"French Elements in the Early Americas"

Joshua Matschikowski

Lightning Talk Presented: March 25, 2014
Published: March 30, 2014

French exploration of North America began in 1524 under the rule of Francis I, to explore the region between Florida and Newfoundland for a route to the Pacific Ocean. Towards the end of his reign, Henry IV of France started to look at the possibility of ventures abroad and the 1605 French colonial empire's foundation of Port Royal in the colony of Acadia is when we truly began to see French elements in the early Americas.

While sailing the Atlantic coast, French fishing vessels found their way to the St. Lawrence River which connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean; this led to the French moving inland, establishing forts and settlements that would later become the cities of Quebec, Montreal, Detroit, St. Louis, and New Orleans. Up until this point, New France's economy was greatly focused on its Atlantic fisheries.

As French settlements entered further into the continental interior, merchants soon realized the St. Lawrence region was full of valuable fur-bearing animals, especially the beaver, which were becoming rare in Europe; this is when the economic interests would shift and concentrate on the development of the North American fur trade. Due to the shift, the French relied heavily on creating friendly contacts with the local Native American tribes of the region. The continuing presence of the French traders pleased the Native Americans because the white newcomers raised their standard of living. The Indians could trade furs for metal pots and pans, wool blankets, iron tools, and steel knives as well as traps and muskets that made their hunting more effective. They also gained access to French brandy.

Even with having tools and guns, the French were dependent on the Native Americans to survive the harsh climate in this part of North America. Many of the settlers did not know how to survive the winters and the Native Americans were influential in showing them how to survive in the New World. The Native Americans showed them how to find food and to use furs for clothing that would shield them during the winter months.

Acadia was a colony of New France in northeastern North America that included parts of eastern Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and modern-day Maine. The British Conquest of Acadia in 1710 led to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, where Acadians lived under British rule for the next forty-five years.

North America played an important role in the Seven Years' War between France and Great Britain, known as the French and Indian War. The conflict was the fourth such colonial war between the two nations. The Battle of Signal Hill was the final battle of the war, and the French forces were eventually defeated by British troops. The victorious British now controlled all of North America east of the Mississippi.

During the war, Acadians participated in several military operations against British forces and maintained supply lines to the French fortresses. As a result, the British wanted to eliminate any future threat posed by the Acadians and to permanently cut the supply lines they provided which led to The Expulsion of the Acadians. Many exiled Acadians settled in Louisiana, which was now a territory of Spain as a result of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Soon the Acadians comprised the largest ethnic group in Louisiana.

The Louisiana Delta and what is now New Orleans were first discovered in 1682 by the French and settlers began to arrive in 1699. At that time, much of Louisiana was just insect-infested swamp lands, and the food of the settlers consisted primarily of smoked meat, stewed alligators, and some native root vegetables. The Louisiana population contributed to the founding of the modern Cajun population. The French word Acadian evolved to the term we use today: Cajun.

The combination of French and Spanish settlers in this area produced a distinct type of cooking known as Creole which has combined sophisticated French cuisine with spicy Spanish seasonings and the lavish use of tomatoes. Charles Town quickly established a type of French cuisine after a ship of French Huguenots arrived in 1680. The French brought with them years of knowledge in making wine and growing olives. Many of these new settlers started rice plantations along the marshy lowlands of the coast. Rice, the staple crop of the area, was almost always included in the meals throughout the day. The culinary impact of early French settlers was most predominant along the coastal region where the fish and seafood dishes continue to have a strong French influence.

French Colonial was one of four domestic architectural styles that developed during the colonial period in what would become the United States. French Colonial developed in the settlements of the Illinois Country and French Louisiana, but today can be seen in portions of Mississippi, Missouri, and Michigan as well. French buildings in North America were mostly modeled after buildings in the French Canadian and West Indian colonies.

In Europe, the French had long used heavy timber framing for steep-roofed, half-timbered houses. With variations, these old-country techniques proved valuable in Canada, where snow and ice posed big problems, and, with further variations, equally helpful in fighting the intense heat and rain that plagued the southern regions of the New World. The early French houses of America had a rather simple design; rectangular in shape, one or two rooms deep, and one and a half or two stories high. The houses sat close to the ground or were raised a half-story to allow for air circulation around and under the building.

The floor plans were just as simple too: no interior halls or stairways to take up space. Wide, open porches called galleries had separate doors to every room and often contained exterior staircases to access the second floors. Galleries offered multiple other functions such as living rooms, offices, and could even be partitioned off to make bedrooms. The entire house was heated by a centrally located chimney. French doors connected the interior spaces, while casement windows on opposite sides of the house promoted cross-ventilation. Steeply pitched hipped roofs were common in French houses from Acadia down to Louisiana, as they easily allowed the run off of both snow and rain.

Pierre Charles L'Enfant was one of the first French volunteers to enlist in the Continental Army in 1776 to fight in the Revolutionary War. He served under George Washington at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania where he became known for his pencil portraits of officers including Washington. Later, when President, George Washington decided to entrust the monumental task of creating a plan for this new city to L'Enfant, who he said was "better qualified than anyone who had come within my knowledge in this country or indeed in any other."

'Enfant designed the city from scratch, envisioning a grand capital of wide avenues, public squares and inspiring buildings in what was then a district of hills, forests, marshes and plantations. Inspired by the topography, he went beyond a simple survey and envisioned a city where important buildings would occupy strategic places based on changes in elevation and the contours of waterways. L'Enfant began his plan for Washington, D.C. by placing the key buildings, connecting them with diagonal avenues and then laying a gridiron plan over his unique design for the nation's capital. "Certainly in its magnitude, its clever fitting of a generally symmetrical design to irregular topography and its generous provision for a variety of open spaces, the plan for Washington must stand as one of the great city planning efforts of all time," said John Reps in The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States.

This was just a brief overview of some of the "French elements in the early Americas" that I had come across during my research. I'm sure most of you knew about French Canada and the fur trading, and who doesn't know about the French and Indian War, but how many of you knew that Washington D.C. was designed by a French architect? I mean it's the Nation's Capital; that's a pretty big!

Works Consulted

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Pierre "Peter" Charles L'Enfant