Jay Gitlin’s French Frontier

"Bourgeois Frontier"REVIEW: The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion. By Jay Gitlin. The Lamar Series in Western History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Jay Gitlin begins this history of the francophone West with geologist William Keating, on an 1823 scientific expedition to the United States’s western frontier, marveling at the number of French speakers he encountered in the Mississippi basin. Who were these people? And why were so many of them still around, six decades after the Seven Years’ War had supposedly terminated the French presence in North America? The Bourgeois Frontier aims to answer these questions, and to explain why—two centuries later—Americans remain as ignorant of these people as Keating had been. The result is a compelling account of the francophone towns that formed a crescent-shaped constellation along the western fringe of the early American republic. In eight chapters of buoyant prose chronicling the 1760s through the Civil War, Gitlin shows how the French Creoles who inhabited these towns adjusted and adapted as American expansion changed their world.

Gitlin blames historians Francis Parkman and Frederick Jackson Turner for erasing French Creoles from the metanarrative of the American West. In the late nineteenth century, Parkman obscured the Creoles behind a teleological account of the French empire’s demise and a screen of stereotypes: the French fur trader was illiterate, languid, and lighthearted, quick to adopt Indian ways and wives, and subject to an absolutist crown and a papal tiara; he was unfit for American democracy and irrelevant after 1763. Similarly, Turner’s frontier thesis suggested that “gay, adaptable” French traders paved the way for more “solid, substantial” Anglo-Americans, but implied that French played no real role in settling and developing a democratizing frontier (quoted on 5).

Gitlin proves otherwise. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, he shows, French fur traders established a corridor of towns from Detroit to St. Louis. While the Ohio River Valley was beset with racial violence during and after the Revolutionary War, relative peace in the Creole Crescent allowed commercial towns to prosper and to firmly establish themselves within international markets. This external orientation, along with a diverse population of French, English, Indian, and African peoples, made French merchant towns surprisingly cosmopolitan. Far from “a couple of guys named Pierre slapping each other on the back in the wilderness”—yes, to my utter delight, that’s an actual quotation—Gitlin contends that the Creole traders were savvy capitalists who “presided over” a “messy [urban] world of race and class” (137, 10). Moreover, the Creoles conceived of their interests in a familial context, pursuing education, reputation, and refinement for themselves and their progeny; they were “bourgeois to the core” (9).

Gitlin’s francophones also led important processes in America’s westward expansion. Creole political and economic adaptation rings as the dominant theme in Gitlin’s telling of this story. In the 1780s and 90s, fur traders realized that waves of land-hungry American settlers would soon crash upon them. “Keeping one hand in the Indian trade,” they “used their other to start dabbling in real estate,” shrewdly positioning themselves as speculators poised to turn a handsome profit (43). The West, Gitlin shows, was not “won or lost,” but rather “sold” (82). Furthermore, when Indian removal became federal policy, French fur-trading companies capitalized on their relationships with local tribes and the government’s need for Indian agents. French merchants “control[led] the flow of information and goods,” brokered and executed Indian treaties, and even supplied the boats that facilitated removal—cashing in at the government’s and natives’ expense at every turn (73). These growing family enterprises further diversified their economic strategies by investing in banks and railroads. The Creole elite gradually replaced their old-regime expectations of authority, deference, and privilege with republican ideas about land, power, and private interest. Francophones were slower to yield to American ways in other arenas, though; Creole leaders resisted the imposition of common law, and French remained the public language in many towns into the mid-nineteenth century.

For all the surprising information Gitlin brings to light, at times I was left wanting more. For example, Gitlin defines “bourgeois” only obliquely; the word seems, for him, to denote a set of cultural and economic values, like acquisitiveness, gentility, and a commitment to “commerce, urbanity, and [a] web of affectionate family relations” (125). A fuller empirical and theoretical definition would aid readers in evaluating his arguments. Moreover, the book relies heavily on the story and sources of one family: the Chouteaus of St. Louis. Gitlin’s claims seem unassailable insofar as this family’s business empire is concerned, but as he admits, “the Chouteaus . . . were exceptional in their wealth, power, business acumen, and good fortune” (76). To be sure, Gitlin fleshes out his narrative with stories and evidence from other families. But until other scholars research these families as deeply as Gitlin has studied the Chouteaus, his broader arguments about the bourgeois frontier should be regarded as more suggestive than definitive. The Chouteaus, for example, took to American-style capitalism with alacrity. But I’m not entirely convinced that the other families were so enthusiastic; they sometimes seem more imposed upon than eagerly adaptive. And the distinction bears implications for longstanding debates about capitalism’s expansion and entrenchment across early America.

