French History and Language in the American Midwest

Most Americans, and probably most French, are only dimly aware of the American Midwest’s French colonial past. From Detroit to St. Louis, French place names figure prominently in a large band stretching from Canada and the Great Lakes down the Mississippi to Louisiana—America’s more prominent bastion of French creole culture. This region, known to its colonial French Inhabitants as Les Pays des Illinois, or “Illinois Country”, was well-populated at the time of French settlement by Amerindian tribes that ultimately formed the economic and military backbone of the colony. In schools throughout the Midwest, Le Pays des Illinois is seldom more (and often less) than a footnote in history courses. Even America’s most comprehensive standardized curriculum for high school U.S. history (from the Advanced Placement program) is no exception. Its nine-page outline of the unit on “Colonial America” includes only one line mentioning French exploration of the Mississippi and a few more about the settlement of Canada.

Despite its relative obscurity, the story of Le Pays des Illinois is fascinating. Many small Francophone enclaves managed to persist in the Midwest well into the 20th century, and at least one remains to this day. Aside from the folk music, festivals, and unusual accents on offer in a few rural towns, the legacy of Le Pays des Illinois lives on in a profound yet silent way—in the location of towns and cities, their names, and the unanswerable question of what might have been if the area had remained French territory.

Map of Marquette and Joliet’s travels. Accessed Here

The first factor that brought the French to the American Midwest was simple geography.[1] Whereas reaching the Mississippi from the Eastern Seaboard required crossing the Appalachian Mountains, the journey from French Canada could be made almost entirely in a canoe. Taking advantage of such accessibility, the famous explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette became the first known Europeans to travel through the area in 1673. Their route took them from Canada across Lake Michigan to a large bay that the French had called La Baie Verte since 1635, which was later anglicized as “Green Bay.” From there they carried their canoes two miles to the Wisconsin River and descended to the Mississippi River, then known as Missipi or Michissipi to local Indians. The pair then traveled most of the way down the river before turning back, which they did both because they were confident that it led to the Gulf of Mexico (not, alas, to the Pacific) and because they feared a possible encounter with Spanish rivals. Marquette and Joliet’s return journey took a detour through the Illinois River, which bisects the present day state of the same name. The short cut, a well-trod Indian trade route, saved many miles of difficult upstream paddling and served as the first recorded European use of the portage that the French (mangling an Indian word) would call Chicago. The canoe as well as the abundance of navigable rivers had made initial exploration of Le Pays des Illinois possible, but their usefulness did not end there.

Though it did not motivate Marquette and Joliet, the fur trade was the economic enticement that brought Frenchmen (and they were all men at this stage) down the Mississippi. The fur trade remained brisk, but it was no longer the moneymaker it had been in the earlier stages of the 17th Century. Nevertheless, the French crown aggressively subsidized the trade in order to maintain good relations with the Indian tribes that France relied upon to protect its sparsely populated territories. Despite the appearance of a realm prospering economically under the voyageurs (licensed, legal fur traders) and coureurs du bois (unlicensed, illegal fur traders), New France was generally a money-losing proposition dependent on the largess of the king and his plenipotentiaries. That said, the political payoff France could reap by boxing in English settlement and uniting Canada with the Gulf of Mexico was perceived as well worth the cost of a few low-quality furs.

The Jesuits, a Catholic order to which Father Marquette belonged, took a leading role in Le Pays des Illinois from the start. Skeptical of the ruffians that the fur trade attracted, Jesuits sought to establish a more stable and grounded society where the French and Indians could settle down and focus on religion and agriculture rather than trade and warfare. They self-consciously tried to replicate the efforts of their brothers in South America, hoping that the land along the Mississippi could become a “New Paraguay”. While the Jesuits never had the level of political control or autonomy they wanted, the settlements they founded (nearly always within or near Indian villages) would become the key outposts of French culture in the American Midwest.

The French presence in Le Pays des Illinois initially centered around the town of Kaskaskia, some fifty miles southeast of present day St. Louis (itself founded by the French forty-three years later). Already a focus of Illinois Indian population, Kaskaskia attracted Jesuit missionaries who established themselves permanently in 1703. Along with the nearby settlements of Prairie du Rocher and Fort de Chartres, Kaskaskia soon boasted perhaps seven thousand French settlers (including women), who lived relatively peacefully alongside the local indigenes. Seven thousand is of course a tiny population by modern standards, but even half that number would have made it one of the largest European settlements in North America at the time. While the French fought viciously against Indian enemies such as the Fox and the Iroquois, the Illinois Indians they lived among shared their diplomatic objectives, and tranquility remained the norm within French and Indian settlements. Intermarriage was common, and resulting mixed-race children were known as métis, a French cognate of the Spanish mestizo.

The French Midwest boomed in the 18th Century not because of the fur trade, but because it was well positioned to supply another growing city to the South: La Nouvelle-Orléans. New Orleans, as the Americans would later call it, became wealthy through shipping and the production of market crops, creating strong demand for wheat and oats from upriver. This new economic geography led to the reassignment of Le Pays des Illinois from Canada to France’s new colony, La Louisiane. The first African slaves arrived in Kaskaskia in 1718, but price ceilings on grains imposed by French officials made the purchase of slaves for farming uneconomical. Instead, many French settlers brought their slaves west to Missouri, where recently discovered lead mines in the Northeastern Ozarks offered a higher rate of return. Canada had barely been settled before the Mississippi became the new focus of French colonization, and now Missouri seemed destined to eclipse Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, and the like in a similar fashion.

