Book Review: Songs Upon the Rivers

Songs upon the Rivers: The Buried History of the French-Speaking ‘Canadiens’ and Métis from the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across to the Pacific

by Robert Foxcurran, Michel Bouchard, and Sébastien Malette
Baraka Books: Montreal, 2016 442 pp
ISBN: 978-1-77186-081-0 $34.95

The singular characteristic of this population. The mixture of all the bloods. The most numerous, the Canadiens. Bois brûlés (burnt wood), or métis; with nuances ranging from the European to the savage.

 —Alexis de Tocqueville, on visiting the community of  Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, 1831.

 Reviewed by James LaForest

978-1771860819songs-upon-the-rivers-new-cover-low-res-253x370Songs upon the Rivers: The Buried History of the French-Speaking ‘Canadiens’ and Métis from the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across to the Pacific by American scholar Robert Foxcurran and Canadian scholars Michel Bouchard and Sébastien Malette arrives on the scholarly scene at a critical juncture in contemporary affairs. As issues of cultural identity and the right to one’s heritage and personal/national narratives in historic homelands is increasingly a part of public discourse, this new work explores a fascinating and under-explored area of North American civilization: the history of the French ‘Canadiens’ and Métis whose explorations, marriages, and trade in the North American “West” (from the Great Lakes to the Pacific) were of fundamental importance to later British and American dominance in those regions.

This volume’s initial strength is found in the stories of the people, places, and events it records from often little-known accounts of local history, the stories that are rarely integrated into the broader story of American history. Yet it is these very accounts that animate many personal family histories and speak to the formation of cultural identities, which remain part of the broader cultural fabric of North America. By illuminating individuals such as Magdelaine Laframboise of Mackinac Island or the Leblanc family of Ecorse, Michigan and by looking closely at settlements like St. Joseph, Michigan and Detroit’s “downriver” suburbs, the focus of historical study, which is usually on such vital centers as Fort Michilimackinac or Detroit alone, is expanded to include a much broader region of the continent in which exploration, trade, and settlement took place beginning in the 17th century.

While histories of locales and biographies are important in their own way, French Canadian and Métis history and ethnography risks losing vitality when the focus is always so narrow. An example of a cultural phenomena which has tended, in my view, to perpetuate the presence of the “Canadien” (French-Canadian) and Métis (mixed French/Indian families) in the Great Lakes as isolated stories is the very popular hobby of genealogy. Slowly however, particularly with the digital revolution, interconnections among families, communities, and regions, which all have at least one thing in common (the Fur Trade) are being revealed and a much fuller picture of 17th-19th French and Métis North American history is coming into focus. Cultural undercurrents that have been taken for granted in Canada for generations, are once again coming to light in the United States as well. A complex and somewhat fluid cultural expression and sense of identity, the merging of worlds that came about during the Fur Trade era as described by Carolyn Podruchny in her seminal work, Making the Voyageur World, is elucidated well in Songs Upon the Rivers. Likewise, it does not shrink from clearly delineating the reasons for the decline of French dominance in the region in the early 19th century.

An example of this is found in Chapter 4, entitled “Michigan Territory from the War of 1812 to Statehood in 1837.” This chapter describes the events, policies, and mindsets that left the French “Canadiens” of Detroit as an emerging underclass in the land they had developed so well as land-owners, farmers, business and military leaders for over a century. Early British and Anglo-American visitors to Detroit and other towns in the Pays d’en haut (generally, the Great Lakes region) decried the uncivilized manners of the local populace, their poor farming techniques, and a generally unproductive society. The French were, in their eyes, along with the Native Americans and Métis families of the area, part of an undifferentiated mongrel population that needed civilizing.

What actually happened to the ‘French’ in the Yankee new order, as to the Indians, was a gradual whittling away of land ownership (except among the most wealthy Canadiens such as the famous Campeau family), political disenfranchisement, social marginalization, and for the Great Lakes Métis communities and Indian tribes, eventual dispossession of their lands. Where French and Native populations had lived and worked in harmony throughout the Fur Trade, after the arrival of new Anglo settlers they quickly became the underclass of the new American regime. According to some researchers, this new status of underclass has had implications down to the current day for people of French-Canadian/French-Métis heritage in ways that are similar to the experiences of Native Americans, a topic I have written about in my essay, “Muskrat French: Origins of a Culture, and a Language, and a People” Michigan Historical Review (Fall 2014).

Songs upon the Rivers is not a work about ‘identity’ per se; this is a scholarly work by three seasoned researchers employing sound methodologies honed through years of experience. Yet for the lay reader and the person who seeks a fuller understanding of the role their ancestors may have played in North American history, the building of communities, and what legacies they left, this work will serve as a solid reference and a narrative of that often overlooked story. It is not overly ‘jargony’ as scholarly works can sometimes be. It will appeal therefore to anyone with a strong interest in French North America but uncomfortable with academic terminology.

It will also perhaps serve as the catalyst for a new wave of research on the one hand, and on the other an entrée to a renewed sense of communal sentiment and identity among a widespread population too often unaware of its own story (particularly among the youth) and who have not had many positive and thorough treatments of it’s historic culture emanate from the academic milieu. While there are faults that might be found in any academic work (for example: typos, some repetitiveness, and the inevitable genealogical controversies that arise in dealing with French North America) the honesty of the book is one of its clearest virtues, especially as it pushes back against long established narratives that underplay the ‘French’ role in North American history. Songs upon the Rivers is the refreshing scholarship that adds value, when so many contemporary scholars promise groundbreaking research only to endlessly justify cynical, negative views of our shared and complex history. Highly Recommended.

Editorial note: James LaForest and Sébastien Malette are both members of the Voyageur Métis community. This review was undertaken without consultation or input from any member associated with their shared community.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s