This article was originally published in the American-Canadian Genealogist journal, Issue #111, Vol. 33, 1st Quarter, 2007,
The American-Canadian Genealogist is a publication of the American-Canadian Genealogical Society.
The “Marcottage” of Oklahoma – the French in the Land of the Red Man.
by Michael Marcotte
isitors to my genealogy website often express amazement at finding a link or numerous family relationships from their French or French Canadian heritage seated so distantly within the heartland of America, and particularly in Oklahoma. We are, after all, much better known for our Native American heritage and for our Cowboy\cattle trail history than for anything French. Most such visitors wonder how a fairly sizable offshoot or “marcotte” of French Canadians wound up in Oklahoma, and how an “Okie from Muskogee” might possibly have any concept of French Canadian genealogy and cultural heritage.
What almost everyone overlooks is that Oklahoma (except for the three counties west of he 100th meridian;i.e., the Oklahoma Panhandle: Cimarron, Texas and Beaver Counties) was acquired by the United States from Napoleon Bonaparte and France in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and that the French had a much earlier presence in what would eventually become the 46th state, long before then.
While the French were not the first Europeans to explore Oklahoma, (the Spanish explorer Coronado, and some say De Soto, crossed this territory in 1541), they were the first whites to establish a permanent presence here. The Spanish had traveled up from Mexico seeking Gold and finding none, they just as quickly moved on. The French, on the other hand, came down from French Canada and up from Louisiana to trade for furs with the Indians.
The first French to visit Oklahoma were technically the Jesuit Father Marquette and fur trader Louis Joliet from Quebec, who floated down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas River in 1673.*
After René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s extensive exploration of the Mississippi River from 1678-1682, and his claiming of the vast Louisiana Territory (including Oklahoma) for France and its christening in honor of King Louis XIV, the French extended their trade over the entire region. French fur traders, by virtue of abundant gifts and metal tools for barter, were able to make their way, aided and sometimes accompanied by local tribe members via boat into various parts of Oklahoma via the rivers and larger creeks. Although these earliest exploits into the territory left behind no written records, there have been occasional vintage relics of these visits and that era discovered over the years, such as an iron bullet mold in Cushing, iron axes, hatchets and similar objects, which had been traded to the Wichita along the Arkansas River, in present day Kay County.
While there may have been intervening, undocumented visits by lone-wolf, French Canadian coureurs-de-bois, trapping and trading with the natives, no further records exist for such visits in Oklahoma, until some three decades later. In 1714, an explorer named Louis Juchereau de Saint-Denis from New Orleans ascended the Red River, followed in 1719 by Bernard De La Harpe, whose expedition reached as far up that waterway as the mouth of the Kiamita. During that expedition, La Harpe explored the southeastern portions of Oklahoma, and later in 1721, he traveled up the Arkansas River, and explored more of the eastern portions of the state. About the same time that that De La Harpe was exploring Oklahoma, Charles Du Tisne, another Frenchman, was visiting the Pawnees in northeastern Oklahoma.
Etienne Venyard Du Bourgemount crossed Oklahoma in 1723, visiting the Pawnee, Osage, Kaw and Missouri tribes before returning along the Arkansas into Comanche territory and Kansas. Members of the 1739 Mallet brothers’ (Pierre and Paul**) expedition returning from New Mexico in 1741, traveled across Oklahoma via the Canadian and Arkansas Rivers. During and around 1751, several French used the Arkansas River route to New Mexico, much to the consternation of the Spanish in Texas and New Mexico. In 1760, a French Creole fur trader named Brevel traveled from New Orleans and made his way into the Wichita Mountains, traveling with members of the Caddo tribe. By the mid 1700s, Wichita villagers had set up a cooperative arrangement with French trappers from Louisiana at the Deer Creek and Bryson Paddock sites, along the banks of the Arkansas River. The Wichita, who the French knew as the Panipriquées (pricked Pawnee, on account of their pricked tattoos) wanted metal tools and guns to defend against the Comanche, while the French sought furs and buffalo hides. This arrangement ended in 1758, and it was not until 1796 that the French established the first permanent European settlement in Oklahoma, that being the trading post of Jean Pierre Chouteau, which eventually grew unto the town of Salina, OK. Several other members of the Chouteau family ventured back and forth into Oklahoma, and started other trading posts, such as one by Edward Chouteau about five miles north of Purcell, Oklahoma, at the mouth of Little River.
The lag in the first permanent settlement can be attributed to the 1763 transfer of the Louisiana Territory to the Spanish, following the end of the French and Indian War. The Spanish held the territory for the next forty years, but the white presence and interaction with the Indians continued to be predominantly French throughout that period. In 1803, Spain conceded the territory back to Napoleon Bonaparte, who sold it shortly afterwards to the United States.
