Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America

by Philip Marchand
456 pages,
ISBN: 077105677X

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A 'What-if' of History
by John Oughton

This intriguing book blends personal memoir, popular history and speculation. Marchand, although raised in New England, is genetically a pure laine Quebecois who remains Roman Catholic. His fascination with the partly-forgotten history of early French explorations in North America, and especially the quixotic and controversial RenT-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, inspired Marchand not only to trace La Salle's routes from New France to the mouth of the Mississippi, but also to venture into alternative history: "A few different turnings of history and you, reader, would be reading this book in French and speaking to your children in French. The United States would not exist. Some sort of French, Catholic state would dominate the continent, and the Ojibwa, the Sioux, the Shawnee, the Chickasaw nations would have the same political and cultural presence as African-Americans now do."
Outside Quebec, remnants of this "ghost empire" can be seen in the continued existence of the MTtis people and the many French place names that dot eastern North America: Calais, Maine; Ontario's Belleville and Sault-Ste. Marie; and even Des Moines, Iowa (which the locals now pronounce "duh moyne"). La Salle himself named a territory, Louisiana, after his king. One note that was news to me is the derivation of "Ozarks" from the French "aux Arcs", translated as "in the territory of the Arkansas Indians."
Marchand documents his claim well. He shows how the French, despite conflicts with the Iroquois, were much more willing than the more territorial Anglophones to coexist with the aboriginal peoples they encountered. This he attributes in part to the early French preference for the mobile fur trade rather than land-grabbing agriculture, as well as their more accepting, less puritanical culture. La Salle often persuaded the Natives he met either to trade peacefully with him, or accompany him on his quests.
La Salle, born in France in 1643, had a couple of major objectives during his years of exploration (1673-1687). The first, like that of so many European adventurers, was to find a water route to the Orient. Neighbours in New France jokingly named La Salle's brief seigneurie "La Chine" (China), another place name that endures today. When that quest didn't pan out, La Salle persuaded King Louis XIV to support an exploration to the mouth of the Mississippi to offset the growing Spanish influence there. La Salle first travelled down the Mississippi by canoe, even dragging along a notary to confirm his claim of "virtually the whole of North America" for France.
He returned to the area by ship in 1684, getting his four vessels within 400 miles of the Mississippi Delta. Due to a minor navigational mistake, he landed instead at Matagorda Bay in Texas and became the first European to found a settlement in that state. He also became, one Texas historian now opines, "the most hated man ever to walk the soil of Texas." Undoubtedly brave, La Salle and many of his men, like the voyageurs that followed them, endured fatigue, privations and discomfort almost unimaginable in our era of air-conditioning, cruise control and insect repellents. They traveled with only the sketchiest of maps and often no acquaintance with the many Native cultures they trespassed on.
A visionary yet rigid in character, La Salle was briefly a Jesuit-in-training. His superiors dubbed him "Inquietus", one accurately profiling him as having "good parts, questionable judgment, very little prudence." As a leader, he made dubious decisions, and his followers had a high mortality rate even for the times. After various misadventures, including one in which a captain abandoned him and another deliberately wrecked La Salle's last ship, La Belle (found by archeologists more than 300 years late), La Salle abandoned the weakest members of his party at the fort and tried to reach Quebec by land. He was murdered by members of his own expedition, and left for the scavengers somewhere in Texas.
Marchand, books columnist for the Toronto Star, is best known for his biography, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. Some echoes of that work surface here when Marchand ventures the opinion that the true enemy of Native culture in La Salle's time was the printed word.
Marchand is a stylish writer, at times brilliant: examining the work of Francis Parkman, the now politically incorrect 19-th century US writer who celebrated what he saw as La Salle's manly exploits, he states: "Yet we cannot get rid of Parkman. That's the problem with people who write well. They penetrate your brain with their images. No amount of subsequent history will efface Parkman's great dramatic portraits." Marchand himself skillfully interweaves the details of La Salle's explorations (quoting from various accounts both contemporary and modern) with his own journeys to the places La Salle passed through. These vignettes are often melancholy and amusing. Only a few seem irrelevant: the account of a visit to Graceland is linked somewhat flimsily by the revelation that Elvis's wife Priscilla was of French ancestry.
He also has a good eye for the ironies he encounters along the way: the heroic statue of La Salle of which only the feet remain, the difficulty of finding a restaurant that serves muskrat, for which French settlers were once nicknamed, and the modern re-enactments of the old French-English battles. Although he documents many traces of La Salle's name and fame along the way, he misses one: General Motors produced a luxury "companion car" for the Cadillac from 1927-1940. The LaSalle is still prized by collectors, and provided a rather more comfortable way to traverse North America than La Salle himself had.
Marchand ends this book with a moving invocation to La Salle: "Help us to realize that nothing in the universe is lost and that our existence is richer than we know." Ghost Empire made me understand North America differently; it has some of the impact of Pierre Berton's best books, but is more personal, at times even spiritual, in its consideration of place, identity, and possibility.

John Oughton once explored the canoe routes around Severn Falls, Ontario, at the now-defunct Camp Nagiwa.

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