims to the land without having to buy it from self-appointed proprietors, squatters pushed ever farther into the Valley. The Ohio Indians were infuriated by all the activity, but the collapse of British authority left them no diplomatic recourse.”36 An “unprecedented burst of immigration” in precisely those years that witnessed the collapse of British authority compounded the problem as European colonists joined the western land rush. British general Frederick Haldimand predicted the outcome in 1773: the emigrants would provoke the Indians, and “settlements ... so far remote from all influence of the laws, will soon be the asylum of the lawless.”37 There were comic moments in what followed. Dr. John Connolly, an agent of Virginia governor Lord Dunmore, appeared in Pittsburgh on January 1, 1774, claimed the place for Virginia, and promptly called for a militia. He was then arrested by Pennsylvania magistrate Arthur St. Clair.38 The humor faded quickly. By March, Connolly had returned with a militia to fight the Indians. Lord Dunmore’s War and the Battle of Point Pleasant in October of that year kicked off what would become the American Revolution in the West: eight years—the bloodiest being the year after the British surrender at Yorktown—of brutal raids and massacres. We might charitably call it “petite guerre” in the West, but realistically, it amounted to state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing on either side of the Ohio.

The Creole Corridor or francophone West experienced little of this. In 1779, Spain joined with France and the American rebels and declared war on Great Britain. The Revolution crippled Spanish attempts to benefit from the fur trade of Upper Louisiana. The Quebec Act had already encouraged British, primarily Scottish, merchants to increase their activities and investments in the western fur trade. Armed with more capital, a greater supply of cheaper merchandise, access to better markets for selling furs, and a cooler climate in which to store the perishable bundles of fine pelts, British firms operating out of the Great Lakes “redirected the export of furs from the Mississippi Valley to London via Montreal ... a condition that lasted until ... the War of 1812.”39 Spanish officials now complained that the Upper Mississippi trade was controlled by merchants operating out of Michilimackinac, Detroit, and Prairie du Chien. To make matters worse, a partial British blockade of the Gulf of Mexico disrupted the flow of goods in and out of New Orleans, and gangs of mostly Anglo pirates were plundering boats traveling along the Lower Mississippi. Until the 1790s, Spanish officials in Upper Louisiana were forced to look the other way while the merchants under their jurisdiction traded illegally with British companies.

Despite their economic advantage, British officials knew that the (British) Illinois Country could never be secure while New Orleans was in Spanish hands. They looked upon war with Spain in 1779 as a golden opportunity to seize control of the Lower Mississippi Valley.40 In short, as the Revolution progressed, neither the British nor the Spanish felt very secure. Could either power rely on the allegiance of the Indian and French inhabitants of this vast area? Such grand diplomatic questions were complicated by the entry of a new group, stage right: George Rogers Clark and his motley band of frontiersmen.

In a theatrical series of events that had all the aspects of grand opera—comic, tragic, and gruesome — Clark and his small force of Virginians and Kentuckians, 178 men in all, “conquered” the French Illinois villages of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes in July 1778. (There was no conquest. The last small group of British troops stationed at Kaskaskia had withdrawn two years earlier. Clark announced to the local French settlers that France and the United States were now allies, and dinners and balls were held in Clark’s honor.41 ) Later in the year, Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton of Detroit and his British army retook Vincennes. Then in February 1779, Clark and the Americans—after a march of some 180 miles in the dead of winter — recaptured Vincennes, brutally executed several captured Indians, and took Hamilton prisoner, sending him in irons to a jail in Williamsburg, Virginia. It is a “heroic” episode that has been told and retold many times by historians and writers of historical fiction. In reality, half of Clark’s army that retook Vincennes consisted of local French villagers, and the majority of men commanded by Hamilton were also local Frenchmen. It seems that the French settlers of Vincennes had become old hands at taking oaths of allegiance during the course of this campaign. When Lieutenant Michel Brouillett, a French rebel, was captured by the British in the vicinity of Vincennes, British captain Normand MacLeod commented on the fellow’s misfortune. It seems Brouillett had that very day received his commission as an American officer. He already held one in the British army. Captain MacLeod also reported in his journal that when his superior, Major Jehu Hay, entered Vincennes, “he not only gave his hand to Major LaGran, Captain Bosseron and some others [leading pro-American Frenchmen] but kissed them and received them with every mark of friendship.”42

