Recent tragic events in Paris have brought the French to our minds with concern and compassion. We Americans probably haven’t thought so much about the people of France since World War II. We live in a primarily English-speaking country born in English colonization. Yet, certainly in Michigan, the French have had a greater influence here than we might realize.
Although our families have come from all over Europe and around the world, we still tend to think of England and the United Kingdom when we consider our nation’s roots. We learned in school about the settlements at Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay, and we all know about throwing off the shackles of English authority in the American Revolution. How many of us are aware that several other European countries established colonies north of Latin America, most notably Spain and France?
St. Augustine had been established by the Spanish in Florida decades before English settlement at Jamestown. The English had founded St. John’s in Newfoundland before their Lost Colony of Roanoke in North Carolina. The city of Quebec was founded for France by Samuel de Champlain the year after initial settlement at Jamestown, which was ultimately abandoned. The Dutch established a fort and settlement on the Hudson River well before the Pilgrims landed, and fifty years before the English renamed the community Albany.
Until the Seven Years War, known in American history as the French and Indian War, the English colonies were constrained to lands along the Atlantic seaboard. New France held colonial authority from Louisiana through the Great Lakes to Labrador. The land constituting my home state of Michigan became English territory a mere thirteen years before the Thirteen Colonies declared independence. Michigan’s early European explorers, settlers, and language were French. Father Jacques Marquette started missions to native communities at Sault Ste. Marie in 1668 and St. Ignace in 1671. Our largest city, Detroit, was founded by the Sieur de Cadillac in 1701 along the détroit (strait) connecting the upper Great Lakes with Lake Erie.
The 1763 Treaty of Paris transferred the northern part of New France to England. Michigan became part of the British province of Quebec. Although England did not turn over their forts in Michigan until thirteen years after it officially became American territory in 1783, English colonial influence was brief.
The French supported the fledgling United States of America in our Revolutionary War. The Peace of Paris in 1783 confirmed American independence and extended our territorial claims, at least on paper. Fundamental principles of the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution reflected ideals of the Enlightenment, which was centered in eighteenth-century France. Thomas Jefferson and other founding leaders of our country were actively engaged in the refinement of Enlightenment thinking. The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France marking the centennial of our founding era.
We have of course been one of France’s strongest allies, most notably during the Second World War. The D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy by Allied forces, seeped in sacrificial blood, opened a second front against German forces that redirected resources from their Eastern Front against the Soviet Union and marked the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.
As we think of the French in these trying days, we should count them as old friends. They were our country’s first substantial ally. Although my attempts to pronounce French words make my wife cringe, I recognize that France has given us much in history and culture. Our French connection goes way beyond fried potatoes.