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the Midwest's
French Roots

Henry Popple's A Map of the British Empire
Detail of Henry Popple's A Map of the British Empire in North America published in London, 1733, shows portions of the present states of Illinois and Wisconsin. Courtesy of the Author.
by Charles J. Balesi

Familiar maps of the Midwest are filled with French names; Detroit (straights), Des Moines (the place of the monks), and farther west the famous Grands Tetons. But if you ask the average American why there are towns named Fond du Lac (Wisconsin), Terre Haute (Indiana), Duluth (Minnesota), and Des Plaines, in Illinois, chances are you will draw a blank. Perhaps some reasonably well-informed person may allude to French missionaries. If one is unusually well versed in colonial history, the reader may even suggest canoes, rivers, and the fur trade. The average person's knowledge, however, is still quite blurry when it comes to the history hidden in his or her backyard.

Why don't these French names at every corner of our regional geography arouse more curiosity? One explanation might stem from the curriculum that Midwestern states mandate in their public schools. In most history books, the reader will find barely more than a paragraph or two about the French and


Native Americans. Because the French and Indian War was fought essentially in the East, the United States in the Midwest appears to have no history prior to the inauguration of the first governors or the arrival of the railroad. Political correctness has brought some change in the way women, Afro-Americans, and Hispanics are treated of late but not to the French and the Native Americans who have no direct constituency here. While political correctness is by and large a euphemism for partisan spins and re-packaging of facts, one must lament that all the rich history which occurred in the Heart of North America before the nineteenth century is not better revealed. If nothing else, it would lead to more visitors to sites often only a few hours away, and in the process, help bring about tourism to areas whose industries have often traveled south or even overseas.

Strangely enough, there are people who are dedicated to maintaining the true history of the Midwest. Starting in the spring and well through fall, almost every weekend, they slip out of their neighborhoods and their regular lives and reach places hidden in the countryside where they don the clothes, take on the characteristics, and adopt the lifestyle of those who lived here two centuries ago. They are the reenactors, the devotees of historical re-creations, of Rendezvous patterned after the ancient annual gatherings of fur-traders and American Indians. Their pageantries bring alive a Midwest that highways and tollways bypass. Their sounds and gestures transport across time with an ease that no exercise of virtual perception will ever be able to emulate.

We want to acquaint you with this secret Midwest, send you to discover it in a succession of inexpensive and enjoyable weekends.

How did it all start? The French had already been in North America since 1608, when a half-century later, fur-traders, better known as "voyageurs," a word that has entered the American vocabulary, began to venture out of Montreal in canoes made of birch bark. They paddled westward to Lake Superior and Lake Michigan and continued up the myriad of rivers and smaller lakes bartering for furs. Many even preceded the famed Jesuit missionaries nicknamed the "Black Robes'—bent on converting the whole native population of North America to the Catholic faith and who, in 1665, were already in what is now northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. But it was in 1673, when Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette travelled south, that the land that would one day become the Midwest was open to French expansion.

The Church of the Holy
Family at Cahokia was
dedicated in 1799. It
is probably the oldest
remaining church
building west of the
Alleghenies. On
April 25, 1971, the the Author.
Church of the Holy Family at Cahokia

Applying Jolliet's and Marquette's itinerary to a modern road map, one finds that they and their small party went through Green Bay, Wisconsin, travelled on the Fox River, and carried their canoes across the land to the Wisconsin River. They executed what the French called a portage meaning a "carrying over," a term that later became common-place, then continued down the Mississippi River all the way to Arkansas. Their return trip took them through the center of Illinois to Chicago, where they went from the Des Plaines to the Chicago River after a long portage that approximately followed the present Archer Avenue.

