Le Français: The Common Language in the New World

Le Français: The Common Language in the New World

Nearly a century before the Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 to Plymouth, now Cape Cod, the French ran a thriving fur trading business from eastern Canada and southward into what became the United States. Indigenous Native Americans and the French learned each other’s languages as a part of doing business. Later, when the English began colonising the shores of eastern North America, le Français was the common language to communicate amongst the native tribes, the French and English. Many people spoke it.

According to AncestralFindings.com, the French began to explore the New World only a few years after Columbus made his voyage. They came to explore but discovered that America was rich in animal fur, including beaver, sea otter, bear and ermine. These New World furs became popular for making hats and coats.

The French developed good relationships with the Native Americans. They worked as equal trading partners, offering metal tools, especially knives, in return for a variety of pelts. The French fur traders married Native American women and many began to stay in the villages year-round instead of returning to Europe in the winter.

This was different from the English and Spanish who came to the New World. They often kidnapped Native Americans to take them back to Europe as servants or to make money by showing off the “exotic” Indians.

Cartouche from William Faden's "A map of the Inhabited Part of Canada from the French Surveys; with the Frontiers of New York and New England", 1777. Public domain

Cartouche from William Faden’s “A map of the Inhabited Part of Canada from the French Surveys; with the Frontiers of New York and New England”, 1777. Public domain

In addition to the trappers, the Huguenots arrived in the New World to find a place to practice their religion freely. In fact, 50 years before the Mayflower pilgrims arrived, a group of Huguenot pilgrims settled in Florida along the St. Johns River near Jacksonville. They named the fortified town Fort Caroline in honour of their king, Charles IX. The local Timucuan Indians were friendly and helped them survive: growing food, making wine and smoking a local herb, probably tobacco.

However, the French had a knack for attacking Spanish ships loaded with goods as they sailed nearby, and the Spanish retaliated by massacring the village. Admiral Pedro Menéndez hung the survivors under a sign that read, “I do this not as to Frenchman but as to heretics.” With that, the French pilgrims disappeared from Anglophile history.

But the sharing of languages continued. Not long after the Mayflower arrived, the settlers met an Indian who spoke English. Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, helped the local Indians communicate with the Pilgrims, teaching them where to hunt and how to grow food. Tisquantum learned English because he had been kidnapped and brought to England in 1614, returning as an interpreter for a British trading company. He freely returned to his home region near Cape Cod when his owner died.

Floride françoise ("French Florida"), by Pierre du Val, 17th century. Public domain

Floride françoise (“French Florida”), by Pierre du Val, 17th century. Public domain

There were several colonists who knew French aboard the Mayflower. George Soule was possibly from Leiden, a French-speaking town in South Holland where most of the Mayflower pilgrims had settled when they left England. Francis Cooke was married to a French woman, Hester le Mahieu, whose parents were from Lille. She belonged to the French Reformed Church in Leiden and joined her husband in Plymouth the next year on board the ship Anne.

The Huguenots immigrated to the New World in large numbers and supplied the colonies with teachers, physicians, artisans, craftsmen and more. According to the Huguenot Society, the Marquis de Lafayette was so impressed by the fact that many of the American leaders were of Huguenot descent, he persuaded Louis XVI and the French Council to adopt an Edict of Toleration guaranteeing religious freedom to all in France.

For example, Apollo Rivoire, a goldsmith, was the father of Paul Revere, a patriot and also a goldsmith. George Washington, America’s first president, was the grandson of a Huguenot on his mother’s side.

So as one lists the many things to be thankful for, whether celebrating the American tradition or not, the advantages of sharing of language should be one of them. As filmmaker Federico Fellini said, “A different language is a different vision of life.” 

Patriot Paul Revere was the son of a French Huguenot named Apollo Rivoire. John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Paul Revere. c. 1768–70. Public Domain

Patriot Paul Revere was the son of a French Huguenot named Apollo Rivoire. John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Paul Revere. c. 1768–70. Public Domain

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Martha Sessums is the France Today Ambassador for San Francisco. Intrigued by France since her first stroll along the Seine, Martha and her husband often travel to Paris to explore the city and beyond. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, delighting in its strong Francophone and French culture community. She was a high-tech public relations executive and currently runs a non-profit continuing education organization.

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  • Anais Anthony
    2016-11-24 00:57:39
    Anais Anthony
    This was a very dark time in Canada's history. Countless First Nations people were abused and eventually the religious-based residence schools came into being. The wildlife of Canada were all but exterminated and even today some species have not recovered. It was a greed and profit-driven economy, much like today.