How should we read these events? Why was Clark there? After all, the Indians in that quarter were not the same ones raiding the Kentucky settlements. Although his motives and goals are hard to pin down, they seem to include opening lines of communication with Spanish officials in St. Louis, receiving credit for needed supplies from French merchants (they would rue that decision), distracting British officials in Detroit, and ultimately detaching a piece of the British empire—a piece that had already been abandoned for all practical purposes. (Virginia could never seem to extend its claims to land and sovereignty quite enough. Virginia governor Patrick Henry, who approved of Clark’s mission, incorporated the Illinois Country as a Virginia county in December 1778.) It was certainly a successful expedition. Clark managed to capture the hated Henry Hamilton, who had been sponsoring raids by the Ohio Indians since June 1777. (The orders for this, of course, came from above, and the raids continued until 1782.43 ) Certainly, the boundaries of the final settlement at the Treaty of Paris in 1783 reflected Clark’s bold achievement.

What of the French? What did they think about all of this, and what was their opinion of these armed backcountry invaders? Most French traders in this contested region probably had little love for Clark’s Virginians and even less affection for the British. Captain Richard Lernoult, a Swiss-born British career officer in command at Detroit since 1777, wrote the following in March 1779: “The [French] Canadians are exceedingly amused on our bad success and weakness. ... Not one of them will lend a hand. ... All the Canadians are Rebels to a man”44 (and Lernoult was apparently well liked by the local inhabitants). Pro-American French traders at Prairie du Chien such as Daniel Linctot led native groups from that area to a pan-Indian conference Clark held at Cahokia to try to win the tribes to the American side.45

If the British thought them rebels, then George Rogers Clark was ready to put his own spin on the situation, calling the people of Vincennes “true citizens.” But Richard White surely has it right when he observes that after the fighting, “the dualities broke down.” Back to being local Frenchmen, not Americans or Brits, two members of Hamilton’s force were saved by a father who had marched with Clark and a sister who happened to live in Vincennes. Another trader who had accompanied Clark saved Pontiac’s son because Pontiac had once saved him.46 “What decided the outcome of Vincennes was not the fighting, of which there was relatively little,” White writes, “but the decisions of the French and the Indians. The Vincennes militia, resentful of Hamilton, immediately deserted to Clark ... and ‘said it was hard they should fight against their own Friends and relations who they could see had joined the Americans.”47 Clark’s actions had, “largely unwittingly,” “buttressed the de facto republican independence of the French villages.”48

Independent they surely were. British officer Captain Donald Campbell described the French in Detroit this way in 1760: “The Women surpasses our expectations, like the rest of America the men very Independent.”49 And if we connect their pro-American stance in the Clark episode to their revolt in New Orleans in 1768 and their Illinois pamphlet in 1772, then we can, at the very least, suggest that the French in the Creole Corridor were familiar with republican ideas and certainly were not merely the simple, passive peasants they were later depicted to be in novels such as Alice of Old Vincennes. Independence mattered to the French. It was contextualized by the need to maintain market connections and ensure civil order to protect life and property.

