Walla Walla Frenchtown is established about 1824.

  • By Stephen B. Emerson
  • Posted 5/28/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8615

Around 1824, the Walla Walla Frenchtown is established near the mouth of the Walla Walla River. The community is associated with the Hudson's Bay Company post first built by the French Canadian Northwest Company in 1818 as Fort Nez Perces and later, after the Hudson's Bay Co. and the Northwest Co. merge, renamed Fort Walla Walla. Frenchtown is a general designation used throughout North America for locations characterized by the early settlement of people of French extraction. Frenchtowns are often associated with early fur-trading posts, especially those of the Hudson's Bay Company, but are typically located at some distance from the posts. This Frenchtown, like others, will outlive the fur-trading posts because its inhabitants will maintain their French Canadian character through common architectural forms, land division patterns, and the Roman Catholic religion.

The French Canadian Diaspora

The wanderings of the French resulted largely from the discrimination against them following the English assumption of power in the early Canadian settlements, which created a sort of diaspora. For instance, the Cajuns of the Louisiana bayou country fled from the Canadian province of Arcadia, from which their name is derived. In western North America, Frenchtown usually refers to domestic settlements that were occupied by former fur traders of French Canadian descent who married Native American women, people who were often referred to as Métis.

French Canadian architectural forms present in the Walla Walla Valley during the early 1800s probably consisted of log-cabin construction utilizing squared timbers that were either notched at the corners or joined to an upright corner timber by a mortise and tenon joint. The exact appearance of these structures, however, is essentially unknown because none have survived.

The Roman Catholic religion has been perhaps the most enduring of the French Canadian cultural elements. Although there is no longer a St. Rose of Lima congregation, the original Frenchtown mission, there are three parishes of the Roman Catholic Church in the Walla Walla vicinity. And Frenchtown descendents generally retain their affiliations with the church.

The Long Lot Settlement System

The pattern of land division in Frenchtown settlements probably followed the scheme known as le rang, often called the French long-lot settlement system. This pattern consisted of long narrow plots of land that usually radiated from a river, which formed the central transportation corridor and lifeblood of the settlement. Anthropologist James Hebert has described such communities as "composed of long, ribbon-like farmsteads aligned one next to the other, like piano keys along and extending from the river" (Hebert). This layout contrasts with the typical blockish Anglo-American settlement patterns of the township and range system. Ownership patterns in the Walla Walla Valley no longer conform to the long-lot approach, but field divisions as seen from the air retain an uncanny resemblance to the French mode.

Walla Walla Frenchtown evolved from a much wider settlement pattern that was scattered throughout the Walla Walla Valley. A map of the greater Frenchtown vicinity as it likely appeared in 1872, was drawn by Jeanne Bergevin Butkus in 1972. The information on the map -- usually called the Bergevin Map -- was provided by Teresa Bergevin, who had learned it through the memories of Thomas Bergevin. (The Bergevin family traces its Frenchtown association to the mid-1800s and occupies the land where the La Rocque cabin of Battle of Walla Walla fame was located.)

The map illustrates a much larger area than what is regarded as Frenchtown proper, encompassing the central drainages of the Walla Walla River, including the main river, Dry and Mill creeks to the north, and Mud and Pine creeks to the south, an area comprising more than 100 square miles. The map identifies the locations of about 50 homes of French Canadian/Native American families. Only one of these sites, the Joseph Le Rocque cabin, is accompanied by a date (1824), which fixes the approximate establishment of Walla Walla Frenchtown. This cabin was probably one of the earliest built, fully 30 years prior to the 1855 Battle of Walla Walla. Also on the map is the Louis Tellier and Angelique Pend Oreille home, another landmark of the battle. The names on the map represent Native American, French, and English heritage, an indication of the ethnic diversity of the day.

Today, Walla Walla Frenchtown is generally regarded as the area along the north side of the Walla Walla River, between the communities of Lowden, on the west, and Whitman, on the east. This is the area where the Battle of Walla Walla was fought, demonstrating the intimate association between the battle and Frenchtown.

Sources: Alexander Gunkel, "Culture in Conflict: A Study of Contrasted Interrelations and Relations Between Euro-Americans and the Walla Walla Indians of Washington State" (Ph.D. diss., Southern Illinois University, 1978); James Michael Hebert, "Culture Built Upon the Land: A Predictive Model of Nineteenth-Century Canadien/Métis Farmsteads" (M.A. thesis, Oregon State University, 2007); Theodore Stern, Chiefs and Change in the Oregon Country: Indian Relations at Fort Nez Perces, 1818-1855 (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1996).

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