In a state that seems dominated by the culture and heritage of American Indians and Northern Europeans, the contributions of the French are often overlooked. However, the French and French-Canadians first came to North Dakota close to 300 years ago, playing an important role in the exploration of the area. As the region developed, they were active in the fur trade and agriculture settlements and helped establish many communities that remain today.
A regional organization, several events this summer and opportunities for greater interpretation at historic sites are working to increase the visibility and appreciation of North Dakota’s “French Connection.”
The French History of North Dakota
French explorer Pierre La Verendrye first came to North Dakota in the 1730s, staying with the Mandan people. Others followed a generation later as European exploration and trade moved west and the region’s active fur trade began in the late 1700s.
“The fur trade and the descendents of the fur trade were in large part French and American Indian people,” says Virgil Benoit, a French professor at the University of North Dakota. “It established the Michif culture,” he adds, noting the Michif and Métis cultures descend mainly from the mixing of the French-Canadian, British, Scottish, American Indian and Canadian First Nations.
The fur trade established communities along the state’s northern border from Pembina to Bottineau. “French was the major language of the fur trade,” says Benoit. As the Métis presence grew during the 1800s, the activities of the French began to shift to agriculture. “Transitional communities” formed towns including Neche, Olga and Rolette. The largest concentration of Métis resided in the community of Saint Joseph, now Walhalla, between 1840 and 1870.
“The next influence on the formation of North Dakota is the French-Canadian settlers who came to farm after the 1870s,” says Benoit. The French-Canadians traveled by railroad beginning in the 1840s to the Red River Valley and soon established agricultural communities including Oakwood and Wild Rice.
At this time, the Saint Joseph/Walhalla area became home to the state’s buffalo manufacturing industry. Residents of the area prepared buffalo products, including meat and clothing, for markets in Winnipeg and St. Paul. “The Michif people involved in that industry were really the beginning of the modern economic era in North Dakota,” says Benoit. “Many of the people of French descent were extremely active in the territorial activities of the time.”
A Family Connection
“The French have been involved in the state for a long time, but there hasn’t been a great recognition,” say Myron Senechal. “When you look at North Dakota from the perspective of Pembina and Cavalier counties, they had some of the first businesses. In the Red River Valley of the north, they were some of the first folks to farm.”
Senechal notes many generations of French descent have remained where their ancestors settled. “You can still go back to the telephone directories in those areas and see a lot of French names.”
The first French settlers in the state played an important role in building relationships with the American Indians, says Senechal, allowing many people to settle the area and prosper.
Senechal’s grandfather was a farmer in Quebec, Canada, before he moved to New Hampshire in 1890. An opportunity to purchase a farm in North Dakota became available in 1897, and Senechal’s grandfather and his family rode the train to Devils Lake. They then traveled by foot and cart to Rolette County where they farmed until 1933, when Senechal’s father took over the family farm. After he was born in 1944, Senechal lived in the house his grandfather built until 1950.
Senechal said his grandparents and parents didn’t talk about their French heritage and it wasn’t until he was retired that he took interest in his family’s background. “I have French and French-Canadian background, and for 60 years I didn’t know anything about it. It’s nice to know, as you look back at different generations, where you came from.”
Preserving North Dakota’s French Heritage
In the fall of 2004, Benoit founded the Initiatives in French Midwest, an organization focused on understanding the French presence in the Midwest. “I wanted to have an organization that would respond to issues of heritage and its place in understanding,” he says.
The organization, which is housed at the University of North Dakota, has grown to more than 150 members working to gather information in local communities of French language origin, develop public programs, prepare publications, and offer workshops and courses. “The questions that French history raise in North Dakota culture are extremely significant to our history,” says Benoit.
He says it is important to explore heritage and make it available for people to interact with. “It helps us think about what we’ve been and who we might want to be. It should be put in museums, conferences, and classrooms so we have a basis for understanding what kind of future we want to make.”
IFMidwest is collecting documents that address the history of the French in North Dakota and Minnesota in a special collection housed at the University of North Dakota Chester Fritz Library. The organization also has a website, www.ifmidwest.org; a yearly publication, IFMidwest; an annual convention; and a Heritage Tour to Quebec, Canada. The next Heritage Tour is scheduled for 2011 and this year’s annual convention is in Bismarck July 9 and 10.
An active member of IFMidwest, Senechal is the coordinator of the convention. He says being active in exploring North Dakota’s French heritage is important. “Unless we preserve that background, we will have no idea where we came from,” he says. “To know my family way back before me is heartwarming and I want to pass this on.”
IFMidwest also plays an important role in educating residents of the state. “We are really trying to use these types of activities to educate our people locally,” says Senechal. “It gives you a significant regional feeling on where the French impact is in North Dakota.”
Benoit says the preservation of North Dakota’s French heritage is a benefit to everyone who has ties to the state. “Heritages are for the interest of the world. The people who are close to a particular heritage can help to give it meaning and understanding, but they do that for everyone, not just themselves.”
For additional information on North Dakota’s French heritage and IFMidwest visit www.ifmidwest.org.