French Canadians who settled in Illinois during the 18th century carved out distinctive, ribbon-like fields for their farms, which are still clearly visible on Google Maps. Surprisingly, their patterns of land usage, settlement, and agriculture derived not from their Québec neighbors but from medieval practices in northern France, and they were unique in colonial North America. Compact villages, open-field plowlands, and communal pasturing areas characterized every French-Canadian settlement in Illinois, from Cahokia and St. Louis in the north to Kaskaskia and Ste. Genevieve in the south.
More than just a way of raising crops, common fields defined a cultural identity for French Canadians in the Midwest that knitted together social, legal, and agricultural institutions, and occasionally irritated non-French Canadian Americans. In the early 19th century, Indiana’s first governor noted, “You may behold at one and the same time a hundred plows going, under one enclosure, which belongs to the French, who cultivate in common. Their customs are often very ridiculous and grating to the feelings of an American.” Despite his disapproval, French Canadians shaped the Midwest profoundly, as its landscape still attests.
Carl J. Ekberg is Professor Emeritus at Illinois State University and the author of many books, including the standard history of the French in Illinois, French Roots in the Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times.
Recorded on Friday, January 21, 2011 at the Newberry Library.