History of the French Colonial Historical Society:

An Insider's Guide
by Phillip Boucher, University of Alabama, Huntsville

(updated by Sue Peabody, May 2008)

Philip Boucher prepared and presented the following history of the society upon the occasion of its 30th anniversary, celebrated in Washington, DC (2004).


Though this is a personal reflection it has profited a great deal from the reflections of many long time society members and officers. Thanks to among others David Gardinier, John Johnston, Bill Shorrock, Dale Miquelon, Bob Duplessis, Pat Galloway and Dale Standen. A more definitive and official history of the Society can only be completed after work at the Society's archives in Ottawa. I appeal to the anciens to forward materials you have accumulated to Ottawa.

The joys and difficulties of birth and infancy: 1974-1983:

The planning meeting occurred in 1974 at the A.H.A. meeting in Chicago. Participants were Alan Schom (Southern Connecticut State), Alf Heggoy (Georgia), Ray Betts (Kentucky), Bill Cohen (Indiana), Jim Cooke (Mississippi), David Gardinier (Marquette) (all Africanists, 19th and 20th) and one other, either Kim Munholland (Minnesota) or Ken Perkins (South Carolina).

After initiating two years of informal discussions, Alan Schom organized this meeting. The goal was to create outlets for work in the field because the journal French Historical Studies was not then interested in France Outre-mer and Africanist journals were moving away from more traditional imperial topics. Both in North America and France, colonial studies were déclassé and those engaged in them were viewed with suspicion in some quarters. Then and in the subsequent decades, some people even advised us to change the name French Colonial Historical Society.

Despite its organization exclusively by historians of the modern colonial empire, the Society was determined to recruit ancien regime specialists. Alf Heggoy personally recruited one panel for the first meeting at Georgia. Some asked: What can scholars 19th and 20th century Algeria, say, learn from specialists in New France? Our members argued that many strands of continuity characterized French policies and actions Outre-mer over the centuries. The rationalizations for such conduct and attitudes may evolve over time, but the French colonial's hauteur combined with paternalism stayed the same. Belief in mission civilisatrice, whether in a religious or nationalist cloak, was a dominant theme in French colonial ideology over four centuries.

Alf Andrew Heggoy and the Georgia meeting April 3-5, 1975.

Unfortunately, few people on the program there except for me are still active in the society. Future presidents of FCHS, David Gardinier and Cornelius Jaenen, although not listed on the program, recall attending the Georgia meeting. Alan Schom was the first president, Alf Heggoy vice-president and Bill Cohen, the secretary-treasurer.

At the time there were three major committees: Finance, Book Award and Bibliography. Leon Blair chaired the book award committee, with good reason as he supplied the money for the award for a number of those early years. He was still book prize chair as late as 1983. In these early heady days the Society planned to publish a journal to be called French Colonial Studies, a Proceedings of the annual conference, an annual bibliography for which David Gardinier was responsible and an annual report on French archival sources! I have a record of at least one Gardinier bibliography.

Furthermore, the FCHS made an agreement with the Hoover Institution at Stanford to be the Society's official center. In combination, the two institutions agreed to offer two $1500 dollar summer fellowships to work at the Hoover, and these were awarded to Irwin Wall and Leland Barrows summer, 1975. Evidence indicates those grants continued through 1977, at least, because David Gardinier and Bill Hoisington won awards that year. Eventually, inadequate applications led Hoover to withdraw the offer. In a 1985 letter to me, Alan Schom expressed the opinion that FCHS had dropped the ball on this.

Lean meetings characterized those held at Milwaukee, Montreal, Oxford and Atlantic Beach, Fla. Charles Balesi first appeared on the program at Milwaukee and our Canadian colleagues James Pritchard (Queens) and Bill Eccles (Toronto) first gave papers at the Montreal meeting (Concordia University). A highlight of the Milwaukee meeting was the banquet address of Henri Brunschwhig.

The meeting at Oxford, MS was notable primarily for the tour of the Faulkner House, and the re-appearance of Cornelius Jaenen. The meeting at Atlantic Beach was the only one I ever missed, but I heard mainly negative reports from participants. In a recent letter to me, David Gardinier expressed a different, more favorable opinion. Jim Pritchard (Queens), Bill Shorrock (Cleveland State) and Cornelius were there, Bill for his first meeting. Cornelius Jaenen received the book prize in 1977 for his Friend and Foe, the first evidence I have of a winner. There were bright moments in these early programs such as Bill Eccles's amusing talk about the Plains of Abraham fiasco at the Montreal meeting. How Eccles enjoyed debunking the reputations of both Wolfe and Montcalm.

