7 Midwest Destinations Where You Can Experience Early French Settlement

Here's where you can get a taste of French culture without leaving the region.

Some may be surprised to learn that back in the 18th century—even before the British, Norwegians and Germans—the French were the first Europeans to settle in the Midwest. Today, visitors can explore this heritage, including the complexities and legacy of the French-Native American relationship, through living-history villages, restored forts and small-town Main Streets. Especially in summer and fall, with colorful festivals and costumed historical reenactments, there's plenty to discover for families and history buffs alike.

This summer marks the 350th anniversary of Father Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Jolliet's birchbark canoe expedition in 1673, when they traveled through the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, opening the northern reaches of the great waterway to Europeans for the first time. Several Midwestern river towns are planning to commemorate this historic voyage in 2023.

Interested in learning more? This interactive map links to hundreds of sites that made up La Nouvelle France.

Fort de Chartres
Courtesy of Nicholas Kuntz, Fort de Chartres Heritage Garden Project

Fort de Chartres, Illinois

While the English struggled to build a viable colony in Virginia, the French were establishing their presence on the Mississippi near Prairie du Rocher, at the southernmost tip of what is now Illinois. Today, the massive stone Fort de Chartres, on a site founded in 1720, encompasses six buildings, including a sturdy powder magazine that may be the oldest building in the state. Every weekend in season, at least one costumed interpreter is on hand to spin rousing tales of the fort's history. Our favorite spot is the potager, or kitchen garden, sprouting produce that the French colonists would have cultivated in 18th-century Illinois. There's also a small museum, historic Catholic chapel, and even a modern-day trading post in the nearby Prairie du Rocher French Colonial District.

Don't Miss

Plan your visit when Les Amis du Fort de Chartres, a volunteer group, bring the past to life with events like the Fort de Chartres Rendezvous in June, the French and Indian War Winter Encampment in February, Kids Days in May, the French and Indian War Assemblage in September, and French Colonial Crafts and Trades in October.

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For a European feel, head to The Pour Vineyard, about 10 miles from Fort de Chartres, set among rolling hills on a Centennial family farm near Red Bud, Illinois.

Road trip aficionados will want to hop on the Kaskaskia-Cahokia Trail—an overland route used by the Indigenous American people for millennia—to explore more sites related to native cultures and French colonial roots in Southern Illinois.

A replica of a 36’ Montreal canoe on the St. Joseph River at the Fort St. Joseph Archaeology Open House. Photo by Erika Hartley. Courtesy of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project.
Courtesy of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project/Erika Hartley

Fort St. Joseph, Michigan

Though Fort St. Joseph was built in southwest Michigan in 1691, it remained hidden until 1998—when a team of archeologists from Western Michigan University uncovered the long-lost site. This year, the 17th-century French mission, garrison and fur trading post complex will celebrate 25 years of ongoing archaeological digs aimed at excavating, interpreting and preserving the remains of the fort.

Don't Miss

Get your hands dirty during the Fort St. Joseph Archaeology Open House on August 5-6. See historical reenactors, view colonial artifacts, and meet student archaeologists during this annual event.

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Displaying trade silver, musket parts, glass beads, buttons, gunflints, knife blades and more, the Fort St. Joseph Museum captures the attention of most any budding Indiana Jones. It's in downtown Niles, just north of the fort. You'll find shops and cafes to explore as well in The Niles Downtown Historic District, where the oldest brick buildings date to the 1850s and 1860s.

Felix Valle House State Historic Site
Felix Valle House State Historic Site. Courtesy of Missouri State Parks

Ste. Geneviève, Missouri

Named for the patron saint of Paris, Ste. Geneviève—a Mississippi River town and one of America's newest National Historical Parks—was the first permanent European settlement in Missouri. Established by 1750, it retains much of the feel of its French Colonial past. Some older buildings house gift shops, antiques stores and restaurants; many are still private homes. For a deep dive into the past—plus activities and events like rope-making, gunsmithing and more—visit the Centre for French Colonial Life Museum Campus, with its thoughtfully curated exhibits and restored historic homes, including the Bolduc House, recognized as the one of the finest example of French architecture from the era.

Don't Miss

The annual L'Ecole du Soldat (School of the Soldier) in April, when costumed re-enactors bring French colonial history to life with family-friendly activities including children's games, colonial period arts-and-crafts demos, parades, and auctions of collectibles, plus "frog talks" where amateur historians cover an array of period topics.

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Gourmets (and gourmands) will love Ste. Geneviève. Stop at family-owned Pat's Pastries and Home Cooking Café for lunch or treats. At Anvil Saloon and Restaurant on the town square, the bar comes from a steamboat that plied the Mississippi until the 1950s, the onion rings are legendary, and locals are known to share their tales of the past. On historic Main Street, fuel up at Stella and Me in an old storefront, or grab a cuppa joe at Common Grounds.

