7
“AVEC BIEN DU REGRET”: THE AMERICANIZATION OF CREOLE ST. LOUIS AND FRENCH DETROIT

If the francophone merchants of this bourgeois frontier played a unique and significant role in the history of American expansion, it is ironic that the cultural landscape of the region they helped establish had little room for their own distinctive culture. Overwhelmed demographically, the French by the 1840s found themselves on a small island in a sea of Anglo-American Protestants, their language and cultural practices less audible and visible in the very cities they had founded.1 The Catholic institutions they established and supported quickly became dominated by Oerman and Irish immigrants (although this was less true in Louisiana, where francophone culture maintained a public face2 ). In Detroit and St. Louis, francophone mercantile families became centered in the genteel enclaves of Hamtramck, Orosse Pointe, and Frenchtown (Soulard). In their family parlors and within their own circles, they kept on speaking French. Yet the French continued to exercise both political and economic power in the cities of their creation throughout the first half of the nineteenth century and beyond, and we would expect francophone culture to maintain a certain level of prestige in the urban life of these places. How then do we gauge the persistence of French or Creole culture? To what extent and how long did St. Louis and Detroit remain French towns? How significant was the French birth and infancy of these cities?

The Catholic religion, for example, certainly grew in strength throughout the nineteenth century in terms of parishioners and social influence, especially in education. But Irish and Oerman Catholics had as much, if not more, to do with this phenomenon as the French. Yet the French interest was certainly highly visible in the growth and status of Catholicism in St. Louis and Detroit. One historian, writing in 1938, declared that Creole culture in St. Louis had been obliterated by 1821. He based his conclusions on the disappearance of Creole architecture and certain household implements.3 But no living culture can be expected to remain static.4

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Detroit as Seen from the Canadian Shore in 1821 (1821), by Alexander Macomb (17821841). Macomb’s father was a prosperous merchant, and his mother, Mary Catherine Navarre, came from an old and well-placed French Detroit family. Macomb, awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his successful defense of Plattsburgh, New York, during the War of 1812, later served as the commanding general of the U.S. Army from 1828 to 1841. Pen and ink with watercolor on paper. Gift of Ernest Newman Stanton, Mrs. Kenneth Taylor White, and the Burton Historical Collection in memory of Mrs. Robert Lee Stanton. Photograph © 1998 The Detroit Institute of Arts.

We have seen that the initial phase of French and Anglo-American convergence was full of tension over political ideals and practices and the power to confirm property or private land claims, that is, grants gathered before the establishment of U. S. sovereignty. There were, in addition, sources of cultural friction, exacerbated — in French eyes—by the cultural imperialism of incoming Anglos. Let us look first, however, at the exercise of economic and political power within these cities.

Like the Chouteaus of St. Louis, the Campaus of Detroit—Joseph and brothers Louis and Barnabas—began their business careers as fur traders. Louis and Barnabas spent more time in Indian country while Joseph stayed in Detroit, ran the store, and outfitted other traders. Also like the Chouteaus, the Campau family at first marketed their furs through Canada but gradually switched to commission houses in New York City. The Campaus, though never as famous as their St. Louis counterparts, followed a similar path to great wealth. Joseph, who apparently spoke a number of Indian languages and welcomed natives passing through Detroit, owned and operated posts on the Huron River at Lake Erie, on the Clinton River at Lake St. Clair, and in Saginaw. Louis and later his son, Louis Jr., had posts and agents at Muskegon, Manistee, Kalamazoo, Lowell, Hastings, Eaton Rapids, and the mouth of the Grand River. As the fur trade became a business of treaty goods and land cessions, the Campaus—again like the Chouteaus—profited mightily. The key, again, was the federal government’s need to dispossess the Indians. With established social and economic ties to Indian communities, both families acted as the necessary brokers. Barnabas Campau served as a witness to the treaty with the Ojibwes at Saginaw in 1819. Another treaty, signed in 1836, guaranteed a payment in silver to the Campaus to cover Indian debts. The exact profits are difficult to calculate, but Louis was said to have earned more than one hundred thousand dollars through such means.5

Fur-trade profits were often invested in developing urban real estate, and most of these French merchants already held potentially valuable properties. Private claims dating from the French regime were zealously defended and pursued by this mercantile elite. Joseph Campau, for example, successfully defended three separate claims in Grosse Pointe amounting to more than two hundred acres.6 Such lands on the outskirts and in the central districts of growing cities such as Detroit were subdivided and then sold or rented. Whatever personal misgivings the French may have had about the influx of Anglo-Americans, they recognized that settlement would increase the value of their properties.

