Archaeological Perspectives on the French in the New World

Scott, Elizabeth M., ed. 2017. Archaeological Perspectives on the French in the New World. Gainesville ; Tallahassee ; Tampa ; Boca Raton: University Press of Florida.

Divided into ten chapters that are broadly devoted to the study of “French-speaking communities in the New World past” (2), this collection of papers detailing the historical archaeology of French colonization in the New World aims to re-center Anglo-centric narratives of New World history by focusing upon the oftentimes subsumed stories of French settlement, activity and habitation and their interconnections and co-evolution with Native, Amerindian as well as African-American communities. The volume lacks a conclusion, yet it is still tied together coherently owing to the fact that each contribution discusses and draws attention to previous archaeological studies linked to varying locations across the French colonial world in the Americas. Some authors point to earlier archaeological research they have performed or discuss the findings of others, as they pertain to fresh viewpoints and perspectives upon their own areas of interest and expertise.

Necessarily, this study is geographically broad as well as spatially-oriented, with attention given not only to the multi-dimensional layout and arrangements of French colonial life in New World contexts, but also, to the interplay and patterns of mobility between French towns, forts and fur-trading posts that occurred most often through river travel (3). The book merges historical developments with archaeological knowledge to help shed light on this past; for instance, Huguenot settlers in the New World often built houses according to the “material indicator[s]” of having posts in the ground or poteaux-en-terre (7). As the volume’s focus and content amply suggests, owing to widespread practices of intermarriage with Native and African-American communities, in addition to the dependencies upon Native labour within the fur and other trades, and in many cases enslaved labour, the material chronology and record of the French in the New World may not be limited to the story of French settler communities alone. The interdependencies which developed between French settlers and other groups are evident through processes of metissage and creolization (11) which inflect the archaeological record at a number of key sites of settlement and dispersal.

Key historical turning points, such as Queen Anne’s War (1702-13), set the stage for the reworking of territories and ultimate dislocation of French settlements as Britain gained control over Acadia, Newfoundland and the Hudson Bay region. While conflicts persisted through to the French colonial defeat in 1763, in her introduction to the volume, Elizabeth Scott notes that French culture and settlement still persisted in most places in a way that was for the most part unaffected by this shifting political terrain. With material culture serving as a clue to identity, and architecture also playing a role, the diverse migrations of French settlers in the New World demonstrates that settlement was by no means a static process. Mobility was perhaps most pronounced for participants of the fur trade, or for those forced to flee in the wake of French-British colonial reorganization, and further migrations took place in the wake of both metropolitan and colonial revolutions (i.e. from Haiti) and ensuing periods of political uncertainty in France (15-16).

Steven Pendery’s opening chapter on the Grand Derangement makes far-reaching efforts to detail the “Archaeological Dimensions of the Acadian Diaspora,” where it is noted that the visibility of Acadian habitation sites in the archaeological record in diasporic areas like Massachusetts is “likely to be variable.” (40) Pendery additionally explores what is known regarding Acadian coastal settlements in French Guyana, and the creolization process that occurred as a result. In Louisiana, Acadian identity could be collectively maintained, yet the paucity of existing archaeological research on this community suggests further opportunities yet to be developed (47).

Robb Mann’s chapter on French Canadian voyageurs centers on the culture and “customs” (61) of tobacco pipe smoking, which allowed voyageur labourers to determine time and distance and partially mitigate the demanding patterns of heavy physical labour and exertion that their work required of them. Clay pipe fragments uncovered along common portage routes offer unique material windows into this cultural past, constituting the “most common artifacts” that have been secured from the fur trade era. As Mann’s chapter suggests, Hudson Bay Company fort sites like Fort Vancouver in present-day Washington further provide unique opportunities to study the material culture of fur trade company servants.

Michael Nassaney and Terrance Martin discuss the French fur trade at Fort St. Joseph in the western Great Lakes region, exploring its role as a “mission-garrison-trading post complex” (88) through the archaeological lens of wild animal skeletal remains as well as a “mixed assemblage of artifacts” and agricultural indicators (91), making for a dynamic chapter contribution to the volume. Their chapter, more broadly, speaks to the interplay between Native American and French cultural strategies for subsistence and survival at key frontier post from the seventeenth century onwards.

In Chapter Five Erin Whitson suggests how slaves in French colonial households in the Illinois Country may be rendered “visible” in the archaeological record “should one look for them” (113). Whitson here explores a “Materiality of Enslavement” that was defined by “unequal privileges on shared landscapes” within the unique context of French colonialism as it unfolded on a single property, building upon earlier Master’s research at the site (Whitson, 2013). The subsequent chapter by Maureen Costura explores how new avenues of French gastronomy played out in the New World in the wake of changes wrought by political revolution. Here, questions linked to wealth and “colonial degeneracy” are fruitfully explored, as demonstrated by the archaeological remains at a unique Pennsylvania settlement site known as Azilum, which doubly served as a refuge for aristocrats and elite planters displaced by revolutions in France and Saint Domingue/Haiti. At its “height” in 1797, the settlement had about fifty structures and was inhabited by 300-400 residents, not including its enslaved population. Creolization processes are explored further in Chapter 8, at the plantation site of Loyola in French Guiana, where co-authors Antoine Loyer Rousselle and Reginald Auger discuss profound archaeological findings and their implications for the study of South American slavery in a French colonial context (185-217). Kenneth Kelly’s ensuing chapter similarly explores plantation, reviewing developments in the archaeological study of material remains in the French West Indies from an especially architectural and structural standpoint.

On the whole this book of unique essays will prove to be of great interests to historians of French colonial America, historians of the Acadian experience, and to archaeologists working in the Americas more broadly. Of course it complements an existing body of literature regarding the archaeology and historical anthropology of French colonies in the Americas, and will be of lasting value, especially in pointing towards present-day lacunae and possibilities for future work in the field of colonial anthropology in the Americas. In terms of its capacity to expand our knowledge of institutional as well as household archaeology in the Americas, this volume additionally has much to offer within the research world as well.

Works Cited:

Whitson, Erin N. “Identifying with the Help: An Examination of Class, Ethnicity and Gender on a Post-Colonial French Houselot.” Master’s Thesis, Illinois State University, 2013.

Naomi Alisa Calnitsky is an independent scholar based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She received a doctorate in Canadian and Mexican History from Carleton University in 2017 and was a Commonwealth Scholar focusing on Pacific History and migration at the University of Otago in 2007-08.

Download as PDF

© 2020 Naomi Alisa Calnitsky