In 1796, Auguste Chouteau, forty-six-year-old merchant of St. Louis, wrote the following letter to the Spanish governor of Louisiana, the Baron de Carondelet:
I take this occasion to renew the assurances of my respect and of my sincere devotion. ... I see with pleasure that you will be the Governor for at least another year, and that this space of time will furnish you the possibility of giving consistence to the wise views you have conceived for the happiness and the growth of this vast and immense country, which is as yet not well enough known. ... I beg you, monseigneur, to accept a little gift of apples that I hope will reach you safely. I would have sent you more if they had not been so scarce this year. These are all I have and I am happy that they have a destination so satisfactory to me.1
This obsequious letter was followed the next year by one similar in tone, this time addressed to Carondelet’s successor, Governor Manuel Gayoso de Lemos:
I have the honor of offering you my sincere congratulations on your promotion to the place of Governor of the Province of Louisiana; no one could better than you replace M. Le Baron ....2
The objective behind both letters was the continued patronage by Spanish officials of Chouteau’s monopoly of the Osage Indian trade and an annual stipend of two thousand pesos for maintaining a fort in Osage territory. Chouteau’s successful efforts to link his private interests with the welfare of the Spanish empire, as one historian has noted, were well within the “established mercantilist tradition.”3 The language and tone of both letters will certainly sound familiar to any student of the ancien regime.
Let us switch now to the year 1819. The Missouri Gazette for July 14 reported that Colonel Auguste Chouteau, now almost sixty-nine, had presided over an Independence Day celebration at Pierre Didier’s orchard. The festivities featured a full-length portrait of General George Washington surmounted by a live eagle. After many toasts and a sumptuous dinner, the crowd sang a rousing chorus of “Yankee Doodle.”4 We may assume that Chouteau sang “Yankee Doodle” in French, for he died without bothering to learn English.
Had Auguste become an ardent republican during his declining years? Certainly the lessons of citizenship were not wasted on his nephew Pierre. Following in his uncle’s footsteps, Pierre arranged a timely loan for Senator Thomas Hart Benton in 1843 just when Benton’s support for confirmation of an Indian treaty highly profitable to Pierre Chouteau and Company seemed to be wavering.5 This was not the first or the last incident of its kind. Senator Benton seems to have been as much an employee of Chouteau and Company as a representative of the people of Missouri. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The consistent vision of merchants like the Chouteaus, that is, the development and exploitation of the resources of their regional base—the Creole Corridor—was eventually pursued with great success in the context of national expansion even farther west. Francophone entrepreneurs in the West played a critical role in ushering in a new regime of private property and market relations, forging transportation links and connections of capital and personal influence with national centers of commerce and power in New York, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. Let us begin by disabusing ourselves of the notion that our story was bound to unfold as it did.
With the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, the United States cleared its imperial rivals out of an immense area and secured the main trade route of the interior for its western citizens. The port of New Orleans, long coveted by British policymakers, was now in the hands of the young republic. The upriver town of St. Louis provided a gateway to the West and the promise of a limitless trade in furs. The vision of a republican empire was beginning to take shape. The glorious dreams of commerce and territory were tempered, however, by one potential nightmare. There was a human reality on this vast and fertile ground. Anglo-Americans were not the first people of European descent to stake their claim in Louisiana. Far from it. Shrewd and observant French merchants called this land home and were following events closely.
Two new areas that formerly had been part of the French empire became part of the United States during the 1790s: the Detroit region in 1796 and Mississippi Territory in 1798. The French in Spanish Louisiana looked on with growing interest. Both in the Illinois Country and in the Detroit region during its first decade of American rule from 1796 to 1805, the United States did little to reassure the French inhabitants that the new regime would be either responsive or responsible. In both Vincennes and Detroit, only one American officer—John Francis Hamtramck, a native of Quebec and a Roman Catholic—managed to command respect and create a bond between the francophone citizens and their new government. If one were to survey French opinion about Americans during the decade before the Louisiana Purchase, the results would not, in general, seem very promising. Zenon Trudeau, the French lieutenant governor of Upper Louisiana under the Spanish regime, wrote to François Vallé at Ste. Genevieve in 1792 that the Americans were “un peuple sans loix ni discipline [a people without law or discipline].”6 The following excerpt from a letter written by Bartholomew Tardiveau to Charles Gratiot in St. Louis sheds some light on French stereotypes: “Major Dunn blew out his brains in 1790 after having discovered the infidelity of his wife. He was an extremely fine man although Irish by birth and American for many years.”7 One Frenchman referred to the newcomers simply as américoquins. French sentiments were perhaps best summed up in a limerick written by an anonymous Creole from Ste. Genevieve in 1796:
Soyez ‘y’ ci les Bien venu cher enfant de sodome
Soyez ‘y’ ci les Bien venu homme au milieux de rome
Et vous detestable putain don le con nous degoute
Allez chez les ameriquien cherchez gens qui vous foute8
In general, it may be said that the French who lived west of the Mississippi realized that the Americans were “determined to transplant their institutions and culture into the territory.”9 This was in stark contrast to the Spanish, who viewed Upper Louisiana as a defensive borderland, a barrier between the expansive American republic and New Spain. Realizing that they did not have the manpower or expertise in local Indian affairs to do otherwise, the Spanish were content to let the French Creoles run their own show in their own language. Moreover, the Spanish spent great sums of money on defense and public improvements and asked for little in return in the form of taxes. Despite a welter of official restrictions on trade, Spanish officials in Missouri generally allowed French merchants to buy goods from wholesalers in Michilimackinac, Montreal, and London.10 The French were clearly afraid that the U.S. government, on both local and national levels, would provide little in terms of defense and require much support in the form of duties and taxes. Closer to home, the French merchants of St. Louis were not impressed by the rowdy Americans who had settled in the lead-mining district near Ste. Genevieve.