Politics and land were always connected. In St. Louis, the Chouteau family monopolized the position of city surveyor. Henri Chouteau, son of Auguste, became the clerk of the county court and recorder of St. Louis County. In Detroit, John R. Williams, nephew of Joseph Campau, served on an all-important committee to investigate private land claims, that continuing fountain of wealth for older French families. His cousin Daniel J. Campau (Joseph’s son) received an appointment from President Franklin Pierce as register of the U.S. Land Office in Detroit.

Like the Chouteaus, the Campaus invested fur-trade profits in other ventures. Both families had an interest in local distilleries—alcohol being an all-too-valuable commodity in frontier places and in the Indian trade. Joseph Campau also invested in railroads, becoming a stockholder in what became the Michigan Central Railroad. Real estate, however, became the primary source of Campau’s wealth. His holdings included the Normandie Hotel, Fraternity Hall, the Newberry and Campau buildings on Griswold Street, more than one thousand acres in Grosse Pointe Township, and five hundred acres in Springwells Township. In addition, he possessed lands in Macomb, St. Clair, Saginaw, Monroe, and several other Michigan counties.

The Campaus, the Morans, and other French families in Detroit with substantial landholdings tended to be cautious in their speculative ventures, preferring a steady return on individual properties to large subdivisions and wildcat ventures. This served them well during the 1830s when newcomers to Detroit such as C. C. Trowbridge served as front men for eastern capitalists such as Arthur Bronson of New York and overextended themselves as the Panic of 1837 swept over the West.7 With a guaranteed cash flow from Indian treaties signed in 1836 (the use of federal money to cover Indian debts to traders), the Campaus were not only able to withstand the panic, they were able to increase their landholdings when others were forced to sell cheap.

Without going into the complexities of federal policies, local politics, land, and banking, I would observe that the Campaus, again like the Chouteaus and other French fur traders with means, had become private bankers to the community during the first decades of the nineteenth century. In St. Louis, Auguste Chouteau in 1816 closed most of his private accounts and helped secure a charter for the Bank of Missouri, serving as the bank’s president until 1821.8 His son Henri would pursue the family’s banking interests.9 In Detroit, Joseph Campau and his nephew John R. Williams were among the organizers and first shareholders of the Bank of Michigan in 1818, with Williams serving as the first president until 1824. In that year, he resigned because the Dwight family of Springfield, Massachusetts, had acquired two-thirds of the shares. Williams’s position as a leader in the French community had by then evolved into his becoming an advocate of local control against the power of eastern outsiders. He led the fight to charter a rival bank, the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Bank, in 1829, and a struggle soon developed over the issue of federal land sales deposits. In 1835, a group of Democrats led by Williams incorporated another institution, the Michigan State Bank, which a Democratic state administration used for the deposit of state funds.

Through their banking and real estate activities in their native cities, families such as the Campaus and Chouteaus not only gained additional wealth, they assured themselves of maintaining a place of prominence. Joseph Campau’s death in 1863 at the age of ninety-five made the front page of the Detroit Free Press— the paper he had founded. The newspaper noted that “the entire city turned out for his funeral,” which was conducted by the Masons. At the time of his death, Campau’s estate was valued at three million dollars, making him the richest man in Michigan. In 1894, his heirs estimated his real estate empire to be worth some ten million dollars. As one French descendant wrote, referring to his ancestor Judge Charles Moran, “The steadily-growing city thus poured an ever-increasing tribute into his hands.”10

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Portraits of Joseph Campau and Adelaide Dequindre Campau attributed to Alvah Bradish (1806-1901). Campau (1769-1863) began his career in the fur trade, and like the various Chouteaus of St. Louis, he branched out into a variety of business ventures, including banking, railroads, and real estate. The value of his various landholdings was estimated at ten million dollars in 1894. Various chroniclers described him as being tall (six feet), spare, and typically dressed in a black broadcloth coat and vest with a white cravat. An ardent freemason, he held strong views about politics and religion, which—we may guess from her portrait—might have perturbed his wife, Adelaide. Photographs © 1988 and 1956 The Detroit Institute of Arts. Courtesy of The Detroit Historical Museum.

