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On Parlait Francais Ici: French Affairs in the Louisiana Territory Befor ethe Purchase


By Sara Teague

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the passion blazing through Europe was the proven New World, a magical vision beyond the previously considered "Land's End." Stories of this far-away place were loaded with fantasy and fable, enticing all to come and experience the splendors available. Among the Old World countries on the verge of being carried away by this excitement, France was interested in setting forth her rights to the foreign country. French explorers Rene de LaSalle and Henri de Tonti had staked claims for the empire in the preceding century, and many more potential explorers were anxious to make a mark. France's participation in the development and governance of the Louisiana Territory from 1699 to 1803 will reveal her impact upon the civilization of the Territory, including southern Arkansas.
For most countries, colonization was a luxury hardly affordable, a symbol of prestige. More prosperous countries incurred great expense sending, establishing, and supporting a colony unimaginably distant from the crown.
Yet this risk could prove quite profitable, as Spain's quest into Mexico had been. The idea of being paid in pure gold for one's trouble served to mock feasibility. Adventurers sought their share, their appetites whetted by rumors of gold, silver, and boulder-sized jewels.
As with most promises of something for almost nothing, the stories of gold-filled streams were soon discredited, even though many wanted to

believe them still. The third governor of the territory, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, was forced to return to Paris because of his flat denial of the rumors. He firmly stated "The mines of Arkansas are a dream!" (Heinrich 5). Pearls from mussel shells along the Red River abounded, but were meaningless to those hungry for gold. Those adventurers hot in pursuit of "yellow iron" (Bossu 26) soon had to settle for a more stable means of existence: productivity.
The French government claimed their primary goal in America was to establish trade. In 1714, Governor Cadillac sent explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis up the Red River to establish a trading post (Faye 649). The French at home, somewhat disillusioned after expecting great returns on their investments, hoped that colonization of the region would provide a successful trade pattern. However, interest in the New World waned. The government shoved the colonies and their potential productivity off on the private sector of France.
Louis XIV had given citizen Antoine Crozat a fifteen year monopoly on internal territory trade in 1713, providing Crozat the opportunity to plant, trade, establish slavery, and collect any treasure found (one-fifth of which would go to the royal treasury). Crozat supplied slaves and set up homesteads, but his tremendous expenditures brought no recompense. In 1717 (after Louis XIV's death), the contract was terminated at Crozat's request.
That same year in France, a Scot named John Law instituted a national bank which circulated paper money. Very soon Law found his bank in great distress. The
French economy sagged under spiraling inflation, due mainly to the depletion of funds in the royal treasury by Louis XIV, but also in part due to the enormous expense of colonization. To bolster his ailing institution, the French government granted Law concessions on the colony of Louisiana. He consolidated many slave companies into the India Company, and immediately set up the Mississippi Bubble. Law promised free transportation, seed and flour for one year, and ownership of any gold, silver, or jewels found, to interested adventurers (Heinrich 5). Twelve to sixteen thousand people, most of which were German, assembled in Lorient, France, from which they were to sail, to take advantage of the Mississippi Bubble. Law also bought three hundred Negroes and shipped them to Louisiana.
Just as the fantasies of riches in gold in the New World never found proof, Law's scheme, like Crozat's, faced an unfortunate reality. The India company went bankrupt, and Law left France in humiliation. Semi-starvation and disease abounded at Lorient, where many remained in a refugee-like state, anxiously awaiting passage. The Mississippi Bubble had burst.
With the abandonment of Crozat, Law, and the French government, the colonists were left to fend for themselves, and often faced dire poverty. At times their only fare was acorns, roots, or tender buds. Those who were more innovative took actions to create other culinary resources. The French missionary Father du Poisson described the use of turtle eggs for omelets (Falconer 352).
Despite meager beginnings, the area seemed promising for trade on several fronts: 1) stable existing posts, such as Natchitoches on the Red River, founded by St. Denis in
1714, 2) positive relations with the Indians, and 3) a workable agreement for the majority of the time with the Spanish, as neither salvation of savages nor military goals topped the priority list of the French.
Because of France's continued ambivalence toward her colony, colonists' relations with the Indians and Spaniards were crucial. Explorers wrote long accounts of the Indians, in their ignorance of other cultures, staring in amazement at the white faces, long beards, and restricting clothing, in comparison to their own swarthy complexion, bare jaw, braided hair, and animal skins. Language also proved a frustration. The explorer Jacques Marquette recalled of an encounter, "I spoke to them in six Indian languages, none of which they knew" (43).
The explorers learned how the Indians adored receiving gifts, and that to disappoint them could bring serious consequences. The explorers' generosity lasted as long as their supply of pickaxes, liquor, kettles, pipes, baubles, mirrors, and other trinkets held out. When supplying the Indians with presents became too expensive, a Frenchman would avoid confrontation by declining the offer to share the calumet, or peace pipe (Falconer 43). Doing so kept the Frenchman from being obligated to the Indian.
Father du Poisson complained "Gratitude is a virtue of which the Indians have no conception" (Falconer). They repeatedly expected more from the frontiersmen. But the policy of the Indian was to always share whatever he had, regardless of what had been transacted before. Therefore the Indians, with the unwritten rule of consistent giving, never kept a record and felt the Frenchmen should also give over and over again, as they undoubtedly would.
The different objectives of the French and Spanish colonists explain the Indian's preference for the French:
The Spanish settlers offer salvation, the French people offer brandy and knives. The Spanish try to make the carefree Indians settle in one place, the French follow the Indians around, roaming in the same nomadic fashion. The Spanish attempt to civilize the Indians, while the French adapt to the red man's lifestyle. (Jackson SP)
When an Indian shot off the head of a rattlesnake threatening to bite a Frenchman, he was given a bottle of taffia (rum) to celebrate (Bossu 36). How many Indians would prefer prayer to that? The Frenchman's rum enabled him to get along with the Spanish inhabitants of the territory as well. Despite former land disagreements and property disputes, the French lived fairly peaceably alongside the Spanish. All three parties, French, Spanish, and Indian, needed each other in one way or another, and therefore had to subsist together. For instance, when the Natchez Indians attacked Natchitoches, the Spaniards of nearby Los Adaes came to the aid of the French.
Trade between the French and Spanish existed on an entirely different order: a healthy smuggling association was beneficial to both sides. The Spanish missionaries, led by a dishonest friar named Grappe', desired the material comforts offered by the French, and the French needed the hard money the Spaniards offered—pesos were gladly accepted. This bartering system kept the colonists on good terms, and for a time the Bourbon monarchies at home in Spain and France also were allies.
For a time. Minor squabbles increased, and the French began to overextend their liberties and impose upon the Spanish. An expedition by French explorers Chapin and Foissy violated several territorial orders set by the Spanish. The French became more blatant in their smuggling patterns. The French pressured Spanish authorities to bend rules based on the need for continuation of "good will" between the two colonies. This overstepping did not allow the continuation of good will, and Spain sent a warning.
At home, France was dealing with many distractions at this time. Her colony, Antilles, and its sugar industry beckoned French investors, and Great Britain loomed as a threat to expand her influence in the New World. In order to simplify her affairs, France handed Louisiana to Spain. In 1761, France's Louis XV (His Christian Majesty) and Spain's Charles II (His Catholic Majesty) effected a new family compact of alliance, the Treaty of Fontainbleau. The treaty was kept secret because Spain could not protect Louisiana from Britain.
More instability ensued. In 1763, Britain and France signed the Treaty of Paris to end the Seven Years War, causing many changes of official possession across the Atlantic. Britain took all of Canada and everything east of the Mississippi River which had been French, and Spain was openly granted all of Louisiana. Turrentine Jackson noted "When France lost and gave away a continent in 1763. . . she was ready after sixty years of endeavor to admit her failure in colonizing Louisiana. . .didn't pay" (SP).
The Indians, still leaning toward their French friends, pleaded with the French colonial authorities not to abandon them mercilessly to the unfriendly Spaniards, but to no avail. France was sick of the idea of colonizing, her funds had been bled dry, and she wanted out of the New World.
Nonetheless, while Spanish was the official language, and France had officially turned her back on the colony, the territory remained loyally French in manners and customs. The colonists, unhappy with the transfer of French to Spanish authority, openly resisted the Spanish and petitioned to remain French. Not much changed, as most of the administrative positions were retained by Frenchmen under employment of Spain. These Frenchmen knew the land, the Indians, and colonial administration.
The settlers inhabiting the undomesticated plains of the territory were not common Frenchmen, regardless of pedigree. The typical Frenchman would hardly think of sacrificing his security to confront a savage land full of risk and adventure. Conversely, this land offered security to many. Lawbreakers, roughnecks, social misfits, and adventurous young fools all found a paradise on the uncivilized banks of the Ouachita River.
Though the territory was a delight to vagrants and convicts, it was not totally lawless. Athanasa de Mezieres created ordinances for the colonies under Spanish rule concerning alcoholic beverages, merchandise given to Indians, cattle rustling, runaway minors, and slaves. In 1722, acting governor de Bienville instituted the Black Code, which served as the "germ, origin, and source of most of the slave laws that were enacted in the U.S. for the next 140 years" (Benjamin 334). These laws, now grossly archaic, included expulsion of Jews, prohibition of any worship other than Roman Catholic, prohibition of mixed marriages, punishment for any issue from concubinage, abolition of association for slaves, abolition of all possessions of slaves, prohibition of harboring slaves, and guidelines for punishing slaves.
Any woman could find a husband in the colony. On three separate occasions, young girls, selected from a public institution, were shipped over to the colony in "Here Come the Brides" fashion, at the request of territory directors, who "thought it impossible to make a solid establishment without them" (Benjamin 334).
Before 1740, one half of all women on the frontier were married before fourteen years of age (Jones SP). Five of every six immigrants was male, and with a higher death rate in women due to the hazards of childbirth on the frontier, a woman, much less a good woman, was truly hard to find. The type of woman who would entertain the idea of leaving France for the primitive Louisiana Territory raises a question about the "public institution" from whence the brides came: was it a school, a jail, or even a mental ward? It was a common known fact among the hunters of the Ouachita Basin that "wives were as vicious as their husbands" (Dickinson SP)
Colonial men and women alike were growing further away from their mother countries, across the "salty water" (Bossu). Spain's control of the colony, realistically, was only in name. In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte coerced Spain into returning Louisiana to the French, but it took several years to replace the Spanish officials with the French. Yet Bonaparte faced many complications in Europe, and needed funds to support his army there. After failing to reconquer Haiti after its slave revolt, Louisiana again became merely an asset for sale or transfer to continental powers. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson, the President of the United States of America, bought the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million. This territory evolved into its separate states, but each carries the influence of France, Spain, and the Indian nations who fished the waters, trapped the beaver, and planted corn. France's investment in southern Arkansas over three hundred years ago provided the seed from which our civilization would flourish.