David Gardinier succeeded Heggoy as president in 1978, with Heggoy returning to office in 1980. Peter Fitzgerald of Carleton succeeded him in 1982.

The Crisis Years, 1980-84.

Bill Cohen hosted the Bloomington, Indiana meeting and had strong financial support from Indiana University. He was very disappointed when only 35-40 participants showed up, which however was partly due to poor planning-I received notification of the mid March meeting date only two months earlier in January! A snow blitzkrieg kept us in warm rooms for 3 long days. At that meeting there were hot debates over the direction of the Society and its publications. In 1977 had appeared volume 1 of French Colonial Studies/Etudes Coloniales Francaises eds. Ray Betts and Kim Munholland. Volume 2 appeared in 1978, and was quite expensive to produce and few academic libraries subscribed. In his 1985 letters to me, Alan Schom had high praise for the work of Munholland on these early volumes, adding that "we just don't seem to know how to thank people." (Fortunately, I believe we have made good strides in that matter, starting with presents to the conference organizers in 1986 and to retiring officers thereafter).

With two publications side by side a showdown was perhaps inevitable about which to continue. An ad hoc committee was formed to thrash out the issue but only those arguing for an ending of the journal and a continuation of the Proceedings participated. (Heggoy and Gardinier principally; Betts was on sabbatical and Cohen and Munholland for reasons unknown to me did not contribute to the discussion). The truncated committee proposed termination of the journal and its recommendation was accepted at the Lafayette meeting (1981). The program there lists Heggoy and Gardinier, but not Betts, Cohen or Munholland. It did not help the supporters of the journal that its appearance was well behind schedule. Due to a variety of problems, only three issues of the journal ever appeared, and the third only after a long delay (1986), perhaps because of Munholland's unhappiness with the decision to terminate. Officially, he said to me that the transition from the expensive University of Minnesota Press to the University Press of America (then the publisher of the Proceedings) was the cause of delay. The journal's supporters were very upset by the decision and not a few disassociated with FCHS.

The Lafayette meeting, except for an excellent crawfish banquet, was very mediocre as the organizers seemed unable to relate to anyone whose focus was not exclusively colonial Louisiana. Only 32 names are listed on the program, and that includes about 10 locals.

That meeting was followed by an excellent one at Evanston (Northwestern University) in 1982. Charles Balesi drew in a crowd of Chicago area amateurs that bolstered attendance and made it the largest meeting up to that point. The revival of the society in the 1980s owed much to Charles's efforts. The Society started to attract interested amateurs and to retain that interest by fully integrating them into the society's affairs, which has been an important part of our history. Perhaps the best example is Nancy Morton who has served as treasurer and who remains part of the executive committee. This was the first meeting for Pat Galloway (Mississippi Archives), and, as far as I can tell, Joe Peyser (Indiana, South Bend) and Serge Courville (Laval), all very important figures in the Society's future. The meeting in Ottawa in 1983, though in my opinion a reasonable success, drew some 35 participants only. Cornelius expressed great dismay to me. This was the first meeting for S. Dale Standen (Trent) and A.J.B. (John) Johnston (Parks Canada), future presidents, Proceedings editors and much else. Prior to the meeting Cornelius received a rather haughty note from Robert Cornevin in France wondering why FCHS avoided inviting to our meetings "those who had lived the colonial experience." Invité to Cornevin meant expenses paid.

In 1983 Fitzgerald was simultaneously the president of the society and editor of the Proceedings. He failed to bring out volume 9 of the Proceedings, which alienated many people from the Society. His performance as president was, at best, lackadaisical, which as his vice-president I can attest personally. These were very difficult years.

Years of Revival and Stability, 1984-1994

It will seem immodest to say that the meeting at Huntsville in 1984 was a turning point in the Society's history. Despite President Fitzgerald's failure to appear at the meeting, the only time that has ever happened, the meeting according to participants was a great success. The banquet speaker, Chris Andrew (Cambridge), gave easily the best such speech we have ever had, a hilarious discourse on what British and French officers served each other at table as they awaited word from their governments how to handle the standoff at Fashoda. It was titled "Le parti ou l'on dine: The French Civilizing Mission and the Anglo-Saxons."Huntsville was the first meeting of our future president Doug Porch (The Citadel; later the Naval War College at Monterey) as it was for our current vice-president Greg Waselkov (South Alabama).