If the French had already begun to form their stereotypes of the Americans, the reverse was even more strikingly the case—and the prejudices of Americans writing from the centers of power on the Atlantic coast were rarely informed by personal encounters. The incorporation of Louisiana into the republic was not the first instance of French inhabitants in the West becoming American citizens, but the magnitude of this addition forced a systematic discussion for the first time. Jeffersonians and Federalists alike wondered out loud how to make good Americans out of the French inhabitants of the Mississippi Valley.
Although cultural conflicts soon surfaced over seemingly inconsequential issues such as whether the French quadrille or the Virginia reel would take precedence at a public celebration of the transfer, most American concerns were political in nature.11 Thomas Jefferson himself, writing to John Breckinridge in 1803, worried that “the Constitution had made no provision for our holding foreign territory, still less for incorporating foreign nations into our union.”12 The Constitution had clearly authorized the admission of new states into the Union and also implied that the country might expand territorially, but the status of the inhabitants acquired by such expansion was open to judicial interpretation.13 Behind such constitutional concerns lay the assumption that U.S. citizenship, like divine grace, properly belonged to those individuals who had made a conscious decision to deserve it. The common stereotype held by many American political leaders was that the French of the Mississippi Valley were at best indifferent to the rights and responsibilities of free men. Simply put, they were French (strike one); they were ignorant of the principles of self-governance, being the “children” of empire (strike two); and they were Roman Catholic and therefore spiritual servants of the Pope (strike three)14This last bias against Catholicism was rarely expressed in public, but it certainly existed in the minds of many. Frederick Bates, a young Virginian and Jeffersonian bureaucrat who held appointive offices in Detroit and St. Louis, described the French in Missouri in a letter to his brother:
The very name of liberty deranges their intellects ... If their Commandant spurned them from his presence: deprived them of half their Estate or ordered them to the black Hole, they received the doom as the dispensation of Heaven, and met their fate with all that resignation with which they are accustomed to submit indifferently .... Surrounded with wretchedness they dance and sing; and if they have their relations and friends within the sound of their violin, they have nothing more to ask of the Virgin; Provided her viceregent the Priest, will design to forgive those sins which perhaps they never committed.15
Bates clearly had a rather low opinion of Catholicism, but the point here is that his religious bias informed his assessment of the French Catholic’s fitness as a potential citizen of the republic. He assumed that they were in the habit of being submissive, spiritually and politically. Albert Gallatin, Jefferson’s secretary of the treasury, was a native French speaker but was from Geneva, the Calvinist heart of Europe. His opinion of the French in the Mississippi Valley, expressed in a letter to Jefferson, was that they were “but one degree above the French West Indians, than whom a more ignorant and depraved race of civilized men did not exist.”16
Many American politicians would have agreed with Josiah Quincy, the Massachusetts Federalist, when he proclaimed that the people of Louisiana “may be girt upon us for a moment, but no real cement can grow from such an association.”17 Congressman William Eustis from Boston declared: “I am not one of those who believe that the principles of liberty can be grafted suddenly upon a people accustomed to a regimen of a directly opposite hue. I consider them standing in the same relation as if they were a conquered nation.”18 Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to assume that many Anglo-Americans, like the British before them, secretly hoped that the French would either disappear or, at the very least, be outnumbered as soon as possible so that the republic might progress unimpeded. One Anglo-American newcomer suggested at a dinner that it would take many French funerals to improve St. Louis.19 It is worth noting here that some Jeffersonian territorial appointees were not above discrediting those French merchants who had priority in the western territories as a way of advancing their own interests in the race for political office and land.
American politicians were not only pessimistic about the essential political fitness of the French, they were also troubled by what they perceived to be their historic inclinations. When Pierre Chouteau, Auguste’s younger half-brother, suggested to Albert Gallatin in 1804 an arrangement in the Osage country similar to that which had prevailed under the Spanish regime, Gallatin’s response, detailed in a letter to Jefferson, was as follows:
I had two conversations with Chotteau [sic]. He seems well disposed, but what he wants is power and money. He proposed that he should have a negative on all the Indian trading licenses, and the direction and all the profits of the trade carried on by the government with all the Indians of Louisiana, replacing only the capital. I told him this was inadmissible; and his last demand was the exclusive trade with the Osages... As he may be either useful or dangerous, I gave no flat denial to his last request, but told him to modify it in the least objectionable shape... As to the government of Upper Louisiana, he is decidedly in favor of a military one, and appears much afraid of civil law and lawyers; in some respects he may be right, but, as regular laws and courts protect the poor and the ignorant, we may mistrust the predilection of him who is comparatively rich and intelligent in favor of other systems.20
The Chouteaus soon realized that the “privileges” of the old regime must be reduced in the American system to a more private peddling of interests.
As Gallatin’s letter implies, officials in Washington were concerned with the loyalty of the French as well as with their character. As events in the West had already shown and were to show again during the Burr Conspiracy, even the affections of Anglo-American settlers in the West for the new nation were prone to be fickle. It was natural for Jeffersonian bureaucrats to assume that the French might prefer different masters, even though the French in Kaskaskia and Vincennes had lent their support to George Rogers Clark and the American cause during the Revolution.
Perhaps more troubling to American officials than the specter of European intrigue were the French traders’ ties to various Indian groups, especially those in the Old Northwest who viewed American claims to sovereignty and the land hunger of investors and squatters alike with increasing dread and anger. At least up until 1804, French traders had shown themselves to be sympathetic to Indian jurisdictional claims. It took the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which officially spelled out the boundaries between Indian and American jurisdiction in Illinois and the rest of the Northwest Territory, to explain to Governor St. Clair why the French inhabitants of Cahokia had consistently refused his offer of four-hundred-acre donation grants in the high ground beyond their village.21 The relative harmony that existed between French settlers and their Indian neighbors went beyond mere economic partnership. Kinship ties and mutual respect of political boundaries supported the bridges between the two cultures. Time and time again, the French would show a willingness to let Indian ground rules govern situations that would surprise and annoy American settlers and politicians.
