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The French in North America, from Canada to the Caribbean, have traditionally been given short shrift in American and Canadian history.

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Yet the influence of the French is clearly present. Fifteen U.S. state names are of French origin, or are from Native American words as rendered or transcribed by the French (like Illinois). The Cajun culture of Louisiana is famous. Even in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, French is still a common language, after English and Spanish. (Jack Kerouac, born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, to parents who migrated south from Quebec, spoke French until he was six and is said to have not been fluent in English until he was a teen.)

Taking a larger view, Canada is officially a bilingual nation, and, further south, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana are still départements et régions d’outre-mer, or overseas departments of France.

Nonetheless, as historian Daniel H. Usner writes, this other empire has often been dismissed, especially in the U.S., as so much roadkill on the Manifest Destiny highway, leaving nothing but “quaint signs of French imperialism in a land that Providence intended for another kind of empire.”

“The ideological construction of nation-states in the Americas […] tenaciously implicated and distorted the colonial histories, as well as the indigenous histories, of many peoples and places pre-dating those nation-states,” he writes.

Consider the Francophone Acadians. Living in what are now called the Maritime provinces of Canada, they were French Canadian and French-Native métis (“mixed-blood”) people who were ethnically cleansed and exiled between 1755 and 1764 by British colonial officials and militias. Some of the surviving Acadians made it to France, where they were recruited to settle in Louisiana—by the Spanish, who then controlled that territory.

Usner wants to “rescue” this shared history of French Canada and Louisiana and bring it back into the fold of colonial history. Connected via the Atlantic/Caribbean and the Mississippi Valley, these regions were absolutely in the thick of the multifold struggle to colonize North America.

The widening of the field of early American history means exploring the interactions between English, French, Spanish, and, to a lesser degree, other European powers. It also means incorporating the ways all these colonial projects affected and were affected by Indigenous peoples.

The old way of telling history, according to Usner, had it that the French “practiced more open and tolerant relations with Indians and Africans than the English.” There were certainly more of what we would now call multicultural families, but more recent research has suggested that the “French discourse about intermarriage and assimilation was more intolerant than is commonly characterized by American historians.” Indeed, the “enslavement of American Indians in [French] North America contributed to discourses justifying slavery on the [French Caribbean] islands.”

Nationalist histories, so often wrapped up in triumphalist mythology about special origins and providential destiny, don’t stand up very well to the more nuanced interconnections now being teased out of the archives. “Individual territories can no longer be contained inside sharply distinct categories of the empire or nation-state,” writes Usner, making his pitch for inter-imperial and transnational history. It’s a pitch applicable the world over.

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Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, Vol. 40, No. 3 (WINTER 2014), pp. 1-19
Berghahn Books