Finally, I wanted more on women and the role of gender. Gitlin does devote an insightful passage to women within a chapter about family and business interests. But significant questions remain—questions that seem central to both the cultural and economic sides of the “bourgeois” interpretative framework: What role did women play in maintaining gentility in the Creole West? Did women’s place in the kinship networks that constituted these family enterprises lend them any power over flows of information, property, and capital? Which gender ideologies pertained among French Creoles, and how were they maintained, manipulated, and subverted? Did ideas about gender change over time, and if so, why? One wishes that Gitlin had situated his francophone families relative to the strong literatures on both women and gender—in relation to both capitalism and the frontier—in early America.

These complaints aside, The Bourgeois Frontier shines with important new contributions, two of which I’ll highlight here. First, Gitlin posits an alternative ending to Richard White’s story of French and Indian accommodation in the pays d’en haut. For White, this “middle ground” was a casualty of the War of 1812 and the severed alliances and imperial dislocations it wrought. Gitlin shows how the French traders themselves foreclosed on the middle ground when, responding strategically to changing circumstances, they became complicit in the United States’s dispossession of Native Americans. In fact, Gitlin argues, French traders turned their long experience with “the process of middle-grounding” into “a negotiable instrument, a profitable position from which to broker the transition to an American regime of settlement” (120, 188).

Second, while Parkman and Turner and the Western metanarrative they forged represent Gitlin’s primary bugbears, it seems appropriate to tag him onto another, more recent literature, as well. Since the late 1990s or so, historians have redefined “empire” as less a set of top-down institutions than a set of bottom-up processes of negotiation, exchange, contest, and resistance. For this “neo-imperial” school, people on the periphery are more important than metropolitan directives. Yet historical events in European capitals continue to dictate the periodization of much of this body of work. (Eric Hinderaker’s Elusive Empires springs especially to mind.) By focusing on the individuals that remained in the American interior long after battles and treaties had demolished imperial institutions and claims to sovereignty, The Bourgeois Frontier can be read both as an epilogue to and an implicit critique of this important literature—a realization of the interpretative agenda that the neo-imperial historians have outlined but often fail to fulfill.

One parting thought. This book is a helluva good time. Gitlin has spent so long with the material—the project began as a senior essay under Howard Lamar—that he knows how to really make it sing. The book’s jovial and avuncular prose, combined with the myth-busting frontier world it presents (not scrappy but bourgeois, not individualist but familial, not rural but urban, not libertarian but closely tied to the state), make it eminently teachable in undergraduate courses that devote significant attention to the early American West. For all this and more, Gitlin deserves a slap on the back.

3 comments on “Jay Gitlin’s French Frontier

  1. Ken Owen says:

    This is an excellent review, Michael, and you’ve highlighted a book that will be important for me as I move my research interests into the early republic and on to the frontier. One question I have arises from your raising of the ‘middle ground’. The part of White’s thesis I’ve always found a little less convincing is his portrayal of the pays d’en haut after 1763 – that is to say, the definition of the ‘middle ground’ seems to become much more malleable after that point. Does Gitlin have much to say about developments prior to this point, or is he largely revising White in the post-French Empire period?

    Another question I have is about the role of government in the book – though you mention the US interest in land, there doesn’t seem to be much mention of the federal government. Yet, clearly, it is the federal government who are going to determine whether the switch to land speculation is successful or not. Is that present, or is that another area left open for future scholars?

  2. Benjamin Park says:

    Thanks for this, Michael. This book wasn’t on my radar, but I think I’ll have to go pick it up, now; it sounds not only informative, but a lot of fun.

    Beyond the mere content of the book, this sounds like a great example of challenging previous historical frameworks (in this case, Turner’s “frontier thesis”) in a way that better captures different people and communities heretofore ignored.

  3. Eric Hinderaker says:

    Michael et al., congratulations on your launch of The Junto–it promises to be a lively forum for early Americanists!

    I’m happy to see you review The Bourgeois Frontier–it’s a terrific book, and one that historians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries really need to know. And I’m gratified, at this late date, to see a reference to Elusive Empires.

    You raise an excellent point regarding periodization. As a general proposition, it’s certainly true that many social and cultural phenomena unfold according to a logic that is partly or wholly disconnected from major historical developments like the Paris treaties of 1763 and 1783, the adoption of the Constitution, and the like. And one goal I had in mind in Elusive Empires was to capture some of the continuities that undergirded events in the trans-Appalachian West–it was those continuities, in fact, that led me so far back in time to contextualize a project that originally focused on the revolutionary era.

    However, I also think that the major events that determined the locus of formal sovereignty in the trans-Appalachian West marked important turning points in the on-the-ground trajectories that primarily interested me. Much can be said, of course, about what didn’t immediately change as a result of independence and the nation-building project that it spawned, but I would nevertheless continue to defend the broad outlines of the periodization presented in EE.

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