The Chouteaus followed the same path in the city they had founded. In 1816, Auguste and his old nemesis, Judge Lucas (see Chapter 3), opened the first addition to St. Louis on the hill immediately west of the original village11 This addition “extended and doubled the width of the old east-west streets of the village.” Chouteau and Lucas “continued the existing street pattern but donated a full block of their addition to the county for the erection of a new courthouse.”12 For the rest of the century, members of the French elite such as Julia Soulard, Bernard Pratte Jr., and Louis Labeaume—armed with a new “republican outlook” and an old ability to leverage “wealth and power”—would develop and profit from various parcels in the metropolitan area.13 As late as 1874, when the city purchased a 1,375-acre tract west of Kingshighway that would become Forest Park, descendants of the first families, including Charles P. Chouteau (son of Pierre Jr.), would receive close to eight hundred thousand dollars for land once included in pre-American grants.14

In short, the French merchant elite in both places capitalized on both national expansion and urban expansion. The two stories were linked. The fur trade and the business of Indian removal produced a cash flow that served as investment capital for the development of St. Louis, Detroit, and, in the case of John Jacob Astor, New York City. Seen from the perspective of these French fur-trading families, what began as an urban venture remained an urban venture. In this sense, the Americanization of Creole St. Louis and French Detroit meant nothing more than the merging of economic interests. Successful merchants, they avoided the marginalization that was the fate of other non-Anglo communities incorporated in the course of American expansion.

Leaders of the French community in Detroit also remained politically active as the city grew. John R. Williams (son of Cecile Campau and Thomas Williams of Albany) became Detroit’s first elected mayor in 1824. John R., as he was known, became an ardent spokesman for the French community, and although he spoke and wrote in English and French, he thought of himself as French. Urging his French concitoyens to unite, he predicted that the result would be “glorieux pour notre patrie Canadienne.”15 John R. clearly was not ambivalent about the side to which he belonged. On a business trip in Pittsburgh for his uncle Joseph Campau in 1800, he wrote home describing his “dissatisfaction to be in a foreign country of which neither the location nor the inhabitants please me.”16(Detroit, of course, was a part of the United States at this time.)

Williams won four straight elections as mayor during the 1840s, and his cousin, Daniel J. Campau, was elected city treasurer twice during that decade. Both men, along with Judge Charles Moran, became leaders within Michigan’s Democratic Party and were among the founders of Detroit’s public schools, accomplished only after a compromise was reached on the reading of the Bible.17 Ardent Jack-sonian Democrats, Williams and Joseph Campau founded the Detroit Free Press in 1831 to serve as the voice of the party.18

In the contest for the political soul of the emerging state, key members of the city’s elite French families supported the electoral rights of Catholic immigrants and resisted the attempts of Whigs and evangelicals to impose temperance laws. It is rather telling that in 1830, a young Whig disciple of Detroit’s William Wood-bridge, Munius Kenney, wrote to his patron from Washington, D.C., where he had gone to seek a government appointment. In this letter, Kenney commented about Joseph Campau’s sharp business practices. Complaining about the amount he owed Campau for an “old poney” and a rental property he described as a “wreck, almost a stable,” Kenney wrote: “I wish Shakspear had known Campau, and he would not have fallen so far short of the insatiable sordidness of real life as he has in his delineation of Shylock.”19 Kenney later became a Whig member of the Michigan legislature and perhaps the leading advocate of Sabbatarian and temperance legislation. Although Campau the staunch Democrat was undoubtedly an efficient landlord, we may also assume that political and personal differences colored Kenney’s opinion. When Woodbridge ran for governor in 1839, Whig leaders tried to attract French voters with a circular addressed “aux citoyens français, et ancien habitans du Michigan.” Despite the appeal and Woodbridge’s ability to speak French, the party’s leaders later complained that there was “not one man” on the ticket “calculated to call out any portion of the French population to our support.”20

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Portrait of John R. Williams (1782-1854). Born into an old and influential French Detroit family, Williams was a Francophone in his youth and identified with that community. John R., as he was known, clerked for his uncle, Joseph Campau, and later became his business partner. John R. became active in politics, writing the city’s charter and serving as Detroit’s first mayor during 1824-1825. He was elected again in 1830 and served additional terms from 1844 to 1847. He also served as chairman of the Michigan constitutional convention in 1835. Courtesy of The Detroit Historical Museum.

