Monday, April 20, 2015


1700's French territories
Americans of French descent make up a substantial percentage of the American population but are less visible than other ethnic groups. Past and present, they tend to align themselves with their new world regional identities such as Québécois, French Canadian, Acadian, Cajun, or Louisiana Creole. The US 2000 census noted that 450,000 residents in this country speak a French-based Creole language (including Missouri’s dialect, Paw-Paw). It’s the third most spoken language in America. French was once widely spoken in the Midwest, including in Missouri, which was considered part of Louisiana.

Woodcut by Arthur Heming
The French were intrepid explorers. They may have started on the east coast, as did many immigrants, but they quickly moved westward along the rivers and lakes and south during the 17th and 18th century and then south along the Mississippi. Fur trade was the biggest contributor to that expansion lead by the Coureur des bois. As the fur trade expanded, the coureur des bois were at the forefront as trappers, traders, and explorers in the American interior.

Coureur des bois, roughly translated as runner of the woods, were French-Canadian woodsmen who traveled in New France (of which Missouri was a part) and the interior of North America. They were adventurers and some were explorers. They had many skills to survive in the wilderness. They were businessmen, hunters, trappers, and expert canoeist—the main mode of transportation. They forged ties with many of the Native peoples to learn the land and needed skills to survive and, of course, everything about trapping and preparing animal skins for trade with Europe. The coureur des bois were ever questing for new territory this meant circumventing the normal channels, of getting licensing letters of permission, by going deeper into the wilderness to trade. So they were also, to some extent, considered outlaws operating in fur trade without that permission from France and French officials in the new world. It was a big money back then.

The first European settlers in Missouri were mostly ethnic French Canadians, who created their first settlement in Missouri; the present day site is about an hour south of St. Louis. 

The original Ste. Genevieve was established around 1750 along the western banks of the Mississippi River. Residents were mostly farmers, miners, and merchants from the French Canadian settlements of Illinois Country on the east side of the Mississippi, or upper Louisiana. The city remained the original location for 35 years until the great flood of 1775 destroyed much of the property. It was decided to move the entire village to higher ground (two miles north) a half mile back from the river floodplain. Ste. Genevieve has the most buildings of the French Colonial architecture in the US.

What I find interesting in this history is the parallel of expansion and growth along the Mississippi River at same time as the colonies on the east-coast were developing. Granted the population on the east coast was larger, about 900,000, but the Midwest was well populated by largely French immigrants and Native Americans and later, Spanish, Portuguese, and Germans. As in the east, the population and development largely moved from north to south and was thriving.

St. Louis, Missouri was founded in 1764 by French fur traders, Pierre Laclede (we have a Laclede County named after him) and his stepson, Rene Auguste Chouteau (he got a pond in St Louis named after him).  In 1765 was made the capital of French Upper Louisiana.

Chouteau Pond, St Louis in 1800 by John Caspar

Other cities in Missouri founded by the French (and there are others including mining towns): 

  • Fort Orleans, established in 1723 along the Missouri River was built by French Explorer, Etienne Véniard De Bourgmond. Fort Orleans was the first European post in the Missouri Valley.
  • Saint Charles was founded by Louis Blanchette, a French Canadian explorer, in 1769.
Robidoux Row
  • St. Joseph, Missouri was founded by Joseph Robidoux in 1826. His buildings known as Robidoux Row are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This was a center for his family enterprise of fur trading, which he operated with his five brothers along the Mississippi and especially the Missouri River systems. Roubidoux Creek is named after him. A 57 mile scenic tributary to the Gasconade River in south central Missouri. St. Joseph is also where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended.

Ribidoux Creek

Missouri has an interesting history. If you’re questing for a French connection in Missouri, you don’t have far to look to find one. Other than the Native-Americans, they were the first to settle in Missouri.

Photos wiki commons, Missouri Historical Archives, Missouri History Museum, Missouri Dept Conservation 


cleemckenzie said...

And they usually leave behind a culinary heritage that is exquisite! Yay for the intrepid French.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I didn't realize it was predominantly French for so long.
I take it the second most spoken language in America is Spanish?

Bish Denham said...

