People, especially French and American people, tend to forget that the heart of the United States was once French. Not only was all of Canada and all of the Mississippi drainage from the Alleghenies to the Rockies under the French flag, as everybody knows, but French and French-Indian mountain men had penetrated to the West Coast before any of the officially recognized explorers and discoverers, for whom they were in fact often the guides. Deep in the Northern Rockies is the town of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. In Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon, many of the leading merchants in the small towns are descended from the French, and they often still name their children Pierre, Jeanne and Yvonne — conspicuous among the recent rash of movie-star first names, dictated by the mysteries of Hollywood “numerology” which cause the Roman Catholic clergy such distress at baptism. Not only are towns all over the Middle West named such things as Prairie du Chien and Vincennes, not only are their leading families named Sublette and Le Sueur and Deslauriers, but — something very few people realize — French life survived intact in hundreds of small isolated communities until well into the twentieth century.
When I was a boy, during the First World War, I took a canoe trip down the Kankakee River from near Chicago to the Mississippi. We passed through many villages where hardly an inhabitant spoke a word of English and where the only communication was the wandering tree-lined river and a single muddy, rutted road out to the highway. There is a book about it, Tales of a Vanishing River, and there was a popular humorous dialect poet, Drummond, who used to recite his poems in high-school assemblies and on the Chautauqua Circuit (a kind of pious variety tent show for farmers, now vanished) back in those days. “I am zee capitain of zee Marguerite vat zail zee Kankakee.” This was not off in the wilds somewhere — it was a long day’s walk from the neighborhood