The Illinois Indians who numbered about ten to fifteen thousand were in fact a federation of five small tribes, among them the Kaskaskia and the Peoria, who roamed the land from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi and as far north as Lake Superior. Until the 1600s, they were the most powerful nation west of the Great Lakes. By the time they met with the French, they were already in a fast decline, battered by both large Iroquois raiding parties all the way from New York State and by the Sioux erupting from the northwest. The conflict was about furs, which were becoming a rare commodity in the East while still abundant in the Midwest, and in great demand in Europe, especially beaver fur for men's hats. By then, Native Americans had been supplying French and English warehouses for nearly a hundred years, receiving in exchange tools and weapons which slowly, but surely, were supplanting their own crafts. European-made tomahawks, hatchets, muskets, blankets, and powder, not to speak of mirrors, beads, and brandy, became part of their everyday lives. Forced out of their isolation and brought unknowingly into a budding global market, they were primitive by today's standards but no less effective. American Indians were hooked on needs which brought about a fierce competition for buyers in Albany and Montreal. This was a clear case where the laws of the marketplace led the weakest players to the eventual church was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark. Courtesy of


destruction of its culture.

The French, much fewer in number than the British on the Eastern seaboard, were already penetrating the most remote waterways by the time the legendary Robert Cavelier de La Salle and his faithful deputy, Henri Tonty, landed at the bottom of Lake Michigan, which today is the location of the little resort town of St. Joseph. On January 4, 1680, after having pushed their canoes through the half-frozen waters of the Kankakee and Illinois rivers. La Salle's expedition joined with the Peoria clan of the Illinois and promptly built a fort, Fort Crevecoeur, planting the seeds of a middle-sized urban community, on property known today as the home of the Caterpillar Tractor Company.

Except for
the British colonies
Spanish Mexico and Spanish
Florida, France now owned
an empire stretching from
the St. Lawrence River
to the Gulf of

Later, the French moved upriver to a more defensible position. The rock dominating the plain, now Starved Rock State Park, was chosen and named Fort St. Louis des Illinois. Louis was the first name of choice for the kings of France. It was the French place name de rigueur as evidenced by Louisville and St. Louis.

On his second attempt, La Salle was able to realize his great project: navigating the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. On April 9, 1682, he solemnly claimed the rest of North America for his sovereign, Louis XIV, the legendary Sun King and builder of the Versailles Palace, not surprisingly naming this acquisition Louisiane.

Except for the British colonies, Spanish Mexico and Spanish Florida, France now owned an empire stretching from the St. Lawrence River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Bequette-Ribault House
The Bequette-Ribault House in
Ste. Genevieve, circa 1760, is an
excellent example of one of the
three poteaux sur sole buildings
remaining in the middle
Mississippi River valley. Courtesy
of the Author.

Claiming such an enormous piece of real estate was the easier part of the task. To settle and defend it was the challenge, and not surprinsingly, this is where the French encountered trouble. Already experiencing great difficulty persuading even a small number of French people to move to New France, as Canada was then called, the Crown was now faced with the problem of attracting even more to settle in Louisiana. This was no simple feat. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century France was simply too pleasant a country to leave. Its climate was the best of western Europe and consequently good crops were generally the norm. Although French society was built on an inequality of privilege that favored the nobility, the forces that were leading to the French Revolution were still slow in developing. Contrary to the British Isles where there were thousands of men and women eager to accept travelling in harsh conditions to live for seven years in a difficult colonial environment before getting their fifty acres of land, the French just did not want to leave their ancestral homes despite government enticements. Within a century, thirteen British colonies with a population that reached a million could be found on the east side of the Ohio River. On the west side of the river, barely forty thousand French souls had settled on land that stretched along six thousand miles of waterways.

It took a century for a continuous chain of posts, small forts, and tiny towns to link Quebec to New Orleans through the Great Lakes down the Mississippi valley. French North America was slowly becoming a real entity with two colonies, New France and Louisiana, bridged by a vast, ill-defined Territoire des Illinois—future Midwest-when in 1755, major hostilities broke out in Europe with France and England in opposite camps. The conflict known here as the French and Indian War and in France as the Seven Year War had begun.

