Over 200 years ago, large numbers of French Canadians left the St. Lawrence Valley to settle along the Mississippi, notably in St. Louis. Wouldn’t it be time to pay a little visit to their descendants, our cousins ​​in America?

It all started with a simple email to the editorial staff of La Presse.

“My name is Robert Teson and I live in the city of St. Louis in the United States. I am in the process of learning French to help me research the history of my ancestors (please excuse my mistakes). As part of my apprenticeship I read La Presse every day and lo and behold, I noticed the name of one of your reporters, Marie Tison. Reading her articles I wonder if it is possible that she could share ancestors with me. I am a descendant of Jean Baptiste Tison who, with his wife Marie Anne (née Normandeau), left Montreal in the spring of 1789. With three children they traveled through the Great Lakes then the Mississippi until they arrived in St. Louis in the fall. »

He gives some genealogical details that I recognize. His ancestor Jean Baptiste is the son of the first Tison to settle in Canada, around 1756. His name was Jean Baptiste Joseph Tison and was also my ancestor. So I answer beginning with these words: Hello, dear cousin.

Exchanges then begin between the two distant branches of the family. Bob Teson, a retired history teacher, and his wife Susan visit Montreal twice. This year, it’s my turn to get out there and see the St. Louis area through my cousin’s eyes. Our goal: to find traces of the Francophone presence.

The symbol of St. Louis is obviously the Gateway Arch, the tallest monument in the United States at 192 meters in height. This arch symbolizes the gateway to the American West. Bob Teson half-jokes that the story here only seems to begin with the great Lewis and Clark Expedition, which crossed the American West to reach the Pacific between the years 1804 and 1806.

Fortunately, a new museum located under the arch devotes an entire section to St. Louis’ French past. The city was founded by French merchant Pierre Laclède and his son-in-law Auguste Chouteau in 1764. Both were from New Orleans, but it was mostly French Canadians from the St. Lawrence Valley who settled here. , to get involved in the fur trade.

The small museum speaks precisely of the workshop of Jean-Baptiste Tison, a carpenter. But we also find the store of Sylvestre and Pélagie Labadie and the houses of William Hébert dit Lecompte and Joseph Michel dit Taillon.

The history of St. Louis is complicated. First French, the city passed into the Spanish fold after the Seven Years’ War, to become briefly French again before passing into American hands in 1803 when Napoleon sold the immense territory of Louisiana to the United States.

“It wasn’t the Tisons that came to the United States, it was the United States that came to the Tisons,” says Bob Teson.

The quest for its origins is linked to a need to find a place in great American history. “The French presence does not fit into the American narrative. »

The city’s ancient symbol, an imposing equestrian statue of St. Louis, can be found in Forest Park, the city’s other big attraction. This huge green space, larger than New York’s Central Park, houses must-see institutions such as the St. Louis Museum of Art, the Missouri Historical Museum and the St. Louis Zoo.

Near the park, the Central West End area has many restaurants. Bob Teson also recommends lively neighborhoods like The Loop, Lafayette Square, and South Grand, near pleasant Tower Grove Park, for dining. This is an opportunity to talk about our ancestors and speculate on the reasons that may have led Jean-Baptiste Tison and his compatriots to take a long canoe trip to settle in St. Louis and the surrounding area. Because it’s not just St. Louis. The small town of St. Charles is worth a visit. French Canadians called it Les Petites Côtes.

The city is pretty, it is pleasant to walk along its main street, and there is especially an interesting building of French origin, the small Saint-Charles-Borromée church. It is a fine example of French Creole “poteaux-en-terre” architecture. We are talking about large vertical beams planted directly in the ground.

For sentimental reasons, Bob Teson brings us to Florissant, a suburb of St. Louis, an old French village which, as its name suggests, was conducive to agriculture. All that remains of this French-speaking past are a few street names and a cemetery that houses the remains of several Americans of French origin, including several Teson.

“When did we lose our French character? wonders Bob Teson. My grandfather’s mother spoke French. I am disconnected from this past. »

This quest for origins took him to the other side of the Mississippi, in Illinois, on what is called the French Creole Corridor, which conceals treasures. Like the extraordinary Church of the Holy Family, in Cahokia, founded in 1699 by Jesuits from Quebec. The current building dates from 1799 and was carefully restored in 1949. Here the post-on-ground technique was used: the vertical beams rest on a plinth.

A stone in the back lists the villagers who fought with the Americans against the British in the War of Independence, between 1775 and 1783. The names are virtually all of French Canadian origin: Alarie, Baron , Beaulieu, Bissonet, Boyer, Brisson, Chenier, Chevalier, Dubuque, Ducharme, Gagnier, Germain, Girardin, Lacroix, Lambert, Langlois, Lefevre, Lepage, Pelletier, Roy, Saucier, Trottier…

Other French Creole-style buildings are hidden between the bungalows of Cahokia: a small courthouse, the Martin-Boismenu house.

“I like this house because my ancestor’s house by the river probably looked like this,” says Bob Teson.

The French Creole Corridor continues south, passing through Fort de Chartres. The current building is a reconstruction of the stone fort from 1753. Only the powder magazine is original, but the reconstruction still gives a good idea of ​​the original appearance.

Back in Missouri, west of the Mississippi, there was not enough time to go for a walk in Kaskaskia and Old Mines, where French was still spoken in the 1930s.

On the other hand, there is no question of missing Ste. Genevieve, a picturesque village that dates back to the 1720s and has many houses of French origin. Like the beautiful home of Louis Bolduc, lovingly furnished with period furniture.

The US National Park Service owns some of these buildings, the Center for French Colonial Life owns others, both offer guided tours.

Before heading back to St. Louis, we spot a man struggling to dig a canoe out of a huge tree trunk. At the time, the canoe was more suited to navigation on the Mississippi than the fragile bark canoe.

We chatter a little to discover that the character, director of operations of the museum of the Center for French Colonial Life, is also a descendant of the first French Canadian arrivals. I ask his name: Robbie Pratt.

Sky ! I may have bumped into the distant cousin of my comrade in the Sports section, Alexandre Pratt!

American folkorist Dennis Stroughmatt learned this beautiful version of The Knights of the Round Table from descendants of French Canadians who settled in the small, isolated village of Old Mines, Missouri.