But just how well did the Americans understand the inhabitants of Louisiana? How valid were their preconceptions? And how well do we understand those francophone inhabitants two centuries later, given the relative absence of historical scholarship directed at this Creole society?
The first American misconception was geographical. It is worth reiterating that this region, as a social and cultural zone, stretched beyond the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase to include places such as Vincennes and Detroit. French customs and language predominated in the region. English gradually eclipsed French as a public language in St. Louis and Detroit by the 1830s, but it would take the Civil War to finally determine that struggle in New Orleans. The linguistic battle was complicated by racial boundaries as people of African descent, both free and slave, might belong to either linguistic group. Add to this mix an incredible array of immigrants and Indian groups and one can appreciate the disorientation of American travelers.
This was also a region that flowed, literally, from north to south, not east to west. And it was a region dominated by towns. Detroit and St. Louis were still small in numbers in 1803, neither place containing much more than one thousand inhabitants, although both functioned as urban centers, connecting the paths of goods and people. Farther down the Mississippi River, one encountered another urban center, Natchez. Similar in numbers and culture to the other Creole towns, Natchez possessed a diverse citizenry. Underneath the patina of French customs, one could discover merchants who had come from as far away as Majorca and Genoa. And then there was la ville, New Orleans. At the time of the transfer, New Orleans was already one of the largest urban centers in the young nation. By 1820, it was the largest city south of Baltimore and the fifth largest in the United States. By 1850, it had a population of more than one hundred thousand. In 1835, the city’s exports exceeded those of New York City—though the latter would take back the lead by 1850. New Orleans had also eclipsed Montreal in population by 1820. Given that Montreal had a British majority from 1830 to 1860, one could argue that New Orleans, with its flourishing French-language schools, newspapers, and opera companies, was the preeminent French city in North America before the Civil War.
Who were these thousands of French residents? We have already seen that many had arrived in the region after the fall of the French empire. Emigrants from France continued to arrive in the region both right before and for some time after the Louisiana Purchase. Frenchman Nicolas Jarrot arrived in the Illinois Country in the 1790s. A tireless land speculator, he died a wealthy man, and his wife, Julie Beauvais Jarrot, pursued the family business interests with great success after his death. Joseph Sire, born in 1799 in La Rochelle, arrived in St. Louis in 1821, served as a master of various American Fur Company steamboats, and became an important partner in Pierre Chouteau Jr. and Company in 1838.
Exiles from successive regimes in France sought asylum and opportunity in French America. Royalist Louis Philippe Joseph de Roffignac arrived in New Orleans in 1800 and served several terms as mayor during the 1820s. Exiles from the Bonapartist regime included the famous New Orleans lawyer Etienne Mazureau. After Waterloo, the architect Benjamin Buisson arrived in New Orleans. Ange Palms, a former officer under Napoleon, settled in Detroit where his daughter Marie-Françoise married the son of Joseph Campau, the richest man in the territory. Statesman-politician Pierre Soulé, destined to achieve national prominence in the Democratic Party, fled Restoration France in 1825. The stream of emigrants from France to Louisiana actually increased from the 1830s to the Civil War.22
French people from the French colony of St. Domingue (present-day Haiti) arrived in both St. Louis and New Orleans in significant numbers from 1793 to 1804. Then in 1809 and 1810, the largest wave of francophone refugees from St. Domingue arrived in Louisiana, deported by officials in Cuba in response to Bonapartist schemes in Spain. More than ten thousand arrived in less than a year. Many of these stayed in New Orleans, but others found homes in French towns upriver. René Paul from Cap François married a daughter of Auguste Chouteau. Educated at the École Polytechnique in Paris, he served as the official surveyor of St. Louis from 1823 to 1838, a critical period of urban expansion of great value to his new family. One Anglo-American resident of New Orleans, James Brown, was so frustrated by the stream of Gallic refugees who poured into that city from St. Domingue via Cuba in 1809 that he suggested to Henry Clay in 1810 that the French simply not be allowed to vote.
Then there were those who defied categorization. Pierre Derbigny, born into the nobility in Laon, France, fled the French Revolution for St. Domingue in 1793. He married the daughter of a prominent French Illinois family and settled in Louisiana in 1797, ultimately becoming governor of the state. The powerful bon papa of Bayou Lafourche, Henry Schuyler Thibodaux, was born in Albany, New York, in 1769 of French Canadian and Dutch New Yorker parents. He landed in Louisiana in 1794 after “a youth spent in Scotland.”23
In every town and city in the region, these newcomers reinforced the linguistic, cultural, economic, and political staying power of the French community. Indeed, in New Orleans, the so-called Foreign French were so numerous as to constitute a distinct group within the city’s ethnic and cultural politics. If these French towns were indeed experiencing social and demographic changes, were the values of the inhabitants nevertheless rather traditional? Were they prepared for the influx of—as they have so often been described — “enterprising and progressive” Anglo-Americans?
The Catholicism of the French was often taken as one measure of their traditional character. Putting aside the fairness of such an unwarranted interpretation, have we overlooked some interesting complications? Historian Melvin Holli has described Joseph Campau, from one of the oldest families in Detroit, as conservative and feudal—unable to adjust to the more modern values of incoming Yankees24 Yet in 1800, Campau became the first Frenchman in Detroit to join the Zion Lodge, Number 10, of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. Following his lead, Gabriel Godfroy and six other Frenchmen had joined by 1805. Freemasonry, of course, was frowned upon by the church as being both anti-Catholic and dangerously liberal. Indeed, when Campau, in ill health in 1802, asked Detroit’s Father Richard for spiritual aid, the priest made him promise, among other things, to withdraw from the lodge. That year Campau went to confession and took a more active part in church affairs, even being chosen a marguillier or churchwarden. Campau, apparently feeling much better—he died at the age of ninety-five—did not withdraw from the lodge and was reelected treasurer by his freemason brethren before the year was over. He would later lead the struggle of the most prosperous portion of the parish over the control of church property.25
Campau was not the only French Catholic in this region to become a freemason. Pierre Chouteau Jr. was also one. French Catholic freemasons dominated the board of church trustees or fabrique controlling St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, resulting in a serious church schism in 1805. We may perhaps attribute such progressive or liberal tendencies to Americanization, but the freemasons in New Orleans were resisting attempts by the church hierarchy to appoint priests sympathetic to the American cause and the needs of English-speaking Catholics.26 Disputes between middle-class Francophones and church officials over liberal ideas and the control of church property were also becoming more common in Quebec during this period.