One trader who left the richest documentation of a French perspective during this period was Charles Gratiot. Swiss by birth, Gratiot had established a permanent residence in Cahokia only in December 1777. Having been sent to London as a youth to receive an English education, he was one of the few residents in the village who could actually converse with Clark and his men. Although he apparently became friends with Clark, Gratiot was not entirely enchanted with the course of events. In 1778, he wrote to his father David back in Lausanne: “The English side of this country is taken by the Americans since July last, I much fear that Canada will experience the same fate in the course of the winter.” A year later he wrote to American colonel John Montgomery “that if business continues any longer on this footing, I shall be obliged in spite of my inclinations to become a Spaniard, so as to be able to participate in all the advantages of the trade of both sides—Seeing that it will be impossible to carry on any business here, without running the risk of ruin.”50 And so Gratiot did indeed move across the river to St. Louis in 1781, where he married into the prosperous Chouteau family. When Americans proved, quite quickly, to be as ineffective as the British in restricting the markets on their side of the river to the merchants under their jurisdiction, the French crossed over. If it was liberty they desired, it was a businessman’s definition of it: free trade for all and government intervention when it is good for business. Those who seemed most inclined to support the American cause — Gratiot, Gabriel Cerré in Kaskaskia, and Francesco Vigo in Vincennes (an Italian born in Sardinia in 1747 who came to New Orleans in the Spanish service in 1774 and then moved to Vincennes)—already had correspondents in American towns and anticipated the growth of an American trade. Merchants who happened to live in the West of the Creole Corridor, they were used to focusing on many places and potential markets at once. Their perspective was international—and that outlook, from the beginning, has always been part of the western experience.

It stands to reason then that the American Revolution played out in very different ways in the two Wests. The racial violence that prevailed in the Ohio country simply was not a significant factor in the Creole Corridor. Indeed, there were few violent episodes, and those that did occur—beyond Clark’s famous adventure— were shaped in part by trade rivalries, not by a competition for land.

The attack on St. Louis and Cahokia in May 1780, although part of a mostly unsuccessful three-pronged British counteroffensive, was inspired locally, to some measure, by several French traders such as Jean Marie Ducharme, who bore a grudge for having been cut out of the lucrative Osage trade by Spanish officials in 1773. Patrick Sinclair, the British lieutenant governor at Michilimackinac, admitted as much in a letter to General Haldimand, observing that “the reduction of Pencour” [St. Louis] would gather “the rich furr Trade of the Missouri River” and redress “the injuries done to the Traders who formerly attempted to partake of it.”51 The two French-Spanish raids on St. Joseph (Niles, Michigan) were largely shaped by the loyalties and trade competitions revolving around the Chevalier kinship group, as Susan Sleeper-Smith has shown. In 1765, in an effort to placate the Potawatomi Indians at St. Joseph, the British appointed French trader Louis Chevalier the “king’s man” at that post. Fifteen years later, the uneasy British had less tolerance for subjects whose loyalties were unknown, and in 1780, the same Patrick Sinclair evicted Chevalier. In December 1780, a party of Illinois Frenchmen looted the post but were later killed or captured by Potawatomi defenders led by a “British” Frenchman, Lieutenant Louis Fontenoy de Quindre of Detroit. Two months later, a party of “Spanish” Frenchmen led by Eugene Pourée of St. Louis seized the village and flew the Spanish flag— for a day. The “Spanish” party included Louis Chevalier Jr.52

Like their distant relatives the Acadians, the French throughout this vast region tried to maintain a position of neutrality. They were not averse to exploiting British and Spanish connections when they could, but in times of conflict, they usually sang a familiar refrain. They were simply local residents with longstanding ties to the region. Empires and republics came and went. This position of neutrality was mostly driven by the necessity of maintaining economic and social connections to local Indian communities—native groups that continued to assert their own sovereignty over the land. Moreover, the French used their ties to native groups to enhance their own identity as indigenous residents. And so during Pontiac’s War, the French addressed an Indian assembly with the following words: “My brothers ... we have come here only to renew the ancient alliance which our fathers made with you, and which you are today destroying by bringing death upon us. When you began your attack upon the English you gave us to understand that you would do us no wrong.”53 When the Indians attacked the Kentucky militia at River Raisin during the War of 1812, the French uttered remarkably similar words, proclaiming their neutrality to all who would listen.

