French Missouri: French Settlement and Community in the Colonial Era

Elizabeth Trafton

Edited by: Diane Mutti Burke

In Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Trappers Descending the Missouri, a white French fur trader and his biracial son stare back at the viewer as they travel down the Missouri River. Although he was born after the United States government acquired the Louisiana Territory, Bingham knew that Americans were not the first people of European origin to settle in Missouri.1 The French were present in the area long before any Americans. As a result, the French left a visible mark on the future state. Reflections of their presence exist in tangible reminders such as French colonial architecture and furniture, as well as more intangible legacies such as urban areas that still hold French names. Missouri’s French colonial heritage is an essential part of its identity, but is often forgotten in the larger narrative of the history of the state and the United States as a whole. The inclusion of this history reveals the existence of diverse and well-developed French communities and influences in the region long before white Americans pushed for westward expansion or acknowledged and acted on the mantra of Manifest Destiny.

Beginning in 1682, France laid claim to the area of central North America which included the vast Mississippi River drainage basin. French colonists moved to the region near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers in the latter half of the seventeenth century. French fur traders, trappers, farmers, and Jesuit missionaries came from France, French Canada, and New Orleans to Upper Louisiana (la Haute-Louisiane) or what was often called Illinois Country, an area which consisted of the present-day states of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana.2 Initially settling on the east bank of the Mississippi River in the first half of the eighteen century, the French slowly began to expand their settlement to the west bank of the Mississippi River as the population grew.3

The growth of French settlements in Upper Louisiana was largely made possible by the expansion of the fur trade. French colonists’ success in the fur trade was tied to their unique relationships with the Indigenous peoples of the area, which allowed fur traders to expand their trade networks far into the American interior. Once dismissed by American historian Fredrick Jackson Turner as insignificant to American westward expansion, more recently scholars have recognized French fur traders and trappers as integral to non-Indigenous settlement in Middle America.4 The French established trading posts such as St. Louis, Kawsmouth, and St. Joseph in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which grew into thriving urban areas in later years.

In addition to the fur trade, French colonists established farms, aided in the spread of the Catholic religion, and worked to extract valuable natural resources such as lead. French settlement was initially concentrated on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River in communities such as Kaskaskia, Fort de Chartres, and Prairie du Rocher, in what is now the state of Illinois. During the early years of settlement, residents chose to live near military forts or trading depots for protection and their agricultural lands fanned out in long strips from these centralized settlements. French settlers raised livestock and grew grain products both for subsistence and sale to growing markets in Lower Louisiana. French settlements in Upper Louisiana were vital to the survival of the French Louisiana territory as a whole as it depended on agriculture to feed its growing population. The French also increased their involvement in the fur trade with Indigenous nations and searched for mineral resources to exploit. French settlers eventually expanded their operation west of the Mississippi River into what is now the state of Missouri. Founded in the 1730s, Ste. Genevieve was an example of such a settlement, becoming the first permanent French community west of the Mississippi River.5 Ste. Genevieve’s growth is attributed to settlers’ desire to move closer to the agricultural fields they established west of the river and to the lead mines they had established near current-day Potosi, Missouri.6

The French colonists in Upper Louisiana — and the enslaved people whose labor they exploited — made significant economic contributions to France’s colonial empire through agricultural production, lead extraction, and access to the lucrative fur trade business. Yet, France did not value Louisiana, particularly its northern reaches, as much as its sugar colonies in the West Indies. During the Seven Years War, France covertly offered French Louisiana, including the port of New Orleans, to Spain in payment for their military aid in the war against Great Britain.  The Treaty of Paris in 1763 resulted in the French ceding their territory east of the Mississippi River to the British in acknowledgement of their defeat. Spanish rule went into effect the following year west of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Many French settlers vacated their lands in Illinois Country in what was now the British controlled territory east of the Mississippi for Spanish lands west of the river. French settlers thought their prospects would be better under Spanish control due to their shared Catholic faith and a belief they would better protect their rights and claims to the land.  French settlers’ reasoning proved sound. Although the Spanish colonial government officially ruled Louisiana for the next 40 years, there was never a large migration of Spanish settlers to the colony. The Spanish administrative structure was light handed and French colonists and cultural practices continued to dominate the colony.

