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Louis, Louis, Loo-ey: Recovering Memories of St. Louis' French Heritage

When the Anglo-Americans arrived, the first St. Louisans politely gave way. Now we're starting to recover memories of our French heritage—just in time for our 250th anniversary.

Alphonse Mucha, Czech (active France), 1860-1939; French Poster Advertising the St. Louis 1904 Exposition, 1903; color lithograph; 41 3/8 x 29 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given in memory of David R. Francis, President, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1904, by his granddaughter Miss Alice P. Francis 40:1969

Alphonse Mucha, Czech (active France), 1860-1939; French Poster Advertising the St. Louis 1904 Exposition, 1903; color lithograph; 41 3/8 x 29 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given in memory of David R. Francis, President, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1904, by his granddaughter Miss Alice P. Francis 40:1969

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If St. Louis were to lie down on a couch—an admittedly tricky proposition, with that big loopy Arch and all those sharp bricks jutting out—the analyst would hear a long, tumbling confession of confused identity and self-hatred.

Then, after years of expensive sessions, St. Louis would spring up from the couch and exclaim, “But of course! I am French!”

That single, essential fact got repressed a long time ago. How, you ask, could a city with a French name, a French king on a horse as its patron, French street names, French surnames, and French-inspired architecture forget that it was French?

Blame the Anglos. In 1803, there were only a handful of Anglo-Americans here. A decade later, settlers of British descent were the majority.

And they hated the French.

Cars nudge into tight spaces on the one-way side streets all around The Royale, and the rollicking, foot-thumping music of Creole Stomp reverberates in the alleys off South Kingshighway. Band leader Dennis Stroughmatt has resurrected the old rhythms. They aren’t Cajun; they’re distinct to our region, with the fiddler pushing the beat forward and practically demanding that the listeners start to dance.

Guests take tentative sips of Urban Chestnut’s Royale Apotheosis Saison (a French farmhouse ale) or ratafia, a honey-sweet fruit brandy of the sort that the first St. Louisans might have drunk. It’s August 25, the feast day of
St. Louis IX, the city’s patron saint, and an artist is painting his likeness on the inside of The Royale’s courtyard fence.

In the bar hangs a print of Fernand Le Quesne’s Foundation of the Town of St. Louis by Pierre Laclede in 1764. The 7- by 9-foot 1863 original is kept hidden away, in storage under the Arch.

“We embrace our German and Irish history more than our French,” complains The Royale’s debonair owner, Steve Smith, as he mingles. “The French were the founders, but the dirty immigrants came in and flooded the area”—he gestures across his body and up into the air, cocktail in hand—“and the natives didn’t stand a chance. The French influence is clearly here, though, in the appreciation of good food, the openness, the festivity, the natural appreciation for being with your fellow man…”

Which does make you wonder: What was life like when we were French?

First of all, the word’s a shortcut: We were two kinds of French, influenced by men of aristocratic blood who came from France to fight or govern, and by French Canadian coureurs des bois (woodsmen who trapped beaver), voyageurs (licensed fur traders who canoed up and down the Mississippi River), and habitants (farmers). And the culture born here was Creole: French in origin, but welcoming interchange with the Spanish, the Native Americans, and even, to some extent, the Africans brought as slaves.

Still, there was a distinct Frenchness about us, in that first colonial century—and a great deal more partying. Fiddles came out, feet stomped, homespun and dimity skirts swirled in the dance. Everybody was Catholic, in a way both devout and relaxed: They might or might not go to Mass, but the church’s calendar ordered the seasons, and its feasts made merriment obligatory. Wedding festivities lasted three days. Common amusements were horse-racing, billiards, and the taking of bets on both. On weeknights, people told stories, many of them patterned after medieval French folk tales. And the roughest of the habitants practiced a gentle courtesy.

French Jesuits and explorers ventured into our region in the late 1600s. By the mid-1700s, there were villages along the Mississippi River—Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, Ste. Genevieve—that resembled medieval towns along the waterways of France. A unique French Creole architecture developed, combining the pitched roofs of French Canada with the wraparound porches of the French Caribbean. The whitewashed houses were airy and uncluttered, with no interior hallways to block the crossbreeze. The coarse ware (everyday pottery) resembled mugs, jars, and dishes used a century earlier in western France. “But they also had faience—painted platters that were very festive and would have been fashionable at the time in Paris,” notes Robert Mazrim, a historical archaeologist who wrote At Home in the Illinois Country: French Colonial Domestic Site Archaeology in the Midwest 1730–1800. (The faience wasn’t high fashion, mind you; think Fiestaware.)