1984 is also the time when Robert Cornevin invited himself to the meeting, gave disquisitions at all the panels and expected to be paid for his expenses, even though I had explicitly written to him that such was very unlikely. Fortunately, the meeting was a financial success so I was able to compensate him for some of his expenses. After that, M. Cornevin wrote to me declaring that the conference was "one of the best organized" he had ever attended, which generated a chuckle from me. Later Cornevin and his wife Marianne became our first lifetime members. He helped some members including me to get our work published in France.

Also in 1984 the executive appointed a book committee of three members to regularize the selection of the winner. David Gardinier as chair of that committee performed outstanding work for the Society. That system has continued to the present. Serge Courville and the Université Laval gave critical financial support to getting the Proceedings back on track, and he acted as co-editor of two volumes.

The following four meetings were very successful. Serge Courville and the Laval team were great hosts at Québec, which drew 85 participants. We were regaled with vins every evening. Alan Schom resurfaced at this meeting, the first time in a decade. At Québec, a formal editorial board was selected to help the Proceedings editors judge the quality of the submissions.

By the mid 1980s the continuing rapid growth of members interested in the ancien regime French experiences in America and the simultaneous decline of 19th and 20th century specialists reached such proportions that Society officers became alarmed. I have not yet done sufficient research to demonstrate when that trend started to change, but the composition of the 2004 program suggests the problem no longer exists; indeed the reverse may be the case. Of 71 names on the preliminary program only 13 address pre-1789 topics. Even if one includes the c.12 papers on the Haitian Revolution period and its aftermath, that leaves 46 presentations on the late empire period. The work of the West Coasters Doug Porch, Tyler Stovall and Mike Vann, as well as Bill Shorrock among others has been useful in more than righting the balance. Nevertheless in the last twenty years only two presidents (Shorrock and Porch) have been scholars of the modern period.

Charles Balesi and Carl Ekberg (Indiana State) did a great job at Ste. Genevieve, as did Joe Peyser and Bill Shorrock at South Bend. The tour of historic French sites near Ste. Genevieve was a memorable occasion indeed. Pat Galloway gave a presentation on the use of the p.c. in historical research, a first for the Society. Charles and Carl inaugurated the idea of a tour of French colonial sites as an integral part of the program, a feature distinguishing our society from many others. Cornelius Jaenen served ably as president for three years 1986-89. In 1986 the FCHS archives were established at the Centre de civilisation canadienne-française in Ottawa thanks to the efforts of Cornelius. 1987 saw the death of one of our principal founders Alf Heggoy, who had given a reminiscence of the Society at the South Bend meeting, his last. The following year it was decided to name the book prize in his honor.

The meeting at Natchez, hosted by Jim Cooke (Mississippi) and Pat Galloway, was one of the Society's favorite meetings. Jim gave a eulogy for his mentor Alf Heggoy. Dale Miquelon (Saskatchewan), our future president and so much more, first joined us at Natchez. The Canadian complement that would play such an important role from the early 1990s-Miquelon, Dale Standen, John Johnston, Jim Pritchard, and of course Cornelius Jaenen-was now in place. During the 80s Pat Galloway, Serge Courville, Jim Pritchard and I got the Proceedings back on track. Pat's long service in the producing of the Proceedings, as well as her work as president and in other offices merits the highest praise from her colleagues.

A breakout meeting for the Society was the eight-day extravaganza in 1989 at Martinique and Guadeloupe. We have much to thank Cornelius and Jolita Kavaliunas (Akron), as well as colleagues in the islands, for their efforts to realize this meeting. The registration was large and included scholars from France, Italy and the Antilles as well. At a plenary session on négritude in the Antilles appeared Maryse Condé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Daniel Maximin, among others. Tours of Saint Pierre in Martinique and the Soufrière at Guadeloupe were highlights. Sensibly, other afternoons were free for such things as sun worship on the lightly clad beaches. Charles Balesi became president at this meeting.

The next five years at, respectively, Mackinac Island, the Newberry Library in Chicago, Montréal, Providence and Cleveland were all fine meetings.

Among others, Charles Balesi, David Buisseret (Newberry Library), Russ Magnagni (Northern Michigan), Bill Shorrock and Keith Widder (Michigan State University Press) did great work for these meetings. I still remember freezing at Mackinac in May 1990 crossing the waters to visit Jesuit missions. We could have used some black robes for warmth. I believe that it was at Montréal that Jacques Binoche first joined us, coming all the way from Tahiti. In contrast to frigid Mackinac, the warm afternoon cocktail on the William Mather ore carrier was a Cleveland delight. As organizer of this meeting, while he was president and as a long time chair of the Heggoy book prize committee, and much more, Bill Shorrock merits our highest praise. Unfortunately, he could not be here with us, and sends his regrets.