It is hard to gauge the political sentiments of the French, given the relative absence of letters or published materials that address such concerns directly. The documents generated by the revolt of 1768 provide some intriguing early hints that the French were not necessarily inclined to be submissive or traditional. The memoir composed in his own defense by Pierre Caresse, a leader of the rebellion and a New Orleans merchant, is noteworthy. Defending free trade he exclaimed: “One would have to be an unzealous citizen not to applaud these principles. M. Ulloa, however, never permitted us to put them to his review. We had to suppress even the cry of pain. The admission of our slavery was a potentially explosive challenge to authority. We were expected to shout ‘I am free,’ imitating the galley-slaves of Venice, whose chains bear the engraving ‘Liberty.’”27 Given such strong words, it should not surprise us that Alejandro O’Reilly had Caresse executed. Professing his devotion to the French king, Caresse refers consistently to himself and his fellow Creoles as citoyens (citizens), not sujets (subjects). The language of the Enlightenment had certainly penetrated this distant colony.
British agents of empire, like their Spanish counterparts, were surprised by the French resistance they encountered in Canada. With American forces threatening Montreal and Quebec in 1775, Chief Justice William Hey wrote the following to Colonial Secretary Dartmouth: “Every day furnishes too many instances of it, and gives me an Idea of the real character of the Canadians very different from what I used to entertain. ... Your Lordship will remember how much has been said by us all of their Loyalty, obedience & Gratitude, of their habitual submission to Government ... but time and accident have evinced that they were obedient only because they were afraid to be otherwise.”28 Governor Carleton noted that a bust of King George III in Montreal had been “smeared with soot and decorated with a collar of potatoes and a wooden cross with the inscription: ‘Voilà le pape du Canada et le sot anglais’ [Behold the Pope of Canada and the English fool].”29
Often pictured as infantilized and backward peasants and fur traders, quite literally the children of empire, the French have appeared in many a historical novel as passive spectators to the noble exploits of Anglo-American liberators such as George Rogers Clark and Andrew Jackson. It was a misperception at the time, and American politicians quickly learned that it was not correct. Any perceived American attempt to deprive the French of their political voice or their property drew an immediate response. One can read numerous petitions sent by the inhabitants of Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan during the 1780s and 1790s. The Governance Act of 1804 prompted lengthy memorials from the leading francophone citizens of Lower and Upper Louisiana and delegations to deliver the documents to Washington, D.C., from both New Orleans and St. Louis. Loathing the prospect of a dictatorship of Jeffersonian bureaucrats and the imposition of anglophone institutions, the memorialists chided Congress for not extending the essential privileges of a free people, including, of course, any form of representative government. Speaking a language eastern politicians could easily recognize, the French sounded much like other groups of disenfranchised westerners chafing at the territorial bit. There were, of course, special concerns, noted in the memorial sent from St. Louis with a fair measure of sarcasm: “the records of each county, and the proceedings of the courts of Justice in the District of Louisiana, should be kept and had in both the English and French languages as it is the case in a neighboring country under a monarchial Government and acquired by conquest”30
The French, I would argue, were more than ready to play the game of republican politics, as their subsequent actions in Louisiana and elsewhere amply demonstrate. In Detroit, the alienated French majority grew so exasperated with territorial Governor William Hull that in 1809 they sent a petition to President Madison requesting Hull’s removal.31 In that city, Joseph Campau’s nephew wrote to François Navarre in 1819 about an upcoming election and observed with great passion that the “natives of the country” must guard against the “strangers” who would “insolently ravish our rights and our natural privileges”32 Though presented to some degree as an ethnic struggle, the contest was framed as a political one, a struggle of our concitoyens (fellow citizens) in defense of their status as free members of the republic.
Bernard Marigny, perhaps the most ardent defender of the status of French Creoles in Lower Louisiana, understood quite clearly what the change from an imperial regime to a republican regime implied. Chiding the former French aristocrat Mayor Roffignac of New Orleans for his obsequious behavior during a formal visit of Andrew Jackson to the city, Marigny observed that “servile flattery” was unbecoming in a republican nation. In Marigny’s words: “the compliments of our Mayor are of the kind, called, in good French de l’eau bénite de cour [holy water of the court].”33 Times had changed, and the French in this region, especially those from the dominant commercial class, had heard the news.
When the delegations from St. Louis and New Orleans arrived in Washington with their memorials in 1804, Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire described the petitioners from Lower Louisiana (Derbigny, Pierre Sauvé, and Jean Noel Destrehan): “They are all Frenchmen. Two of them [Derbigny and Sauvé] speak our language fluently. They are all gentlemen of the first respectability in that country—men of talent, literature and general information, men of business and acquainted with the world. I was much gratified with their company. They had little of French flippancy about them. They [more] resembled New Englanders than Virginians”34 (the ultimate compliment!). The French complaints were well thought out and wide ranging. The petitioners from both cities demanded guarantees on their property—their land claims and their slaves. Slavery was on the minds of the St. Louisans, who were to be included within the jurisdiction of Indiana, created under the conditions of the Northwest Ordinance (which included a ban on slavery). The French also demanded some form of representative government. And, of course, they requested French and English schools and judges and officials fluent in both languages.
