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Pays d’Illinois and Pays d’en Haut

French colonization leaves cultural traces in the Midwest

Pays d’Illinois and Pays d’en Haut

Library of Congress

Detail of Course of the River Mississippi from the Balise to Fort Chartres, 1765.

The state of Louisiana has become the standard-bearer of French culture in the United States, so it’s easy to forget that we’re not the only part of the country with joie de vivre in our DNA and a plethora of silent letters in our place names. As European powers divvied up the land that would become the United States, with England building cities on the Eastern Seaboard and Spain projecting authority north from Mexico, the French used their holdings in Quebec and on the Gulf Coast to explore the interior using rivers and lakes, often establishing alliances and trade relationships with the Native American groups they encountered. Settlements in today’s Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana anchored the French claim to the vast Upper Louisiana or Illinois Country (Pays d’Illinois), an ill-defined swath of today’s Midwestern United States, and towns and forts speckled on the shores of the Great Lakes formed the center of the Pays d’en Haut, the Upper Country.

French losses in the Seven Years’ War, British defeat in the American Revolution, and the fire-sale Louisiana Purchase brought the Illinois Country and much of the Upper Country into the United States, and settlers streamed into the new frontiers, displacing Native groups and diluting the relatively small French-descended populations. We may now pronounce the final S in “St. Louis” and forget that St. Cloud, Minnesota, is named for a wealthy Parisian suburb, but traces of French culture persist in pockets of these old French domains.

Place names like Minnesota’s elegant Lac qui Parle County or the more prosaic Frenchtown in Michigan reflect the early European settlement patterns. Small numbers of people speak distinct dialects of French in some of these areas—“Paw-Paw” or Illinois French in Missouri and Muskrat French around Lake Erie. (This group allegedly got its unusual name from a special dispensation allowing them to eat muskrat during Lent; lest ye judge, think of outsiders’ reactions to sucking crawfish heads.) French heritage festivals dot the civic calendars of these regions, and the Illinois Country’s creole fiddle tradition has received support from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ sister councils in Missouri and Illinois. French influences are woven throughout the culture of the United States—and more than just Louisianans are fiers d’être français.