Villa Louis Historic Site

Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin

St. Feriole Island, site of the earliest Euro-American settlement on the Upper Mississippi, was once the center for the area's thriving 17th-century fur trade between the French and Native Americans. The park's most popular attraction is Villa Louis, an 1871 Italianate mansion built by the family of an entrepreneurial frontiersman who parlayed savvy investments into a Gilded Age fortune. Tours of the fully furnished house museum cover the lifestyle of Midwestern high society of the Victorian era. Check the schedule for popular events like the Breakfast in the Kitchen cooking workshop in the authentically restored 19th-century kitchen.

Don't Miss

Prairie du Chien's recorded history dates to June 17, 1673, when Father Marquette and fur trader Jolliet, after a month's paddling through the Great Lakes to the Wisconsin River, entered the Mississippi at a key confluence near what would become Prairie du Chien. This summer, the town will host a weekend event celebrating the 350th anniversary of that journey.

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Maiden Voyage Tours, one of the last family-owned tour boats on the Mississippi, is docked just across the bridge from Prairie du Chien in Marquette, Iowa. Climb aboard the 49-seat cruiser for off-the-beaten-path tours of waters and streams that the early explorers confronted.

French Icarian Colony, Iowa

While Iowa's bustling Mississippi River towns like Dubuque get attention for their renown during the period when Iowa was part of the French Louisiana Territories from 1762 to 1802, not many know that the French also built a communal farming community in the mid-1800s based on the ideals of liberté, egalité, and fraternité near the tiny western Iowa village of Corning in Adams County, an hour southwest of Des Moines.

Don't Miss

The remote 34-acre restoration site unfolds like a mirage after the 10-minute drive down a gravel road from Corning. Atop a windswept ridge above the Nodaway River valley, birdsong and cricket chirps fill the air at the French Icarian Colony. Descendants of pioneers who traveled from France to form the longest-lived non-religious communal experiment in American history (1848 to 1898) still manage the site, so plan ahead for your visit. The hand-hewn refractory and restored one-room school house whisper of the hard work and values of French pioneers. Take a picnic and relax awhile to absorb the countryside views.

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In town, join foodies from Omaha and Des Moines who drive in for dinner at Primrose—the destination restaurant owned by local Jill Fulton and her chef-husband Joel Mahr. From the James Beard House in New York City to his wife's hometown, this chef never looked back. And why would he? He's living his dream at Primrose—in a century-old building on Corning's Main Street—making magic from produce sourced from Jill's family farm 20 minutes away plus beef, lamb, and chicken from local purveyors. And Jill makes some of the best cocktails between Des Moines and Kansas City.

Feast of the Hunters' Moon, Indiana

When October rolls around, there's more than Purdue football happening around West Lafayette. Just four miles outside of town, more than 40,000 participants gather over a weekend to celebrate the ancient Feast of the Hunters' Moon. The event—one of the largest of its kind in the country—commemorates the annual gathering of French and Native Americans that took place at Indiana's Fort Ouiatenon, established in 1717 on the banks of the Wabash River. Regulars love the rousing opening and closing ceremonies, the arrival of the historic voyageur trading canoes, lacrosse matches, Native American dancing, cannon-firing demonstrations, tomahawk-throwing competitions, and fife and drum corps performances.

Don't Miss

Although the French fur traders are long gone, many Native American families and tribes participate in the event each year to share their heritage, languages and modern cultures. This year, the Miami Tribe will build a wigwam village at the event, with educational programs like cattail mat weaving, dancing, and bead bracelet making. And, in keeping with its name, the Feast wouldn't live up to its reputation without the event's famous buffalo burgers and rabbit stew.

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A three-hour drive south of Fort Ouiatenon, French-speaking emigrants from Switzerland settled the rolling farmland around small-town Vevay, where the Musée de Venoge is one of the few remaining examples of the French colonial architecture that characterized the first settlement.

The historic depot and dock on Grand Portage Bay (Lake Superior). Hat Point and Pete's Island in the distance. Isle Royale is visible on the horizon.
Courtesy of NPS

Grand Portage National Monument, Minnesota

On the north shore of Lake Superior, Grand Portage National Monument, on the tribal lands of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa/Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) people, has been a hub of intercontinental waterway trade since ancient times. Today, volunteers and park staff in period attire are on hand in the restored 18th-century trading post that includes a stockade, great hall, 18th-century kitchen and canoe warehouse. There's also an Ojibwe village and voyageur (French trader) encampment in and around the stockade.

Don't Miss

During the second weekend of August, the park hosts a rendezvous event commemorating the annual gathering of the late 18th- and early 19th- centuries, where up to 1,200 people would assemble to exchange goods for furs, discuss business, rekindle friendships, and socialize before departing for an extended season of isolation in remote interior outposts. Rendezvous weekend features a full slate of activities, plus full-size replica birchbark canoes on display in the warehouse and more than 250 costumed re-enactors sharing their love of history.

Do More

To get a fuller appreciation for the park, hike a section of the Grand Portage Trail. You'll be walking in the footsteps of those who have traversed this area for millennia. Or pay a visit to Grand Portage State Park, near the Canadian border on the Pigeon River. There, you can hike a half-mile fully accessible trail to 120-foot-tall High Falls, the highest waterfall in Minnesota.

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