Le Grand Champ

The pattern of land usage, settlement, and agriculture that developed in the middle Mississippi River Valley during the 18th century was unique in North America. Communities at Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Fort de Chartres, Ste. Genevieve, St. Louis, Carondelet, and Florissant all employed this unique system. The system paralleled the communal agriculture of northern France during the period of the high Middle Ages. A fascinating alternative explanation for French land use patterns is that the French adopted the American Indian configuration of village and farm fields.

Beyond the actual bounds of the villages streets were the commons, where residents could graze their livestock and cut wood; and the common fields, where residents tended long narrow strips of land. This arrangement was completely different than the seigneuries along the St. Lawrence River in Canada or on the lower Mississippi River, where resident farmers lived on their farm fields. Middle Mississippi farming strips usually did not touch on the river. The residents also owned these lands outright, and were not obliged to pay rent to wealthy landowners.

The strips of land in the common fields were long and narrow because of the type of wheeled plow the French used, which was difficult to turn at the end of a row. The French plow, sometimes called a row plow or a hoe plow, is still used today in vineyards. The French utilized the common fields under a “right of tillage;” that is, they could use them until they did not wish to use them any longer, or if they died and left no heirs; if this happened, the right of tillage reverted to the community, and the land could be assigned to another community member. In the St. Louis Common Fields, a typical single field measured 1 arpent wide by 40 arpens long. An arpent was a French measure equaling 192 feet, 6 inches in English measure; 1 arpent equals roughly 63 yards of a football field. 40 arpens stretched out for 1½ English miles.

Ste. Geneviève National Historical Park

Last updated: September 18, 2022