BRINGING OHIO’S FRENCH HISTORY INTO THE CLASSROOM

Decoding the Céloron Plaque

Dr. Roger Anderson, Assistant Professor of International Languages & Cultures, Central State University

The Great Lakes and Ohio River regions boast a fascinating French history.  In fact, the French even claimed Ohio as property of the French crown!  Ohio instructors of French should welcome this history into their classrooms. 

The Céloron Plaque refers to six metal plaques that were buried by the French in Ohio’s soil in 1749.  What follows is a brief overview of its story, followed by suggested classroom activities for French language instruction.  

French Troops Affixing Plaques along the Ohio River

From the late 1600’s through the middle of the 1700’s, the British and French fought each other throughout North America, often involving American Indian tribes as proxies.  France saw itself as owners of much of North America, based on the 1682 explorations of French explorer, René Robert Cavalier, a.k.a. “De Salle.”  Unsurprisingly, the British had competing claims.  

To strengthen France’s territorial claims, in 1749 a troop of French-speaking soldiers and American Indians left Montréal (New France, today in Quebec, Canada), led by Commandant Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blaineville.  Crossing the Great Lakes, they made their way to the Ohio River valley (Moyer, 2016).  

Along their journey, the French troops affixed metal plaques to trees to stake France’s claims.  Once one plaque was removed and absconded with by local American Indians, the plaques were instead buried in the earth (Galbreath, 1921).  Six such plaques were buried at major tributaries to the Ohio River, as indicated by the extant map.

le Reverend Pere Bonnecamps, 1749

One such plaque was unearthed in Marietta, Ohio, in 1789 by a group of boys.  (Marietta, Ohio’s oldest city, existed before Ohio became a state in 1803).  It was moved to a museum in Massachusetts, where it remains.  In the aftermath of WWI, a monument was erected in Marietta, out of the goodwill of the French government.  Today, the monument displays the text of the original Céloron Plaque, marking the friendship between the U.S. and France there on the bank of the Ohio River (City of Marietta, 2017).  

Moyer, 2016

The Plaque’s Territorial Claims

The plaques declared that France possessed all the land on both sides of the “Oyo” River, or “beautiful river.”  Moreover, it possessed all the rivers that emptied into it, all the way until their sources, and all the land that touched these tributaries.  

In geographic terms, this equates to the entirety of the Ohio River Watershed (drainage basin), which encompasses almost 190,000 square miles across twelve U.S. states.  All was declared the property of King Louis XV, sitting in his golden bedrooms of Versailles, across the Atlantic.  

KMusser, 2006

The text of the Marietta plaque can be found here:  https://jimmoyer1.wixsite.com/fortloudounva/single-post/2016/08/02/Celeron-Expedition-1749-and-WWI

The text of others of the six plaques can be found here: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Joseph_C%C3%A9loron_de_Blainville

Key Historical Context

These plaques were pawns in the global chess match played by London and Paris. The French and Indian War (1754-63) ensued.  Unsurprisingly, Anglophone Canadians and the British refer to the conflict as the Seven Years’ War, while the French and Francophone Canadians call it La Guerre de la Conquête, the War of Conquest.  Modern-day historians call it, “The Great War for Empire” (Feight & A.L., 2020). 

Although forgotten by most Americans, the French and Indian War changed the trajectory of world history.  Key aspects include:

  • the young George Washington initiated his military career; while battling French-allied American Indians he suffered the only surrender of his military career (National Park Service, 2015).
  • territorially, the war reshaped North America (among other continents)
    • France’s loss at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, at the gates of Quebec City, marked France’s loss to the British of what would become Canada 
    • Victorious London forced a choice upon a defeated France; France chose to retain the sugar-producing Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in exchange of its immense territory of New France. France relinquished all lands east of the Mississippi River to the British and west of it to the Spanish.  
    • France ceded Louisiana to Spain, and the city of New Orleans to the British (Barlow & Nadeau, 2006). 
  • Rampant spending by three different French kings named Louis, much of it on wars overseas, had impoverished the French public.  Ultimately, revolution exploded in 1789, during which Louis XV’s grandson, Louis XVI and his Austrian wife, notoriously lost their heads (Gombrich, 1985).   