During the colonial era, French settlements were home to a diverse population of both new and long-established residents — French, French Canadian, Indigenous, and African, who engaged in farming, trapping, and mining.7 The French sought to create a cohesive community among these diverse peoples through such mechanisms as a shared language, the practice of Catholicism, and the fur trade. During the eighteenth century, Indigenous Americans were the dominant group in Illinois Country. In response to their minority population, French settlers purposely cultivated business and governing alliances through trade relations and intermarriage with Indigenous peoples in the region. These often-reciprocal business and family connections promoted the expansion of French economic and political interests. One such example was the Chouteau family whose reciprocal relationship with the Osage allowed them to dominate the fur trade in the region and establish St. Louis as the primary trading outpost for the venture.8

French settlements were structured by a social hierarchy; at the top were Catholic missionaries, military officers, and wealthy traders. Conversely, enslaved people of African or Indigenous descent occupied the bottom tier of the social hierarchy. Soldiers, boatmen, hunters, trappers, and farmers occupied the middle ground between the two groups at either end of the social spectrum.9 A person’s place within the social structure was not always dictated by wealth, however. For example, in Ste. Genevieve, while the wealthy still sat at the top of the social structure, less affluent French families that persisted for long periods and were considered respectable.10

Enslaved Indigenous and African peoples played a prominent role in the social and economic structures of Upper Louisiana. Jesuit missionaries were the largest enslavers of African peoples in Illinois Country in the early eighteenth century,11 but by the latter half of the eighteenth century, the trader elites owned the majority of enslaved people, both Indigenous and African.12 Even though the governor of Spanish Louisiana, Alejandro O’Reilly, officially outlawed Native American slavery in 1769, the edict was never enforced and the colonists continued to enslave various groups of First Nation people into the early nineteenth century.13 The importation of enslaved Africans increased dramatically over the eighteenth century as both the French and Spanish colonial regimes encouraged the use of enslaved people to increase agricultural and mining production in the region.14

However, under both French and Spanish law, enslaved people were theoretically given some legal protections. Under the revised French Code Noir of 1724, while still defining enslaved people as property, the enslaved were also viewed as human beings that deserved certain rights. The code specified that enslavers needed to adequately provide for enslaved people’s religious, food, and clothing needs, while also outlawing torture and family separation. These requirements were difficult to enforce; therefore, compliance was usually left up to the conscience of individual enslavers. Although the law was not always followed in colonial Louisiana, according to the revision of the Code Noir by the Spanish in 1777, white people were not permitted to intermarry or engage in sexual relationships with enslaved men and women. As was the case in slavery systems, white enslavers frequently sexually exploited enslaved people, although there were a few interracial relationships that were long lasting and occasionally resulted in the freedom of enslaved individuals. Laws regarding manumission were more generous under the Code Noir. Some enslaved people were able to buy their own freedom, and, on some occasions, enslavers granted people their freedom. Emancipation was at the discretion of individual enslavers, however, as there were no fixed rules for the process. Overall, while the various “protections” for enslaved people were written into the law, there was no guarantee of enforcement of those protections.15

The law and custom allowed white women to enjoyed certain rights and some agency in determining their own lives in Upper Louisiana. In the eighteenth century, white men outnumbered white women by a significant degree in Ste. Genevieve and other French communities. French colonial women often married men over ten years their senior, resulting in significant age gaps between the parties. Because of this age disparity, women were more likely to be widowed and to remarry. Over time, some women accrued property and influence. Prenuptial contracts protected French women’s financial interests when they married.  Women often brought property into their marriages due to a douaire (dowery) or inheritance. Indeed, it was customary for French children to inherit their parents’ estates equally regardless of gender. Women could use these claims to financial assets as a means by which to protect property from their husbands’ debts and insolvency. At their husbands’ deaths, widows received the dower portion stipulated in the marriage contract as well as half of the couples’ joint property with the remainder divided among their children. Women without children were entitled to the entire estate. Widows frequently carried this property into subsequent marriages. Through these financial protections, French colonial women were able to maintain and manage their own property, which resulted in their ability to wield influence in their communities.16

French colonial women also demonstrated some agency within their marriages. French colonial men rarely worked in a single profession, instead they diversified their economic activities to guarantee their continued success in an ever-changing region. Their husbands were frequently absent from their families and households, no matter their economic situation. Wealthy men traveled for trade, diplomacy, and simply a desire to travel, while less wealthy men worked as soldiers, hunters, and boatmen. In their place, French wives acted as deputy husbands, given the power to act to protect business and family interests.17