The financial support of Norman Fiering and the John Carter Brown Library made possible an elegant meeting in Providence, including perhaps the classiest brochure to that point, although the Antilles brochure was also top flight. Our outing was to Newport. I notice the name of Bill Newbigging (Algoma), our hard working secretary/treasurer, at that program. Was that the first meeting for Bill, who doubles as our social secretary? The co-chair at Providence Bertrand Van Ruymbeke (Toulouse Le Mirail), also our future co-chair at Charleston (99) and Toulouse (03) first met society members at Providence.

Glory years, or reaping the fruit of our labors, 1995-2004

John Johnston (Parks Canada) hosted one of the finest of all our meetings at Sydney/Louisbourg in 1995. That is fortunate, since it took such a long time to get there. The soirée acadienne was a memorable affair, indeed; as was the bus tour along the Cabot trail to Chéticamp, an Acadian center. From the brochure to the lobster lunch in Louisbourg, this was a classy affair. It is hard to exaggerate John Johnston's value to FCHS. Our current president and recent editor of French Colonial Studies, Bob DuPlessis (Swarthmore), first joined us there.

The next year saw our first foray to France for the Poitiers meeting. Once again Cornelius was instrumental in organizing a fine meeting. Marianne Cornevin, wife of the deceased Robert Cornevin and one of our three lifetime members, was present. Best of all, some of the conférenciers took an after conference tour that started at the fascinating Marais Poitevin then on to La Rochelle, Rochefort, Brouage, Cognac etc. and various restaurants along the way.

Although not as heavily attended, perhaps because of the distances involved, the 1997 Midland meeting and the Monterey gathering of 1998 were nicely hosted by Presidents Dale Standen and Doug Porch (Naval War College) respectively. President Standen served ably and coolly during a period when a disastrous secretary-treasurer caused profound and annoying difficulties. During this decade, President Miquelon introduced the giving of an official certificate to winners of the Heggoy prize and also the creation of the Society's logo and seal. During the 1990s and first years of this millennium, Dale Standen served us effectively in almost all Society offices and as editor of the first volume of French Colonial History. It was a treat to visit the reconstructed Huron village at Midland. Part of the Monterey meeting was held at the interesting mission of San Juan Bautista. Mike Vann, this year's program co-chair first joined us there.

The June 1999 meeting in New Orleans and the 2000 meeting at Charleston were well attended but admittedly the weather was tropical. The swimming pool atop our hotel in New Orleans was well attended at late afternoon cocktail hours. Thanks to Greg Waselkov (University of South Alabama) and Pat Galloway (now at the University of Texas at Austin) for hosting the New Orleans meeting, and Bertrand Van Ruymbeke and Robert Crout (College of Charleston) that of Charleston. At New Orleans the precedent was established that a plenary session be devoted to the work of the most recent Heggoy prizewinner. At Charleston Fred Quinn (independent scholar), co-organizer of this year's meeting, and Nathalie Dessens (Toulouse Le Mirail), responsible for the Toulouse conference, participated, perhaps for the first time. The Sunday outing to Charlesfort on Parris Island and Beaufort (pronounce Buford) was a great success.

To commemorate the death of William John Eccles, FCHS launched in 2000 the Eccles' best article prize. Former Eccles students (Standen, Pritchard, Miquelon, Newbigging) were instrumental in establishing this prize.

The East Lansing and New Haven meetings of 2001 and 2002 were smooth affairs thanks to the work of Keith Widder and Jay Gitlin of the Howard Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders housed at Yale. The East Lansing meeting saw a lovely bus trip to Détroit, which was celebrating its Tricentennial founding by the French under the so-called sieur de Cadillac. Members will no doubt remember the pre buffet entertainment. The Yale meeting was notable for the return of Bill Cohen who presented an opening address and after dinner speech, both remarkable texts; for an interesting outing to Mystic Seaport; and for a delectable Cajun supper sponsored by the Beinecke Rare Books Library, followed by a Cajun evening with Carl Brasseaux (Louisiana, Lafayette) and son. Our current program co-chair Sylvie Depatie (Université du Québec á Montréal) first joined our ranks here. We were fortunate to be reunited with Prof. Cohen shortly before his fatal accident.

Michigan State University Press first proposed to publish the Proceedings in 1995. Eventually it was decided to substitute the journal French Colonial History, the first volume of which appeared in 2002 edited by past president Dale Standen. Many thanks to our current president Bob DuPlessis for his efforts as editor of vols. 2-4, all appearing in 2003. He and Dale Standen have established lofty standards for future editors. Pat Galloway has now taken over the task.

