Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana

Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana

Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana

Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana


Based on a sweeping range of archival, visual, and material evidence, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians examines perceptions of Indians in French colonial Louisiana and demonstrates that material culture—especially dress—was central to the elaboration of discourses about race.

At the heart of France's seventeenth-century plans for colonizing New France was a formal policy—Frenchification. Intended to turn Indians into Catholic subjects of the king, it also carried with it the belief that Indians could become French through religion, language, and culture. This fluid and mutable conception of identity carried a risk: while Indians had the potential to become French, the French could themselves be transformed into Indians. French officials had effectively admitted defeat of their policy by the time Louisiana became a province of New France in 1682. But it was here, in Upper Louisiana, that proponents of French-Indian intermarriage finally claimed some success with Frenchification. For supporters, proof of the policy's success lay in the appearance and material possessions of Indian wives and daughters of Frenchmen.

Through a sophisticated interdisciplinary approach to the material sources, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians offers a distinctive and original reading of the contours and chronology of racialization in early America. While focused on Louisiana, the methodological model offered in this innovative book shows that dress can take center stage in the investigation of colonial societies—for the process of colonization was built on encounters mediated by appearance.

Sophie White is Associate Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


In eighteenth-century French colonial Louisiana, Marie Catherine Illinoise, an Illinois Indian woman convert who was legally and sacramentally married to a Frenchman in the Upper Mississippi Valley, could be found dressed in one of her silk taffeta gowns as she sat in an armchair in her home built in the French colonial architectural style. Born Illinois, she was now “Frenchifed” and was categorized in official records as French. This woman’s material culture testifies to the transformations engineered by French and Indians as a result of colonization, conversion, and métissage (the mixing of peoples). For there were numerous other instances of French-Indian exchanges and crosscultural dressing in Louisiana.

In fulfilling her wish to take her vows as a Catholic nun in New Orleans, Marie Turpin, born from a French-Indian union, would cement her acquisition of a new identity and name through the wearing of special religious attire. a voyageur (canoeman or fur trader) of mixed French-Indian heritage, Jean Saguingouara, would enter into a formal agreement to go to New Orleans and back; other than his wages, he negotiated for his linens to be laundered on arrival in that town. in the same year that this trader traveled down the Mississippi River, Antoine Philippe de Marigny, Sieur de Mandeville, a French military cadet of noble origin, underwent a reverse transformation, donning Indian garb to traverse the hinterlands. in each of these anecdotes, clothing offered an especially elastic, protean means of expression. Through the act of dressing, indigenous peoples and settlers found the means to consciously express themselves even as they bought into, or were forced into, colonization’s material underpinnings. For colonization in early America was built on encounters mediated by appearance, placing clothing at the center of cross-cultural relations and speaking to the vitality of cultural exchanges made visible on the body.

Analyzing the contours of French-Indian cultural cross-dressing I use identity as a category of analysis to shed light on how the French in America viewed the “savages” and formulated Frenchness. the appearance of the . . .

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