- The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders and American Expansion
French Empire in North America, Creole, Fur trade, merchants, Native Americans
In the introduction of The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders and American Expansion, historian Jay Gitlin writes that "It was the misfortune of the French to have their story told by one of the nineteenth century's great amateur historians" (2). Francis Parkman, in his seminal work France and England in North America (1865-1892), cast the French in terms of "racial" and "national" characteristics. To Parkman, the French were a happy-go-lucky, passionate community, capable of greatness, but who usually chose frivolity. Unlike the British in North America, their stifling relationship with absolutism and Catholicism made them uniquely unsuited for self-government. Combined with Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis," articulated in 1893, which argued that continual settlement explained American history, little room existed for French fur traders and merchants, beholden to their Indian brethren and allies, to play important and transformative roles in the development of American society and its republican political culture. The powerful legacy of Parkman and Turner have kept discussions of the French in the trans-Appalachian west in a "narrative and descriptive straitjacket" that few scholars have managed to fully transcend, despite increasing interest in the trans-Mississippian west (4). [End Page 294]
Jay Gitlin's magisterial work uncovers a vibrant, dynamic, and multicultural Creole corridor stretching from Detroit to New Orleans: a world of towns where wealthy, educated, and worldly French mercantile families, like the Chouteaus of St. Louis, oversaw and oriented a "messy world of race and class" in the late eighteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries (10). The success of these elite French families resided in their cosmopolitanism; they understood the wants, desires, protocols, and languages of their Indian neighbors, even as they kept a wary eye on European and colonial markets and cultural developments. Operating out of frontier towns, French merchants were far from itinerant fur traders, but uniquely placed, according to Gitlin, to act as "the advance guard of American Empire" (188). In the aftermath of the Seven Years' War, the cultural and social practices that had sustained the French Empire in North America and engendered the fur trade, became, in the hands of these French merchants living under the sovereignty of Great Britain and then the United States, "a negotiable instrument . . . [used] to broker the transition to an American regime of settlement" (188). In other words, the behaviors and relationships that nurtured the French and Indian alliance of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries "facilitate[d] the dispossession of native peoples" and accorded French merchants and intermediaries a dominant vista from which to transform the American frontier (188).
In eight chapters, Gitlin traces the continuing political, social, and economic influence and diversification of elite French families within the context of an expansionist United States. Savvy French merchants took advantage of new political and economic opportunities proffered by the republican regime as well as their intimate understanding of neighboring Indian communities to leverage their fur-trade connections and profits into region and nation-building projects. For example, Gitlin notes that "French merchants were in unique position[s] to profit from the government's need to dispossess the Indians" (67). Serving as governmental agents and as merchants and traders, these Frenchmen profited from access to Indian land, treaty funds, and debt collection. Likewise, capitalizing on removal often oriented elite French mercantile activity further west into the diverse Indian communities of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains as well as the contested Mexican territories of the Southwest— subsequent movements that anticipated and oriented Anglo- American efforts. Transitioning from fur traders into land speculators, canal builders, stock owners, and railroad operators in the mid nineteenth [End Page 295] century, these elite and interconnected French families formed an influential social, economic, and political minority in many of the major cities of the trans-Mississippian west. They built luxurious urban mansions that broadcasted their tremendous success, even as the population of their...