When T.P. Fadler put together Memoirs of a French Village: A Chronicle of Old Prairie du Rocher, 1722–1972, he described the early French settlers as eager to extract all possible pleasure from life and avoid its cares. The habitants were, as farm families so often are, plain in their ways, practical and frugal, yet generous, openhearted hosts. They were “satisfied with little on the principal [sic] that ‘contentment surpasses riches,’” Fadler noted—and “retentive of the old.” There was none of the restlessness that would later characterize American culture, none of the striving. One observer actually blamed the humidity: “The American Bottom is humid and moist which produces a lassitude and inertia that hangs heavy over the valley… The climate is partially responsible for the preservation of many old interesting buildings; moreover, for the calmness and peacefulness which is characteristic of its inhabitants.”

They loved the color blue. The men wore a capot made of white blanketing or gray homespun and caught about the waist by a belt of red or checkered wool. In the winter, they copied the Indians and wore buckskin; on their heads, they’d wear a tuque, a Norman knit cap with a broad ribbon about the crown. Women did their best to copy the fashions of New Orleans and Paris, and Fadler quotes one observer who pronounced them “remarkable for the sprightliness of their conversation and the ease and elegance of their manners.”

At right: A planting scene from 18th-century France, showing the long-lot system of agriculture. Farming by French Canadians in our region would have looked exactly like this—minus the castle, and with oxen, rather than horses, pulling the plow.

The common language that arose was an Old French dialect, salted with words borrowed from Native Americans or invented to describe new plants and animals. They wrote home about “wood rats here as big as a French cat,” these rats du bois being opossums; chats sauvages, “wild cats,” were raccoons, and boeuf sauvage were buffalo. Documents show rent paid “each year on the day of the Feast of St. Louis the sum of one denier of quitrent for each arpent,” an arpent being about 37,000 square feet.

You couldn’t travel four arpents without finding charming grapevines, but the French were scathing about their quality and preferred to make their wine from other fruit. Their cuisine went heavy on the local pumpkin, squash, and apples, with thick French-Canadian habitant soup made from yellow peas, as well as gumbos influenced by African and Indian traditions.

In 1763, when the earliest villages were well-established, two Frenchmen—Pierre Laclede and his lover’s son, Auguste Chouteau—came upriver from New Orleans and staked out the site that would become St. Louis. Laclede named the village for the French crusader-king Louis IX, not realizing that France had quietly given the territory away the year before, in the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau.

St. Louis was laid out like New Orleans, with a place d’armes (parade ground) in the central square and a cathedral by the water. Its streets were named Rue Royale, Rue d’Église, Rue des Granges. It was nicknamed Pain Court—short of bread—which we’ve worried about ever since, thinking the early city was either broke or spendthrift. But Pain Court probably only meant that St. Louis was a center of commerce, not grain production.

Despite Spanish rule, the colonial culture that shaped this region throughout the 18th century was French, and it was different in every way from the Anglo-American culture that followed.

It’s easy to imagine J. Frederick Fausz in a canoe, a French fur-trapper’s weather-darkened buckskin stretched across his girth, a low-brimmed hat hiding the shine of his bald pate, and what’s left of his hair hanging long on the sides. Fausz, a history professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, knows with intimate precision the world of the coureurs des bois and voyageurs. He’s got little sympathy for prissy Francophiles; he once gave a talk to “one of these French societies” and got scolded for pronouncing the S at the end of “St. Louis.” He pointed out that he was in an English-speaking country. Grudgingly, his interlocutor conceded that he’d gotten “Chouteau” right, but insisted on “La-klehd.” Fausz volleyed right back: Pierre de Laclede had grown up in Béarn, a province wedged between Spain’s Basque country and the Pyrenees mountains. The Béarnais had their own language, and his name could well have been pronounced “La-klayd.”

You might not find Fausz sipping champagne in Paris’ Faubourg Saint-Germain, but he cherishes his city’s French heritage as passionately as Proust loved Paris. In Founding St. Louis: First City of the New West, he talks about how cosmopolitan St. Louis once was, how multicultural and tolerant and relaxed. He describes Laclede recruiting affluent Europeans, making the city “a refuge of all the French.” He notes that both Laclede and his consort’s son, Auguste Chouteau, loved books and collected hundreds of them.

“There were multiple cultures coexisting here, and nobody was killed in their sleep,” Fausz says, shaking his head in amazement. The French viewed Native Americans as allies, lived alongside them, learned their language, traded easily with them. When the French Jesuits named Kaskaskia “Notre Dame de Cascasquias,” they were braiding their faith with the native tradition; by 1721, they were baptizing black babies and marrying slave couples.