If American concerns were mostly political in nature, French concerns were primarily economic and legal, for it was to the law these merchants looked to protect their rights and property. French merchants were to fight court battles over land grants and slaves that dragged on for decades. The French were also more generally worried that Anglo-American jurisprudence would bring with it prolonged trials by jury that would impede the smooth flow of commerce.35 As Louis Nicholas Fortin, a merchant near Baton Rouge, wrote to his brother-in-law Antoine Marechal of Vincennes: “they will bring with them, in a free and peaceful country, the discord and disunion of families through lawsuits and taxation. Lawyers, sheriffs, and constables will come crowding in here. I do not despair ... of seeing a few of these idle worthless fellows, that carry a little green satchel filled with useless old papers, come here and seek their fortune in their shabby motheaten black suits, and their Blackstone under their arms! They won’t be the most welcome.”36 Such concerns had a basis in reality. Even a newly arrived American judge, John Coburn, had to admit that by the “local standards” to which the French in St. Louis were accustomed, “the administration of Justice is dilatory.” The fact that trial by jury was mandated in civil and criminal cases by the Governance Act of 1804 meant that cases concerning property would take longer and have greater restrictions regarding evidence. Nor were the French at all pleased with the very idea of juries. As historian Stuart Banner has observed: “the leading French inhabitants of St. Louis protested [that juries] were made up of ‘whatever individuals may happen to be present, without regard to character, standing or property’ ... [they] thus endangered ‘the liberty, property or even life of the citizens by entrusting the most material interests of criminal justice, to Agents who having no stake in the community, have no interest to protect it.’ “37
There was also a substantive difference between common law and the civil law the French were used to. As historian George Dargo has noted, “the civil law worked to put property in the hands and under the control of the living. It promoted the commercialism of all property, including land.” Common law, on the other hand, “still wrestled with more fragmented notions of property—the relativity of title, the competing claims of present and future property holders, and the differences between legal and equitable ownership.”38
In Lower Louisiana, where sheer numbers and a professional class of francophone lawyers, mostly immigrants, supported the effort, the French managed to hold on to their civilian legal tradition in the sphere of private substantive law. Criminal law and criminal procedure, on the other hand, followed common-law traditions. The Quebec Act of 1774 had erected a similar compromise in Canada, much to the dismay of British merchants in Quebec. A contemporary Canadian political cartoon viewed the result of this unholy alliance of French and English legal traditions as producing an illegitimate child. In Louisiana, francophone planter Julien Poydras used the phrase “mongrel offspring of injustice and chicane.” Nevertheless, the Louisiana French could look back with some satisfaction after civil codes were adopted in 1808 and 1825. Codification of the civil law in Quebec did not occur until 1866, and the final product was less progressive than Louisiana’s earlier efforts.39
For the French in the Upper Mississippi Valley, the protection of their property in land and slaves and the future of the fur trade mattered most. To that end, the French in Upper Louisiana would gather Anglo-American allies, mostly lawyers, such as Edward Hempstead from Connecticut, John Hay of Cahokia—the son of Jehu Hay who served briefly as a British lieutenant governor of Detroit—and Thomas Hart Benton. In St. Louis and French Illinois, francophone lawyers were unavailable, and, in truth, Anglo-Americans were probably more useful for the concerns of merchants pursuing congressional favors regarding Indian affairs and western lands.
When their investments were threatened by the Governance Act of 1804, which nullified Spanish land grants awarded after October 1, 1800 (the date of Spain’s cession of Louisiana to France), and prohibited the foreign slave trade, the francophone elite were quick to point out that these provisions violated the Louisiana Purchase agreement which guaranteed that “the inhabitants shall be maintained in the full enjoyment of their property.”40
It was property in land above all else that initially tied French merchants throughout the emerging Midwest to the interests of an expanding American republic. The French in Indiana and Illinois had begun to assert themselves in 1788, addressing numerous petitions to Congress to settle the issue of land titles and to confirm that their property in slaves would be upheld under Article 2 of the Northwest Ordinance.41 At least one important pro-American French merchant, François Bosseron of Vincennes, went to an early grave, “bankrupt and disillusioned” with his new country.42 But in the 1790s the economic situation brightened for other French merchants, who began at last to derive some benefits from their American connection. The rush for land in southern Indiana and Illinois was certainly fueled by the acts of Congress passed in 1788 and 1791 that provided for donation grants of four hundred and one hundred acres. Beginning in 1791, Francesco Vigo of Vincennes began supplying goods to new American customers. The following year, Vigo made his first recorded trip to Philadelphia; for ten years, he or one of his agents made the trip east to buy a stock of goods from importers and manufacturers. Although he continued to maintain business relations with merchants in Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Kaskaskia, Vigo expanded the range of his activities and apparently expanded his profits, for he entered a period of frenzied land speculation that eventually backfired.43
Not all French settlers had the resources to speculate in land, and some sold their claims for a fraction of their eventual worth. But those French merchants who had the resources, and there were many, speculated extensively in land and welcomed the newcomers despite their misgivings. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, waiting across the river from St. Louis in the winter of 1804 for the formal transfer of Upper Louisiana to the United States, were wined and dined by the Chouteau family. An examination of the expedition’s financial records reveals that the Chouteaus provided blankets, gunpowder and bullets, Indian goods, and most of the other material needs for this famous journey—at a profit, of course. They also extended credit to the Americans for paying wages to workers and soldiers. As historian William Foley has noted, “the expedition’s departure symbolized the true beginning of a long and successful partnership uniting the old French inhabitants and the American newcomers in a common effort to develop the trans-Mississippi frontier.”44
That same year, in another gesture of alliance, President Jefferson appointed six young men, all scions of leading Missouri French families, to the national military school at West Point. Among the young men were Pierre Chouteau’s oldest son, Auguste Pierre (A.P.), Charles Gratiot Jr., and two sons of Louis Lorimier, the former commandant at Cape Girardeau who had led a large contingent of Shawnees and Delawares from the Ohio Velley to Missouri in the 1780s. (Of the six, only Gratiot pursued a career in the army.)45