But just who were these French residents? Were they, in fact, the ancient inhabitants of the region? Many of the French “were not the same people with whom the British had been waging war for decades”54 The Creole Corridor was not simply the old pays d’en haut. There were, as we have noted, new places and new connections. There were also new people. Although the French had indeed inhabited parts of this vast region since the late seventeenth century, a surprising number of prominent merchants were recent arrivals. Gabriel Cerré, born in Cote-Saint-Paul near Montreal in 1734, had volunteered to fight in the Seven Years War. Having seen the Ohio country, he determined not to return to Canada and life as a farmer, opting instead to test his abilities as a trader. He married into an old French Illinois family in 1764. Cerré himself became one of the most prosperous merchants in the region. His daughter Marie-Anne, schooled in Montreal, eventually married one of the most prominent French Canadians of the period, Pierre-Louis Panet, a supporter of the British regime and a member of the Governor’s Executive Council. Panet kept the Chouteau clan well acquainted with events in Canada.

François Vallé, like Cerré a native of Canada, arrived in the Illinois Country sometime during the 1740s. He married well, moved across the river to Ste. Genevieve, and built a fortune from slave-based agricultural production, lead, and real estate. Though he died under the Spanish regime, his children and grandchildren continued to build the family’s wealth and prestige after the sale of Louisiana to the United States. Louis Bolduc followed a path similar to Vallé's. His native village of St. Joachim near Quebec City was burnt to the ground by the British in 1759. Bolduc fled to the Mississippi Valley and settled in Ste. Genevieve, ultimately becoming a member of that town’s elite with wealth accumulated in the same manner as Vallé.55

Other Canadians arrived later. Joseph Marie Papin, whose father had been the royal commissary at Fort Frontenac, entered the area in the 1770s, marrying Marie Louise Chouteau in 1778. Both Papin and Cerré had connections to Huguenot merchants, though both died in the fold of the Catholic Church. Pierre Menard, born in Montreal in 1766, found his way to Vincennes in 1786, serving there as a clerk for Francesco Vigo. Menard ultimately settled in Kaskaskia and became the most important citizen and merchant in that community. He was perhaps the only Frenchman in the area with a true love of the young republic: his father had raised a company of volunteers in Canada to support the American cause, and Menard himself would serve as the first lieutenant governor of the new state of Illinois.56 None of these Canadians were themselves natives of the western country, though they married into families with deeper roots. All three were clearly ambitious self-made men. Canadian historians have long debated the fate of the francophone merchant class in Canada after the conquest. However, they have not looked at the many traders who left Canada to take up positions and pursue opportunities in places such as St. Louis and Detroit. They would find many success stories south of the border.57

Others came to these French-American villages and towns directly from France. In early St. Louis, which we must remember was a new town, more of those who described themselves as merchants were born in France (twenty-three) than in Canada (eleven), the Illinois Country (three), or New Orleans (three) — the majority of those coming from the provinces of Aunis, Saintonge, Béarn, Gascony, and Provence in the southern and western portions of the country. Two other merchants came from Huguenot families in Switzerland, four from northern Italy, four from Spain, and one each from Holland and Germany.58

In Detroit, many newly arrived British merchants married into older French families. John Askin married Marie-Archange Barthe in 1772. Her sister Thérèse Barthe married Commodore Alexander Grant. William Park and his partner George Meldrum married, respectively, Thérèse Gouin and Marie Chapoton. Though British in name, Detroit remained a French town—linguistically and socially. At the same time, it is obvious that the French and British merchants of this small city expanded their cultural horizons as well as their circles of connection.

In short, the idea that these communities were ancient is problematic. Throughout this chaotic period before the Louisiana Purchase, these French towns and villages were works in progress. Many clearly viewed this borderland region as a zone of opportunity, attracting a surprising number of ambitious francophone newcomers from a variety of places. In the absence of French state interests, these new arrivals, as individuals, reinforced the existing francophone cultural and economic patterns of the region, even as British and Anglo-American settlers began to move into the area. The economic opportunities were abundant. Although the Great Lakes fur trade declined toward the end of the century because of an overabundance of merchants, a slow market in Europe, and Indian wars, the trans-Mississippi trade showed great promise59 The prize in that area was the Osage trade, secured by the Chouteau clan, who profited from their connections to both important members of the tribe and Spanish bureaucrats.60 The fertile farmlands of the region were beginning to attract Anglo-Americans, but French farmers were already raising a substantial amount of grain, often with the help of slave labor. The port of New Orleans was also prospering during the late Spanish period as new staples—cotton, sugar, and grains—broadened the export base. As Spain relaxed its trade policies, an increasing number of ships from both France and American seaports visited the city.61 But the region was also plagued by political instability, and the entry of the United States seemed, at first, to make matters worse.