The French followed the Code Noir, a list of colonial slave laws that said slaves could not be compelled to marry; could be whipped, but not tortured; could not be imprisoned without due process; must be properly housed, clothed, and fed; and must be cared for when old, ill, or infirm. Granted, a Frenchman might have dealt out harsh punishment for an offense, branding a slave with the fleur-de-lis or clipping his ears. But back in France at that time, criminals were being burned alive or broken on the wheel.

As for the Indians, marriages between French men and Osage women grew common. “The more the French interacted with the Indians, the more intermarriages and sexual liaisons there were,” Fausz says, “and there was this great acceptance. Who are better culture brokers than people of mixed heritage?” He imagines the introductions of the time: “‘These are my slaves—they are married; they have children; they are Catholic; they speak French—and here’s my Indian daughter-in-law.’”

Ah, but then the Anglos came, and they feared the Indians. The Anglo-Americans also wanted to clear-cut the land for their farms, and that meant the Indians had to be gone. “The French traded with them and married them, and the Americans shot them,” sums up Mazrim. In 1818, the Treaty of St. Louis ousted the Osage from Missouri. As noted in the Cahokia Records 1778–1790, “the dramatic struggle of Anglo-Saxon energy with Gallic quietism had begun.”

The Anglo-Americans—most of Scottish and Irish blood—started to arrive in the 1780s. Some streamed through rather noisily on their way west. Others stayed and built cabins—“little log boxes,” as Mazrim describes them. “The French homes were much larger and cooler, with higher ceilings and substantial cellars. The Americans were camping, by comparison.”

The French used vertical wooden posts, driving them into the ground (poteaux-en-terre) or notching them into a wooden sill on a stone foundation (poteaux-sur-sol). They chinked in the gaps with bits of stone and bousillage, a plaster of clay, mud, and straw, perhaps binding it with horsehair (or human hair) before whitewashing it. Broad roofs slanted low, shading the wide galleries (porches) that often wrapped around the houses, protecting them from sun and storms and providing a shady, breezy work space. “That was good thinking,” notes Mazrim, who has excavated several of these structures. “You can tell the difference when you’re in one of those early French homes. They knew how to live.”

The French even used the land differently, more sociably. Just outside their villages were the long lots, narrow strips of land that the habitants plowed side by side, clomping along in their sabots (wooden shoes). Anglo-Americans did just the opposite, setting their farmhouses as far from each other as possible, buffered by fenced fields. While they found freedom in space and quiet, privacy and isolation, the French relied on an amiable, chattering, close-knit community. “You may behold at one and the same time a hundred plows going, under one inclosure, which belongs to the French, who cultivate in Common,” observed Jonathan Jennings in 1807. “Their Customs are often very ridiculous and grating to the feelings of an American.”

French Catholicism especially irritated the Protestants. Fausz quotes Thomas Jefferson calling Catholicism “the lowest grade of ignorance” and noting that history “furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” The Anglos found it maddening to see the French go to Mass on a Sunday morning, share a cup of rum with the priest afterward, and play card games all afternoon. In 1959, historian Richard C. Wade accused a “gay and relaxed” French population of slowing St. Louis’ growth.

“The take on the French was that they drink too much, they play too much, they have sex with savages, and even the best of them are Roman Catholic,” Fausz says. “They have never been a colonial democracy, so they must love tyranny. They don’t have juries—what do we have in common with these people?”

It’s true, the French loathed common law; it seemed too litigious. They chose the code of Paris as their law and settled infractions within the community. If someone was found murdered, it was up to the magistrates to determine the guilty party, who was expected to confess.

“There never was a Creole Frenchman hung in Illinois since the earliest settlement of the country,” noted the early Illinois governor and historian John Reynolds. “No Creole was ever sentenced to the penitentiary of this state. I believe the records of the courts in Illinois do not exhibit an indictment against a Creole Frenchman for any crime higher than keeping his grocery open on a prohibited day of the week… In common broils and personal combats the French rarely engaged.” In Gateway magazine’s 2010 French-heritage edition, Carl J. Ekberg quotes Reynolds and adds that Creoles “viewed Anglo-Americans as ruffians, who were hot-headed, lawless, and addicted to strong drink.”

“One basis of the prejudice was that we were a fur-trading town,” Fausz says. “Fur trading was the next thing to hosting buccaneers. These voyageurs and their Indian women and a lot of liquor—it just seemed vice-ridden. And there was a lot of prejudice against men who didn’t farm. They rode boats all day, they went into the woods—we’ve always been afraid of dark woods. What’s in there? Devilish practices! Besides, many Anglos were related to people who were damn near killed by the voyageurs’ Indian allies.”

The French reciprocated. Don Zenon Trudeau, lieutenant governor of the Upper Louisiana territory, called the Americans a people “sans loix ni discipline”—lawless and weak in character.

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