In July 1804, Pierre Chouteau Sr. — in Washington with a visiting delegation of Osage chiefs—was appointed Upper Louisiana’s first U.S. Indian agent. A few months later, the departing Spanish lieutenant governor of Upper Louisiana— on his way down the Mississippi to New Orleans—encountered Chouteau in the company of William Henry Harrison, the new U.S. territorial governor, on their way up to St. Louis. It would be interesting to know the Spanish official’s innermost thoughts on that occasion given the fact that the Chouteaus had recently extended credit to the U.S. government but insisted on cash in helping the Spanish in their evacuation.46
In November 1804, Harrison, assisted by the Chouteau brothers, Auguste and Pierre, and Charles Gratiot, negotiated a treaty with the Sac and Foxes on the Rock River in Illinois. A special provision, added after the treaty had been negotiated, acknowledged the validity of the Spanish grant to Julien Dubuque in which Auguste Chouteau had recently purchased a half interest.47
So far, so good, but the coming years brought increasing problems. In March 1805, Congress changed the status of Upper Louisiana and created the Territory of Louisiana (Missouri). (Lower Louisiana was named Orleans Territory.) Under this act, General James Wilkinson was appointed governor of the territory; Joseph Browne, a brother-in-law of Aaron Burr, was named secretary; and Jean Baptiste Charles Lucas, John Coburn, and Rufus Easton were named judges of the superior court. Although pleased with the selection of Wilkinson, the Creoles of St. Louis were undoubtedly suspicious of the others. Judge Lucas, born in Normandy in 1758, was a friend of Albert Gallatin, and like his friend, Lucas disliked what he viewed as the corrupt old-regime machinations of merchants such as the Chouteaus. Browne and Coburn were transient Republican office-seekers. Easton, a native of Connecticut, was an ambitious and ardent Jeffersonian, determined to find his fortune in his new home. These men were to exercise legislative authority over the francophone natives of the town. Furthermore, the 1805 act confirmed the provision for jury trial, though it did relax, though not yet repeal, the laws invalidating post-1800 land grants and prohibiting the slave trade.48
That same month Congress enacted a separate bill that provided strict regulations for determining the validity of Spanish land titles and created a board of land commissioners consisting of a recorder of titles and two other members to make sometimes quite arbitrary decisions regarding claims. The first members of the board appointed by Jefferson were Judge Lucas, Clement Biddle Penrose from Philadelphia, and James Lowry Donaldson from Baltimore. Lucas, in particular, was a thorn in the side of the Creole merchants. He held that all land claims should meet the requirements of Spanish law to the letter. The merchants protested that the Spanish regime had never been that exacting in granting and sustaining title—and bearing the burden of proof in these proceedings would be difficult and costly at best. They were also irritated that the land in question would continue to be assessed for taxes, yet they were unable to mortgage, subdivide, or sell their property.
At first the board was lenient. Penrose and Donaldson were sympathetic to the Creoles and politically aligned with Wilkinson. There were apparently attempts to circumvent Lucas by not telling him where meetings were to be held. Wilkinson did his best to support the interests of the French, who had found his number soon after his arrival. He appointed Antoine Soulard to the post of surveyor general, the position he had held under the Spanish. Marie Philippe LeDuc, formerly the secretary to the Spanish lieutenant governor, was appointed translator for the board. (Soulard and LeDuc were both related by marriage to the Chouteaus.) Charles Gratiot was made clerk of the board. The stakes were high. The claims of the Chouteau brothers alone came to 234,000 arpents (about 198,000 acres).
Just as the board began to take action, events broke down this Creole coalition. Wilkinson, amidst rumors of the Burr Conspiracy, was ordered to New Orleans. For a few months, Secretary Browne was acting governor until Burr’s arrest persuaded the Creoles to join in the move for his ouster. The following year, Donaldson—having been attacked by a drunken Rufus Easton—returned to Baltimore, and Jefferson appointed Frederick Bates to replace both Browne and Donaldson and Meriwether Lewis to replace Wilkinson. Bates, a native of Virginia, an anti-Catholic, and a former officeholder in Michigan Territory—where he had been snubbed by French belles—joined forces with Lucas and Easton in opposing the interests of the Creole elite on the land board and on the legislative council.49
It is fairly obvious that many of the French merchants, informed early on by Spanish officials and other correspondents of the possibility of the Louisiana Purchase, had secured, even antedated, substantial land claims. They naturally assumed that the arrival of the Americans would bring a rise in land values. Their hopes for a quick killing were frustrated by the obstinacy of the land board. The opposition—Easton, Lucas, and Bates—had already experienced the American settlement frontier and hoped to make fortunes of their own in speculation. (Lucas eventually did.) Unfortunately for these Jeffersonian bureaucrats, they found, upon their arrival in St. Louis, that much of the best land was already tied up. Their hopes for success rested upon the freeing of as much land as possible for the public domain. (Easton established an agency next to the surveyor’s office in St. Louis to buy and sell land.50 ) To reinforce their efforts, they appealed to democratic sentiments and cultural prejudices.
Matters concerning Indian affairs also deteriorated after the initial successes of 1804. In 1805 Pierre Chouteau quarreled with Major James Bruff, the region’s ranking military officer, over the appropriate punishment for several Sac warriors who had killed three Americans north of St. Louis. Chouteau argued that the warriors should be punished according to tribal law; Bruff ordered the Sacs to surrender the accused to U.S. authorities. The squabble led Bruff into the anti-Wilkinson camp in the territory, for he felt that Wilkinson had sided with the Chouteaus on this and other matters. Wilkinson himself proved less accommodating than Harrison had been in supporting Chouteau’s ways of handling Indian affairs. He wrote to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn that Chouteau was “ambitious in the extreme” and steeped in “Spanish habits”51 Chouteau, hoping to escort a new Indian delegation to the capital that year, was told by the War Department to remain in St. Louis and allow someone else to do the honors. Dearborn also admonished Chouteau to keep expenses down. Chouteau had let out government contracts to many relatives and friends, including Bernard Pratte— who would later become Chouteau’s son’s partner in the fur trade—and John Mullanphy. The following year, 1806, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike leveled charges against Pierre Chouteau, apparently resenting Chouteau’s influence with the Osage. In 1807 the controversy came to a head, and Chouteau was replaced by William Clark as the head of Indian affairs for the region. Chouteau had obviously been demoted; however, he retained his position as Osage agent because of his influence and connections within that tribe.
