Before Anglo-Americans ever crossed the Appalachian Mountains, the French had colonies along the Mississippi river, as well as in the Illinois Country, Canada, the Caribbean, and, even in far-off India. Much of this territory was lost to the British during the Seven Year’s War. The lands to the west of the Mississippi were transferred (by secret treaty, before the conclusion of the war) to Spain, France’s ally during the war. Starting in the late 1760’s, “Upper Louisiana” communities such as Sainte Geneviève and Saint Louis were administered and protected by the Spanish. Administratively, Spain used the Louisiana territory as a “bulwark” to protect the colonies they truly cared about such as Texas and Mexico.
The Spanish were able administrators and successful defenders of the region. Their military skills proved vital to the Americans during the American Revolutionary War. However, their domination over the original French colonial communities was minimal. The Spanish did not alter or affect change in the society or culture in these formerly French colonial communities. Use of their French language and cultural traditions continued. This added to this unique “Creole” culture: both the Spanish and French blended their traditions with those of the Native Americans and Africans. But at their core, these French settlements remained essentially French.
Evidence of this Creole culture still survives today, particularly in communities like Sainte Geneviève, Missouri. It is here that you can still discover and experience this unique story. The town features a variety of historic sites, like the campus of the Centre for French Colonial Life, which features an exhibition and education museum as well as four historic French Creole houses dating from the late 1780’s to the 1820’s and the soon to open National Historical Park of Sainte Geneviève which features stories from the post-statehood period as does the site owned by the Foundation for the Restoration of Sainte Geneviève.
Sainte Geneviève has the largest concentration of French Creole buildings in North America. A number of houses have been restored to their late 18th or early 19th century appearance. What makes these houses unique? Most of our early French settlers came from Normandy via Canada, bringing their unique building style, a style that utilized massive vertical timbers. The addition of front and back porches or wrap-around galleries was an idea they borrowed from the colonial structures in lower Louisiana and the Caribbean. To a great extent these houses are the physical manifestation of this Creole culture—combining the traditions from different sources, but which, at its heart is still primarily French in character and identity.
The campus of the Centre for French Colonial Life features four of these well-preserved historic buildings. Three are open to the public for guided tours and/or educational activities. The fourth is being researched in preparation for restoration. These historic houses include:
Louis Bolduc House (1789/1792) – The earliest section of this vertical timber house was built by Louis Bolduc in 1789. In 1792 he made a significant addition. Louis originally migrated to this area from Canada in the 1760’s, married and became a successful farmer and merchant. This house is considered to be the best restored French colonial-era house in the nation and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Furnished with original 18th and early 19th century objects collected (and on permanent loan) by NSDCA-MO, the building is open for guided tours.
Bolduc-LeMeilleur House (c. 1818) – This home was built by Louis Bolduc’s granddaughter and her husband, a Haitian refuge, René LeMeilleur in the early 1800’s. Sadly, Agatha and Rene died young, leaving four orphaned children. The house was later sold, then used as a convent, a school, a hotel, and finally a car dealership office, before being completely restored in 1970. Today, it features a furnished room that demonstrates the continuation of Creole culture and the impact of American tastes and fashion. It also houses an orientation exhibit which addresses the question of why the French settled here and the impact of their Creole culture.
Beauvais-Linden House a.k.a. “Hands-on History House” (c. 1822) – This house serves as an example of how vertical timber houses, such as the structure that is hidden under later mid-19th century additions, were saved but altered over time. Today, this site offers interactive programming for homeschoolers, school groups as well as the public. Programming is thematic and updated quarterly. Visit Facebook, “Hands-on History House”, for current information.
François Vallé II House (c. 1792) – Beneath the architectural features of a late 19th century cottage is the remaining half of what had been a significant structure and home of one of the French Creole social elite. François served as the town’s civil commandant for a number of years during the era of Spanish rule. He was an officer and played a significant role as a defender of St. Louis during the British attack of May 1780. The structure that remains is believed to have been built by the same builder and in the same timeframe as the 1790’s addition to Bolduc House. Archaeological work has proven that this remaining section of Vallé’s original residence is less than ½ of the original structure that was so severely damaged during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812.
The Centre for French Colonial Life at 198 Market Street is our campus headquarters. Today, it features an extensive exhibit on the American Revolutionary War in the West, and items never before seen by the public. The stories told detail Britain’s efforts to control the Mississippi River. Had they succeeded, supplies vital to the war effort and critical food supplies would have been severed; the outcome of the Revolutionary War might have been quite different.