Excerpt: French St. Louis

Jay Gitlin is a senior lecturer in history at Yale University. He is the author of The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion. Robert Michael Morrissey is an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois. He is the author of Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country. Peter J. Kastor is Samuel K. Eddy Professor and a professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of William Clark’s World: Describing America in an Age of Unknowns. They are the editors of the new French St. Louis: Landscape, Contexts, and Legacy (Nebraska, 2021), which is a part of the France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization series.

Chapter I: Empire By Collaboration

St. Louis, the Illinois Country, and the French Colonial Empire

In 1772 a pamphlet was published in Philadelphia. Signed by “un habitant de Kaskaskia,” it was entitled “Invitation Sérieuse aux Habitants des Illinois” (an Earnest Invitation to the Inhabitants of Illinois). Like so many other pamphlets published in Philadelphia in this period, it was a call to action, a manifesto. Its themes were self-reliance and economic enterprise. Addressing himself to his fellow colonists in the now four-generations-old settlements on the Mississippi River, the author predicted that the middle Mississippi region was going to be the wealthiest on the planet. He listed all the many things that the colonists could produce if they worked hard and stood on their own feet. They could make silk, raise animals, and produce wine and numerous other commodities for export. Of course this was typical booster stuff in some ways, and yet it is still remarkable because of the author’s incredible optimism. The author urged his fellow colonists to expect “the perfection of their settlements.” The middle of the Mississippi Valley clearly was not unaffected by the enlightenment optimism of this revolutionary age.

And yet while many pamphlets of this era feature similar themes, there is something fascinating and different about this one. For even as this author invoked values of self-reliance, and predicted the bright future of his colony, an important purpose of this pamphlet was to urge the British empire, which had taken control of the east side of the Mississippi River in the wake of the Seven Years’ War, to establish a civil government in Kaskaskia and give the colony a more robust imperial apparatus. As the author put it, “We are true and zealous subjects of his Britannic majesty and we doubt not at all that in a short time . . . the administration of civil government will be established among us. We are able at present only to desire these happy results.”

Think about this for a second. This is 1772. In Massachusetts they are about to throw tea in the Boston Harbor. Many other inhabitants of American colonies, including many other pamphleteers in Philadelphia, are expressing these same values of self-sufficiency and economic optimism. But most of these other authors are invoking these values in order to argue for colonial independence. The colonists in the Illinois were doing the opposite, calling not for less, but for more, imperial government. To make this even more surprising, remember that these people were French, calling for the British government to rule them. Indeed, in 1768, their counterparts in New Orleans, facing the same situation of a new imperial administration in their colony, had revolted against the Spanish. Expressing the opposite sentiment, these Frenchmen in the middle of the Mississippi Valley called not for independence, but for government, for empire. Why?

The answer to this question lies in the distinctive political culture that defined the Mississippi Valley settlements of the Illinois Country from their creation. When the anonymous “habitant of Kaskaskia” called for a mixture of self-reliance and imperial support, he was summarizing the political tradition that had defined colonial life there since 1673. Here on the remote edges of empire, governments could not achieve top-down control, much less absolutism. But nor could the people who settled here go it alone. Instead, people and governments created a mutual order that was idiosyncratic and distinctive, an order which I call empire by collaboration. It was this political tradition, its pragmatism and flexibility, that shaped the way francophones adapted to change in the early generations of St. Louis.

Most of the chapters in this book concern the early years of St. Louis. By contrast, I want to look back to the colonial history that provided the context for the development of the frontier city. I want to focus in on the very beginnings of colonial settlement in the mid-Mississippi Valley, and I want to argue that a distinctive political culture developed there out of a unique collaboration between imperial visions and local practice. This matters, I suggest, because it defined a pragmatic, flexible kind of politics that continued in the early American West, especially in the “bourgeois frontier” so nicely described by Jay Gitlin in his important book of that title. It also provides needed corrective to a French colonial history still often dominated by the exaggerated themes of absolutism and dysfunction.

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