Three years of American-style politics taught the francophone elite a few lessons. One obvious lesson was that Americans much preferred private combinations of special interests to public displays of authority. And hitching their interests to Wilkinson’s star had been a costly mistake. His high-handedness had antagonized many of the recently arrived American fortune-seekers, who then banded together to oppose both him and the French. The lawyer Edward Hemp-stead, who had come to St. Louis in 1805, captured this sentiment in a letter written that year: “With the principles of civil liberty in which I have happily been bred, and the patriotic examples of my father before me, I can not bow the knee to any political Baal, nor give my approbation to conduct that I am fully conscious is despotic. With a Governor who holds the office of Brigadier General, and in addition is vested with a strange combination of powers, you cannot imagine to what a degree I wish for a change of times. From a rank Federalist to a suspected Republican he became a Burrite and is now a petty Tyrant.”52 Wilkinson’s removal gave the French a chance to regroup. Auguste Chouteau led the attack that culminated in a grand jury indictment of Rufus Easton for land fraud. Jefferson removed Easton from office shortly thereafter.53 Major Bruff’s aspirations to influence were neutralized by the appointment of Lewis to the governor’s office in 1807. This much accomplished, the French began to forge new alliances.
A second lesson in American civics was the realization that lawyers were a necessary evil. One of the first they turned to was Edward Hempstead. In 1808 Hempstead married Clarissa Dubreuil, a member of the francophone elite. In 1813 Hempstead’s sister Susan married Charles Gratiot’s son Henry.54 Americans, even lawyers, were not so bad if they were members of the family. Hempstead, a brilliant student of Spanish law, became the territorial attorney general and an advocate of a liberal land claims policy. Another new ally came in the person of Silas Bent, son of a leader of the Boston Tea Party and an assistant surveyor for Rufus Putnam in Ohio. Bent became the justice of the Court of Common Pleas in 1807 with Auguste Chouteau, Bernard Pratte, and Louis Labeaume serving as his associates. Bent’s sons were later associated with the Chouteaus and Ceran St. Vrain in the Santa Fe trade and fur trade of the southern Rockies.
Creoles with capital could also make friends in other ways. From 1810 on, the documents indicate that the French elite were showing greater interest in retailing and renting land to settlers of moderate means. Joseph Charless, the publisher of the Missouri Gazette—a paper usually opposed to French interests— wrote the following to Pierre Chouteau in 1810: “Since I had the pleasure of speaking to you on the subject of the two arpens [sic] of land adjoining Mr. Carr’s tract, I had a conversation with Mr. Bradbury [who] has declined the purchase. Could you make the payments easy I would be glad to have it.”55 Auguste Chouteau and his son Henri became heavily involved in this side of the family business. Henri toured the agricultural hinterlands of the region with regularity. By the early 1820s, the Chouteaus had their own agents and rent collectors and were receiving payments in corn and beef from many modest American farmers.56 At least in good times, when they were not repossessing homes and farms, Creole capitalists who could provide for easy payments were increasingly seen as friends of democracy and the common citizen.
The chief concerns of most French merchants north of New Orleans, however, centered on the fur trade and national and international markets and developments. As early as 1807, the Creole merchants of St. Louis were receiving reports from their network of informants on the likelihood of war between England and the United States. In November of that year, John Mullanphy, on business in Philadelphia, wrote to Auguste Chouteau that the talk in that city was all of war. He suggested to Chouteau that the time was ripe for buying out Dubuque’s lead-mining operations in present-day Iowa and for exchanging furs for lead whenever possible.57 In 1810 Pierre Chouteau Jr. was sent to Dubuque to oversee the family interests. He remained there until the outbreak of hostilities.58 In 1809 Jean Nicolas de Maclot, a native of Metz in France who had arrived in St. Louis in 1804 and married Marie Thérèse Gratiot in 1806, built the first lead shot tower west of the Alleghenies in Herculaneum, Missouri. Another Gratiot friend, Moses Austin, built his own shot tower nearby the following year.59 (In 1825, Henry and Jean Pierre Bugnion Gratiot would move to Galena, Illinois, and establish a center for lead mining and smelting just north of the border known as Gratiot’s Grove, Wisconsin.60 )
Cornering the regional lead market for the manufacture of lead shot was only one aspect of the Creole agenda and response to the growing likelihood of war. A Chouteau informant at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, Nicholas Boilvin, and Pierre Chouteau Sr.'s father-in-law, François Saucier, at Portage des Sioux, an Indian crossroads, reported the disposition of the Potawatomis, Sioux, Ioways, and Sac and Foxes in 1809 and 1811.61 Given their access to information and their intimacy with the decision-making process going on in various Indian communities, it is not surprising that the French again assumed a position of importance in the eyes of local and national officials. In the coming war, it would be critically important to prevent the Indian tribes of the region from siding with the British. If the French had begun to distinguish between their friends and enemies among the Americans, the Americans would now learn that not all French were alike in their allegiance to the United States. The War of 1812 was both a crisis and an opportunity for French communities in the West.
French support for the American cause during the war varied across a predictable fault line. The French communities at Green Bay and Mackinac were still tied to Montreal and were utterly dependent on the fur trade. Support for their British suppliers was almost mandatory. Indeed, competition for the Great Lakes trade had increased in recent years, and declining profits during the Napoleonic Wars placed French merchants in that region in a weak position for commercial expansion after 1815. Those communities would offer little resistance to the takeover of Astor’s American Fur Company and Anglo-American bureaucrats after the war.
