- Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727–1834, and: Divided Loyalties in a Doomed Empire: The French in the West from New France to the Lewis and Clark Expedition , and: In this Remote Country: French Colonial Culture in the Anglo–American Imagination, 1780–1860
When Thomas Jefferson negotiated to purchase Louisiana from Napoleonic France, he had two goals in mind: to sustain an economy grounded in small, owner-operated farms, and to guarantee American access to the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans in perpetuity. Jefferson knew the land he was purchasing for the United States was not quite empty, and he admonished Lewis and Clark to document the indigenous presence in the regions they visited. But Jefferson had little to say about the enduring presence of Frenchmen and women in the same landscape. Like most Americans who had lived through the Seven Years’ War, he probably envisioned the French presence in North America primarily in the past tense. In fact, as the works of Daniel Royot, Emily Clark, and Edward Watts attest, French attitudes, French institutions, and French-descended individuals were far from gone in the decades after France ceased to be a political power on the North American mainland.
Daniel Royot’s Divided Loyalties in a Doomed Empire is a straightforward account of French life in Canada and the Illinois Country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Royot vividly depicts the day-today life of coureurs de bois and their Métis offspring, arguing that the coureurs de bois, often deeply alienated from the French colonial authorities and from their land of origin, existed “somehow out of time” (63), while the Mé developed a culture characterized by “resignation, stoicism, and fatalism” (129). Royot’s treatment of Native Americans, who are necessarily prominent figures in his account, seems oddly flat; his descriptions of torture and cannibalism, for example, sensationalize Indian [End Page 142] violence without addressing why Native Americans engaged in these practices. The strength of the book lies largely in the detailed narrative. Here is the place to turn if one wants to know where an obscure Indian trader was living in 1739 or why the Ottawa nation moved westward. In the later chapters, Royot returns again and again to questions such as “How French were the inhabitants of Upper Louisiana in 1803?” (152) and “How French was Sacajawea?” (175). His slightly hesitant answer to both questions is, not very. By the time the British conquered Canada, and certainly by the time that Thomas Jefferson dispatched the Lewis and Clark expedition westward, the “French” inhabitants of the North American interior spoke vernacular versions of French that were over a century out of date and maintained only tenuous connections with the old country. The French culture of North America, Royot suggests, became something other than wholly French long before it came into contact with Anglo–American lifeways.
In Masterless Mistresses, Emily Clark comes to a contrasting conclusion. Clark explores the development of the Ursuline Order of nuns, who arrived in New Orleans in 1727 and labored to educate Louisiana women of all races and social classes through the vicissitudes of French, Spanish, and American rule. As teaching nuns, the Ursulines challenged the medieval Catholic notion that religious women must be cloistered; as mistresses of real estate and slaves, they challenged the colonial equation of proprietorship with masculinity. Clark argues that French and, to a lesser extent, Spanish authorities tolerated the Ursulines’ autonomy because they understood its basis in a Catholic religious order; Anglo–Protestant authorities, on...