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The French in Early California
– Claudine Chalmers

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 French were fairly numerous in Mexican California, if one includes the large number of French-Canadian trappers roaming about. There were times when the German-Swiss John Sutter (of gold rush fame)—who kept an active correspondence in the French language with French-speaking pioneers Jean-Jacques Vioget and Antonio Suñol in San Francisco and San Jose—liked to threaten the Mexicans that he would hoist the French flag and place himself and his considerable settlement, New Helvetia, under French protection. This group of French settlers, together with the presence of a French consul very early on, was seen by some French authorities as an opportunity to establish more colonies and open new markets. Louis Gasquet, the French vice-consul who arrived in May of 1845, sincerely believed that California rightfully should belong to France, and was urging the French foreign office to send a show of naval force to California, when time ran out on dreams of French conquest: soon, American troops occupied Monterey. Gasquet, desperate, created a diplomatic incident by refusing to recognize the new government, and continued to hope fervently that France would at last intervene during the fifty-one days he was held a prisoner in his own home. But France did not act, dashing any hopes of a new French colony in California. French interests, although very real, could not be upheld by the series of troubled governments in France. Even as the European power that had once held a New France in Canada and Louisiana cherished this last, swiftly fading dream, many of her people were busy becoming Californians.

Les Voyageurs
The first party of white men to be sighted in the California interior was reported by the local inhabitants in 1821 near the present-day city of Alturas in Modoc County. It is believed that the intruder was Louis Pichette, accompanied by the Nipissing Indian Louis Kanota. Soon an increasing number of similar adventurers were trapping their way into California. Pichette was one of those dauntless French Canadians always found at the forefront of the western expansion, ever since the explorer Champlain realized very early that if Frenchmen were to penetrate the New World and trap its furry riches, they would have to adopt the more practical Native American style of dress and transport. Thus the French voyageur was born. Every North American exploring group had its own skilled and hardy French Canadians, including Lewis and Clark. At least eighteen of that expedition's fifty-nine members were French Canadians, including Toussaint Charbonneau, whose wife, the Shoshone Sacagawea, left a lasting mark on history and whose son, Jean-Baptiste, was born on the trail.

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 landmarks—Buttes, Cache, Siskiyou—and gathering each year for a rendezvous at French Camp, a small town near Stockton which still bears the name.

Seafaring Settlers
French seamen also fell in love with Mexican California, such as Captain Jean-Jacques Vioget, a.k.a. "Blücher" (so called because, as a member of Napoleon's Grand Armée, he was said to resemble Blücher, the Prussian general who helped defeat Napoleon at Waterloo). Vioget sketched Yerba Buena (later San Francisco) in 1837 when it consisted of only two houses. The sketch hung in his ship's cabin for two years until the French-Swiss captain returned and settled in the small village. He was granted a plot of land in exchange for a survey of the pueblo. He built a tavern and kept the plat behind his bar, where new owners registered their lots. California seduced other French sea captains too, as well as many simple seamen who crossed Cape Horn aboard French whalers or traders, jumped ship, and found employment with Californios.

Vintners and Orchardists
Jean-Louis Vignes, a.k.a. "Don Luis," was not the first non-Mexican settler in Los Angeles—that honor goes to Frenchman Louis Bauchet. But the fifty-one-year-old cooper from the Bordeaux region was the first to import and plant good-quality grape cuttings from France on his famed estate, El Aliso. A genial host, Vignes shared his wine with the most prominent men of California, among them Frenchman Victor Prudon-a linguist, schoolteacher, and colonel in the Californian army—and French Canadian Antoine Robidoux, founder of the city of Riverside. In the north, two French settlers who'd come west with a train of emigrants also pioneered the wine and fruit industries: Claude Chana, one of California's earliest orchardists; and Charles Covillaud, who founded Marysville (the city was named after Covillaud's wife, Mary Murphy Covillaud, who was a survivor of the Donner party).

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.

Gold!
Considering how familiar these roving bands of French Canadians were with the trails and rivers, it is not surprising that they were rumored to have been the first discoverers of California gold. Reported The Pony Express in May 1850: "It was a settlement of French trappers that discovered gold in the Mother Lode country in the 1830s." A Frenchman who had mined in New Mexico, one Baptiste Ruelle, had a knack for appearing wherever there was talk of gold. John Bidwell credits Ruelle with two gold discoveries in his book In California Before the Gold Rush—one in Los Angeles in 1841, and one near Sutter's Fort in 1843. Whatever Ruelle did or did not discover, he certainly lost no time getting in on the major gold rush of 1848, being one of the first to start panning at Coloma, the site of James Marshall's famous find.

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.

French Argonauts
". . . two Frenchmen, the Messrs. Fourcade, presented themselves at the Consulate on their return from the Placer with seventy pounds of gold. . . . M. Panaut, who did not have a thousand dollars a month ago, now has eighty-five pounds of gold . . . ."

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.

Little France
In San Francisco, a Little France emerged in 1850, centered around Commercial Street, in the heart of town: "The street is French, decidedly French," writes the Alta California, San Francisco's main newspaper, in June of 1851, "and in it you may see a miniature of the great city of la Grande République." A stroll through the quarter would have revealed a French theater, with two French vaudeville troupes; a French gambling hall, the Polka Saloon; dozens of small shops, offices, and artists' studios; and cafés where parties of Frenchmen drank claret and jabbered together of their beloved France.

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.


Sidebar

Diaries, Letters, and Records
Many of these French Argonauts were educated men, and their diaries make fascinating reading. Numerous pioneers' letters were published in French newspapers and in the immigration companies' publications. These can be found at the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris.

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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