Some of those early French, those who went to Acadia and later into the southern U. S. settled in the Virgin Islands. They have been there for many generations now.

~Sia McKye~ said...

C Lee--They do have some good food especially the Cajuns!

Alex--Yes, Spanish is #2. Chinese is also in the top 4 in the US.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Bish--Yes, many of the French settlers were in the Islands and then to North America. Like I said, they were intrepid explorers. :-)

Natalie Aguirre said...

I didn't realize that so many French lived in the Midwest and Missouri. It's all so interesting and I love wondering what the world really looked like back then.

Jo said...

I didn't know the French influence was so strong there either. I knew about the coureur du bois of course. Enjoying reading your blogs about the area.

Keith's ramblings said...

I had no idea about this French connection. I live just 50 miles across the sea from France, I lived there for several years and I am a confirmed francophile which made your piece even more interesting for me.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Natalie--I've often wished there was a doorway to step back and look and explore.

Jo--Coureur des bois were the bad boys, lol! The men charming and living as they did, no doubt had an edge of danger. I bet there were fathers warning their daughters to beware.
Most families in French areas had sons who became fur traders. Fur, especially beaver, was in great demand in Europe. A good way to satisfy a young man's desire to explore and make money for land and a home or build up a business.

Keith--Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed the article and bit of French history here in the 'new world'.

Carol Kilgore said...

So interesting! My ancestry is overwhelming a mix of English/Scandinavian on one side and German on the other. However, I have one French ancestor on each side, and one of those lived in Missouri for several years back in the mid 1800s.

Nick Wilford said...

We think of Canada as very French but I didn't really know about the influence in the US. A name like St Louis makes more sense now.

Natasha Duncan-Drake said...

Lovely photos. I knew there were French connections in the area you talk about, but I had no idea how much French history there is there. Most interesting.
Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sia - I knew the French were in Canada, and in Louisiana .. so I guess the logic once the Brits started to batter their way across the country .. the French would move on - and the Mississippi would have provided an ideal route ..

Fascinating bits of information here - and I love the map .. and now your comments about the languages in the States today .. Chinese is 4th?! Incredible ..

Cheers Hilary

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

Huh. This I didn't expect. :)

Annalisa Crawford said...

It's interesting how the Europeans explored and gradually settled elsewhere.

Annalisa, writing A-Z vignettes, at Wake Up, Eat, Write, Sleep

~Sia McKye~ said...

Carol--lived in Missouri, huh? Cool.

Nick--yes, we do think of Canada with more French but they were questing explorers and moved all over the interior of North America.

Natasha--I thought it was fascinating. There is so much history and things of interest in Missouri. Seriously, I think if we each researched our home area we would find interesting tidbits to fascinate.

Hilary--in our area the French were here first. The Brits, Spanish, and Portugese came a bit later but they did have bordering territories. Of course, the US purchased the Louisiana territory in 1803 and eventually each State was formed from that land, including Missouri.

MAC--there are a lot of surprises in the history of Missouri. :-) You and your cameras would LOVE the photo ops out here!

Analisa--People have questing minds and love to find new places and Europe was getting old and crowded in 1600's. Lot of political contrempts that people wanted to escape. So, yah, they wandered from from home to fresh new teritory. However, they also missed home and many place names here reflect the regions the new settlers came from. :-)

Peaches D. Ledwidge said...

With the large French populace, why isn't French an official language here, like it is in Canada?

~Sia McKye~ said...

Peaches--good question.

Actually, by the time the United States bought the French territory--we call it the Louisiana Purchase--1803 there was already a large population of of English speaking people. The official language of the States is English.

There are pockets of creole French spoken in Missouri (and much larger pockets of French Creole in Louisiana) but it's only a small percentage compared to English speaking citizens. It's the same in Illinois, which borders Missouri, which was once considered Upper Louisiana 200 years ago. In this country the second largest language group is actually Spanish.

My understanding is Canada's official language is dual English/French since 1969. They have a HUGE French population. That wouldn't work here in the states although our Spanish community is working for that duality of language here. We'll see how that goes.

Melanie Schulz said...

Another new tidbit about Missouri. Now I HAVE to go there.