A man to whom I was once introduced in Europe asked where my hometown in America was. When he heard that it ended in “-ville,” he said, “Oh, a French settlement?” I’m not sure he believed my explanation that in this case, the ending wasn’t the French word for “city,” but a short version of the English word “village.” Fortunately for my credibility among Europeans, I didn’t mention Dauphin County.
Although it was a misinterpretation, it reminded me that, though they had little presence or influence in my immediate home area (the occasional Lebeau disguised as a Lebo notwithstanding), the French were once a major power in North America. Anyone who lived on what was the Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s would have been well aware of this.
Last fall my wife and I stood in Point State Park in Pittsburgh beside a copper plate marking the site of Fort Duquesne. It contained a diagram of the fort from an old map, with the three rivers labeled in French. The one that fascinated me was “Rivière d’Ohio ou Belle Rivière.” “I kind of wish the Ohio were still called Belle Rivière,” I said to my wife. She didn’t disagree, but I got the impression that the prospect didn’t capture her imagination quite the way it did mine.
I had run into that fascination with the French in Pennsylvania once before, when we visited Fort Necessity in the southwestern part of the state. As I stood in the remains of the ill-fated fort, I tried to imagine the sound of French voices ringing through the woods surrounding George Washington’s hopelessly outnumbered troops, and wondered what they were shouting (“Wooden-toothed surrender monkey!” perhaps). The French did win that battle but later lost their claim to Belle Rivière, as well as all of North America east of the Mississippi except St. Pierre and Miquelon. That little island territory off Newfoundland is the only place in the New World north of the Caribbean that uses Euros and is policed by gendarmes wearing Clouseau-like uniforms. Its population is slightly less than that of Camp Hill.
The French even lost Québec, which is still French-speaking, although 250 years of British rule have not been good for their accent or vocabulary. If you can stand the peculiar twang and can get past ordering “un lunch” and saying “bienvenue” in response to “merci,” you can still be in a French-speaking environment within a long day’s drive of Central PA. But, had things gone otherwise, there might have been a French-speaking country starting just west of Johnstown. You could pop out to a hillside near Fort Duquesne, get a table at the Café du Jour overlooking the Rivière Manangueule and order baked Brie with sliced apple and spring honey, served with warm baguette, and be back in Pennsylvania Dutch Country by bedtime. Well, OK, you can do that now.
Of course, I feel a little disloyal speculating about what would have happened if we had lost the French and Indian War. But was it really “we” who won? No — it was the British! They were the good guys then, but within two decades they’d be the bad guys, and the French would be on our side. At a military cemetery in Yorktown, Virginia, I’ve seen a monument to 50 unknown French soldiers “morts pour l’indépendance américaine,” a sacrifice we repaid by staging D-Day (no one can say we’re not lavish in our gratitude).
Aristocrats like Lafayette also joined the fight for the idea of government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed, which they might have had second thoughts about espousing at home. But they eventually did anyway, leading to such chaos in France that by the time Napoleon came to power he felt the need to unload Louisiana. So if the French had beaten the British, we’d have still gotten Louisiana, except it would have included Du Bois and Presque Isle as well as New Orleans and Des Moines.
But maybe, in the intervening decades, more French culture would have taken root in western Pennsylvania. New Castle would be Châteauneuf, Butler County would be Comté du Maître D’, and Latrobe would be famous for bottling a perky little red called Rocher Roulant. And Lewis and Clark would have started their voyage of discovery on the Belle Rivière.
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