Historical background

Folklore and Folkways

....The majority of Missourians have a way of speaking that is probably peculiar to the State. The difference lies partly in dialect and verb forms, but more in intonation and inflection, perceptible, yet evading precise description. The State's name to outsiders may be pronounced "Mis-sour-y," but here it is "Miz-sour-a"; "fire" often become "far," and sometimes "fawr." The Missourian's inflection has neither the rapid precision of the North, the languid drawl of the West and Southwest, nor the soft fluidity of the deep South. Perhaps it partakes of characteristics of each, forming a type of its own. There are, however, noticeable variations in different sections within the State.

Educated St. Louisians claim to speak English with less sectional individuality than persons of other localities. Yet outside this cultural and social circle, there is in general use the "St. Louis dialect," a compound of corruptions and inflections borrowed from the foreign born that contrasts sharply with the softer speech elsewhere. In Old Mines, Ste. Genevieve, and other French settlements of southeastern Missouri, approximately 85 per cent of the population speaks a Creole dialect, basically the French of the eighteenth century, but containing a blur of Spanish, English, and Indian words. German, often archaic in its form, is primarily the language of Hermann and of some other Missouri River towns.

Although much has been made of the survival of old English words in Missouri speech, this is exceptional rather than general. Preserved by the descendants of early immigrants from Kentucky and Tennessee, an occasional Old-World word crops up here and there in the hill country, current in one locality, unknown a hundred miles away.

Missouri speech, rather, is flavored with homely metaphors and similes that reflect rural and early-day life. Such ruralisms throw the surviving archaic expressions into high relief, intensified by a native talent for understatement. "Daunch," an English word of the fifteenth century, appears in corruption; and only an occasional person will know, when a hill woman complains, "We'unses shore air dauncey," that she means, depending on the locality, "We certainly are fastidious about our food," or, "We surely are unaware of what is happening," or, "We feel utterly listless." Few, however, will remain in doubt, when a farmer observes, "He lit a shuck out o' thar, I tell yuh, a-makin' mo' racket 'n a jack-ass in a tin barn," that someone left in a hurry and with much noise. Cool and foggy weather is referred to only in some places by the Elizabethan term, "misling"; in the hills, an illegitimate child may not be otherwise mentioned in mixed company than as a "woods colt"; and a bull is a "male brute."

Negro idiom and dialect have preserved such old English phrases as "ruinate" for "ruin" and "disremember" for "forget," and these have attained general usage over the State. The Negroes also have enriched speech with expressions peculiar to themselves, such as the phrase "in all my born days," meaning "in all my life." Negro cooks will sometimes demand the right to "tote" (carry home left-over food) as part of their wages. More recent and perhaps less valuable has been the development of the "cat language" among the Negroes of the cities, a streamlined mixture of metaphor and slang. Definitely a folk expression, it has many variations, and a Kansas City Negro may entirely fail to understand that his St. Louis friend's observation, "That sure is a fine vine you-all are under," is an admiring comment upon his apparel. In any case, Negro parlance has added much more to Missouri speech than have the French and German tongues of the socially isolated communities.

Although their tales have little currency outside their own settlements, the French and German populations have contributed much to folklore. Local raconteurs at Old Mines are especially fond of medieval French animal stories and tales of magic. In more than tales, though, Old-World culture lingers in various spots about the State. At both Florissant and Ste. Genevieve, the Host is borne through the streets in a solemn and colorful ceremony at the observance of Corpus Christi in June. Christmas is celebrated with firecrackers in the southwestern part of Missouri, and at Old Mines and Ste. Genevieve the celebration of La Guignolée marks New Year's Eve [..], as masked revelers make the rounds of homes and business places, singing a song centuries old [..] . In the foreign quarters of Kansas City and St. Louis, elaborate funeral processions wind through the streets, with lugubrious brass bands at their heads; and weddings, quite as spectacular as the funerals, are celebrated at morning Mass and followed by rounds of feasting and merrymaking. Sometimes, an Italian mother-in-law presents the bride with a handful of rice or a black hen, both symbols of fruitfulness. In a few German communities, wedding guests are charged an admission fee, and the "inviters" call at the door of each prospective guest, praising the entertainment to be offered at the wedding..


The songs of the French voyageurs were the first civilized music heard in Missouri. As these adventurers pushed their canoes up uncharted Western streams in the eighteenth century, they timed their paddle strokes to the ringing "Chanson du Nord," or to ballads such as the one recorded later by John Bradbury, English botanist, which began:

Beyond our House there is a pond,
Fal lal de Ia,
There came three ducks to swim thereon;
 All along the river clear,
Lightly my shepherdess dear,
Lightly, fal de la.