The first French region to become part of the United States was, of course, the British Illinois Country. After George Rogers Clark conquered the area— “occupied” is probably a more appropriate term—the Virginia assembly established the county of Illinois in December 1778. Virginia, following the precedent of the British empire, allowed civil government in the Illinois Country to lapse in 1781. A French military officer in the area in 1780, Augustin Mottin de la Balme, observed firsthand the anarchy that reigned: the Virginians “randomly entered French houses, absconding with food that they believed they needed.” De la Balme was shocked by what he witnessed and noted the “anger among the French Creoles.”62 In November 1781, a prominent merchant at Cahokia, Antoine Girardin, wrote to British official Patrick Sinclair at Michilimackinac, suggesting the possibility that the disgruntled French might welcome the return of British rule. Shortly thereafter, news of the British surrender at York-town reached the Illinois Country.63Virginia ceded the entire area to the United States in 1784. The United States in turn neglected the area, failing to send a civil representative to Illinois until 1790. Ignored by Congress, the French in Illinois suffered through the tyranny of a local bully, John Dodge, from 1783 to 1787. Frustrated by the debased currency of Virginia and that state’s inability to honor its debts, Kaskaskia’s most prominent merchants fled across the river to Spanish St. Louis.

This was not a performance calculated to impress the French inhabitants of the region. The two Wests were beginning to converge. The world of the Ohio country, a frontier forged during the violent experiences of the revolutionary period, was moving west. The “empire of liberty,” as Eric Hinderaker has dubbed it, was “pushed forward by the activities of thousands of land-hungry western settlers; revolutionary governments at both the state and the confederation level, for reasons of strategy as well as theory, chose to follow their lead and support their efforts.” The positive side of this was balanced by the absence of effective authority and a strong sense of racial divide and animosity.64 Vincennes, once securely a part of the Creole Corridor, was by 1786 increasingly engulfed by this other frontier. As Americans moved in, murders, robberies, race hatred, and alcoholism increased dramatically. Local Indians began to retaliate, and local French magistrates found themselves increasingly unable to control the situation. Their native friends warned the French that they would not always be able to distinguish between them and these frontier Americans65 Some of the French decided to move. Louis Lorimier, a French trader from the Ohio country who had served as a British partisan because of his dependence on British supply contracts and his commercial and kinship ties to the Shawnees, moved to Spanish Louisiana in 1787. He brought with him a substantial number of his Shawnee and Delaware friends. Lorimier received a Spanish land grant, was made the commandant of the Cape Girardeau district, and lived a comfortable life there until his death in 1812.66 Lorimier, in short, moved to that part of the Creole Corridor that remained safely beyond the American frontier. Those who stayed played a careful juggling act. To protect their land from the incoming Kentuckians, the French in Vincennes in 1787 petitioned Congress to survey and distribute their lands67 Keeping one hand in the Indian trade, French merchants used their other to start dabbling in real estate. Over the next several years, the most substantial French merchants in Vincennes began to speculate rather furiously in land, anticipating an influx of Anglo-American farmers.

During the 1790s, the British and Spanish regimes in the other parts of this French-speaking region began to unravel. The British at Detroit found themselves increasingly burdened with Indian requests for support in their wars with the Americans. British officials still relied on French militia support, but that support was lukewarm at best. When Colonel Richard England, the last British commandant at Detroit, charged Jean Baptiste Chapoton with encouraging disaffection among the militia, a jury promptly found Chapoton not guilty. When Father Burke, a Tory priest sent to Detroit in 1794 at the request of Lord Dorchester, arrived, he found Colonel England’s situation most hopeless: “His soldiers were deserting, the militia was worse than useless, civil officers were faithless to their king, and even his personal friends, among many others, were so eager to add to their landholdings that they were sending emissaries to General Wayne [Mad Anthony] to beg that huge grants recently acquired from the Indians be confirmed.”68When Burke tried to influence the Potawatomis before they met with General Wayne at Greenville in 1795, two Frenchmen intercepted his letter and appended the following postscript: “[this man is] neither a Frenchman nor a Priest but a rascal who is chosen by the English to deceive you and blind you.”69 Throughout 1795 and 1796, the French inhabitants of Detroit prepared for the arrival of American sovereignty by making private land purchases from Indian friends and relations.

