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The French in Early California
The French have been closely associated with California since the early days of its history. By the mid-1700s, French merchantmen were already trading with the western coast of South America, bringing spectacular profits to France and paving the way for the settlement of many colonies of Frenchmen along those shores. French pirates and buccaneers, attracted by Spain's rich colonies, weren't far behind them. Their tales of the New World greatly piqued the interest of their countrymen.
One of the first Frenchmen to come directly from France to California was the Count de Laperouse, who was heading an expedition of scientists and artists on a voyage of world exploration ordered by Louis XVI. Arriving in 1786, the count and his entourage were warmly welcomed at Monterey, and the group managed to compile a remarkably accurate account of the mission system, the country, and the natives. The expedition met with a tragic end off the coast of the New Hebrides, but their notes, sent home earlier via Siberia, did reach France.
On the heels of this expedition came French traders and whalers. These commercial ventures were soon followed by "scientific" missions ordered by the king. The scientific surveys these expeditions performed were suspiciously exhaustive. One leader of such an expedition, Eugene Duflot de Mofras, reflected in 1840 that "it is evident that California will belong to whatever nation chooses to send there a man-of-war and two hundred men." Not surprisingly, Duflot aroused the suspicions of Mexico, Great Britain, and the United States. Concerned, General Vallejo wrote in July of 1841 to Governor Alvarado that "there is no doubt that France is intriguing to become mistress of California." The French foreign ministry appointed a consul to Monterey to watch over France's interests and, perhaps, to prepare the grounds for a possible takeover of the defenseless territory.
A Missed Opportunity
The closely-knit French Canadians were a significant presence in California's Central Valley, establishing trails, fords, mountain passes, and camp sites. One of the more notorious voyageurs who trapped his way into California before anyone else was Michel Laframboise, a.k.a. "Old Man Raspberry" ("framboise" is the French word for raspberry). He and his fur-trading company were jokingly referred to as "Here Before Christ," or H.B.C., the same initials as the Hudson's Bay Company. The independent, energetic French Canadian was reputed to have blazed the route from Oregon to California, to have a Native American wife in every tribe along the trail, and to have brought more pelts back in one trip than three men ever could. (A thorn in the side of John Sutter, Laframboise and his trapping companions often camped near Sutter's Fort, helped themselves to his cows, and trapped so efficiently that Sutter gathered only half the pelts he hoped to trade.) Many dauntless trappers like Laframboise appeared in California in the early days, marrying natives and teaching them their language, bestowing French names on landmarksButtes, Cache, Siskiyouand gathering each year for a rendezvous at French Camp, a small town near Stockton which still bears the name.
Vintners and Orchardists
While these French pioneers helped shape the development of early California, they also formed a loosely-knit subculture based on their common language and culture, as they corresponded with one another in French, helped one another, and sent their sons to school in France.
With the discovery of gold, fortune smiled even more broadly upon the French Californios. Like so many early Californians, they were the first at the mines. They made ample use of their Native American laborers to wash gold, thus gathering great amounts at little cost, while back in town the value of their land and possessions soared with the needs of the now-booming California population. They were suddenly rich. By 1851, Jean-Jacques Vioget was worth $50,000, and Jean-Louis Vignes's estate was estimated at $42,000. 1848 and 1849 were boon years as well for the numerous Frenchmen who hastened to California from South and Central America, while in the north, trainloads of French Canadians from Oregon crossed the border and quietly made their fortunes in the northern placers.
When the French consul's reports of these miraculous finds reached France late in 1848, all was not well in the land of the Gauls. The country was being torn apart by political strife. A revolution had deposed King Louis Philippe; a bloody uprising of the most extreme revolutionaries had been crushed by the new republican government. France's economy was at a standstill, and unemployment and fear of famine undermined the people's morale.