By 1780, a local event, the repelling by the French of a combined British and Indian attack on St. Louis, had been commemorated in the song "Chanson de L'Année du coup," said to have been written by Jean Baptiste Trudeau, a St. Louis schoolmaster. Celebrating the traditional courage of all defenders,

When the enemy first appeared,
To arms we ran, no one afeared;
Townsmen, traders, grave and gay,
Bravely to battle and win the day,

the song unjustly accuses of cowardice Fernando de Leyba, Spanish acting lieutenant-governor of Upper Louisiana, and ends on a jubilant note of French victory,

Thomas Ashe, visiting the Creole settlement at Ste. Genevieve on a summer's evening in 18o6, found the inhabitants gathered about their dooryards, "the women at work, the children at play, and the men performing music, singing songs, or telling stories . . ."  Between numerous special occasions for group festivities, such as balls and holy or feast days, the music-loving Creoles gathered night after night for the pure joy of singing together. They sang of the tragedy of a mother who unknowingly murdered her son in "Le Retour Funeste"; of the trials of love in "L'Amant Maiheureux" and "Belle Rose"; and of a more reflective theme in "Le Juif Errant." Of all these old French songs, perhaps the most familiar today is the ancient "La Guignolée," still sung by masked revelers on New Year's Eve at Ste. Genevieve and Old Mines. The Creoles contributed little to the development of modern music, but they had great influence on the cultural history of the State.

When the Anglo-Americans surged across the Mississippi River after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, French melodies were engulfed in the musical literature of the American frontierman which, though essentially naive, encompassed the range of human emotions..

Ste. Genevieve

STE. GENEVIEVE (401 alt., 2,787 pop.) with its very old homes and business houses, its massive red-brick church and walled convent, gives reality to the French tradition that forms so much of Missouri's background. Its heart is Du Bourg Place, the public square, shady and informal, and dominated by a church and small courthouse rather than by commercial structures. Emerging from the square, with no line of demarcation, are the residential sections, whose quiet streets, with their flower gardens and boxwood framed houses, are lined with elm and maple trees. Some of the residences are the Creole upright log houses, now weatherboarded, which were erected during the Spanish regime [...]. These have wide porches, or galéries, and occasionally their gardens are enclosed by rose-colored brick walls. In general, the meanderings of the North and South Gabouri Creeks mark the north and south, and the Old Cemetery between Fifth and Sixth Streets the west boundary of the old town. A new city of crisp modern houses and wide streets encircles the original village.

Trading center for a fertile farming district, Ste. Genevieve is also the shipping point for an excellent grade of marble and is one of the largest lime-producing towns in the State. But perhaps the best index of its life and manners is its festivals. On New Year's Eve, masked revelers dressed as Indians or blacked as Negroes shuffle from house to house, accompanied by a fiddler and singing "La Guignolée," an ancient French song with unwritten music and traditional words. At one time it was sung to solicit food and drink for the King's Ball, held on Twelfth Night; today, however, the masked singers demand only wine. At the Gloria of the Mass of Holy Thursday, before Easter, when the bells are silenced, the altar boys call the congregation to service by marching around the church square three times, rattling their rickracks (wooden rattles) and calling out, premier coup (first bell), deuxième coup (second bell), and dernier coup (last bell). Later, in May or June, depending on the date of Easter, the Feast of Corpus Christi is celebrated. On this day, small shrines are erected in front of the houses, and the town is decorated with flowers. At midmorning, accompanied by his assistants, the priest, bearing the Eucharist, and dressed in the most resplendent robes of his office, leads a procession through the streets. Singing children precede the parade, scattering flowers. The procession ends with a special Mass and blessing in front of the church on the public square.

As its history is recounted in Ste. Genevieve, no one knows where legends end and facts begin. Records trail off into old wives' tales, making charming, though sometimes improbable, stories of days before the 1785 flood. Some early dates, however, and several events that shaped the destiny of the town are definitely known. By 1715 Frenchmen had discovered lead at Mine La Motte, 30 miles to the southwest, and were mining it by crude means; in 1723 Philippe Francois Renault brought men and machinery from France, and slaves from San Domingo to work the mines. Renault abandoned his mining venture in 1744 and returned to France, but the industry which he had promoted was sporadically continued. Early maps and records suggest that families from Kaskaskia moved west across the Mississippi during the late 1740's and established farms in the fabulously rich bottom. The earliest known grants of land here were made in 1752 by Macarty, the Commandant at Kaskaskia, when 27 inhabitants owned 93 arpents (nearly 3 miles) of river frontage. Seven years later, a parish was organized at the settlement then called the "Poste de Saint Joachim." Agriculture was the primary interest of the community [...], together with salt making on near-by Saline Creek, fur trading with the Indians, and lead mining. "From the earliest time," Brackenridge later recalled, "the French inhabitants of Ste. Genevieve had all been more or less engaged in the storage, purchase, and traffic of lead."

