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French Chronicles

I Remember French Kansas City Chez les Cansez


Kansas City’s fountains
Photo credit: kcfountains.com

July 28, 2016

Kansas City is today a regional metropolis of 2.34 million people. Its hundreds of majestic fountains give the area a royal distinction that is well acknowledged on the world’s scene. In its early days, this community at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers was entirely French-speaking. Kansas City’s beginnings are publicly posted on a series of commemorative markers recalling, in English and French, here and there on various historic sites, the rich French heritage of a great city in America, officially nicknamed City of Fountains and casually called Paris of the Plains.

The first wave of French settlers arrived in Kansas City at the end of the 1700s. They came from the Illinois Country, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River Valley in search of a better life. Their work, songs, collective joy and celebrations were scattered over a multitude of small one-acre farms. They lived comfortably in the shadow of a log cabin church dedicated to St. Francis Régis which the parishioners erected on a parcel of land donated by Pierre La Liberté. The bell of the church is preserved at St. Teresa's Academy.

They say that Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, a veteran frontiersman in the history of the American West, may have been among the first residents of the newly born village called Chez les Cansez, Kansas City's original name. Local merchants guided by Étienne Provost from Chambly, Québec, were the precursors of the famous Santa Fe Trail, more than 70 years before it opened up to organized wagon trains. These leaders proudly deployed America's French culture and heritage and its accent all the way to New Mexico and beyond. Kansas City’s economic boom was based in the fur trade with the arrival of François Chouteau in 1821. His entrepreneurial spirit earned him the honorary title of Founding Father of Kansas City.

Bénédict Roux, a missionary, became the first parish priest. All birth, marriage and death records were kept in Latin and French. In the old cemetery behind the church, one of the most interesting graves is probably that of Jacques Fournais ("Old Pino"), a Quebecker who lived to be 124 and who recalled the battle of the Plains of Abraham in September 1759 while chopping wood with his father at the age of twelve.

Like Montréal (1642), Detroit (1701), New Orleans (1718) and St. Louis (1764), Kansas City's old market square and its surrounding streets were all squarely oriented in relation to the river, rather than on the strict east-west Yankee orientation. This is a notable fact of French influence in America that must not be forgotten. Our memories constitute our collective wealth, said François Hertel, a member of the French Canadian Academy.

As is the case with the tricolor and star of the Acadian flag, the fleur de lys on the flag of the City of Montréal and on the golden coat of arms of the State flag of North Dakota, as well as the three vertical blue, white and red bands on the Iowa State flag, the tricolor symbol on the flag of Kansas City, Missouri, represents the French heritage of the city's original settlers. Chez les Cansez, speaking French was very much an integral part of every day life.

About the author

Jean-Pierre Bernier is a retired executive from the financial sector with a burning passion for America's Francophonie and its fraternity.

A Québec City native, he now lives in Aurora, Ontario.

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