I heard from cousins who still live in central Ohio this week, and it got me to thinking about Marseilles, a little Wyandot County town we used to drive through on the way to visit them. This further got me thinking about why half the towns in that part of Ohio have French names.
Executive summary: I haven’t a clue.
Thanks to parents who usually were willing to stop the car at historical markers, I have a fair amount of information about Ohio’s history and pre-history: the Mound Builders, the Shawnee, various explorers from the eastern side of the Cumberland Gap, enough presidents and 19th-century generals to manifest two or three destinies. I can spell and pronounce Chillicothe, and I can put the right number of n’s in Cincinnati without even thinking. I even remember why both those places are called what they are. But I’m at a loss to explain why there are so many obviously French names on the highway signs.
We sure didn’t cover this in my seventh-grade State History class. We drew the state flag and learned where the hills are that show up on the official state seal. We memorized the names of all 88 counties. We learned that some early settlers were veterans of the Revolutionary War who received grants in the Ohio territory in lieu of back salary (officers, I’m guessing—enlisted men mostly got zip). But I swear on la plume de ma tante that I learned not a word about the French in Ohio.
And yet, they must have been there way back when. The place names I’m thinking about all predate the Civil War; some predate statehood. They can’t all be attributed to voyageur campsites or pioneer wives with finishing school backgrounds.
So where did the French go?
Did they pack up and move to Quebec after the French and Indian War? Did they all change their names? Were they Huguenots and therefore off the radar as far as Irish Catholics were concerned? (But that wouldn’t make sense, because we certainly knew about the heritage of the Mennonites and Amish and Methodists and Swedenborgians in the area.)
The other oddity is that, with the exception of Champaign County and a little town named Bellevue, hardly any of the names I remember are pronounced in a way that could be considered even remotely French.
Here in Wisconsin, where I’ve lived half my life, French-derived place names are pronounced more or less the way you’d expect: La Crosse, Fond du Lac, Marquette, Lac du Flambeau, Racine. (Beloit—pronounced belOYT—is an exception, but at least they acknowledge it; there’s a Cafe Belwah in the main downtown hotel, and shingles on the roof the Beloit College Commons spell out BELWAH in letters so big they’re probably legible from low-earth orbit.)
But in Ohio, Bellefontaine is not bel-fonTAYNE but belFOUNTAIN (or, more accurately, belFOWN-t’n). If you’re trying to find Marseilles and pronounce it the French way, it might take a few tries to find someone in Wyandot County who realizes you mean marSALES. And while there is a city named Terre Haute in western Indiana, the western Ohio village of the same name is pronounced “terry hut.”
C’est vrai. And one of these days I’m going to find out why.
© 2010 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go