The French Wave
T. Michelle Tucker
History is a series of waves. Their mark can be seen where people have settled, by their development of the land, interaction with other peoples and by their inventions. An early wave in the settlement of the American West was what this writer calls the French wave. The wave has receded, and although time has tried to erase the French wave’s mark, it does remain.
This wave starts just on the east of the Mississippi River with Illinois country and New Orleans and its people, mostly French with Spanish, German, Italian, American Indians and Africans as the other major peoples. Trade and acquiring animal pelts was a major pull factor in the French settlement west of the Mississippi River. In 1759, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, Great Britain won the former French lands east and north of the Mississippi River. The years of conflict between the British and French in Europe had spilled over into the New World. Many of the French in Illinois Country want to flea British rule, a major push factor in Western French migration. Jean Baptiste Ste. Gemme Beauvais Sr.’s sons, Jr. and Vital Beauvais both traded and then settled in Ste. Genevieve in Louisiana Territory by 1792.
The French had built settlements in Illinois country and New Orleans. When the British won Illinois country, the French refugees looked for a new place. This Catholic church building still stands in one of the oldest communities of Europeans West of the Mississippi, Ste. Genevieve, MO. However, the town was mostly built right up to the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, the town flooded. So, the people and the city weren’t continuously settled in the location.
In 1792, Jean Baptiste Ste. Gemme Beauvais built a creole vernacular post in the ground construction home facing the grand fields up higher away from the previous flooded oldest town.
The founders of St. Louis, Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau started out from New Orleans seeking to enlarge their trading enterprises. They stopped in the Ste. Genevieve vicinity long enough to glean it had flood problems. So, they went up the river a bit more to just below the confluence of the Mississippi with the Missouri River. Here on the bluffs above the Mississippi, they started the French European-style town of St. Louis.
The founders named the town after their beloved King Louis IX of France. New France, which was Ontario and the land west of the Mississippi River and east of Spain’s western territory, spanned much of the continent. But due to the European powers wars and giving New France to one king or the next, like a piece in a grand chess game, the vast territory remained mostly wild. From a continent and an ocean away, Napolean sold the Louisiana Territory of New France to the US of America and the proud President Thomas Jefferson.
The Louisiana Purchase would have lasting ramifications on a world level. We know how the American History books declare the Louisiana Purchase as a boon, but don’t stop to think about the actual residents there; in Ste. Genevieve, in Ste. Louis and in the vast region. How did the majority of French in the Louisiana Territory view the sudden change? A painting in St. Louis shows angry New France citizens angrily protesting the US troops that arrive by boat. Some in the audience at the three flag ceremonies at New Orleans and St. Louis shed a tear. St. Louis had been an early grand example of a peaceful multicultural town where Africans and Native Americans engaged in trading and business with the open French. But, in 1804 the United States and American troops took over the Louisiana Territory, the troops had an anti-Indian bias and anti-African bias.
America took a monumental step towards achieving the dream of possessing all the land of the continent to the Pacific with its belief in Manifest Destiny. Not long after the Three Flag Ceremony, the people of St. Louis and its leading citizen Auguste Chouteau saw Louis & Clark off on their exploration up the mighty Missouri River.
In Ste. Genevieve, the son, Jean Baptiste Ste. Gemme Beauvais’s son ran his plantation with Indian slaves and African slaves. One slave gave birth to a half white daughter, in 1805. It is believed that Jean Baptiste, who was at her christening, was her father. They christened the pretty baby girl, Pelagie. Jean Baptiste dies and his brother Vital Beauvais inherits all the family property, which includes slaves. Vital Beauvais dies when Pelagie was eleven-years-old.
The lovely child grew up as a domestic slave to be a beautiful young woman. In the town, a Mr. Benjamin Amoureaux, a white man, fell in love with her. In 1830, they elope to Illinois across the river and marry. When they return to Missouri and show the paper to the parishioners of the church, they are astounded at the bi-racial marriage. In 1832, the Beauvais widow frees Pelagie. But, she has to go to court to legally win her freedom between 1840 – 1848. Meanwhile, Pelagie and her husband, Benjamin Amoureux had purchased and lived in the Beauvais-Amoureux House where they raise their children.
In 1860, the federal census finally recognizes Pelagie Amoureux and Benjamin Amoureaux as husband and wife. This is one of the first accounts of a former African slave suiting for freedom, entering a bi-racial marriage with a white man, and owning her house and land.
The Louisiana Purchase transferred most of New France under the governance of the US of America. A rush of Americans of every nationality in addition to new immigrants will form a new wave in the development of the American West.
J. Frederick Fausz. Founding St. Louis. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011.
Lucille Basler, “History of Our Town” (Feb. 14, 1969 Edition). Ste. Gen. Herald. Posted November 15, 2016. http://www.stegenherald.com/vivestegen/history/history-of-our-town-feb-edition/article_a96ca71e-ab59-11e6-af4c-df6b0ebf4f02.html
“Beauvais-Amoureux House.” Ste. Gen. Herald. Posted March 27, 2018.
To learn more about Pelagie, visit: Amoureuxhouse.org
Citation: T. Michelle Tucker. “The French Wave.” Explore Historic Sites History and Her-story. The Louisiana Purchase. Posted on June 21, 2018. https://www.tmichelletucker.com/the-louisiana-pu…-the-french-wave/