Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Forgotten French of the Midwest

 The time is 1823. The place is Fort Wayne. Indiana has been a state for seven years. The dismayed writer is William H. Keating, who has just arrived from the east:

Not being previously aware of the diversity in the character of the inhabitants, the sudden change from an American to a French population, has a surprising, and to say the last, an unpleasant effect; for the first twenty-four hours, the traveller fancies himself in a real Babel. . . . The business of a town of this kind differs so materially from that carried on in our cities, that it is almost impossible to fancy ourselves still within the same territorial limits.
This quote leads off Yale historian Jay Gitlin's book The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders and American Expansion. Whether he liked it or not, Keating knew what we have systematically forgotten.

Not only was French spoken frequently "in an enormous region stretching from Detroit to St. Louis to New Orleans," as Gitlin explains, the story of this Francophone Midwest "has never found a place in American history textbooks for three related reasons: the dramatis personae have never been correctly identified; the geographical setting of the story lies upon a north-south axis and therefore lies counter to the traditional east-west presentation of U.S. history; and the story has been dismissed as being irrelevant to the general themes of American history." {2}

Gitlin is out to fix this. His story centers on the powerful and prosperous Chouteau family (sometimes called a dynasty) of St. Louis and westward, who do not fit the cheerful-lazy-voyageur stereotype propagated by early US historians. These French came from many places, not just Canada; they were cosmopolitan; and they were deeply involved in commerce and trade. This was an urban frontier before it was a farmers' frontier. From the start it was "urban, cosmopolitan, connected, and diverse." {188} Gitlin concludes that the French have remained invisible, not because they were uninvolved in nation-building, but "in part because their story demands that we accept a frontier past that transcends our old dichotomies of heroes and villains, settlers and Indians." {190}

This book will change your idea of the Midwest, and its smooth readable style will leave you wanting more.

H-Net also has an interesting review of a related book, Claiborne A. Skinner's The Upper Country: French Enterprise in the Colonial Great Lakes.

Jay Gitlin, The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders & American Expansion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

Claiborne A. Skinner, The Upper Country: French Enterprise in the Colonial Great Lakes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

Harold Henderson, "The Forgotten French of the Midwest," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 3 October 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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