Several years ago, I wrote a short article called "Speak English, or Else" (also "Back When America Was Multilingual") which examined the true complexity and variety of linguistic traditions in the United States. The idea that English was, until recently, the so-called "dominant" language in the United States, greatly oversimplifies matters. As an example (among others), I looked at Colorado's original state constitution from 1876 which stipulated that the constitution (and all new laws) be distributed in English, Spanish, and German "to supply that portion of the inhabitants of the State who speak those languages and who may be unable to read and understand the English language."
Then as now, Spanish speakers were common in Southern Colorado, and German speakers were common, especially in the northeastern part of the state.
And while French was never spoken outside a small minority in Colorado, the Francophone world was also important in Colorado, especially in the world of trade and commerce.
This forgotten world of Francophone traders, property owners, and settlers is examined in some detail in Jay Gitlin's new book Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion.
Most readers unfamiliar with this period in history will assume that Gitlin is writing primarily on the period before the so-called "French and Indian War" which ended in 1763. And of course, that is a reasonable assumption since we have long been taught that the French ceased to be important on the American frontier after the 1760s.
But the groundbreaking work that Gitlin is doing here helps to open up new knowledge of how French families and a Francophone culture continued to serve many important roles on the frontier well into the 1830s and 1840s.
The French in the Trans-Mississippi West
Richard White and others have done some new work on examining the role of the French settlers in the Great Lakes area, but Gitlin's work is the first I've ever seen that takes a detailed look at the French on the Great Plains and the Southwest after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Much of the misunderstanding about the French role in the region stems from the long-standing Anglo chauvinism that portrayed Anglo settlement as the only settlement that mattered, while downplaying the contributions of Hispanophone and Francophone settlers to the region. And of course, Indians are generally ignored as well. The arrival of the Anglos, we've long been told, was a sort of "end of history" situation in which all other groups merely paved the way for the final and "correct" stage of settlement, which was the Anglo and Protestant phase. Much of this narrative is handed down from Frederick Jackson Turner's vision of the Frontier, and much of it was formed along the lines of old anti-Catholic narratives which assumed the Spaniards and Frenchmen, being Catholics, must have been lazy, passive, and authoritarian. The explicit anti-Catholicism has long disappeared, but the general image of the non-Anglo settlers remains.
The truth, of course, is something else entirely. The French settlers, Gitlin tells us, had already put a commercial infrastructure in place long before the Anglos had arrived. It was the towns, forts, villages, supply lines, and commercial trading patters of the trans-Mississippi West that opened up the region for later settlers and which set settlement patters for generations to come.
Moreover, the French had much more complex, friendly, and fruitful relationships with the Indians than the Anglos did, and these relationships were key in putting together treaties, and negotiating commercial relationships with the Indian tribes.
In these relationships, Gitlin reminds us, the French employed a different settlement pattern than the Anglos. While the Anglos represented wholesale conquest of lands and a state of apartheid with the Indians, the French frequently intermarried with Indians, producing many mixed families, in which extended French families and Indian tribes were both commercially and culturally intertwined. Unlike the Anglos, who relied on expropriating large amounts of agricultural lands, the French functioned more on an urban merchant model, relying much more on moving goods through towns and trading posts, than on producing agricultural goods themselves.
Thus, the old French families became urban institutions that relied on trade, negotiation, and private property, rather than on the Anglo model of large-scale seizure of Indian lands, military domination, and total replacement of the existing frontier culture.
(In this, some readers might be tempted to think of the "Ostseidlung" settlement in Eastern Europe, in which the Germans moved into Eastern Europe. The Germans also employed a non-Anglo model based largely on life in urban centers and management of trade lines, rather than expropriating the local inhabitants and taking their lands.)
For their divergence from the quasi-religious Anglo model of creating a new and ethnically pure promised land on the frontier, the French were denounced as collaborators with the Indians, as traitors, and as (even worse) as retrograde Papists who needed to be purged.
In spite of all of this, however, Gitlin reminds us, the French settlers tended to be economically, successful, politically influential, and excellent and making the best of the new political and economic realities of the frontier.
The French in the Rocky Mountain West
Those (like myself) with a particular interest in Colorado history will be especially drawn to chapter five, "Beyond Saint Louis" which examines the role of the French along the Santa Fe Trail which was a major trade route sunning through southeastern Colorado, and which was partially dominated by Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River east of what is now Pueblo, Colorado.
The Bent family is well known for its close connections to local Hispanophone and Indian settlements. Gitlin, however, adds in a new French dimension, noting the close alliance between French patriarch Ceran St. Vrain and Charles Bent. Both the St. Vrain and Bent families worked together managing trade from New Mexico and Colorado and back to Saint Louis which was the center of Francophone world in the American west.
Other French families, such as the Robidoux family, were active even deeper into the Colorado frontier, being instrumental in the founding of Fort Uncompahgre on the Gunnison River, and also with trade lines running from fort Laramie in Wyoming and south to Santa Fe and Taos.
Culturally, this world of Spanish, French, and Anglo merchants was complex and multifaceted with frequent intermarriage between the French families, Spanish families, Anglos families, and Indian tribes. William Bent, for example, is known for his marriage to the Cheyenne Princess Owl Woman, and Kit Carson's first two wives were Indians. He later converted to Catholicism and married Josefa Jaramillo who was the sister of Maria Jaramillo, the common-law wife of Charles Bent.
Members of the Bent and Jaramillo families were famously murdered in an uprising in New Mexico exacerbated by the American war against Mexico in the 1840s, but connected to all of this was the Beaubien family which was an important and influential family in New Mexico under both the Mexican and American regimes. The French families, Gitlin frequently reminds the reader, were marked by family loyalty and economic ties and not by loyalty to any particular nation state. The ability of the French networks to move seamlessly between Spanish, French, British, and American spheres was a notable reason for their economic success in a time of frequent political change.
Gitlin explores this multicultural world with an eye to the economic and political infrastructure it formed well before large numbers of Anglos ever began homesteading wheat farms on the high plains in the late 19th century. Private property, negotiation, family connections, and civil society, Gitlin contends, were far more central to the Francophone world than to the Anglophone world which was marked more by military conquest and state-imposed settlement patterns and economic patterns.
Bourgeois Frontier is a short book (only 190 pages, not including notes and bibliography), and it is easy reading for readers who are already familiar with the basic historical outline of frontier history. Novices in frontier history may find the historical narrative more difficult to follow, but anyone interested in understanding the history of the American frontier beyond the usual tropes and simplifications will find much to enjoy here.