The Forgotten French Pioneers of the American Frontier

We have heard of officers Lewis and Clark and their expedition across the Rockies in 1804-1806. But who remembers Toussaint Charbonneau, their French-speaking guide? Or Pierre Gambie, an interpreter working with the Timucua tribe in Florida during the 1560s? America’s French past has been hidden, according to historian Gilles Havard, research director at the CNRS and author of a book on Francophone explorers in the New World, L’Amérique fantôme.
Alfred Jacob Miller, Catching Up, 1858-1860. © The Walters Art Museum

France-Amérique: Why has the United States’ “French-Native-American” history been forgotten?

Gilles Havard: A major reason is the ideology of Manifest Destiny, the narrative process that accompanied Anglo-American expansion across the continent. In this “providential” and nationalist context, the land’s past was of little interest as it was the American destiny to dominate it. The other European-Americans – including the French in the Midwest and the Northwest and the Spanish in the Southwest – therefore dropped out of the collective memory. Just like the Native Americans, Francophones had to make room and sacrifice themselves for the good of the new Americans. In 1920, a U.S. historian referred to Francophones as “castaways of the Frontier.”

Moral issues also came into play. The Francophones traveling across Native American lands were often described as debauched figures unsuited to prosperity. In the Anglo-American colonial ideology, the occupation of a country implied fencing off and working the land. The Francophone fur traders, just like the Native Americans with whom they lived and interacted, were often seen as wayfarers without ties to anywhere, and even ignorant, superstitious, lazy, drunken, violent people. This cliché took hold in the early 19th century and still persists today, as seen in the 2015 movie The Revenant by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

What role did pop culture – cinema in particular – play in the banishment of France’s history in the United States?

Manifest Destiny has modeled our vision of North American and has infiltrated popular culture. The eradication of any Francophone presence in westerns is not even voluntary anymore; it is part of America’s collective unconscious. This phenomenon is partly denial and partly ignorance. In the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves Kevin Costner’s character is introduced as the first white man to set foot on the Great Plains of South Dakota in 1863. In reality, Francophone fur traders and trappers had been doing business with native tribes in the region such as the Arikara and the Sioux for more than 150 years. This history has been completely removed. There are generally very few movies about trappers, and the few that exist only rarely feature Francophones.

Are there any exceptions?

There is a brief allusion to Francophones in Sydney Pollack’s 1972 masterpiece Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford, when a Flathead chief named Two-Tongues Lebeaux says a few words in French (see video clip above). In The Big Sky (1952) by Howard Hawks starring Kirk Douglas, a group of Francophone boatmen leave St. Louis in 1832 to travel to the indigenous lands. They are described positively in a playful, almost ethnographical way. In the miniseries Colorado (1978-1979), actor Robert Conrad (The Wild Wild West, Baa Baa Black Sheep) plays Pasquinel, a Francophone trapper who paddles up the Platte River in a canoe. According to Conrad, it was his favorite role. And in Across the Wide Missouri (1951) starring Clark Gable, a few trappers sing “Alouette, gentille alouette” in French!

Aside from the Radisson hotels, named in homage to the Paris-born trapper Pierre-Esprit Radisson, what is left of these Francophone adventurers in America?

Francophone heritage is not limited to Quebec, it has had an impact on the whole Midwest and West of the continent, including the current states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. This influence can be seen in place names, including rivers (Platte River, Belle Fourche River, Bonne Femme Creek, Gasconade River, L’Eau Qui Court), hills and mountains (Butte Cachee, Coteau des Prairies, Grand Teton), and cities (St. Louis in Missouri, Boise in Idaho, Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, Prairie du Rocher in Illinois, Flandreau in South Dakota). Provo, Utah, is a deformation of the name of Etienne Provost, a French-Canadian trapper, and the capital of South Dakota, Pierre, owes its name to Pierre Chouteau Jr., a French fur trader born in St. Louis. Some Native American tribes also have French names, such as the Nez Perce, the Coeur d’Alene, the Pend d’Oreille, and, among the Sioux, the Brule and the Sans-Arc. The names given by French-speaking travelers have survived in the English-American language.


L’Amérique fantôme : les aventuriers francophones du Nouveau Monde by Gilles Havard, Flammarion, 2019. 656 pages, 26 euros.