Eighty-five pounds of gold. What man, struggling to survive in the midst of such chaos, would not hear the consul's words echo through his dreams? What man would not long for the new shores, where he might find peace and fortune? Plays, songs, posters, paintings, panoramas, and newspapers kept the call of gold at the forefront of France's preoccupations. The revolutionary fever soon turned into gold fever, and the fever into a frenzy. Dozens of ships crammed with French aristocrats, merchants, lawyers, and politicians ruined by the revolution, as well as artisans, shopkeepers, clerks, and farmers hurting from the country's chaos, left France for California from 1849 to 1854. A few women joined them. It took these Argonauts six months of perilous sailing around Cape Horn to reach El Dorado. While French pioneers from California and the Pacific may have represented as much as half the total French contingent in gold-rush California, the full impact of the French language and culture was only truly felt in San Francisco with the arrival of these French Argonauts direct from France, which started in September 1849 with the ship La Meuse (see page 17).
"About nine hundred French emigrants have landed on San Francisco's beaches in the space of eight days," French consul Patrice Dillon reports in November 1850, and by April 1851 he numbers his flock at 20,000. His official correspondence also paints a vivid picture of the chaos that awaited these Argonauts once they landed: the desertion of sailors and captains alike before the cargo was even unloaded; the uselessness of the immigration companies organized in France to provide support upon arrival; the hardships of life gone mad in a city whose population doubled every ten days.
By 1853, a French envoy estimated that twenty-five percent of Californians were foreigners, and, of these, a third were French. This mass of French-speaking immigrants couldn't help but influence the evolution of California. In the mines, French adjectives are probably the most common in the gold-region toponymy: over forty-five place-names are French, not counting those named for early French miners, such as Sicard Bar, Don Pedro's Bar, and Suñol Washing, or named after a specific group, such as Matelot Gulch (sailor's gulch).
The history of the gold region is chock-full of anecdotes about lucky Frenchmen's finds, seductive lady gamblers, rebellious Gauls refusing to pay the foreign miners' tax, and aggressive Frenchmen confronting American miners when one of theirs was unjustly kicked off his claim. While most numerous in the southern mines, a large contingent of French miners gathered in the northern districts and mines as well.
Not about to neglect such a large market, several of San Francisco's newspapers included French columns in their pages, until the all-French newspaper, l'Echo du Pacifique, was created in June of 1852. Mass was said in French, Spanish, and English at the city's first Catholic church, started by two French priests from Oregon. The French Benevolent Society, which would become the French Hospital, was one of the first societies for the relief of sick emigrants. And the French soon had their own fire-fighters, the Lafayette Hook and Ladder, a matter of great prestige in San Francisco in those days.
Public-spirited, the French appeared in large numbers on the occasion of most celebrations, and they actively participated in the Vigilance Committees (citizens who formed vigilante groups to combat unchecked crime) of 1851 and 1856. Partial to amusements, they introduced Californians to the "café-chantants" and helped infuse whimsy, gaiety, and style into the sober Anglo-Saxon society.
Diaries, Letters, and Records
Like the diaries and letters, the unpublished consular correspondence, kept at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, records the names and actions of the most remarkable of these pioneers, men such as Etienne Derbec, Jules de France, Alfred Pioche, Jean-Jacques Chauviteau, Yves Limantour, the Marquis de Pindray, and the Count de Raousset-Boulbon.
The muster rolls and ship passenger lists held at the Maritime Archives of Rouen record the identity of many more; they also provide a glimpse of the Argonauts' unfolding saga, with mentions by consuls at ports of call of the squabbles between passengers and captains, of deserting sailors, of those seamen bailed out of jail, of those new crewmen or passengers embarked, and of men lost at sea.
After Napoleon III's coup in 1851, disenchanted revolutionaries emigrated, mostly free of charge, under the auspices of a huge lottery supervised by the Prefect of Paris. The lists of men shipped to California by the proceeds of the Golden Ingot Lottery between 1852 and 1854 can be consulted at the Prefecture de Police in Paris, although the Bancroft Library in Berkeley owns microfilms of a large portion of these records.
Claudine Chalmers, born and raised in Cannes,
France, first fell in love with California at age sixteen when she became
an exchange student in a Palo Alto high school. After completing her studies
at the University of Nice, France, she returned to California where she
married and settled in Mill Valley.
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