Joie de Vivre in the Midwest

When French settlers founded the village of Ste. Genevieve in the 1750s in what was then Illinois Country, they brought with them a heritage rich in Old World traditions, laws, foods, language, and architecture.  But many of their French customs unsettled – even shocked – many of their Anglo neighbors. 

The earliest French Canadian settlers who came to the Midwest were primarily farmers who were drawn to the rich soils of the Mississippi River floodplains.  They established a regional culture unlike anything else the territory had seen. 

Illustration of early scene of Ste. Genevieve in its original location on the banks of the Mississippi River. Cropped from a mural painted in 1924 that is located in the Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City, MO. Artist: Oscar E. Berninghaus (1874–1952).

Women and people of color had far more rights under French Creole law than under Anglo law. Women could buy, sell and inherit property, and could engage in business.  Enslaved people could earn money by working evenings and weekends, were allowed a day of rest on Sundays, and could purchase property.

The French lived in tight-knit communities and imported most of their clothing, pottery, wine and other amenities from Europe.  Though predominantly Catholic, their frequent celebrations scandalized their Protestant neighbors.  After Sunday church services, the Creoles often held spirited parties, playing billiards and betting on cards and horse racing, and dancing to lively music.  French cooking figured prominently in most festivities. And since every month saw at least one religious ceremony, the customs of the French often set them apart from the other cultures in the region.

Read more about early French culture in the Illinois Country here and here.  Or better yet, visit Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park to see the historic village firsthand.

Credit: Chris Collins, NPS

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