North America has been inhabited for more than 10,000 years, but it is only in the last 500 or so that Europeans, including the French, came to the New World and to New Mexico. It is at this moment that our story begins.
The saga of the French presence in New Mexico is intertwined with the national histories of both France and Spain, of Europe’s global conflicts, and of course, of the United States. In 1493, a year after Christopher Columbus stumbled upon America, Pope Alexander VI proclaimed that all lands discovered west of the Azores would belong to Spain, on the condition that the aboriginal populations be Christianized and not harmed. A year later, the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal confirmed the Papal Bull, but moved the line further west, which gave more of South America to Portugal. This proclamation set the stage for centuries of conflicts between Spain and other European powers, such as France and Great Britain, that had an interest in the New World. It also set the stage for the conquest of the native inhabitants. Caught between two undesirable options, they could either accept the authority of the Pope and of the Spanish Crown or be subjugated.
Beginning in the 16th and continuing into the 19th century, European explorers, adventurers, mountain men, merchants, and missionaries set out to explore, document, and exploit the New World, leaving their mark on the land and its culture. Pioneers traveling by sailboat, canoe, horse, mule, and foot set forth to explore the coasts, rivers, streams, plains, and mountains of the New World. The French participated in this discovery and, in so doing, influenced the course of American history.
The French adventures began by sea, as mariners and fishermen from Normandy, Brittany, and the Basque region set sail for the New World. Soon, some 50 French ports were actively engaged in overseas trade, dispatching several hundred ships and thousands of sailors across the Atlantic every year. The French then spread across the land. From Canada south to the Mississippi valley to the sea, and from the east coast heading west to the Rockies and California, they roamed or settled. At one time or another, nearly half of what is now the United States was French territory. Cities with French names abound in the land controlled by France from the 1500s to the 1800s: Detroit, St. Louis, Louisville, Baton Rouge, Des Moines, Boise, Orange, Grand Prairie, etc.
Most early French immigrants came as individuals or families fleeing persecution or seeking a better life. Several historical events contributed to their decision to leave France. In the second half of the 16th century, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, had mounted several expeditions into the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys, claiming all land on behalf of King Louis XIV, calling it Louisiana in his honor. In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had protected the Huguenots (French Protestants) from discrimination; the Protestant religion was outlawed, forcing the Huguenots to either convert to Catholicism or be condemned to the galleys. Consequently, thousands of them fled to America, some finding their way to New Mexico. Later, in the wake of the French Revolution (1789), about 10,000 political refugees migrated to the United States, including about a hundred Roman Catholic priests who were to have an essential influence on the development of the Catholic Church in America and New Mexico. Another wave of French emigrants came after Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat in 1815.
In the mid-1850s, the California Gold Rush drew French immigrants seeking their fortune, with about 30,000 arriving between 1849 and 1851. A few of these stopped in New Mexico. Another wave came to the United States after the disastrous Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s. Alsatian Jews settled mainly in Los Angeles, but some established thriving businesses in New Mexico. A few other French businessmen came to New Mexico, seeing it as an alternative to North Africa, which had been colonized by the French as part of their “civilizing mission,” a version of America’s “Manifest Destiny.” They founded the wine industry in the Rio Grande Valley and various businesses across New Mexico.
A mutual fascination and friendship between France and the United States have existed for centuries. The friendship intensified when the Marquis de Lafayette supported the colonies during the American Revolution, and by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, respectively the first and second ambassadors to France (1778 and 1785). It bloomed when Napoleon signed the Louisiana Purchase (1803), considerably increasing the size of the United States.
For generations, the writings of enlightened authors such as Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Raynal in the 18th century, and Chateaubriand, Alexis de Tocqueville, and numerous others in the 19th century stimulated the French imagination They stoked the fires of revolution and social change on both continents. Although relations between the two countries hit a few low points in the 19th century (on the occasion of the so-called XYZ affair in 1797-98 and of the American Civil War), the friendship has been reaffirmed in modern times, especially during the two World Wars. It has grown to encompass commercial, cultural, and strategic partnerships, with only minor temporary setbacks occasioned by geopolitical differences.
In the United States today, about two million people speak French or French Creole at home. The current French presence in New Mexico is estimated at a thousand French or dual citizens, but the past is rich and storied.
Below are some of the milestones of that history:
- In 1539, Friar Marc de Nice (Marcos de Niza) and the Moor Esteban claimed to have sighted the legendary Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola in southern New Mexico, inspiring the Coronado expedition.
- Early French settlers were Jacques Grolet, Jean L’Archevêque, and Pierre Meusnier. After a series of extraordinary adventures, the trio joined a group of colonists as part of the second de Vargas expedition in the reconquest of New Mexico following the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Grolet and L’Archevêque both founded New Mexico dynasties, the current Gurulé and Archibeque families, respectively.
- Between about 1695 and 1760, when New Mexico was under Spanish rule, the presence of any French was a cause for alarm. During that period, there were many reports of so-called French intrusions into Spanish territory.
- From the mid-1760s to the mid-1780s, two Frenchmen from Lille, working for the Spanish Crown, had a major influence on what is now New Mexico: Charles-François (Carlos Francisco) de Croix, Marquis of Croix, was Viceroy of New Spain from 1766 to 1771, and his nephew, Theodore (Teodoro) de Croix, was Commandant General of the Interior Provinces from 1776 to 1783.
- During the 1780s, Pierre (Pedro) Vial, from Lyons, was employed by the Spanish government. Vial pioneered the trail from St. Louis, Missouri, to Santa Fe.
- In the late 1700s, in the wake of the revolution in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), many French people left the island, and some of them ended up in New Mexico.
- Fur trappers and merchants came to New Mexico in the early 1800s. French and French Canadians controlled the fur trade, making up 80 percent of the traders, with Taos one of their main centers.
- The French presence was significant on the Santa Fe Trail, along which travelers commonly spoke French. In 1848, French-Canadian François-Xavier Aubry set a record for the fastest journey between Santa Fe and Independence, Missouri, traveling the 800 miles in just five and a half days.
- From 1851 until 1914, French priests dominated New Mexico’s Catholic Church. The first New Mexico bishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, recruited legions of French priests to come to New Mexico, a tradition upheld by the succeeding four French archbishops.
- In the 1860s, men of French origin fought in New Mexico on both sides of the American Civil War. After France’s failed attempt to take over Mexico in 1867, most of the surviving French soldiers returned to France, but a few made their way to New Mexico.
- From the mid-1870s to the early 1900s, French families came to New Mexico and played significant roles in business, agriculture, and the wine industry. They settled in Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Socorro, as well as in towns and villages along the Rio Grande.
- In the 20th century, although French business entrepreneurs and artists continued to arrive and make their homes here, the French presence significantly decreased, notwithstanding the many French descendants still living in New Mexico.
What is now New Mexico was for centuries at the limit of the world known to Europeans. This is still the case as far as French history is concerned. This book is offered as a step to contribute to the cultural resurrection of the French in New Mexico.