French-speaking people in Oklahoma have included not only French natives, but also French Canadians, Acadians (or Cajuns), Belgians, Swiss, Caribbean French, and other refugees from one-time French colonies. In this article the French refers to those of direct French origin or nativity. French explorers arrived in the seventeenth century in a region that was then the domain of nomadic and seminomadic American Indians. In 1682 René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, exploring the Mississippi River, claimed for the French king all the lands drained by it. He is credited with naming the territory Louisiana, which included present Oklahoma. In 1719 Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe journeyed up the Red River, through eastern Oklahoma, and down the Arkansas in pursuit of trading prospects. At the same time, Claude-Charles du Tisné headed into Oklahoma from the north to explore Osage territory for a trade route with Spanish settlements on the Rio Grande. Posts set up by de la Harpe and du Tisné gave rise to a controversial claim that a post said to have existed at the site of a Pani (Caddo) Indian village was Oklahoma's first white settlement, Fernandina or Ferdinandina. After French Canadian brothers Paul and Pierre Mallet(t), ventured as far as Santa Fe in 1739 and returned to New Orleans along the Canadian and the Arkansas rivers, the Louisiana governor sent André Fabry (Fabre) de la Bruyere to follow the Canadian River westward to Santa Fe. Low water on the Canadian stalled his mission.
These French explorers and traders, also known as coureurs de bois, welcomed the freedom and challenges of their lifestyle. Possessing a strong loyalty to country and king, they were eager to expand France's influence. They exhibited personal traits not unlike those of later French immigrants—an independent spirit and individuality, a personal kind of religion, and a readiness to assimilate with the existing population. For the coureurs de bois this entailed adapting to Indian ways and languages, even taking Indian wives. This accounts for many French-Indian names in Oklahoma.
European political and military upheavals from the 1750s placed Louisiana under new ownership. By the Treaty of Paris (1763) part of Louisiana, including Oklahoma, was ceded by France to Spain. Despite Spanish efforts to gain trading supremacy, France under Napoleon regained Louisiana by the Treaty of San Ildefonso (1800). However, in 1803 a desperate Napoleon, beset by military and monetary problems in Europe and the Caribbean, sold Louisiana Territory to the fledgling United States.
Meanwhile, the Chouteau family of St. Louis extended trade into the new territory. Auguste and Jean Pierre, sons of Frenchman René Auguste Chouteau and Marie Therese Bougeois of New Orleans, had established a fur trade in St. Louis. Successful traders with the Osage along the Missouri, the brothers in 1802 moved into the Three Forks Area, north of present Muskogee. Based at St. Louis, Jean Pierre oversaw trading at the site known as Saline, and by 1817 his son, Auguste Pierre, ran the trading post on the Grand River. He settled in the new territory, revived the flagging fur trade, and built a keelboat business. Internationally acclaimed ballerina Yvonne Chouteau (Terekhov), is a descendant of Jean Pierre Chouteau. The town of Chouteau in Mayes County carries the family name and, with other French place-names, testifies to a lasting imprint of the French on Oklahoma's land.
Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, a French-born graduate of the United States Military Academy, served as a first lieutenant at Fort Gibson and at Fort Smith in Arkansas. His abilities garnered important assignments, including command of a Rocky Mountain expedition. His careful notes and description of the Rockies earned him leadership of an exploration of Oklahoma's Cross Timbers, in preparation for the Indian removals under Pres. Andrew Jackson. Interestingly, in his report he determined that the prairie country was a barren waste that could not sustain human life.
Throughout the period of exploration and trade the French had been less interested in religious propagation than the Spanish or the French Canadians. Although there were Catholic clergy in the Louisiana province, Indian Territory was considered unfavorable to Catholic missionaries during the nineteenth century. This changed when Isidore Robot, a priest from Pierre-qui-Vire Abbey in France, arrived and began a mission in Atoka. He moved on to the Potawatomi Nation, in 1876 establishing Sacred Heart Mission and Academy north of the Canadian River. Out of this came the establishment of Shawnee's Sacred Heart College in 1883 and St. Gregory's University in 1915.
By 1884 Father Robot's efforts expanded to the Choctaw Nation to serve Catholic miners in the coalfields. Experienced French miners labored in the first coal mine that opened in Lehigh, and in 1895 some moved to mines in Coalgate. A government report estimated that about nine hundred French immigrants lived in the Lehigh-Coalgate region. By 1911 the number was about seven hundred, with a few in other mining towns. These Indian Territory mines were considered the nation's most dangerous, due to the gas that bituminous coal produced and to inadequate safety measures. Many miners were handicapped by language, a situation that proved fatal for French and Italian miners in the 1912 Lehigh mine disaster because they did not understand a fire warning.
Many French people owned stores and bakeries, took up farming and trades, and provided services. Typical was Leon Charles Fouquet, who left France as a teenager and journeyed to America to work for a relative. Impelled by a sense of adventure, he was also encouraged by his family to leave in order to avoid conscription into the French army. He married, raised a family, and engaged in various trades before coming to Oklahoma Territory in 1892. He owned the Dreamland Fruit Farm near Chandler. Its produce won medals at state fairs and was exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Although firmly rooted in the new land, Leon Fouquet returned to France to visit family and friends.
This interest in communicating with relatives in France and visiting home has generally characterized French immigrants. Over the years the emigration and immigration rates remained relatively stable, though by comparison with other ethnic groups the numbers were small. Migration from France has been characterized by individual decisions rather than by large groups. Once settled in America, French people preferred living in individual units rather than ethnic communities. Nevertheless, they have shown a lively interest in promoting French tradition and heritage. In 1884 the Alliance Française was established in Paris to foster France's language, history, and culture. A federation of alliances emerged in the United States in 1902. In 1955 Alliance Française groups formed in Oklahoma City and in Tulsa. Both offer programs and activities to members of French ancestry and non-French who are interested in the culture.
Many distinguished Oklahomans have claimed French ancestry. The parents of Julien C. Monnet, who built the School of Law at the University of Oklahoma during thirty-two years as dean, emigrated from France during the Napoleonic upheavals. Renowned historian Angie Debo had French forebears who lived in the Prussian lands conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte and immigrated to New Orleans after his defeat. Her grandfather Peter Debo, having a French father, was in her words wholly French in feeling despite being born of a German mother in French-occupied Prussia. It would seem that the French have left an imprint in Oklahoma history out of proportion to their numbers and notwithstanding their assimilativeness.
Karen Curths, "The Routes of French and Spanish Explorers Penetration Into Oklahoma," Red River Valley Historical Review 6 (Summer 1981).
Shelby M. Fly, The Saga of the Chouteaus of Oklahoma: French Footprints in the Valley Grand (Norman, Okla.: Levite of Apache, 1988).
Leon Charles Fouquet, Hurrah for My New Free Country, ed. Rosalie Fouquet Davis and Mathilde Fouquet Ruggles (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).
Joseph F. Murphy, Tenacious Monks, The Oklahoma Benedictines, 1875–1975: Indian Missionaries, Catholic Founders, Educators, Agriculturists (Shawnee, Okla.: Benedictine Color Press, 1974).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Anne Million, “French,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=FR020.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.