Thanks to the work of Nathalie Dessens (Toulouse Le Mirail) and Bertrand Van Ruymbeke, Toulouse was the site of last year's meeting, another successful foray to Europe. The brochure was probably the finest we have ever had. The Sunday tour of Toulouse with a boat ride on the Garonne was a highlight. At the banquet, a well-deserved lifetime membership was awarded to Cornelius Jaenen. I was the chair of the program committee.

Barry Moody (Acadia) joined us there; he will be in charge of local arrangements for next year's much anticipated conference. Along with old faithful Bill Shorrock, Maurice Basque of the Centre d'Études acadiénnes at Monckton and Josette Brun of Laval will be program co-chairs. At Toulouse, finally, President Dale Miquelon completed a very effective two years as our leader.

So many have performed marvelously for our Society. I must not forget the yeoman work of the secretary-treasurers, in particular that of Dean O'Donnell, Dale Miquelon, Nancy Morton, Bill Newbigging; or editors of the newsletter such as, most recently, Ken Orosz; or that of various editors of the Proceedings and the new journal French Colonial History such as Pat Galloway, Jim Pritchard, Dale Standen, David Buisseret, Bob DuPlessis and John Johnston; or the heavy lifting of the book prize committee. To name just a couple of its stalwarts, David Gardinier, Bill Shorrock, Peter Moogk and current chair Sue Peabody; or our web master Ken Orosz (Southern Maine); or our song master Fred Thorpe. If I have failed to recognize or inadequately recognized the efforts of those who have contributed to our current healthy condition, then I sincerely apologize.

FCHS: The Next Generation, 2006-

By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, several things were clear: the field of French colonial history was thriving; core leaders of the society had brought the society to a new level of organization and health; and a new generation of scholars had begun to make FCHS their home. Dale Standen, Bill Shorrock, Philip Boucher, Pat Galloway, and Bob Duplessis all waged campaigns to draw Sue Peabody into leadership. Sue valiantly held them off for several years but acquiesced to run for Vice President following Greg Waselkov in 2005, advancing to the presidency at the Dakar conference in 2006. With mild shock she realized that all conferences under her tenure would be in Francophone sites (she would have to polish her written and spoken French!). Sue recruited Mike Vann (California State University Sacramento) as vice president knowing that his forward-looking vision for the society would strengthen the modern wing of the society including films, enhanced use of the internet, and international networking.

Dakar (2006) was the society's first meeting outside of North America, the Caribbean and France. The phenomenal organization and logistical preparation was due to Ibrahima Seck (University of New Orleans and the University of Mississippi), Ibrahima Thioub (Université Cheik Anta Diop) and Bob Duplessis. The conference was notable for its technical proficiency (including filmed sessions and high-tech meeting rooms), congeniality and hospitality. The excursion to Gorée and Saint-Louis was unforgettable, forging many bonds of friendship and increasing foreigners' appreciation for the real disparities faced on the African continent.

La Rochelle (2007), a beautiful, lavish conference, ably run by Mickael Augeron (Université de La Rochelle), brought out high quality sessions and extraordinary cuisine. The theme of "rivers and colonialism" ran through many sessions and resulted in a conference volume, sponsored by the Université de La Rochelle.

Québec (2008), an exceptionally well organized conference, delighted participants from all over, with an especially robust cohort of New France-Native American scholars. Alain Laberge (Université Laval) gets high marks for both the quality of the conference and his good cheer throughout.

In the fall of 2007 we were all saddened to learn of the untimely death of William (Bill) Shorrock, former president of the society and one of the kindest people any of us had the pleasure to know. Bill sought out and welcomed many a new graduate student into the society, chaired the Heggoy Prize committee and served as president 1993-1995. Philip Boucher proposed a memorial fund in his honor and became the chair of that committee. Under Philip's leadership, the society has established an endowed fund in Bill's honor.

With the 2008 elections, Mike Vann assumed the presidency and Ruth Ginio (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) became vice president. Bill Newbigging (Algoma University College), after a record eight years as Secretary-Treasurer earned his retirement, passing the baton to Liz Foster (Bates University). Ken Orosz, who founded the website and served as webmaster, continued in his role as newsletter editor. David Del Testa bravely stepped forward as the new webmaster, shifting the website to a private server, where it will be more easily maintained into the future. Dale Standen oversaw the reorganization and consolidation of the society's finances.