This early and continued French presence has left no shortage of traces upon the geography of Oklahoma. One still finds the Poteau River and the city of the same name, as well as the names of other rivers and creeks, which by virtue of repeat visits by various French traders and explorers persisted through the years to the present. Among these are the Grand and Verdigris Rivers, the town of Sallisaw and Sallisaw Creek, which are a corruption of their French name Salaison (salt provision), Cache Creek, Vian Creek, the Fourche Maline (treacherous fork) branch of the Poteau River, and Mount Cavanal (a corruption of “cavernoux”). Even the Illinois River, which comes from an Indian word Illinewek, bears the French influence through the altered –ois ending.
Darden Creek, another branch of the Arkansas, was named after a French fur-trading family of that name. Up until about 1870-1880, the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River was known primarily as the Grand Saline. The North and South Canadian Rivers, known by the Spanish explorers as Rio Buenaventura and Rio Magdalena, owe their present name to the encampment of French Canadian fur traders, about 1820, near the confluence of the South (main) Canadian River with the Arkansas. Canadian County in turn derives its name from the river. Leflore County is named for a prominent Choctaw
family with roots stemming from several French Canadian families who intermarried with the Choctaw and who were later relocated to Indian Territory (Lafleur, Cravatt, Girard).
Until about 1909, it was assumed that the word Kiamichi as in the Oklahoma river and mountains, came from an Indian name, but etnolgists and ethonologists now attribute it to the French “kamichi” (horned screamer), which is a species of water bird that include the crane, rail and similar species. It is thought likely that the French would have noted the whooping cranes that frequent the banks of the Kiamichi River in the spring, and erroneously named it after the horned screamer, which is a very similar bird of the same order, native to South America. The third branch of the Red River from the north, the Blue River is named from its original French name Eau Bleu (blue water).
The town of Perry Creek in McCurtain County of southeastern Oklahoma was originally established as a French trading post about 1730 named “Bayou Galle,” and Claremore, Oklahoma, home of Will Rogers, originated as another French trading post “Clermont,” in 1802.
Although the Chouteau, Menard and other fur trade era families left descendants in Salina and other settlements, it was not until the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 that the first of my own French Canadian ancestors moved here. Following a migration pattern of numerous French families from the Quebec Province, in the 1830s and 1840s to the Bourbonnais\Kankakee Valley area which became known as “Little Canada” my Marcotte, Leblanc, Moisant, Messier\Mercier and Hébert ancestors continued the migration to Cloud County, Kansas just one generation later. Much like the agronomical technique “marcottage,” where an offshoot of a plant puts down it own roots before detaching from the mother plant and prospering independently, my Marcotte ancestors established offshoots of the original Normandy family that still thrive in Canada, Illinois and Kansas, along with numerous other branches in Louisiana, the north and northeastern U.S., and elsewhere around the country.
The reason for these earlier migrations was nearly always the same – arable land. Although the province of Quebec is relatively large, the amount of land suitable for farming was far more limited. The earlier French fur traders, hunters and coureurs de bois in both Canada and the Louisiana territory were followed much in the same general pattern of overall human civilization by a new generation of pioneers who were farmers, and while the population of Quebec soared from about 65,000 people from 1763 to over ten times that size by 1850, the available land to support this predominantly farming population could not be expanded indefinitely within the traditional French “seigneuries” on either side of the St. Lawrence River to accommodate such demographic growth. The result was overcrowding, overuse of the arable lands and economic hardship within the province. This became even more serious when a wheat midge (a small orange fly about half the size of a mosquito) appeared in wheat crops in the 1830s, and continued to affect wheat yield for the next two decades. Since this was an epoch when virtually everyone lived off the land, and a family’s land holding could only be divided so many times as the offspring multiplied exponentially with each passing generation, a point was reached when the seigneuries and other French communities westward to Montréal were full, and a choice had to be made. Move outside the culturally comfortable and “safe” French-speaking communities into the adjacent ones, or move beyond those encapsulating English-speaking areas to other less populous French communities southward along the Mississippi River where the early French explorers had established small pockets of French-speaking parishes and settlements. Many moved to other established French parishes in neighboring provinces or established new ones. Dave King describes these economic and demographical reasons for the migration in greater detail at his website (See: http://members.aol.com/djkboysrus/mig1.html). For other French Canadians, such as my Marcotte ancestors, cities like St. Louis, Chicago and Bourbonnais already had small French populations by mid 19th century, and the fertile land along the Mississippi was a powerful attraction. Once “Little Canada” had become well-rooted in Illinois, and the offshoot French communities along with members of the Marcotte and other French Canadian families had pushed further, into Cloud County and other parts of Kansas, a continued migration south became only a question of time. It was not until several decades later that these migrations shifted focus. An industrial boom in the northeastern U.S. and New England resulted in an abundance of manufacturing jobs in those states, and had the somewhat abrupt effect by around 1870 of vastly curtailing the stream of French Canadians immigrants into the American Midwest.
