A Different World: The French Towns of the Mississippi Valley

Ste. Genevieve ballThe French arrived in the Mississippi valley a full century before the Americans.  They arrived as fur traders, not farmers or hunters, and they settled not on widely scattered farms but in towns and villages.  In those villages they created a world dramatically different from the world of the American borderers who would eventually overwhelm them.

Like any trading culture, they understood that the first imperative of trade is to create and maintain close connections with your trading partners.   In this case, their most important trading partners were the powerful Osage, who dominated the fur trade of the Mississippi valley for a century, successfully playing European empires off against each other.  The French traders established collaborative relationships with them by sending their sons to live in their villages and marry their daughters.

Indian wives were the key not only to the traders’ profits, but to their survival.  Their agricultural labor kept their families from starvation, their kinship relationships facilitated trade, and their work in preparing skins was a necessity for the transportation and sale of those skins.  The children of these unions, known as métis, were brought up in their fathers’ homes, educated as French, and treated as French in all respects.  On occasion, a group of Indians would establish their own village near a French town, reinforcing the links between the two cultures.  The French settlers could not be described as “borderers:” they had erased the border between their own culture and that of their neighbors, and had no intention of moving on.

Not only the culture, but even the geography of the French villages underlined the difference between them and the Americans.  French towns and villages were generally compact, and centered around a church.  At the edge of an agricultural community like Missouri’s Ste. Genevieve, the “big field” spread out along the rich river bottomland, divided into long thin strips running at right angles to the river and owned by individual families. The woods away from the river were common property, in which the livestock of the community roamed freely.

The house of the commandant was the center of community life, and the site of the frequent balls.  Everyone danced, at every opportunity.  Even the children had their own balls, at which they were instructed in manners and decorum.  Disputes were generally settled by informal arbitration, or by the decision of the commandant, and the records of Ste. Genevieve prior to the Louisiana Purchase contain no record of French-on-French violence.  Unlike the Protestant Americans, the Catholic French often ignored the Sabbath in favor of drinking, dancing, gambling, and general conviviality.  To some observers, a French town seemed like one large extended family, a  family in which white, black and Indian members lived in harmony.  Others looked at the same towns, and saw backwardness, laziness, and disorder.

Further reading:  Perhaps the most vivid and detailed picture of life in a French town prior to the Louisiana Purchase is Carl Ekberg, Colonial Ste. Genevieve: An Adventure on the  Mississippi Frontier.

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