Everything Changes: The Arrival of the Americans

Crossing the Great Plains

The amiable and polished citizens of the French towns were appalled.  The English-speaking Americans, who were crossing the Mississippi River by the thousands in the years after the Battle of New Orleans, were rude, violent, thieving, litigious, and unconcerned with harmony in social relationships.  They ignored all rules and restrictions, settling on Federal land without permission and on Indian land in spite of laws forbidding such settlement.

Lawlessness, robbing of peaceful Indians,  land fraud, swindles, duels and assaults were suddenly everywhere.  Pirates hid on islands in the river, waiting to rob passing travelers.  Pierre Gibault, formerly a priest in Ste. Genevieve, described the catastrophe: “Wantonness and drunkenness pass here as elegance and amusements quite in style.  Breaking of limbs, murder by means of a dagger, sabre or sword are common, and pistols and guns are but toys in these regions.”

The Americans, for their part, found the French lazy, cowardly, conservative, subservient to authority, and much too fond of dancing.  In the words of one American observer, they “submitted themselves to ignorance and fatuity.”

In spite of their violence and vulgarity, the newly arrived Americans had advantages other than sheer numbers. The companionable, family-like atmosphere of the French towns was marked by a striking absence of enterprise.  Their communally owned big fields, their cooperative management of cattle herding, and their dependence on religious and secular authorities appointed by distant powers promoted social stability, but discouraged innovation. Both the French and the Spanish governments, which controlled the area at different times, considered the establishment of mills and tanyards as the province of the government, not of individual citizens.  Moreover, French mercantile policy required French colonists to produce only raw materials, while importing all their manufactured goods from Europe.

The contrast must have been startling to the Americans.  Until after 1800 there were no water-powered gristmills in French Louisiana;  grain was ground in the oldest of ways, by a grindstone turned by a horse.  French women might be dressed in elegant fabrics, but their houses had no spinning wheels and no looms.

The Americans brought with them skills and entrepreneurial habits missing in the French communities.  They were masons, boat-builders and engineers. They established mills, tanyards, and rope walks. They were also more likely than the French to be literate, influencing the French to put more effort into the education of their own children.

The French adapted.  The elites of the French communities forged connections with the new American elites, and learned to succeed in the new world of democratic politics.  Trial by jury took hold, and French-speaking residents learned how to seek justice from the courts rather than from the commandant.  A few public schools were established.

The old culture of tolerance survived – but only for a generation.  Some slaveholders continued to free their slaves, sometimes giving them money and even land to begin their new lives, and self-confident women of both races managed their own affairs and used the courts to assert their rights.  But like the Dutch of New York, the Highland Scots of Moore County, North Carolina, and the Germans of the Carolina Piedmont, the French of the Mississippi valley ultimately became Americans.


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