In short, the Céloron plaques are a link between Ohio and colossal events that altered the trajectory of North America and the world, forever changing the linguistic landscape of North America.  

Suggested Activities in the French classroom: Decoding the Plaque

The Céloron plaque could be used in a variety of classroom activities at varying levels, using both its form and content, in French and English.

Younger learners could simply learn this history and consider how their lives would be different had the French ultimately prevailed. Maybe Ohio schools would be learning English as a foreign language and speaking French at home! 

Novice learners could simply be asked to identify words they recognize and deduce the intent of the Céloron Plaque.  

Intermediate or more advanced learners could hunt and peck for the four uses of the passé composé, for familiar names with unfamiliar spellings (Oyo- Ohio), or for the nickname given to the Ohio River.  

To facilitate learners’ geographic skills, learners could be given maps with rivers identified and be tasked with shading in all the territory to which the French laid claim.  For all learners in Ohio beyond the Lake Erie Watershed, such mapping enables a visualization that their school stands on land that was claimed by France! 

Advanced learners could be tasked with translating parts of the English into French, and then comparing their work to the original.  

For a deeper discussion of historiography and historical memory, learners could consider the timing of the Marietta Monument’s erection and Franco-American relations since 1749. 

Conclusion:  Connecting Ohio History Globally

In decoding this or other authentic historical materials, learners of French may:

  • enjoy learning the unique history of the region where they live,
  • situate Ohio’s history within national and global histories,
  • apply their emerging French to authentic materials,
  • develop a critical appreciation of history’s enduring legacy

Today, an uninhabited island in the Detroit River (Michigan) is named “Celoron Island,” in honor of the plaque-burying Commandant Celeron.  The island is adjacent to Pointe Mouillée, (the wet point), a marsh where French fur-trappers roamed.  

Imagine an Ohio today in which the French prevailed in the 18th century conflicts.  How would it have altered the linguistic landscape of today’s Columbus, Dayton, Athens, Akron, etc., (if these places would have existed at all)?

Lyrics of Robert Schmertz’ song “Celoron” in his 1959 songbook “Songs About Early Pittsburgh” best capture the sentiment of “what if”:

“If t’weren’t for Merry England, it might well have been so
That we would all be Frenchmen along the 0 – hi – 0 —
And as for captain Celoron, We’ve loudly sing his praise
And raise the French tri-color and sing the Marseillaise!” (Schmertz, Nov 1, 2020)

References

Barlow, J., & Nadeau, J. B. (2006). The Story of French. A.A. Knopf: Toronto.

City of Marietta. (2017). Celoron Monument. Retrieved from https://www.mariettaoh.net/index.php/about-marietta/monuments/celeron-monument

Feight, P. D., & A.L. (2020). Scioto Historical Society:  Lower Shawnee Town % Celoron’s Expedition. Retrieved from https://sciotohistorical.org/items/show/35?tour=5&index=3

Galbreath, C. (1921). Expedition of Celeron to the Ohio country in 1749. Columbus, OH: F.J. Heer Printing Co.

Gombrich, E. H. (1985). A Little History of the World (C. Mustill Trans.). (English version published in 2005 ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

KMusser. (2006). Ohio River Map.png (based on USGS Data)

le Reverend Pere Bonnecamps. (1749). arte d un voyage fait dans la Belle Riviere en la Nouvelle France M.DCC XLIX.   

Moyer, J. (2016). Celoron Expedition 1749 and WWI. Retrieved from https://jimmoyer1.wixsite.com/fortloudounva/single-post/2016/08/02/Celeron-Expedition-1749-and-WWI

National Park Service. (2015). The Battle of Fort Necessity. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/fone/index.htm

Schmertz, R. (Nov 1, 2020). Smithsonian Folkways Recordings:  Sing oh!  The City Oh!:  Songs of Early Pittsburgh. Retrieved from https://media.smithsonianfolkways.org/liner_notes/folkways/FW05258.pdf