Land use, political structure and fondness for dancing may have been the most visible differences between the French towns of the Mississippi valley and the settlements of the arriving Americans. Other aspects of French society, however, may have had more enduring effects.
One of these aspects involved the roles and status of women. French women enjoyed a significantly greater degree of legal and practical independence than they did in American society, even on the frontier. It began with control over their money.
In a French family, sons and daughters inherited equal shares of their parents’ estate. When a woman married, her property was pooled with that of her husband into a communauté, half of which was to go to the surviving spouse. Marriage contracts often provided that the wife’s property was to be kept separate from that of the husband and not liable for his debts. In addition, since men in the French towns were often absent from their families, hunting, trading, transporting goods downriver, or overseeing mining operations, their wives had to assume the responsibilities of managing their farms and businesses, collecting debts and paying the bills. French women’s willingness to give advice and have opinions was occasionally startling to American observers, who blamed it on their economic independence.
This relatively open and tolerant attitude also extended, at least to some extent, to enslaved people. There is no good way to be a slave, but some times and places have been better than others, and the French settlements of the Mississippi valley, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, were among them. The French Code Noir, although often ignored, provided a range of legal rights and protections: a right to proper food and housing; limitation of work to daylight hours; a prohibition on separating spouses or selling children away from their parents until puberty; and the right of a slave to take his or her master to court if the provisions of the Code were violated. Some enslaved people in the town of Ste. Genevieve were skilled artisans, who could earn money for themselves and sue in their own right to collect their debts.
The system of slavery in the French towns was also accompanied by less racial contempt than among English-speaking Americans. Although interracial marriage was technically forbidden, it was socially accepted. Free black women appear as plaintiffs in a number of court cases, including one in which Elizabeth D’Archurut, a freed slave, sued the estate of her late master for support for the ten children he had fathered, and won. And when Roddé Christie married the white mine owner who had freed her the day before, their wedding was attended by the members of the leading families of both Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis. Roddé’s second husband Joseph Labbe, a partner in the same mine, was associated with my Bettis ancestors over a period of many years. One wonders what influence their family may have had on young Bettis women of both races.
Further reading: Bonnie Stepenoff, in From French Community to Missouri Town: Ste. Genevieve in the Nineteenth Century, offers some fascinating glimpses of the lives of women and slaves.Share