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Review

At the Hearth of the Crossed Races: A French-Indian Community in Nineteenth-Century Oregon, 1812-1859

By Melinda Marie Jette

Great Lakes Creoles: A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750-1860

By Lucy Eldersveld Murphy

June 1, 2016

Review By Jean Barman

The inclination to characterize the fur trade as an English-speaking enterprise is, very fortunately, behind us. The determination to perceive the economy as grab-and-dash has also for the most part disappeared from view. Two new histories with quite different geographical bases attest that these longstanding perspectives are not only gone, but being replaced by thoughtful new interpretations of distinctive ways of life consequent on the fur trade. Lucy Eldersveld Murphy takes us to Wisconsin, Melinda Marie Jetté to Oregon. That both sites are in the United States does not detract from their relevance for British Columbian and, more generally, Canadian historians.

Consequent on the fur trade moving westward across North America, the community growing up at Prairie du Chien, along the much travelled Mississippi River, predated by two thirds of a century its counterpart of French Prairie south of the large Hudson’s Bay Company post of Fort Vancouver. The two sites shared a common history in French speakers, who formed the bulk of fur trade employees generally and who entered into relationships with local indigenous women that might well bind them over their lifetimes to where, or near to where, they worked. The families that resulted for a brief moment in time thrived and even acquired land legally before being squeezed by incoming English-speakers. By virtue of the breathing space afforded by land ownership, as explained by Murphy, “they gained both physical legitimacy and an important economic resource that would help them to weather the enormous demographic, economic, and political changes that would take place” (12). Murphy and Jetté each attend at length to the creative ways in which families grappled with change.

One of the key decisions for Jetté and Murphy was how to name their subjects. Each consciously rejected “Métis” as inappropriate to the times and places under consideration. Astutely reminding us on her very first page of the longtime “stereotype of the happy-go-lucky French Canadian voyageur” (i), Jetté opts for the straightforward “French-Indian” (9) to describe families. Murphy turns to a French term variously applied historically in differing geographical contexts. “The word Creole best reflects the idea that people of many backgrounds created a culture with roots in several cultures, but also with elements unique to itself” (18). Explaining her choice, she describes how “in communities in which many people were of mixed ancestry but where cultural elements such as French language and Christianity were prevalent and unifying characteristics, the term Creole became both more inclusive as to ancestry while also retaining the sense that the people had been born in the region [italics in original]” (18).

That these two books are attractive, appealing, and engaging, and with helpful maps and tables and appealing illustrations, cannot be allowed to detract from the complexities of the research that had to be undertaken to get to this point. Almost all the couples under consideration were illiterate, leaving it to priests, when they finally arrived, to record births, marriages, and deaths, and to mostly English-speaking passersby to note snippets of family stories, not necessarily favourbly. Jetté’s and Murphy’s research encompassed, in the latter’s words, “a significant amount of genealogical reconstruction in order to understand both kinship networks and the cultural influences people brought to this community” (11-12). Both authors have painstakingly crafted family stories, one of them for Jetté very interestingly being her own (xv-xviii).

The possibility represented by Prairie du Chien, French Prairie, and other such enclaves for ongoing amiable everyday indigenous/non-indigenous relations was not only for the most part subsequently lost, but also lost from view. It is for this reason, and also for the high quality of the scholarship and fluid writing styles, that the ways of life Murphy and Jetté describe, and how they found them out, make for compelling reading whether on their own or side-by-side. These are books to buy and to savour.

At the Hearth of the Crossed Races: A French-Indian Community in Nineteenth-Century Oregon, 1812-1859
Melinda Marie Jetté
Corvalis: Oregon State University Press, 2015. 360 pp. $22.95 paper

Great Lakes Creoles: A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750-1860
Lucy Eldersveld Murphy
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 326 pp. $34.99 paper