Vermont’s French Vestiges

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Book Review: The French Occupation of the Champlain Valley From 1609 to 1759 by Guy Omeron Coolidge (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 1979, reprinted from 1938 proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society)

 

Although there is little surviving physical evidence of eighteen century French settlement in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, Professor Coolidge asserts that early French inhabitants had lasting impact on the region. At the dawn of European exploration, Native Americans hunted in the area we know today as the Champlain Valley and the State of Vermont. Frequently Iroquois and Algonquin hunting and war parties clashed in this region, a no man’s land, too vulnerable for permanent settlement.

Coolidge points out that Samuel Champlain’s forays into Valley in 1609 was among the earliest European settlements in North America only preceded by the English in Jamestown, the French in Quebec and Port Royal and the Spanish in Florida and New Mexico. This a bit of a stretch as permanent French settlement did not start until the 1730’s. For the next quarter century, the French settlers’ fortunes rose and fell with the strength of the protecting bastions of Fort St. Frederic. When the English captured the fort in 1759, a budding French population retreated to Canada, never to return.

Employing English, Canadian and French sources, the book is meticulously researched with information not found in other Vermont histories. It is a particularly valuable source of information for genealogists studying this era. The author combed through Church records to compile birth, death and other records. He concludes with a unique biographical index, a concept that more authors should adopt. The book is chock full of data and description of micro events.

However, this strong focus on data and details distract readers from the larger geopolitical situation. Without previous knowledge of world events, it is hard to place Coolidge’s narrative into a broader perspective. His thesis would be better supported by describing the impact of the French settlement on the wider North American region.

A second scholarship issue is that the author asserts that the place name Vermont has French origins. Today it is commonly accepted that John Young, an English speaker first referred to “Vermont” in a letter from Philadelphia to a nascent Vermont government. While Young may have conflated French root words, the place name Vermont did not originate in the French culture.

And finally, the book shares one cultural characteristic with older history books. The author uses terms such as “red men” and “savages” which are offensive to our ears today. Further, he refers to nationalities such as English or French as races. Finally he does not recognize and is not respectful of the sovereign rights of the Native Americans. While these characterizations are inaccurate and derogatory, they should not detract serious researchers from utilizing this fact filled book as a reference.

I recommend the book to scholars and readers who study European settlement patterns and who are interested in European and Native American interactions. It is uniquely relevant today as a comprehensive source on the fleeting French Vermont residents, an influence which resulted in naming its the most prominent geographical feature.

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