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Learning and science, too, were terms scarcely comprehended, their technicalities not at all; for schools were few, and learned men still more so; and thus reading, writing, and ciphering are, and ever have been, the acme of scholastic proficiency with the French villager. How many of the honest fellows can do even this, is not for me to estimate.
As to politics and the affairs of the nation , which their countrymen on the other side of the water ever seem to think no inconsiderable object of their being, they are too tame, and too lazy, and too quiet to think of the subject. Indeed, the worthy villagers very wisely look upon "earthly dignities" and the like much with the stoicism of Cardinal Wolsey in disgrace,. The virtues of these people are said to be many: punctuality and honesty in their dealings; politeness and hospitality to strangers; though, it must be confessed, the manifold impositions practised upon their simplicity of late years has tended to substitute for the latter virtue [Pg 54] not a little of coolness and distrust.
There is much friendship and warmth of feeling between neighbours and kindred, and the women make affectionate wives, though by no means prone to consider themselves in the light of goods and chattels of their liege-lords, as is not unfrequently the case in more enlightened communities. Indeed, as touching this matter, the Mississippi French villager invariably reverses the sage maxim of the poet,.
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As to religious faith, all are Catholics; and formerly, more than of late years, were punctilious in observance of the ceremony and discipline of their church, permitting but few festivals of the calendar to pass unobserved. Their wealth consisted chiefly of personal property, slaves, merchandise, etc. Rent for houses was a thing hardly known. All this changed long ago, of course; and while real estate has augmented in value many hundred per cent. In the ordinary avocations of the villagers, there is but little variety or distinction even at the present day, and formerly this uniformity of pursuit was yet more observable.
The wealthier and more enterprising habitans were traders, often with peculiar and exclusive privileges; and they kept a heterogeneous stock of goods in the largest room of their dwelling-houses, by way of being merchants. There are but few who practice the mechanic arts for a livelihood: carpenters, smiths, tailors, shoemakers, etc.
The bold recklessness of this class has long been notorious. It requires no very close observation or proficiency in the language to detect a difference, especially in pronunciation, from the European French. There is not that nervous, animated brilliancy of dialect which distinguishes the latter; and the nasal, lengthened, drawling sound of words, gives their conversation a languid, though by no means a disagreeable movement. It is said to be more soft and euphonious than the vernacular, though very different from the Creole dialect of the West India Islands. There are some provincialisms, and some words which a century ago might have been recognized in some provinces of France, though not now.
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As to the item of costume , it is still somewhat unique, though formerly, we are told, much more so: that of the men was a course blanket-coat, with a cap attached behind in lieu of a cape; and which, from the circumstance of drawing over the head, gave the garment the name of capote. Around the head was wreathed a blue handkerchief in place of a hat, and on the feet moccasins instead of shoes and stockings. All this, however, has pretty generally given place to the American garb, though some of the very aged villagers may still be seen in their ancient habiliments, the capote , moccasins, blue handkerchief on [Pg 56] the head, and an endless queue lengthened out behind.
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Their chief amusement ever has been, and, probably, ever will be, the dance , in which all, even from the least to the greatest, bond and free, unite. Their slaves are treated well, if we may judge from appearances; for nowhere in the West have I seen a sleeker, fleshier, happier-looking set of mortals than the blacks of these old villages. Previous to the cession of Louisiana to our government, the Laws of Spain were pretty generally in force throughout the province, so far as related to municipal arrangement and real estate, while the common law of France— Coutume de Paris —governed all contracts of a social nature, modified by and interwoven with the customs of the people.
These rulers were appointed by the governor at New-Orleans, to whom there was an appeal; and the lieutenant-governor, who resided at St. Louis, was commander of the troops. Thus the government was a mixture of civil and military; and, though arbitrary to the last degree, yet we are told the rod of domination was so slight as scarcely to be felt.
The delay and uncertainty attendant on trial by jury, and the multifarious technicalities of our jurisprudence, they could not well comprehend, either as to import, importance, or utility; and it is not strange they should have preferred the prompt despatch of arbitrary power. Nor is the modern administration of justice the only change with which the simple-hearted villager is dissatisfied.
On every side of him improvement , the watchword of the age, is incessantly ringing in his ears; and if there be one term in all our vocabulary he abhors more than all others, it is this same: and, reader, there is much wisdom in his folly. In the invention of Fulton's mighty genius was first beheld walking upon the Western waters; and from that hour "the occupation" of the daring, reckless, chivalrous French voyageur "was gone.
And then the streets and thoroughfares where his boyhood has frolicked, as the village increases to a city, must be widened, and straightened, and paved, and all for no earthly reason, to his comprehension, but to prevent familiar chat with his opposite neighbour, when sitting on his balcony of a long summer night, and to wear out his poor pony's unshodden hoofs!
It is very true that their landed property, where they have managed to retain it from the iron grasp of speculation, has increased in value almost beyond calculation by the change; but they now refuse to profit by selling. Merchandise, the comforts and luxuries of life, have become cheaper and more easily obtained, and the reward [Pg 58] of industrious enterprise is greater.
But what is all this to men of their peculiar habits and feelings? Once they were far better contented, even in comparative poverty. There was then a harmony, and cordiality, and unanimity of feeling pervading their society which it never can know again. They were as one family in every village; nearly all were connected either by ties of affinity, consanguinity, propinquity, or friendship: distinction of rank or wealth was little known, and individuals of every class were dressed alike, and met upon equal and familiar footing in the same ballroom. As to the poorer class of these villagers, it is more than doubtful whether they have at all been benefited by the change of the past twenty years.
