- The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders & American Expansion
Jay Gitlin's The Bourgeois Frontier is a remarkable book that combines commercial history and genealogy to create an incredibly detailed yet easily digestible narrative that seeks to insert the story of the French — or more specifically French merchants — into the American grand narrative. Through an exploration of the French experience in the early American Midwest, Gitlin effectively shows that French merchants were no bit players in the expansion of the American empire, but rather helped "broker the transition to an American regime of settlement (p. 187)." These French merchants engaged in diverse activities as Indian agents, founders of towns, fur traders, land speculators, financiers and early industrialists. Gitlin's ability to connect the dots between French towns and French merchant families leaves us with a web of commercial and kinship connections in what he identifies as the Creole Corridor from Detroit to New Orleans. Moreover, he impressively places these merchants and their families in a broader context and [End Page 419] shows how they extended out along the Upper Missouri and southwest along the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico, while still maintaining links to markets and capital in places like New York and London.
Gitlin begins by tackling the legacies of Francis Parkman and Frederick Jackson Turner, who he argues made the French vanish from history. First the French were partially erased through defeat at the hands of the British during the Seven Years' War, and then they were more definitively expunged from memory as a result of being overrun by American settlement and the westward expansion of the frontier. The legacies of Parkman and Turner, with notions of backward French peasants and Anglo-American exceptionalism, have been remarkably durable, and Gitlin's greatest achievement may be to finally put these myths and stereotypes to rest. Merchant after merchant, from Chouteau, Cerré, and Gratiot, to Campau, Robidoux, Vallé, Menard, and Pratte, Gitlin provides a nuanced account of how French merchants adapted to life under American rule and found ways not only to survive, but to prosper and wield enormous power and influence until the 1830s.
Gitlin argues that the Creole Corridor was a new west beyond the frontier that emerged out of the middle ground of the French and Aboriginal Pays d'en Haut. Based on trade relations and understandings of Native sovereignty, this new west was quite different from the trans-Appalachian west defined by violence and outright confrontation. Gitlin persuasively demonstrates how French merchants acted as intermediaries between indigenous peoples and American Federal officials, negotiating the relocation and removal of native peoples. According to Gitlin, French merchants were able to do this precisely because of their historical relationship with many of the Indian nations in the heart of North America. To Gitlin's credit, he clearly explains that French merchants and their families profited from the process of American land acquisition, and that indigenous peoples did not fare well and often had little choice but to accept French mediation. The idea that French merchants were able to use their experience as "middle grounders" to adjust and succeed under American rule is innovative and should generate debate. After all, not all merchant families were able to parlay their middle ground experience under the French, British, and Spanish regimes into success under American rule. What of the numerous French and mixed-descent (métis) families that were not part of this successful merchant group? Gitlin hints at this bigger picture with material on the founding of towns, schools, and associations, as well as petitions to colonial administrators and state and federal officials. Yet for the most part, the larger French story is left untold. Still, what Gitlin has done is quite remarkable given the limits of the surviving records, which consist mostly of merchant family correspondence, and business and legal documents.
Gitlin notes that he saw this work primarily as an urban history, and towns such as St. Louis, Detroit, and New Orleans tend to dominate the book. However, a side effect of focusing on towns...