The making of White America is tied to “Othering” and the “Other” was not solely the African-Americans, but also I will argue the French-speaking Canadian and Métis the Americans met while pushing westwards were also presented as less than truly masculine, an antithesis to the “true” American. They were disparaged by Washington Irving who in turn presented a fabulously wealthy immigrant of German origins as being a true patriot, a visionary American, thus creating a “White American” template that would be followed by later generations up to and including the new President-elect, Donald Trump.
A rich capitalist New York landlord of German ancestry, looked West and saw savages and foreigners sullying the lands. He commissioned a book which would define a nation and he would ensure that the ideal American would be White, English-speaking and masculine. This is not president-elect Donald Trump, but the 19th century businessman and real estate tycoon John Jacob Astor. Whereas Trump had The Art of the Deal ghostwritten, Astor commissioned Washington Irving to write Astoria to define the nation, and put in their place the detested foreigners, largely French-speaking Canadien, Créole and Métis. Trump is their legacy; the whitened, Anglo-washed and highly gendered country over which he seeks to preside is built upon writing out of American history, among others, them and their descendents.
While much ink, virtual and real, has been devoted to analyzing the causes of Trump’s rise, nothing has been said as to the longer historical currents which gave rise to Trump. For close to two centuries, a mythic American nation has been constructed, one built on a foundation of fear mixed with unbridled national exuberance. Trump is the heir to a much longer narrative history where the United States had to be made “American” and the true heroes of the Republic were the archetypal blonde and bronzed Anglo-American self-made men.
Johann Jakob Astor, anglicized to John Jacob Astor, emigrated from Germany to England and then to New York after the American Revolution. From hawking pianos, to entering the fur trade, Astor would convert the wealth derived from the western fur trade to buy vast tracts of land in the small borough of Manhattan. He would become in effect New York’s original real estate mogul and the Astor family would become America’s wealthiest family. Astor was America’s first multi-millionaire. His wealth was also built by leveraging monies made in the fur trade to finance opium smuggling to China as Astor used his global trade networks to ensure greater profits.
What is forgotten is how his wealth was made in the American fur trade. Whereas in Canada the beaver was placed on the nickel as a reminder to how the wealth was acquired through the global trade in beaver pelts used to make the fashionable felt hats, Astor’s wealth in Manhattan was also built on trade in furs. To achieve this, Astor allied himself with prominent French speakers, Créole and Canadien, in the west served as middlemen in the movement of furs from distant outposts to the global market. Astor allied himself with the founding family of St. Louis, the Chouteau clan, to ensure that the American Fur Company would prosper, then sold his interests prior to the collapse of beaver pelt prices. The Chouteau family, in turn, called upon the thousands of French speaking voyageurs and traders to ensure that the coveted pelts would be obtained in trade with the indigenous nations of the American West. The French speaking Canadien and Métis were that century’s “Mexican,” that is to say a cheap labor force enabling the growing wealth of prosperous American elites.
Had he been native born, Astor would certainly have run for president, but he had to settle on Washington Irving aided by his nephew Pierre Munroe Irving to promulgate, in Astoria, his idealized America. Irving had to take what had been a failure, the Pacific Fur Company venture, and spin it into a nation-building endeavor whereby Astor’s vision had facilitated the expansion of the American enterprise to the Pacific. While aggrandizing Astor, Irving would denigrate in his 1836 treatise the very men who had ensured Astor his wealth. He essentially presented the Canadien voyageurs as somewhat childish, largely savage souls whose culture was destined to quickly disappear. He describes the inhabitants of Missouri’s frontier outpost in these terms: “[the] population at St. Louis even still more motley than that at Mackinaw. Here were to be seen about the river banks, the hectoring, extravagant, bragging boatmen of the Mississippi [i.e. French-speaking Créoles], with the gay, grimacing, singing, good-humoured [French-] Canadian voyageurs.” Mackinaw was originally the French fort of Michilimackinac located on the strait separating Upper and Lower Michigan which was home to a large French speaking and Métis, or mixed French and Indian, community.
Throughout his works, Washington Irving continually degrades the French speakers who are still dominant in cities as Saint Louis, New Orleans and he even quantifies the superiority of the true American in The Adventures of Captain Bonneville by quoting an unnamed trader stating that “I consider one American,” said he, “equal to three Canadians, in point of sagacity, aptness at resources, self-dependence, and fearlessness of spirit.” The French-Canadians lack the nobility and the masculinity of the idealized Anglo-American, and the description of these men eerily parallels the descriptions of the contemporary American “other”, be they Mexican or Muslim. Like the Canadiens, Créoles and Métis of yesteryear, these contemporary “foreigners” are too emotional, too vain, too lazy, too dishonest to truly measure up to the idealized Anglo-American.
The works of Irving were serialized in newspapers and five-and-dime novels which lionized the true Americans of the West who were spreading “civilization” The French speakers who had been so central to this history were largely forgotten. The film How the West Was Won completely erased them form the narrative. Only an unexplained “Jacques” is thrown out as all references to the French language and the French-Canadian, Créoles and Métis, among others, are bleached out of that generation’s epic film.
In forgetting the French, the American narrative also lost a telling model of multiculturalism. Not beholden to ideals of racial purity, the French had formed unions with women from the continent’s indigenous nations. Freed French-speaking slaves such as a John, likely Jean, Brazeau could become successful traders during the free trade era. One could also be fully Canadian in the American West, even if one’s ancestry was largely Native American. French was the lingua franca of the continent of that era. In addition to his own language, the Canadien invariably spoke one or more indigenous languages. They willingly adopted indigenous cultural practices.
One telling case occurred in the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville chose to travel to the “wilderness.” Here he meets a man clad fully as an “Indian” who walks up to him and addresses him in French with a “Normand” accent. The French erudite is stunned, noting that he would not have been less shocked had his horse spoken to him in his native language. The man explains to him how he has a [French-] Canadian father and Indian mother. Tocqueville notes how a singular race of Métis was rampant across both the Canadian and American frontiers.
By forgetting the multicultural, multilingual and multiracial past which was that of the United States, the myth of a White America came to dominate the national narrative. In this myth, the White, Anglo-American was not racially mixed. To use modern Alt-Right code words, these were the true “Alpha” males. In this narrative of the American past, the Anglo-Americans were the true men, and their aggrandizement must not be forgotten. It is this narrative which continues to inspire many, and certainly contributed in part to Trump’s stunning victory. Both Astor and Irving would be proud!
By Dr. Michel Bouchard, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Northern British Columbia and co-author of the book Songs Upon the Rivers: The Buried History of the French-Speaking Canadiens and Métis from the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across to the Pacific (Baraka Books, 2016).