We must not forget that, as a race, they are peculiar in character, habits, and feeling; and so utterly distinct from ourselves, that they can with hardly more facility associate in customs with us than can our red brother of the prairie. Formerly the poorest, and the laziest, and the most reckless class was fearless of want or beggary; but now a more enterprising race has seized upon the lands with which they have imprudently parted, perhaps with little remuneration, and they find themselves abridged in many of their former immunities.
Their cattle may no longer range at will, nor have they the liberty of appropriating wood for fuel wherever it seemeth good. It cannot be denied, that many a one gains now a precarious subsistence, where formerly he would have lived in comfort. Nearly every one possesses a little cart, two or three diminutive ponies, a few cattle, a cottage, and garden.
But in agriculture, the [Pg 59] superior industry of the new immigrant can afford them for lease-rent double the result of their toil, while as draymen, labourers, or workmen of any kind, it is not difficult for foreigners to surpass them. Nor will the farmer, however lazy, lose the reward of his labour so long as the market of St. Louis is as little over stocked as at present. Nathless, it is pretty certain " times ain't now as they used to was " to the French villager, all this to the contrary notwithstanding. In remarking upon the history of the French in the West, and the peculiarities which still continue to characterize them, I am aware I have lingered longer than could have been anticipated; much longer, certainly, than was my original intention.
The circumstances which have induced this delay have been somewhat various. The subject itself is an interesting one. Apart from the [Pg 60] delight we all experience in musing upon the events of bygone time, and that gratification, so singularly exquisite, of treading amid the scenes of "things departed," there is an interest which every individual who has cast his lot in the great Valley cannot fail to feel in every item, even the most minute, which may pertain to its history.
In dwelling, too, upon the features of "old Kaskaskia," my design has been to exemplify the distinguishing characteristics of all these early settlements, both French and Spanish, in the Valley of the Mississippi. The peculiarities of all are the same, as were the circumstances which first conduced to them.
The same customs, the same religion, the same amusements, and the same form of government prevailed among all; and though dissimilar in dialect, and separated by the broad Mississippi, yet, cut off from all the rest of mankind, both the French and the Spanish villagers were glad to smother differences, and to bind themselves to each other in their dependant situation by the tendrils of mutually kind offices and social intercourse.
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Thus, several of the villages stand opposite each other upon the banks of the Mississippi. Genevieve is only across the stream from Kaskaskia, and many fine old traditionary legends of these early times are yet extant, and should be treasured up before too late.
But another circumstance which has been not unfavourable to that prolixity into which I have suffered my pen to glide, and without which other inducements might have proved ineffectual, has been the quiet, dreamy seclusion of this old hamlet, so congenial to the workings of the brain. Yesterday was like to-day, and to-morrow will be the transcript of yesterday; and so time's current slips lazily along, like. As to objects of interest, one could hardly have lingered [Pg 61] so long as I have within the precincts of this "sleepy hollow" without having met with some incidents worthy of regard for their novelty , if for naught else.
There are few situations in Illinois which can boast advantages for mercantile transaction superior to Kaskaskia. But the villagers are not a commercial, enterprising, money-making people, and the trade of the place is, therefore, very small. The river is said to be navigable for fifty miles from its mouth; the current is gentle, and an inconsiderable expense in clearing the channel of fallen timber would enable small boats to penetrate nearly two hundred miles higher, by the meanderings of the stream, to Vandalia. Measures for this purpose have been entered upon.
A land-office for the district is here established. Opposite Kaskaskia, on the summit of a lofty crag overlooking the river, once stood a large fortress of massive timber, named Fort Gage. Its form was an oblong quadrangle, the exterior polygon being several hundred yards in circumference. It was burnt to the ground in About twelve years subsequent to this event, the place was taken by the American troops under Colonel George Rogers Clarke, "Hannibal of the West.
The aged Catholic church at Kaskaskia, among other relics of the olden time, is well worthy a stranger's visit. It was erected more than a century since upon the ruins of a former structure of similar character, but is still in decent condition, and the only church in the place. It is a huge old pile, extremely awkward and ungainly, with its projecting eaves, its walls of hewn timber perpendicularly planted, and the interstices stuffed with mortar, with its quaint, old-fashioned spire, and its dark, storm-beaten casements.
The interior of the edifice is somewhat imposing, notwithstanding the sombre hue of its walls; these are rudely plastered with lime, and decorated with a few dingy paintings. The floor is of loose, rough boards, and the ceiling arched with oaken panels. The altar and the lamp suspended above are very antique, I was informed by the officiating priest, having been used in the former church.
The lamp is a singular specimen of superstition illustrated by the arts. But the structure of the roof is the most remarkable feature of this venerable edifice. This I discovered in a visit to the belfry of the tower, accomplished at no little expenditure of sinew and muscle, for stairs are an appliance quite unknown to this primitive building.
There are frames of two distinct roofs, of massive workmanship, neatly united, comprising [Pg 63] a vast number of rafters, buttresses, and braces, crossing each other at every angle, and so ingeniously and accurately arranged by the architect, that it is mathematically impossible that any portion of the structure shall sink until time with a single blow shall level the entire edifice.
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