French merchants in St. Louis, on the other hand, had everything to gain and almost nothing to lose by supporting the Americans. They could market their goods through New Orleans and New York. (The colony of Louisiana, after all, had been founded by traders motivated in part by a desire to bypass government officials and creditors in Canada.) There were some attempts to smuggle furs into Canada in violation of the Embargo and Non-Intercourse acts. Chouteau kinsman Jean Pierre Cabanné was arrested in 1812 by an American official and had six hundred packs of furs confiscated62 Nevertheless, St. Louis Francophones were holding large land claims that would only increase in value when the demand from American settlers grew. And though they were heavily invested in the trade with local tribes who would be pressured to leave the area when those very settlers arrived in the decades after the war, French traders would still have a vast Indian country to their west to exploit.
French merchants in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan were also inclined to support the American cause. They had begun to see the potential in the commoditization of land and the merchandizing of agricultural products. Commercial relations with the American cities of Albany, New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Louisville had already been established. Their Montreal connection had not been severed, but it was now one alternative among many.
When war began in the West in 1811, the question of French loyalty—to the British or the Americans—became critical. American control of this region was, after all, tenuous, and francophone citizens composed a key component of those with property and standing. Indeed, the war provoked something of a “French scare.” In St. Louis, where Auguste and Pierre Chouteau had been commissioned as colonel and major, respectively, in the militia, animosity toward the French may have reached a peak. Silas Bent in 1813 warned Auguste not to resign his office as judge in the Court of Common Pleas because “those Americans who declare the most inveterate hatred to the french and manifest a disposition to govern law and be governed themselves by the opinions of the Executive will be the most likely to be appointed to office by Mr. Bates.”63 The Chouteaus’ nephew, Charles Gratiot Jr., was in command of the U.S. troops at Fort Malden in 1814. This Frenchman from St. Louis, now stationed in the Detroit area, must have flinched when he read a letter from a subordinate describing the “worthless French who come only to beg or steal.”64
Throughout the West, the war forced the French to declare themselves. In Lower Louisiana, a number of French immigrants faced legal restrictions or persecution as aliens. In two significant cases, Debois’ Case and United States v. Laverty, the courts decreed that bona fide inhabitants of a territory gained the rights and privileges of citizenship when Louisiana became a state in 1812.65
Perhaps the most telling case of anti-French behavior occurred in November 1812 when a band of Kentucky militiamen on their way to join with Illinois troops under Governor Ninian Edwards attacked, pillaged, and burned down the French village of Peoria. The inhabitants were left with only the clothes on their backs to make their way in the cold down the river to St. Louis. Among those robbed were Antoine LeClaire, the future founder of Davenport, Iowa; Marguerite La Croix, the future wife of Governor John Reynolds of Illinois; and Thomas Forsyth, an official of the U.S. government whose anger over the incident manifested itself for years afterwards.66
American hostility toward the French sprang in part from the perception that the French and the Indians were partners in crime. This opinion became widespread after the massacre of James Winchester’s Kentucky militiamen at French-town on the River Raisin south of Detroit on January 23, 1813. Although many French citizens later swore that they were unable to intervene, the fact that a number of the American soldiers were butchered or burnt alive in French houses and that the Indians generally regarded the French as their friends led to much ill will. Prominent French citizens such as François Lasselle were denounced as traitors. That Lasselle had been a member of the grand jury that investigated territorial governor Hull in 1809 made him seem all the more suspicious67 In fact, the Indians involved were Wyandots, who were not closely connected with the local French, and those same Wyandots did shoot a number of French citizens. Nevertheless, the perception that the French were allied with the British against the Americans remained, and in some parts of the French Midwest, there was some truth to it. In Green Bay, Charles Réaume and Jacques Porlier fought with the British although both had served as U.S. justices of the peace, appointed by Governor Harrison of Indiana.68
And so it went. French support bolstered the American war effort in certain areas. It does not appear to have been a critical element overall. Yet had the French in the Midwest been opposed to the American cause, the outcome might well have been different. The importance of the war to the French and to all groups in the West was that it cleared the air. Those French who had supported the American cause found themselves on the winning side. Clearly, their stock rose in the eyes of their American neighbors, and their access to power and influence was often enhanced. Charles Gratiot Jr., whom we left at Detroit in 1814, was a major in the army by the war’s end. In 1828 he was made chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, and in 1838 he retired with the rank of brigadier general. Thereafter, he served the extended Chouteau family interests as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. At St. Louis, Auguste Chouteau had served as both the commander of the militia and the chairman of the town’s Committee of Safety. Five sons of Auguste and Pierre had served in the territorial forces. Pierre had served as a reporter from Indian country and organized a small contingent of Osages to fight on the American side. Both brothers were instrumental in concluding peace treaties with an array of Indian groups from the Yanktons and Tetons to the Miamis and Delawares at Portage des Sioux in 1815 and 1816. The Chouteau children would reap the benefits of their fathers’ influence.69
More to the point, those who supported the American side usually did so because their vision of future prosperity coincided with the policies and activities of their fellow citizens. Excluded from that vision were the Indians of the Old Northwest. The fur trade in this region had declined substantially from 1808 to 1815. The European market had bottomed out, and the Indians were in no position to hunt. As one trader noted: “fear keeps the Indians from hunting. They continually imagine that the Americans are coming upon them.”70 Immigration to the Old Northwest and to Missouri boomed during the postwar years, and the pressure for Indian cessions began immediately. French merchants were in a unique position to profit from the government’s need to dispossess the Indians. Those who were willing and able to persuade their Indian clients and relatives to cede lands, and later to move to Iowa, Kansas, and the like, stood to profit in three ways: (1) by having land set aside for themselves in treaty negotiations, (2) by providing annuity goods promised by the government to the various tribes as specified in treaties, and (3) by receiving money directly from the government in payment of individual Indian debts, such money being subtracted from the amount the government was obligated by treaty to pay into the tribal fund.71 As one might suspect, by means such as these, the fur trade gradually became an Indian business with government money supplanting furs in importance. As one merchant put it: “Indian money ... treaty ... lands and lastly their skins ... must be our motto.”72