Located mainly in Missouri, the Ozark Plateau includes the highest topographical features in North America between the Appalachian Mountains in the East and the Rocky Mountains in the West. Unbeknownst to most, it is also the site of an unbroken French cultural heritage that stretches back some three hundred years. The etymology of the Ozarks is disputed, but most consider it to be a corruption of the French term aux Arks, or, “of Arkansas”. As previously mentioned, it was lead, or, more precisely, galena ore, that brought the French to the region. Missouri sits on the world’s largest deposit of galena, an ore-body that was close enough to the surface to catch the eye of French explorers. Since galena is often found together with silver, the French naturally imagined they had found their answer to Spain’s Cerro de Potosí, the richest silver deposit ever discovered (located in modern Bolivia). Evidence of this enthusiasm lives on to this day in place names like Potosi, Missouri, currently home to some 2,500 people. The miners’ hopes, however, were misplaced. No silver lay under Missouri’s soil, and settlers were left to mine and farm what they could.

La Vieille Mine, anglicized today as Old Mines, Missouri, is perhaps the most impressive example of French culture in the Ozarks region. Statistics are difficult to come by, but according to residents the region around Old Mines may have been home to over a thousand French speakers (known colloquially as “Paw Paw French”) only a few decades ago. Most were middle aged or elderly at the time, so the area’s distinct Missouri French dialect is likely to go extinct before long. Yet the region remains proud of its linguistic heritage. It stages an annual “Missouri French Festival” replete with dance and merriment. Several buildings remain from colonial French times, including a house still in private use.

Fiddler and longtime Old Mines resident Dennis Stroughmatt, along with his wife, Jennifer have done a great deal raise public awareness of Missouri French in recent years. Performing at a different folk festival in 2010, Jennifer, a speaker of modern French recalled a remark she had made to her Missouri French-speaking husband when they met: “…you have no grammar, and your pronunciation is foul.” She continued, recalling events several years later: “Then I went to the Ozarks…and I had no grammar and my pronunciation was foul”. In an interview, Dennis said that Missouri French is closer to the French spoken in Quebec than the creole French of New Orleans, a likely situation given that Canada was the source of most immigrants in Missouri and Illinois. He described a visit to Quebec where a Québécois told him: “You’re not from Canada. You’re not anywhere near from Canada, but yet your accent is strangely familiar.” Dennis adds, “The only thing I can say on that is that accent is coming through from the Missouri French.” Interested readers can also view a short PBS feature on French creole culture in Old Mines.

Though French language in the Ozarks is on life support, it has managed to outlast the other focal point of French cultural longevity in the Midwest: Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. Ste. Genevieve sprang up in 1735 on the West bank of the Mississippi just across from Kaskaskia. Both Ste. Genevieve and Kaskaskia prospered during the 18th Century, eventually attracting a flood of Anglo-American settlers following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Kaskaskia remained the more important settlement, becoming the state capital of Illinois in 1818. Kaskaskia’s prominence wouldn’t last, however, and the capital moved north to Vandalia in 1819. The rise of Vandalia, the eventual terminus of the National Road, as well as other new towns in the “American Bottom” region, struck the final blow to French cultural influence in the region. Floods destroyed most of Kaskaskia 1881, the consequence of realignment in the course of the Mississippi that today makes the town—along with its fourteen residents—an Illinois enclave on the western side of the Mississippi.

Painting of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri in the Missouri State Capitol Building

Although Ste. Genevieve has dealt with its share of floods, its story has been less dramatic. Once known as the wealthiest city in Louisiana, Ste. Genevieve never grew to the size of Saint Louis or even Kaskaskia. The French language is no longer spoken there, but the town boasts 150 “French Creole colonial” buildings—more than any other settlement in the country. Ste. Genevieve hosted the famous French-American ornithologist and painter John James Audubon for a time, and today the town’s 11,295 residents commemorate Ste. Genevieve’s French heritage in several annual festivals.

Le Pays des Illinois never really had a chance to get off the ground before it was absorbed into the rapidly expanding Anglophone juggernaut to its east. Its quick descent into insignificance allowed it to essentially avoid the gaze of Americans over the last two hundred years, to the detriment of locals’ historical understanding and appreciation. This obscurity, however, lends a certain allure to the parts of its past that do survive, whether in the buildings of Ste. Genevieve or the dialect and festivals of Old Mines. Languages and dialects of all kinds endure in places you wouldn’t expect, but such oddities are relatively rare in linguistic “spread zones” like the Interior U.S. The story of Missouri French and the people who built it, one sentence at a time, can help Midwesterners connect with a past that is far deeper and more nuanced than they might have expected.

[1] Unless otherwise linked, most of the background history for the post comes from Charles Balesi’s excellent study of the French Midwest:

Charles J. Balesi. The Time of the French in the Heart of North America, 1673-1818. Chicago: Alliance Francaise Chicago, 1992.

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