The French elite of St. Louis, predictably, exercised a fair amount of control in local politics in the town’s first full American decade. Auguste Chouteau served as chairman of the town’s first board of trustees in 1810. His half-brother Pierre Sr. held that position in 1820 and 1821. The French families and their friends dominated the board — they were, after all, the most important property owners in the town. Opposed to a new municipal charter that would expand suffrage and empower a new mayor and board of aldermen to use property assessments for urban improvements, the French lost that vote and then tried to capture the mayoralty. Two Frenchmen ran in 1822, Auguste Chouteau and Marie Philippe Leduc. They lost to a newcomer from Kentucky, William Carr Lane. Lane served six one-year terms and did much to improve the city, but he did so over the increasing opposition of the French elite, now allied with newly arrived Americans with similar class interests. Their circle became known as “the St. Louis Clique” or “the Little Junto.”

The French in St. Louis certainly had learned the art of political influence under the imperial rule of the Spanish; they were nothing if not adaptable. Their candidate for Missouri’s first governor, William Clark, lost in part because of his association with the privileged French circle. (The winning candidate, Alexander McNair, was married to a French Creole woman.) On the other hand, their candidate for senator, Thomas Hart Benton, was successful, and the French were perfectly content to see him appeal to the state’s American electorate as a Jacksonian Democrat as long as Benton looked to their interests in Washington. The French, particularly the extended Chouteau family, in general seemed more interested in national political influence to secure the passage of profitable Indian treaties.21 Though they never completely abandoned a more visible political role on the local scene—Bernard Pratte served two terms as mayor in 18441845 and Charles P. Chouteau ran unsuccessfully in 1853 — the St. Louis French tended, unlike their counterparts in Detroit, to be Whigs and never made common cause with newly arrived Catholic immigrants.22 They did occupy positions of civic leadership and seem to have been more successful than the French in Detroit in maintaining a first-family Creole presence within the city’s social aristocracy. But to understand that phenomenon, we must turn to the contest between French and Anglo cultural practices.

The maintenance of economic and, to a lesser degree, political authority did not necessarily imply an equivalent ability to maintain various aspects of francophone culture. The establishment of American rule produced, from the beginning, serious cultural friction that historians of the past have tended to minimize. For Americans arriving in towns on this French-speaking western edge, language was, of course, the first obstacle. Wherever French merchants had established commercial centers in this region, the traveler would also find a French-speaking black population, not to mention a diverse group of Indian languages. John Darby, a future mayor of St. Louis, arrived in that city as a small child in 1818. In later years, he recalled his first impressions: “The first thing to be done ... was to cross the great river. ... The ferry consisted of a small keel-boat, which was managed entirely by Frenchmen. Their strange habilments, manner, and jabbering in the French language, had a new and striking effect upon myself and the other children, coming as we did from the plantation in the Southern country. ... The prevailing language of the white persons on the streets was French; the Negroes of the town all spoke French.”23 John Latrobe, a young lawyer from Philadelphia and son of architect Benjamin Latrobe, captured the mood perfectly, describing New Orleans in 1834: “Last evening after tea I walked down the levee and found myself in one continued stream of people of all nations and colours. French was the language that principally met my ear. Sometimes Spanish and rarely English. Perhaps the French Men talked the loudest and the most while the americans stalked, uncommunicatively along, and thus gave an apparent preponderance to the people of their country on the Levee.”24

Religious practices were another source of tension. It was bad enough that the French were Catholics, but they also had a different conception of the Sabbath. In Detroit, as in New Orleans and St. Louis, newly arrived Protestants were scandalized by the Creole Sabbath, which included the French habit of enjoying themselves—racing, gambling, dancing, even drinking—after church services. As Latrobe wrote from New Orleans in 1834: “on Sunday ... brandy may be drunk, or bonbons sold, or bargains made, or soldiers drilled.”25