Teague, a native of Walnut Ridge, holds degrees in French and English from Ouachita University, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Mississippi. She currently writes from her home in El Dorado.


Benjamin, M. W. "History of the French in Arkansas." Arkansas Historical Quarterly 2
Branner, John. "Some Old French Place Names in the State of Arkansas." Arkansas
Historical Quarterly 3 (1960).
Bossu, Jean Bernard. New Travels in North America, 1770-1771. Translated by S. D. Dickinson. NSU Press, 1982.
Dickinson, S. D. "Folkways of Trade in Colonial Louisiana." Paper delivered at
Northwest Louisiana State University Symposium, "North Louisiana's Colonial Heritage," Oct. 7-8, 1982. (Hereafter all symposium papers will be referred to as SP).
Falconer, W. A. "Arkansas and the Jesuits." Arkansas Historical Quarterly 4 (1917).
Faye, Stanley. "Arkansas Post of Louisiana, French Domination." Louisiana Historical
Quarterly 26 (1943).
Faye, Stanley. "Arkansas Post of Louisiana, Spanish Domination." Louisiana Historical
Quarterly 25 (1942).
Heinrich, Pierre. La Louisiane sous la Compagnie des Indes. Paris, 1908, vol. 67, note 5.
Jackson, W. Turrentine. "North Louisiana: Frontier Image—An Overview." SP.
Jones, Terry. "Colonial Fortifications in North Louisiana: Their Cultural Significance."
Margry, Pierre. Decouvertes et Etablissements des Francais dans l'Ouest et dans le Sud
de l'Amerique Septentrionale, 1614-1754. Paris, 1886. vols 1-6.
Marquette Jacques. "Marquette Entertained by the Arkansas Indians." Arkansas
Historical Quarterly 1 (1906).

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