The French in North America faced incredible odds. With a small population, they could muster at most a militia of 10,000 to 12,000 to face a force of at least five times more. The French regulars were few and spread out. Reinforcements and military supplies from France difficult to obtain while "Britannia ruled the seas." To make matters worse, the war in Europe did not go well for the French. In North America, the end of the story is well-known. Two generals, Montcalm and Wolfe, battling under the walls of Quebec, were both dead at the end of September 14, 1759. The British victory led to the Treaty of Paris by the terms of which France surrendered all of her possessions east


of the Mississippi. France had just recently entrusted her possessions west of the Mississippi to Spain.

The War had a major impact on the Territoire des Illinois. Marines, militia contingents, Indian allies who had left from Fort de Chartres, Vincennes, Michilimackinac, St. Joseph, and other posts to converge on Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) to join the main body of the French troops suffered substantial losses. Even more traumatic, the peace treaty signed in 1763, transformed the Mississippi from the Main Street of an empire into a border between two alien nations-Spain and Britain—exercising sovereignty over French settlers.

The British government had great hopes that it would inherit the French fur trade and through its profits more than make up for the cost of the French and Indian War. For the fur trade to go on, however, both French voyageurs and Indian trappers needed to be shielded from the land-hungry American farmers. The problem was that these farmers had provided the bulk of the British colonial troops, including officers like Colonel George Washington. Their disappointment and anger at the way the mother country now was protecting "papists" and "savages" became one of the major important reasons—now forgotten—for the American Revolution.

The French were quick to recognize those they should support. In spite of the hullabaloo made about George Rogers dark and his "long- knives" liberating Kaskaskia on July 4, 1778-a task made obviously easy by the lack of an English garrison-the truth was that the French population by and large, and the near totality of the Indian groups from the Shawnee to the Miami, remained opposed to the arrival of the Americans.

The British
government had great
hopes that it
would inherit the
French fur trade
and through its
profits more than
make up for the
cost of the French
and Indian War.

The Midwest was also home to a few hundred people of African and mixed French and African descent living along the Mississippi and the Illinois rivers as far north as Michilimackinac. Although the majority were slaves, quite a few belonged to what the French called "free people of color," including the best known of all today, Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, a successful independent trader and a major player in the political intrigues of the time. While this class born out of the mixing of two worlds would do relatively well west of the Mississippi under Spanish rule, it too, would be overwhelmed by the steady waves of American settlers coming in from the East. But would the growing United States stop at the Mississippi and settle for only a third of the North American continent?

When Louisiana was returned to France, Napoleon, who had little interest for overseas possessions and needed to finance his European wars, was happy to find a buyer in President Jefferson. In 1803, the United States purchased Louisiana from France, bringing an end to a French political presence on the North American continent.

The British would hold on to northern Wisconsin and most of Michigan until 1812 and then agree to pull back to the northern shores of the Great Lakes. Going forward to its Manifest Destiny, the United States would now quickly forego any cultural tradition that did not originate in the Thirteen Colonies.

As the wigs, lace, muskets, and canoes of the eighteenth century made room for the new, vigorous nineteenth century and its smell of smokestacks, farms, and steam engines, the French in the Midwest, along with the Indians with whom more often than not they shared bloodlines, faded into a world of story-telling, romance, and myth—not always flattering. There is a great body of American literature published between the 1830s and 1860s where the French are never mentioned without being followed by the words lazy, careless, unambitious, and drunk. They shared the last adjective with the Indians, ordinarily referred to in these same books as untrustworthy savages. Not until the historian Francis Parkman's publications first appeared in the 1880s, did the French and Indians slowly start to regain their true place in American history.

For Further Reading

Alvord, Clarence W. Illinois Country, 1673-1818, The Centennial History of Illinois, vol. 1. Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1920.

Balesi, Charles J. The Time of the French in the Heart of North America 1673-1818. Chicago: Alliance Francaise Chicago, 1991.

Belting, Natalia Maree. Kaskaskia under the French Regime. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1948.

Ekberg, Carl J. French Roots in the Illinois Country, The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Pease, Theodore C., and Raymond C. Werner, eds. The French Foundations, 1680-1693, Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, vol. 23. Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1934.


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