The scarcity of white women in the colony encouraged white men to form sexual attachments with Black and Indigenous women. While many of these relationships were not consensual and were instead the result of an imbalanced power dynamics and even violence, there were some cases in which white men and Black or Indigenous women engaged in what might be described as common law marriages. Both parties understood the social and economic benefits of these partnerships. It was common for French men to forge economic and diplomatic relations with Indigenous people through marriages to Indigenous women. They also appreciated women’s domestic labor and fur processing skills. Some French men lived openly with their wives and children in French settlements, while other resided with their families upriver in the hunting grounds.  It also was not usual for French men to have both French and Indigenous wives and families.18

While most women of African descent during the colonial period, were impoverished and enslaved, in St. Louis there were cases of free Black women who owned property. In comparison to the British, the French and the Spanish had a more fluid understanding of race and were more tolerant of interracial relationships, especially in communities with uneven gender ratios. In some cases, French men even manumitted enslaved women with whom they shared long term relationships. A few Black women gained financial assets when their white partners put property in their names to legally protect it from the men’s creditors. Later, the women laid claim to the property when the relationships ended through voluntary separation or death. Eager to strengthen its presence in Upper Louisiana, the Spanish government was willing to grant land to petitioners, no matter their sex or race, also allowed some free Black women to acquire property. These exceptional women were part of a growing free Black community in St. Louis.19

Although the French lived in the region for over a century, these diverse colonial communities remained sparsely populated. In fact, there had been such limited migration to the region that the Spanish leaders of the colony started to recruit American settlers, including Daniel Boone and his family, to move to Upper Louisiana with promises of generous land grants, no taxes, and protections for slavery. After assuming power in 1800, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte worked to restore France’s claims in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and North America.  He was able to successfully negotiate with the Spanish in secret for the return of Louisiana through the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1802. Yet, French troops were unsuccessful in their attempts to regain control of Saint-Domingue from the free Black and formerly enslaved revolutionaries who had fought to liberate the colony from French rule beginning with an uprising in 1791. Napoleon ultimately decided to cut his losses and agreed to sell all of Louisiana to the United States for $15 million. The U.S. was initially interested in only purchasing the port of New Orleans but recognized the value of acquiring claims to the vast territory offered them. Through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the United States laid claim to the territory that soon after became the state of Missouri. In the following years, many of Missouri’s flourishing urban areas, such as St. Louis, Kansas City, and St. Joseph, were built on the foundations of the remarkable early French communities. The state’s French roots remain visible to this day though place names and historic artifacts left by these early Missouri settlers.20


  1. Historian Stephen Aron calls this the “Confluence Region.” See Stephen Aron, American Confluence: The Missouri Frontier from Borderland to Border State (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 2006).Anne Farrar Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860 (History of the American West, University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 4.
  2. Carl J. Ekberg, Colonial Ste. Genevieve: An Adventure on the Mississippi Frontier (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), 2-4.
  3. Ekberg, Colonial Ste. Genevieve, 8.
  4. Jay Gitlin, The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 5.
  5. Ekberg, Colonial Ste. Genevieve, 11-12.
  6. Ekberg, Colonial Ste. Genevieve, 11.
  7. Tanis C. Thorne, The Many Hands of My Relations: French and Indians on the Lower Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996), 65-66.
  8. Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families, 36.
  9. Thorne, The Many Hands of My Relations, 72.
  10. Ekberg, Colonial Ste. Genevieve, 179.
  11. Bonnie Stepenoff, From French Community to Missouri Town: Ste. Genevieve in the Nineteenth Century (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 121.
  12. Thorne, The Many Hands of My Relations, 75.
  13. Leila K. Blackbird, “Entwined Threads of Red and Black: The Hidden History Indigenous Enslavement in Louisiana, 1699-1824, (New Orleans: University of New Orleans thesis, 2018), 59-60.
  14. Thorne, The Many Hands of My Relations, 74.
  15. Stepenoff, From French Community to Missouri Town, 122.
  16. Susan Calafate Boyle, “French Women in Colonial Missouri, 1750-1805,” in Women in Missouri History: In Search of Power and Influence, ed. LeeAnn Whites, Mary C. Neth, and Gary R. Kremer (Columbia: University of Missouri, 2004), 15-30.
  17. Boyle, “French Women in Colonial Missouri.”
  18. See Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families, 27-87.
  19. Judith A. Gilbert, “Esther and Her Sisters: Free Women of Color as Property Owners in Colonial St. Louis, 1765-1803,” in Women in Missouri History: In Search of Power and Influence, ed. LeeAnn Whites, Mary C. Neth, and Gary R. Kremer (Columbia: University of Missouri, 2004), 34-35.
  20. See Aron, American Confluence.