French Twist

If you ask most Oregonians about French pioneers in Oregon, you will probably be met  with confusion and blank stares. Yet until the Oregon Trail brought a wave of English-speaking settlers into the territory, French-speakers made up a sizable portion of the European population. Even the name Oregon may be French. The historian T. C. Elliott has theorized that Oregon was a bastardization of the French word ouragan, meaning hurricane or windstorm. So how is it that the French legacy in Oregon has been forgotten by so many people? University of Oregon professor of English Gordon Sayre feels that this part of the state’s early history has been poorly covered.

“The Oregon Trail and the covered wagon have an important role,” he says, “because they’re part of the popular imagery. What came before that seems unknown to most Oregonians.”

Sayre first discovered a love of colonial literature while completing his doctoral studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Narratives of exploration were full of exciting descriptions of the American wilderness and Native Americans. One such book, Nouveaux Voyages dans l’Amerique Septentrionale by Louis Armand de Lahontan, “steered my interests from French enlightenment literature toward exploration narrative and ethnography,” he says. “I could see how this book had contributed toward the myths of the romantic primitive that influenced Diderot, Rousseau, and others later in the 18th century.” Yet, the interest was personal as well: “I was also drawn to exploration narratives because I loved reading about the American wilderness and the native people.”  He wrote his dissertation on Samuel de Champlain and John Smith, two explorers of Virginia in the early 17th century, and the way that these two men constructed their personas. Since then, Sayre has focused on ethnohistory, natural history, colonial cartography, and, of course, exploration. His most recent book is The Indian Chief as Tragic Hero: Native Resistance and the Literatures of America, from Moctezuma to Tecumseh.

In the 18th century, North America was effectively divided between the British, who controlled the Atlantic seaboard, and the French, who controlled much of the interior and maintained close relations with the native peoples. While the Pacific Northwest was outside of French control, French explorers and trappers sometimes ventured into the territory or heard tales of the region from the tribes they interacted with. Many accounts were not documented, as fur traders regarded knowledge of the country they worked as a trade secret and jealously guarded the information. Nevertheless, some stories survived.

Sayre was honored with the UO’s Outstanding Research Career Award last spring, and in this capacity delivered a Presidential Research Lecture in March. He related the story of Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz, a Francophone explorer and ethnographer who lived in French Louisiana. Sayre became interested in Le Page du Pratz when he was working on his dissertation. Pratz’s Histoire de la Louisiane, written in 1751, was one of the most significant histories on the subject.

Le Page du Pratz recorded the journey of a Native American named Moncacht-Apé of the Yazoo tribe in Mississippi. Compelled by curiosity and the desire to know where his tribe had originally emigrated from, Moncacht-Apé journeyed up the Missouri River until he reached the Kansas nation. He then found a west-flowing river, which took him to the Otter nation of Indians and then to a land described only as being grassy and full of dangerous snakes.

After spending the winter there, Moncacht-Apé continued down the river until he reached what he called the “Great Water,” which may have been the Pacific Ocean. He met a tribe of fishermen being attacked by slavers with strange beards and firearms, and Moncacht-Apé helped the tribe ambush and defeat these men. He then continued farther northwest until he reached a place where the days were very long, in what is now northern Washington or British Columbia. One tribe told him a story of a land bridge that once existed—and that led far away. Satisfied, Moncacht-Apé returned home to tell his story.

Moncacht-Apé’s story is impossible to verify, and historians have raised the possibility that Le Page du Pratz invented Moncacht-Apé or that Moncacht-Apé exaggerated his travels. Still, Sayre thinks that we shouldn’t dismiss Moncacht-Apé’s account out of hand. When Lewis and Clark led the Corps of Discovery, they brought Le Page du Pratz’s book with them, suggesting that they gave some credence to the account. And, Sayre says, Native Americans were just as likely as later Euro-American explorers to be curious about the land and their own history. They could indeed have explored the continent. Sayre has written that Moncacht-Apé’s story “has the potential to steal the limelight from those iconic figures of Manifest Destiny, and to inspire a debate about Lewis and Clark analogous to the controversies about Columbus, the supposed discoverer of America.”

The French presence in the Northwest goes beyond Le Page du Pratz’s early ethnography, however. A few years later, when John Jacob Astor wanted to establish Fort Astoria on the lower Columbia River, he started by recruiting French fur trappers from Montreal, and Sayre notes that around three-quarters of those employed were Francophone. One of those was Gabriel Franchère, who had signed on as a clerk with Astor’s expedition. Franchère remained with Astor’s Pacific Fur Company until the War of 1812 broke out and Astor, facing vigorous competition, sold his operation. 

Franchère eventually returned to Montreal on an overland trail, bringing along the diary he had kept regarding Fort Astoria and life in the Northwest. He had accompanied Astor’s expedition from beginning to end, and his account was published in 1820. Washington Irving relied on Franchère’s account in writing his novel Astoria, though he brought his own peculiarly American sensibilities to the novel. Sayre notes that Americans and Brits thought little of the French. He quotes Sir Alexander, who says “experience proves that it requires much less time for a civilized people to deviate into the manners and customs of savage life, than for savages to rise into a state of civilization. Such was the event with those who thus accompanied the natives on their hunting and trading excursions; for they became so attached to the Indian mode of life, that they lost all relish for their former habits and native homes.”

Sayre’s insights regarding Franchère and Moncacht-Apé tell us a great deal about our own history, and how we have collectively forgotten the French. Sayre notes that “Anglophone colonization was about the land ownership, farms, clearing the land”—quite a different focus than that of the Francophone fur traders. The fact that the French intermarried with Native Americans also clashed with American notions about being white. And the story of Moncacht-Apé raises the very real possibility that natives were the first to complete these voyages of discovery, an idea that challenges a Eurocentric view of history and literature.

—By Zeb Larson

Zeb Larson, formerly of Portland, is a doctoral student in history at Ohio State University.