A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The legacy of North America's French colonists
Flipping through plastic cards in a row of bins on a table, I find the names of my ancestors: Jacques Archambault and Paul Chalifour. The cards, in an upper-floor exhibit at Québec City's Musée de l'Amérique française, give sketches of the early inhabitants of New France, a territory that would come to encompass modern Canada, the entire Mississippi and Ohio river basins, and much of the Gulf Coast. Archambault and his wife, Françoise Tourault, were from Dom-pierre-sur-Mer, a small village near La Rochelle in western France. They arrived in Québec in the mid 1640s with several children in tow. In 1648, their daughter Jacquette married Chalifour, a carpenter who came to Québec from the La Rochelle vicinity after the death of his first wife and child.
Millions of Americans are descended from the colonists of New France, who were no less critical in opening the continent than their English, Dutch, and Spanish counterparts. But outside of Québec and New Orleans, did these French founders leave any permanent mark other than place names, like Terre Haute and Vincennes? So far, French colonial archaeology in the U.S. has been spotty, but publicity surrounding the bicentennials of the Louisiana Purchase (2003) and the Lewis & Clark Expedition (2004) may renew interest in the U.S. in our French heritage. After all, Napoleon's sale to Jefferson of all French territory west of the Mississippi more than doubled the size of the country, and Lewis and Clark would never have successfully traversed those new lands without their French guides.
Mark Rose is executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY. Thanks are due William Moss, Llew Price, Geoffrey Waselkov, Bonnie Steppenoff, and Ron Thomure for their generous assistance with this article. For more on America's French colonial heritage, see the upcoming article on Archaeology.org.