In Detroit, the first board of trustees with an overwhelming Anglo majority in 1803 passed an ordinance to reduce “drunkenness, idleness, and profanity on the Sabbath day.”26 Creole members of the board of trustees of St. Louis defeated similar attempts by Clement Penrose in 1811.27 As Baptist missionary John Mason Peck noted in 1818, “the boast was often made that the Sabbath never had crossed, and never should cross the Mississippi.28 As late as 1857, a visitor from Pennsylvania noted his surprise on awakening in St. Louis on his first Sunday morning and discovering that it was “not a Puritan town.” Thomas Rodgers went on to say that, “for me, this was quite a new feature, for in the old fashioned town of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, where I was raised, such a thing as a Sunday paper was not known. ... Then I discovered that the saloons were all open on Sunday, and some theatres.”29

And there were tensions over manners. While still in French Detroit, Jeffersonian bureaucrat Frederick Bates had found himself attracted to the francophone daughters of Commodore Grant and his wife, Thérèse Barthe. Bates reported to his sister that these girls had some fun at his expense during a Christmas Mass. (They apparently kept telling him that one after another pew was soon to be occupied.) Another time at church services, Bates and an American friend carelessly spat upon the kneeling bench, and a Mlle. Navarre discovered to her horror that her dress was stained by tobacco juice. It is no wonder that Bates, in his words, was making “little progress with the french girls” of Detroit, who looked upon Americans as “a rough unpolished, brutal set of people.” Bates remained unreconstructed. In a letter to his brother Richard, written in 1807 during his first stint as acting governor of Missouri, then Louisiana Territory, Bates complained of the “theatrical licence which [French Ladies] assume in their gestures.” Bates wrote, “in the opinion of many they are more charming on this account, yet I must deplore the singularity of my taste when I confess, that to me, they would be more interesting with a greater show of modesty and correctness of manners.”30

The politics of culture never made much headway in St. Louis. In their memorial to Congress of 1804, the St. Louis petitioners had requested bilingual courts and schools. These requests were summarily ignored. The Creoles of St. Louis were also unsuccessful in protecting their legal culture. A statute of 1807 was passed adopting the substance of common law in matters of successions, wills, and domestic relations. Parents could now disinherit their children, a power denied them under civil law, and the community property system of the Coutume de Paris was superseded.

That said, many traditional practices seemed to have continued in use in Creole Missouri and Illinois for some time. Creole women such as Julie Beauvais Jarrot and Thérèse Cerré Chouteau served as executrices of their “community” estates upon the deaths of their husbands. These women and others such as Julia Cerré Soulard and Clemence Coursault Chouteau managed diverse economic interests with authority and success.31 For commercial disputes and litigation over land claims, French merchants quickly turned to Anglo lawyers. The trend, as written law replaced custom, was to establish norms that fit American procedures and substance—though this evolution was slow and painful—an “endless task,” according to one American official.32

Detroit had suffered through a longer process of legal assimilation. After the conquest of Canada, Detroit existed in a legal vacuum until the establishment of the District of Hesse in 1788 and the appointment of a panel of three judges and other officers of the court. In the meantime, the merchants of the town had formed committees to resolve commercial disputes. This was not a solution that the merchants of Montreal found appealing, as they claimed the merchants of Detroit “owed them a quarter of a million pounds.” Family law was in an even more distressed state and conflicts arose, especially when one parent in a mixed marriage (French and English) died and relatives contested the procedures for appointing guardians.33 While under the administration of the British, French customs and written law in civil cases held sway because of the guarantees of the Quebec Act. Once Detroit came under American rule, however, French legal traditions gave way to American norms, apparently without protest from French citizens. Only in Louisiana, with its much larger francophone population base and a professional civilian legal class, did French legal practices survive.