None of these successive migrations, however, was as simple or as “comfortable” as might be inferred by the notion that these families were moving to well-established and flourishing pockets of civilization, such as we might picture it. The journals of my thrice-great grandmother Sophie Richard, which details the movement south of several branches of my ancestral families from Quebec to Illinois and Kansas, is filled with the notation of harsh winters, and the tragic loss of husbands, wives and young children by fatal accident and illness. These French Canadian families epitomized the pioneer spirit which permeates American folklore. Theirs was a multi-generational tradition of the braving of new frontiers. Theirs was a history of severe hardship, discovery, courage and adaptation, their sustenance and support derived entirely from the bonds of family, close-knit community, deep religious faith, and whatever daily bounty they could extract from the land. The new roots that these families put down prepared the way for others and helped shape the way of life in what would become the heartland of America.
Although the earliest French pioneers in Canada had their problems with the Iroquois (and vice-versa), and while the Chickasaw and Natchez tribes in Louisiana fared no better with French in Louisiana than did many Amerindian populations with other European settlers, the overall history of the French with the indigenous tribes of North America has largely been viewed as relatively similar to that of the fur trading era in Oklahoma, which as noted above was one of mostly peaceful, and in some cases even dependent, co-existence. When the U.S. government opened Indian Territory during the land run of 1889 and the subsequent runs in the 1890s, it is therefore hardly surprising that the French migration continued into Oklahoma, spurred by the same generation-upon-generation incentive of land ownership, encouraged by the long-established French trading posts, and not at all deterred by the culturally-inconsistent notion that “Indian Territory” was a unfamiliar and unfriendly “Land of the Red Man.”
Once again the Marcotte family set down new roots in Oklahoma, this time in Purcell, Oklahoma, along the banks of the aptly named Canadian River, along with other French Canadian families named Moisant, Hébert, Beringer, Blanchard, Leblanc, Dumas, Boudreau, Bonneau, Larran and others. Although the departures of significant numbers of mostly poor and overcrowded French Canadians over approximately eight decades was largely characterized as unpatriotic by the Québec elite, the immigrants were not so quick to relinquish their sense of identity, heritage and to assimilate themselves into the American culture. The clusterings in “Little Canadas,” their continued practice of traditional customs, use of the French language and the on-going mail contact between family members beyond the Canadian border and across the vast distances are all documented in the diaries, journals and saved letters of pioneers such as my ancestor Sophie. Even as late as the mid-nineteen twenties many of these families primarily spoke a French Canadian patois in their homes, and only began to switch over to English as their children entered the public school system. As a teen, in the late sixties and early seventies, I recall my grandparents speaking with each other in French with accents and idioms so unlike what I was learning in high school French as to make it (for me) nearly incomprehensible.
So, to those with similar roots in Québec, Nova Scotia, and the French-sprinkled America states clustered around the Great Lakes and the northeastern parts of the country, it should not be such a shock to encounter the French Canadian heritage still alive and thriving in Oklahoma, or in surrounding states like Texas, Kansas and New Mexico. After all, the French began making their mark here only a few decades following the first permanent settlements in Quebec, dating from those initial French explorers down the Mississippi and the earliest trappers and fur traders of the greater Louisiana Territory. Like our distant Canadian cousins, an Oklahoman with French ancestry might well remark, “Je me souviens.”
- Michael Marcotte
* Technicality: Neither Oklahoma, nor Indian Territory had any specific
boundaries at this early date, so it is technically correct that this expedition was the first French party to reach the eastern end of this Oklahoma\Arkansas River. The Arkansas River flows from west to east through Oklahoma and into the Mississipi, but having been told by a friendly native tribe that there were Spanish to the South of the Arkansas River, neither Marquette & Joliet, nor La Salle ventured upstream along the Arkansas, into Oklahoma.
One author, Dr. Lee Woodward, a minister from Sallisaw , Oklahoma aserts in his book that the Heavener Runestone is a memorial placed by members of La Salle's 1687 ill-fated exploartion, to map the site of La Salle's assassination, instead of near Nagogdoches, East Texas, as more commonly believed. Professional archaeologists give little credence to the idea that either Marquette and Joliet, or La Salle ever actually set foot in what is now the State of Oklahoma.
** Pierre and Paul Mallet's mother Madeleine Thunay dit Dufresne was the sister of my 10xgreat grandmother Elisabeth Thunay dit Dufresne, so they are my 10x great uncles.
- Bureau of American Ethonology
- Oklahoma Archaeological Survey
- Oklahoma Historical Society
- Dave King of Bradley, IL, “Some thoughts on migration,” Le Petit Canada Project.
- Ann Maloney of Bartlesville, OK, “The French Traders,” and “French and Spanish Explorations,” OKGenWeb, 1998.
- Claude Bélanger of Marianopolis College, Damien-Claude Bélanger of the University of Montréal: “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930,” Marianopolis College: Québec History.
- Reverend Albert H Ledoux, “Our cousins in the American Midwest”; Je Me Souviens, Vol. XIII No.1, Summer 1990.
-Burt Burroughs, "Legends and Tales of Homeland on the Kankakee", publ. 1923.
…and the journals of my ancestor Sophie (Richard) Hébert, written 1874-1878.
Slides for a subsequent presentation on this topic for the Cleveland County Genealogical Society
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