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  • In This Remote Country: French Colonial Culture in the Anglo-American Imagination, 1780–1860 by Edward Watts
  • Michael A. McDonnell
In This Remote Country: French Colonial Culture in the Anglo-American Imagination, 1780–1860. By Edward Watts. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

The message is slowly getting through that the American “west” (stretching, at any given moment, from Virginia to California) was not a virgin land. Schoolchildren now routinely learn that diverse and numerous groups of Native Americans inhabited that land, even if they are not always taught the full and bloody history of the conquest of those peoples and the part this played in creating a continental empire. Some lucky students are now even learning that the Spanish had trod many of the paths created by Native Americans long before Americans stumbled across them. But Edward Watts here reminds us that another important group has to be taken into consideration when considering the origins of the American nation. Indeed, long before late-twentieth-century American historians began widening their horizons, many nineteenth-century writers were plainly aware of the crucial role the French played in the early history of North America.

Long established, a constant thorn in the side of the English settlements, and seemingly more adept at creating alliances with native groups, the French were well known to colonial and Revolutionary generations of Anglo-Americans. Indeed, the American republic was borne, in part, over conflicts with the French over claims to the Ohio Valley and beyond. Tens of thousands of French settlers remained behind after 1763, too, spread across an arc reaching from the Gulf of St Lawrence to the mouth of the Mississippi. Thus it should come as no surprise — yet it does, somehow — that images of French settlers saturated nearly every text concerned with the west and American expansion in the nineteenth-century. Upon reflection, some of these representations are familiar, of course. Watts notes that important Anglo writers, from George Rogers Clark to James Fenimore Cooper, from Lyman Beecher to Francis Parkman often mentioned the French, but only to quickly denigrate them as slovenly and degraded, something less than white, and destined to “vanish” along with the Indians in the face of the expanding American republic/empire. Representations of the French as backwards by these imperialist writers were most often used to erase a pre-Anglo French presence in places such as Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. The triumph of the Anglo empire builders in the nineteenth-century helped ensure that these views became dominant.

Watts is well aware of these representations, and notes that they played a significant role in developing the identity of the new nation. But the true genius of Watts’ book consists of his presentation of alternative images of French, Métis, and Indian communities by equally important writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Hall, Henry Marie Brackenridge and Margaret Fuller. These and many other — often unpublished — writers also used images of French colonial culture, but to critique many of the less savoury values of the burgeoning American empire. Thus, as Watt persuasively argues, representations of eighteenth-century French colonists in nineteenth-century American narratives revealed the existence of multiple — and alternative - models of nation- and empire-building in the new republic. Such alternatives were raised to ask readers to imagine that the nation had options other than imperial, insular, aggressive, and racist masculine conquest. In a series of delightful chapters, Watts teases out these alternative ideas from writers great and small, ranging across representations of French colonial land tenure, labour, family, and religion. And throughout, he pays careful attention to the ways in which these issues cut across dominant and hardening lines of race, class and gender in the new republic. I can hardly do justice to the subtleties of Watts’ arguments in such a short review. But I can say that Watts’ clear mastery of a tremendous range of sources shows a mature writer clearly steeped in the literature of antebellum America, and refreshingly, of the Great Lakes and the Old Northwest. Who would have thought to juxtapose Francis Parkman and Métis historian William Warren in a fascinating look at...

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