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Marie Thérèse Cerré Chouteau (1769-1842) (left) and Marie Julia Soulard (1775-1845) (right) were both daughters of prominent merchant Gabriel Cerré. Marie Thérèse married Auguste Chouteau and Julie married surveyor Antoine Soulard. Marie Thérèse oversaw the management of Auguste’s vast properties after his death, and Julie Soulard laid out the initial division known as Frenchtown, which became the center of St. Louis’s Soulard District. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.

The issue of language seems to have generated more heat in Detroit. The arrival of General William Hull as the first territorial governor stiffened the resolve of the French community. Among the various complaints in the petition requesting his removal in 1809 was that he did not bother to translate his proclamations or the laws of the territory into French. Official documents were thereafter printed in both languages until 1827, although political broadsides in French appeared in Michigan and Indiana into the 1830s. Local politicians may have realized that they needed to appeal to an important local constituency in their language; however, the federal government did its best to erase the French language in the public sphere.34

Newspapers in French or with French sections appeared in Detroit through much of the century—in part because of successive waves of emigration from Quebec into the city, various parts of the state, and nearby Essex County, Ontario35 The Detroit Gazetteprinted articles in French until 1830. By the 1870s, it was clear that papers such as L’Etoile Canadienne had an intended audience of more recent arrivals36 The old families, however, continued to harbor some ill-will about the fate of their mother tongue. In his 1949 history of the Moran family of Detroit, J. Bell Moran noted with some scorn the “customary Yankee indifference” to the French language.37

It is safe to say that French as a dominant language in St. Louis and Detroit retreated slowly but surely during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Above all, the leading French families in both towns groomed their sons to become businessmen. As commercial relations with New York City and Philadelphia became increasingly important, there was no question that the next generation should at least be bilingual. Auguste Chouteau had sent his son to Montreal in anticipation of the Louisiana Purchase. He expected him to learn to read and speak English. Joseph Campau insisted that his nephew John R. Williams study at night with a local English teacher, John Burrell, after minding the store during the daytime.38 Although the lingua franca of the western fur trade remained French even longer, by the late 1830s, the prevailing language of St. Louis had become English. Virginia Sarpy was writing in French as a second language and begging her dear aunt to excuse her errors.39

Yet French remained an important second language at least until the Civil War. Mary Finney Barret, daughter of an Irish immigrant, recollecting her school days in St. Louis during the 1840s, noted that “my aunt desired to have me educated in the French language, so I was sent to a school kept by Madame Brazeau.” She later attended a school run by Mesdames Gilbert and Bouvier, and still later, a school run by “Maman” Vitalis in Vide Poche or Carondelet. There, her classmates included Virginia Skinker, Susan Blow, Armantine Papin, Marie Soulard, and Mary Hempstead, young women from purely French, purely Anglo, and mixed marriages.40

This brings up a second point. Creole life in St. Louis during the nineteenth century, however we define it, was obviously no longer restricted to people of purely French extraction. Through intermarriage, friendships, snob appeal, and Catholic connections, the circle of French associations certainly increased. In Detroit, one of Pierre Desnoyer’s daughters married the eminent educational reformer Henry Barnard. A granddaughter married the son of writer Orestes Brownson. At the same time, two granddaughters became nuns and a grandson became the pastor of St. Aloysius in Detroit. French society, to some extent, seems also to have acquired a “first families” or high-society status.

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Bartholomew Berthold (1780-1831) and his daughter Emilie Berthold Kennedy (1824-1893). Emilie’s portrait, painted by Portuguese-born artist Manuel de França, captures the transition of St. Louis’s pioneer mercantile families into a wealthy and fashionable elite by the 1840s. Her father was one of a small but significant group of Italian residents of early St. Louis. He arrived in the city in 1808 and became Pierre Chouteau Jr.'s first business partner and his brother-in-law. The Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota is named for him. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.