In Spanish Louisiana during the 1790s, Governor Carondelet spent five years of anxiety worrying about rumors of slave rebellions, French revolutionaries, and Indian depredations. In 1795, Spain signed Pinckney’s Treaty, which granted Americans the right to navigate the Mississippi and deposit goods at New Orleans. The following year, with Spain and Great Britain at war, Carondelet began encouraging the immigration of American settlers into Spanish territory to provide some measure of defense against the possibility of a British invasion. By 1804, three-fifths of the ten thousand inhabitants of Upper Louisiana were Americans.

The winds of change were in the air, and the French merchants of St. Louis anticipated the change in sovereignty that occurred formally in 1804. As in Detroit during the years right before the American transfer (1796), the French elite in Upper Louisiana began to accumulate land claims from friendly Spanish officials.70 In this endeavor, French merchants living under Spanish rule had a distinct advantage over their counterparts in places held by the British or the Virginians. Although French—and British—merchants in places such as Detroit might, and indeed did, purchase Indian lands, regulations prohibited them from doing so. Spanish officials were, on the other hand, quite liberal in the dispensation of land grants. The Chouteau clan was predictably fortunate to have their brother-in-law, Antoine Soulard, be appointed the royal surveyor in 1795. There can be little doubt that French merchants in this Spanish-held Creole Corridor had a vision of the future. In 1796, Charles Gratiot wrote to a friend in London about the effect of Pinckney’s Treaty: “By the advantages of this treaty the americans can consider themselves the masters of the trade of this colony, under their Flag they can enter all parts of the world, and the neighboring territory on the west will become the empire, more and more flourishing, of the American Union.”71 He went on to predict that New Orleans would quickly become one of the most powerful cities in the universe—and so it did, especially during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The French did not disappear when the British and Spanish regimes in the region ended. For that matter, they did not disappear when the fur trade became a less dominant part of the local economy or when Native Americans were forced by the United States to remove farther west. French entreprenrurs were busy doing what entrepreneurs do: they were identifying advantageous crossroads and establishing relationships with Indian clients. They were trying to maintain lines of credit with suppliers in Montreal, New Orleans, and London. They were building stores and homes in the region. In other words, they were both developing a network of commercial exchange and engaging in the process of community formation. And they were learning valuable lessons in the fine art of managing the transition from imperial sovereignty to republican sovereignty, one West to the other.

Pierre-Louis Panet of Montreal wrote a letter to his brother-in-law Auguste Chouteau of St. Louis on May 18, 1804. “Vous êtes actuellement citoyens [des États-Unis]. Je souhaite que vous vous trouviez bien de le changement inattendu. [You are now citizens of the United States. I hope that you like this unexpected change.]”72 In this same letter, Panet reported that Chouteau’s son, in school at Montreal, had learned to read and speak English fairly well. The change may have been unexpected, but the French were not unprepared.


Auguste Chouteau (1749-1829). Born in New Orleans, the son of René Auguste Chouteau and Marie Thérèse Bourgeois, Auguste helped his stepfather, Pierre de Laclède, establish the new settlement and future city of St. Louis in the winter of 17631764. Chouteau, trading on his own account and with various family partnerships, eventually accumulated a fortune in the fur trade. His ties to the Osage Indians and his good relations with Spanish and later American officials cemented his position as the “first citizen” of the region. After 1816, he focused his attention on banking, a flour mill and distillery, and a vast estate of more than fifty thousand acres. Known far and wide as a man of intellect and curiosity, Chouteau received a host of distinguished visitors in his home. From the St. Louis Globe-Democrat Archives of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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