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November 15, 2012

French still thrives in the Illinois territory

MT. VERNON — To the French Creole who moved to the Illinois area in the 1710s, the region is “upper Louisiana.”

Dennis Stromatt, a historian and musician who has studied the French Creole people in southern Illinois, Indiana and southeast Missouri, performed and spoke at the Jefferson County Historical Village on Wednesday.

An Albion native, Stromatt became interested in French language  while making visits to Vincennes, Ind., throughout his childhood.

“Albion is a very English town,” he said. “I would have never known about the French in the area. ... I was always interested and always wanted to hear French language, but I was under the impression there was no French left in Southern Illinois.”

He said upon moving to southeast Missouri for college, he began to realize the area has a very strong French history. As a Civil War and Revolutionary War reenactor, Stromatt learned more about the area’s history.

He said at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, there were between 10,000 and 12,000 French Creoles in the Illinois, Missouri and Indiana areas, but he didn’t find out about them until asking a professor. His professor said the French Creole people weren’t considered Americans in part because they weren’t British, and in part because they had intermarried with Native Americans for generations before Americans arrived in the area.

Stromatt said the French language is very much alive in areas of southeast Missouri, specifically in Old Mines, Mo., about 45 minutes west of Ste. Genevieve, Mo.

He initially traveled to Old Mines one Labor Day weekend, where he encountered parish workers speaking Illinois French, a dialect of French only spoken in the area.

“The French they were speaking at me sounded like nothing I had heard in French class,” he said, adding that the parish workers’ families had been settled in Illinois and Missouri for 100 years before Americans came to the area. He said when Lewis and Clark explored the area, they used French maps from the 1740s.

Stromatt said there were about 500 people in the Old Mines, Mo., area speaking Illinois and Missouri French in 1990.

The first two generations of the French Creole in the Illinois territory or upper Louisiana were half French, half Native American, he said.

“Most were very connected to the area, because they had already intermarried,” he said. “They found it easier to deal with the hardships of living in the Midwest.”

Language is one part of the French culture that has stayed alive, but celebrations are another part, from Bouillon house parties, to Carnivale, to traditional Mardi Gras celebrations, Stromatt said.

He played several French Creole songs that originated in the area, including a song called “Grandmother Complains,” which was from Vincennes, Ind., but he learned in Old Mines, Mo.

Stromatt spent some time traveling to Old Mines to seek out stories and history of the people there, but eventually, they began to seek him out, he said.

He said due to educational changes in the early 1900s, many French Creole people were forced out of Catholic schools, but quit school altogether instead of attending public school, where they would be prohibited from speaking French. The result of this, he said, was a generation of people who could not read or write, but who were fluent in French and English.

“One gentleman I spoke to quit school when he was six,” Stromatt said. “The teacher slapped him because he spoke French. He was proud, though. He was drafted in World War I, and he was promoted to sergeant because he spoke English and French. He became a translator and earned a Silver Star, which he showed me.”

Stromatt answered questions after his talk, including explaining the difference between people who are Cajun and Creoles.

He said the word “Cajun” came from the French word “Acadian,” which was the name for a group of French people kicked out of Nova Scotia by the British.

“They didn’t arrive into Louisiana until the 1760s,” he said. “The French in this part of the country are older than the Cajuns by at least two generations.”

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