Though the circle may have widened, the French face of St. Louis and Detroit became, by the 1830s, an increasingly private one. In St. Louis, Julia Soulard — daughter of Gabriel Cerré and widow of Antoine, the former royal surveyor—laid out an addition south of the central district.41 There she built a twenty-room brick mansion. She also set aside two city blocks to be used for a public market. (That market—Soulard Market—still operates today. It is the St. Louis version of New Orleans’ French Market, though at the time it was built, it was a country cousin to the French or Convent Market located nearby, but closer to downtown St. Louis.) Many of the French elite built lavish homes in the area during the 1840s and 1850s, and the neighborhood became known as Frenchtown. Banquets and balls were thrown with regularity. (Banquets held by the French Benevolent Society were restricted to those of French ancestry.) Here reigned the queens of St. Louis society, Sophie Labbadie Chouteau and her daughter Augustine. Another daughter, Mrs. Nicolas DeMenil, built an elaborate mansion that still stands.42 Still another daughter, Susanne Chouteau, married an immigrant from France, Louis Cortambert. This Frenchman was an abolitionist and a socialist and published a literary newspaper, appropriately named Le Revue de I’Ouest, which apparently shocked its genteel readers by exhibiting an anti-Catholic bias.43 Clearly, Frenchtown represented a next and wealthier generation of Creole culture in St. Louis.

The older part of town near the waterfront retained its original French aspect. Our best description of it comes from Charles Dickens, who visited St. Louis in 1842:

In the old French portion of the town the thoroughfares are narrow and crooked, and some of the houses are very quaint and picturesque: being built of wood, with tumble-down galleries before the windows, approachable by stairs, or rather ladders, from the street. There are queer little barbers’ shops, and drinking-houses too, in this quarter; and abundance of crazy old tenements with blinking casements, such as may be seen in Flanders. Some of these ancient habitations, with high garret gable windows perking into the roofs, have a kind of French shrug about them; and, being lop-sided with age, appear to hold their heads askew besides, as if they were grimacing in astonishment at the American Improvements.44

The disheveled and crowded downtown area was mostly destroyed by the great St. Louis fire of May 1849,45 but the French elite had already moved on and had no need to “grimace.” The city of their birth doubled in population from 1845 to 1850 and had almost ninety-five thousand inhabitants by 1852. Signs of economic expansion were everywhere, and their identity was now driven as much by class as ancestry.

As early as 1803, French military engineer Nicolas de Finiels had observed the increasing “pretension to fine manners, and social distinctions” of St. Louis. Said Finiels: “The women have cultivated more elegance than the men. Their finer sensibilities prompt them to adorn themselves, and they are beginning to laugh at the naive beauties of Ste. Genevieve.”46 The nineteenth century was, after all, the great bourgeois century when Paris outshone Versailles, when one learned how to talk and what to talk about in the city, not in the court. Commerce and culture went hand in hand. St. Louisans followed the Parisian model. Hardly mere habitants, the French Creoles patronized the arts and set the tone for respectability.

A traveling Italian nobleman and friend of Louis Napoleon, Count Francesco Arese, wrote the following when visiting St. Louis in 1836: “The Saint Louis theatre is one of the best-looking I have seen in the United States, and certainly the audience is superior to those elsewhere in America. Theatrical shows are more a part of the habits of the town than in other cities, where the population, being of English or Dutch descent, cares less for such amusements than the French creoles. The performance was good; there was even a little ballet.”47 Many of the best families, French and Anglo, not only sent their daughters to one madame or another to learn French, they sent their sons to Bishop DuBourg’s St. Louis Academy, run by Father François Niel. Students included the sons of Thomas Hart Benton, William Clark, and Alexander McNair. In 1828, Bishop Rosati opened a replacement for the academy, which had closed. The administrators of the new St. Louis College promised parents that “no undue influence” would be exercised on the students “in matters of religion.”48 Clearly, they expected students who were not necessarily French or Catholic. Small wonder that the Protestant organ Home Missionary warned its readers that “St. Louis is the seat of Romanism in the West.” From this city, “the agents of Rome planned to lay siege to the region and to the nation.”49

The city’s new cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Louis of France—now known as the Old Cathedral—was dedicated in 1834. This magnificent structure, then as now, was a testament to the city’s French heritage that had, in a sense, been canonized. (Yet when the new Bishop Kenrick arrived in 1843, he conducted all services in English.) Although the old Auguste Chouteau mansion was torn down in 1845, despite the eloquent pleadings of journalist Matt Field, two years later the city celebrated its founding, and old Pierre Chouteau Sr. joined in the parade, riding in a carriage with his sons Pierre Jr. and Paul Liguest and a nephew, Gabriel. The elder Chouteau spoke briefly to the crowd in French about the first inhabitants and simpler times. The city, in an expansive mood before the dark clouds of Civil War, seemed to take pride in its French origins. Said former mayor and opponent of the Chouteaus William Carr Lane to his daughters: “‘I cannot say that I have seen a lady of purer good-breeding than Mrs. Cabanné or Mrs. Von-phul,’ ... though some may consider us ‘poor Western devils as cannibals.’” The French Creoles of St. Louis were an American success story, and their social status could be interpreted as a sign that this western city was as polished and genteel as any city in the nation.50