When the territory west of the Mississippi River was secretly transferred to Spain in 1762, and that east of the Mississippi to England in 1763, Ste. Genevieve became an outpost of the Spanish Empire, and its affairs were shaped by the devious colonial ambitions and fears of Spain. The discontent of the Creoles on the east bank under Protestant British rule was aggravated by the withdrawal of all priests from the colony. Spain quickly took advantage of this dissatisfaction. In Ste. Genevieve, the Creole way of living was not disturbed. For the first time, a resident priest, Father Louis Meurin, was sent to the village, armed with a unique Papal dispensation to marry unbaptized Roman Catholics. Local men were appointed to administrative posts and large grants of land were offered to settlers. Soon a steady stream of immigrants began to cross the Mississippi. Nor were they all Creoles from the east bank; many came from Canada and Lower Louisiana, to be joined later by French Royalist refugees, Americans, and Germans.

Despite its growth, Ste. Genevieve (it is unknown when this name was first given to the settlement) was not a village in the American sense. Captain Philip Pittman of the English army, who visited there in 1766, found 70 families in a settlement "about one mile in length." Even in 1782 the place was considered too scattered for defense. The unusual length of the settlement, as Charles E. Peterson points out in his A Guide to Ste. Genevieve (1940), suggests that it was strung out along a main road like many of the old villages in French Canada.....

Old Mines

...Between the park and Caledonia, State 21 traverses one of the oldest settled areas of the Midwest, a section little changed since the first Frenchman began to work the shallow lead deposits with pick and shovel. These implements are still used for mining in the local "diggin's," small, shallow holes pockmarking the rust-red hillsides.

Houses with low-pitched roofs and whitewashed galéries, the rosered walls of St. Joachim's Church, and several gasoline stations strung along the highway identify OLD MINES, 31.7 m. (821 alt., 416 pop.), a Creole lead and tiff mining community all but surrounded by shallow diggings.

Here for nearly 150 years have lived people of French descent, united by nationality, religion, and their own social and economic practices, and almost completely isolated from the main currents of American life. Perhaps 90 per cent of them speak a French dialect, combined with certain Spanish, American, and a few African words. Strange nicknames for individuals, common during Colonial days here as well as in France, are in general use. For instance, during the Civil War Joseph Boyer was called "a diamond in the rough." Since then, he, his children, and their children have been called "Ghiam" (from ghimant, Can.-Fr. for diamond). Records of the period mention "Joseph Boyer dit (called) Ghiam." So persistent is the use of nicknames that often the original family name is hardly remembered.

The modern Creole works his garden plot desultorily, for his chief labor is digging ore. With the aid of his wife and children, he digs a shallow surface pit and from it scrapes enough tiff to support a meager existence. When the ore is exhausted, or when the pit grows too deep to be worked by this primitive method, the spot is abandoned for a new one. Often the miner gathers enough ore during the first half of the week to permit him to hunt or fish or doze upon his galérie until the following Monday. French ballads and folk tales of the Middle Ages are popular, especially on holidays. On New Year's Eve, the young people stroll about the village, stopping at the homes of friends and singing "La Guignolée." The host usually serves cookies and wine. If he has nothing to give, his daughter must dance with the visitors.

Old Mines, which was accumulated rather than founded, is the center of an area of lead mines that have been worked for more than 200 years. Although the early history of the industry is confused, it seems likely that the "old mines" on a branch of the Meramec west of the present village were discovered and worked by miners and Negro slaves under the direction of Philippe Francois Renault. Sent to develop the Missouri mines by the Company of Indies about 1720, Renault remained in the area until around 1744. He established lead mining as Missouri's first industry, and probably attracted to the State its first permanent settlers. With the discovers' of richer lead deposits five miles south, about 1773, Renault's old mines were temporarily abandoned. According to Moses Austin, who wrote a history of lead mining in Missouri in 1804, fifteen French families settled near the old mines in February 1802, and formed a village. Their descendants inhabit the community today.

ST. JOACHIM'S CHURCH (R) achieves beauty through simplicity and good proportions. Cruciform in shape, with Palladian details, its design is related to that of the Roman Catholic churches built during the same period (about 1830) at Perryville and Ste. Genevieve. Inside are straight-backed box pews, a decorative white altar railing, and a copper baptismal font that has been in use for more than 100 years. Above the altar hangs an early painting of the Virgin Mary, the work of an unknown artist. Some of the silver altar vessels were brought from Canada during the first part of the last century. On special occasions the priest wears vestments of rich brocade and cloth-of-gold brought from France for use in the log church erected on this site in 1802. Scattered over the hillside in ST. JOACH!M'S CEMETERY, south of the church, are many wrought-iron crosses of early Creole origin. The impressive large stone "box" monuments of Marie Louisa Lamarque (1799-1868), who was "eminently munificent toward tile sustainment and propagation of Religion," and of her husband, Etienne Lamarque (1785-1851), a native of France, are enclosed by an ornate cast-iron fence....


Quoted from pages 131-133, 158-159, 269-271, 535-536 from:
Missouri, The WPA Guide to the "Show Me" State
1941, Missouri State Highway  Department,
reprint 1998, St.Louis, Missouri Historical Society Press, IBN 1-883982-23-5


Created 2020-10-31
This page is part of an anthology about Missouri French
© Roger Thijs, Euro-Support, Inc.