French Culture On the Frontier

When Lewis and Clark began their journey west in 1803, they passed through what professional geographers would describe as geographical zones, climactic zones, geologic zones, and vegetative zones. To this list might also be added cultural zones. Most historians neglect mention of the fact that after Lewis and Clark left the Kentucky frontier, they entered a French Creole cultural zone upon their arrival on the Mississippi River. This cultural zone was unique in terms of law, religion, customs, use of the land, architecture, personal philosophy, slave law, and even in a skewed version of spoken and written French which today remains difficult to unravel for modern scholars. This regional culture was unlike anything else in what is now the United States, and substantially different from its parent cultures in Canada, Louisiana and France.

How can we define the culture of the middle Mississippi River Valley? As historian Margaret Brown has said, “The French took their civilization with them; the Americans waited for it to catch up.” Frenchmen usually did not build their own houses, for instance, but hired master craftsmen to do so. They ordered cloth and other amenities from France and other European nations rather than raising sheep, growing flax, and weaving. They imported or made wines rather than making corn liquor. They obtained their clothing and pottery from Europe.

The term “Illinois Country” is a proper English translation of the way local people on both sides of the Mississippi referred to their region over 200 years ago. Ste. Genevieve and Missouri were in the Illinois Country. The term “Creole” was used to describe a French, Spanish or African person born in America. The Creoles were vibrant in ways that set them apart from other cultures in what is now the United States, yet scandalized the Americans who came to dwell among them after the Louisiana Purchase. After church on Sunday, for instance, they held auctions, conducted business, danced and bet on cards and horse racing. They lived in tight-knit little communities established along the rivers. Settling in villages in the Illinois was far different than the Anglo pattern of settling on individual, often isolated farmsteads, and also distinct from the ways in which French-speaking people had settled Canada, with residences on long lots.

Ste. Geneviève National Historical Park

Last updated: August 10, 2022