The situation in Detroit had some parallels to that in St. Louis, though it remained a city of only about twenty thousand inhabitants in 1850 and had less to celebrate. There, the French elite moved to Hamtramck and Grosse Pointe. French citizens living to the northeast of the village (Côte du Nord-est) — described as “the most prosperous portion of the parish”—were already demanding their own church before the War of 1812. By 1834, a new parish, St. Paul’s, had been dedicated at Grosse Pointe, with a church being erected in 1850.51 Silas Farmer and Theodore Parsons Hall reported in 1886 that all sermons were given in French, “but the experiment of preaching in English is now being tried.” To complete the picture of an elite francophone enclave, we can observe that the community also featured an Academy and Convent of the Sacred Heart and a country club.52

The social life of such communities, their private domestic habits—however elite—represented the latest evolution of francophone culture in these cities. And let us not minimize the importance of domestic culture. We might go back and reread the memoirs and reminiscences of French Creole ladies from the nineteenth century. In what ways were the French bourgeois truly different from their Anglo-American counterparts? Let us look at Adele Gratiot Washburne visiting her in-laws in Maine and noting their disapproval of her French trousseau, her lingerie with real lace and ribbons. Poor Adele spent the whole trip trying to eat boiled dinners and longing for fresh food of any kind.53 And what did the Creoles mean by bienséance? What constituted proper behavior in a French family? Would it have been acceptable in an Anglo-American bourgeois family for Adele Sarpy, not yet a teenager, to have a glass of claret wine with eau sucré?54 How do we determine the boundaries and meaning of this francophone culture? Did burial in Calvary Cemetery signify membership? If Creole architecture in St. Louis had ceased to be distinctive by 1820, other aspects of Creole material culture had not. One might reexamine Louis Jaccard’s jewelry, M. Massot’s confections, and the recipes for gumbo and croquignoles.55

We should also remember that francophone culture, although it occupied a smaller place within St. Louis and Detroit over the years, also maintained, even depended upon, a wider world of connections outside these cities. New Orleans, of course, was still la ville,and French children made friends at a variety of Catholic schools such as Bardstown (Kentucky), Georgetown, Fordham, and Notre Dame. Trips to France, of course, were de rigueur. In fact, it seems that Creole culture in St. Louis may have reemphasized connections with France during the course of the nineteenth century.

In the end, it is clear that the cultural world of the francophone elite in these two cities had become, on the one hand, nothing more than a small and somewhat precious piece of a much larger ethnic puzzle. Yet as individual citizens and business leaders, on the other hand, the French remained powerful; and as a charter group that was neither Anglo nor Protestant, their very existence mattered. In Detroit, where a number of prominent citizens played leading roles in the Democratic Party and seemed determined to make common cause with Catholic immigrants against the nativist inclinations of Anglo-American Protestants, a debate ensued over cultural values that became quite heated. During the antebellum period, however, the French identity of Detroit—perhaps already diminished by time (as it was founded more than half a century earlier than St. Louis) and a period of assimilation under British rule — seems not to have been celebrated during this first American era. In St. Louis, a period of enormous growth and prosperity that occurred within the lifetimes of some of the founding generation produced an incorporation of the French into the city’s promotional sense of self. At the same time, the French Creoles of the city became a vital part of the urban social aristocracy, defined as much by class as by culture or ethnicity.

Perhaps we may simply say that the Americanization of Creole St. Louis and French Detroit was neither simple nor quick. That said, neither city—at least on the public surface—seemed overly French by mid-century and that, in the words of Pascal Cerré, speaking to his visiting nephew from Montreal in 1848, was something to be regarded “avec bien du regret.”56

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